The Nothing That Heals Us
by Sharon Salzberg
It’s the end of daylight savings time on the east coast, and it just about always seems to be dim. Each day is largely dark, and cold, hinting at the uselessness of endeavor and the insubstantiality of what we ordinarily run around seeking. It’s a good time to be depressed. This is the way we conventionally view what Buddhists call emptiness, and mystics of many traditions call nothingness or the Void. A really murky day, pointing to the uselessness of it all. But at the heart of personal, transformative wisdom, this emptiness isn’t a cold, depressing problem, leading us down to nihilism – seeing emptiness is liberation. It brings us right through the seeming solidity and oppressiveness of our ordinary concerns, into a world where reality is shimmering, translucent, vital, while also being insubstantial, fleeting, and evanescent.
In speaking of the unalloyed, direct knowing of profound emptiness, the Buddha said, “Oh, Bhikkus, (mendicants) there is the unborn and the unconditioned. Here the four elements of earth, air, water, and fire have no place. The notions of length and breadth, the subtle and the gross, good and evil, name and form are altogether destroyed. Neither this world nor the other, no coming, going or standing, neither death nor birth, nor sense objects are to be found here.”
In our human lives, experiencing this kind of profound emptiness means that like a candle flame gets blown out, our separateness and suffering are blown out. Not our capacity for love, or kindness, or clear seeing, or relationships, or work, or choosing soy ice cream in the grocery store over the dairy kind.
And the experience of this profound, liberating emptiness isn’t meant only for those who lived long ago in far away places, sitting in caves and at the roots of trees. It is beckoning right here and now.
In our society we are taught to badly want this and want that. But no matter what we get, it is never enough because it doesn’t last. So the search for new experiences goes on and on. We look for new intellectual experiences and sexual experiences and cosmic experiences. Over and over. We even see people willing to destroy their bodies, their minds and their loving relationships–destroy their lives–for a new experience.
Even if a pleasant experience could endure, we could not bear for it to go on and on. Who could watch the same movie over and over without wanting a break? Who could listen to a sweet sound that never stops? Yet commonly when we seek rest from one experience we do so, ironically, by seeking another. It is possible to find rest even from the constant tedium and pressure of changing experience through knowing the difference between bleakness and what is meant in Buddhism by emptiness.
May the consideration of nothing free you from anxiety, dread, and all unhappy things. It’s right here.