Appendix 2:Feelings of Emptiness


There is another sense of the term “emptiness” to consider, one not unrelated to the senses previously discussed. We all have some experience ofemotionalemptiness.

One of the most interesting and impressive contributions to psychology by Buddhism, in my view, is its emphasis on thevagueenervationswe commonly feel, such as discomfort, restlessness or doubt, as important motives of human action. Something seems to be wanting, missing, urging us to do something about it.

These negative emotions, which I label feelings of emptiness, are a cause or expression ofsamsaricstates of mind. This pejorative sense of “emptiness” is not to be confused with the contrary “emptiness” identified withnirvana.However, they may be related, in that the emotions in question may be essentially a sort of vertigo upon glimpsing the void.[1]

Most people often feel this “hole” inside themselves, an unpleasant inner vacuity or hunger, and pass much of their time desperately trying to shake it off, frantically looking for palliatives. At worst, they may feel like “a non-entity”, devoid of personal identity. Different people (or a person at different times) may respond to this lack of identity, or moments of boredom, impatience, dissatisfaction or uncertainty, in different ways. (Other factors come into play, which determine just which way.)

Many look for useless distractions, calling it “killing time”; others indulge in self-destructive activities. Some get the munchies; others smoke cigarettes, drink liquor or take drugs. Some watch TV; others talk a lot and say nothing; others still, prefer shopping or shoplifting. Some get angry, and pick a quarrel with their spouse or neighbors, just to have something to do, something to rant and rave about; others get into political violence or start a war. Some get melancholic, and complain of loneliness or unhappiness; others speak of failure, depression or anxiety. Some masturbate; others have sex with everyone; others rape someone. Some start worrying about their physical health; others go to a psychiatrist. Some become sports fanatics; others get entangled in consuming psychological, philosophical, spiritual or religious pursuits. Some become workaholics; others sleep all day or try to sink into oblivion somehow. And so on.

As this partial and disorderly catalogue shows, everything we consider stupidity or sin, all the ills of our psyche and society, or most or many, could be attributed to this vague, often “subconsciously” experienced, negative emotion of emptiness and our urge to “cure” it however we can. We stir up desires, antipathies or anxieties, compulsions, obsessions or depression, in a bid to comprehend and smother this suffering of felt emptiness. We furnish our time with thoughts like: “I think I am falling in love” or “this guy really bugs me” or “what am I going to do about this or that?” or “I have to do (or not to do) so and so”. It is all indeed “much ado about nothing”.

If we generalize from many such momentary feelings, we may come to the conclusion that “life has no meaning”. That, to quote William Shakespeare:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth (act V, scene 5).

Of course, we can and often do also react more positively, and give our life more constructive meaning. I believe this becomes possibleonce we are able to recognize this internal vacuum when we feel it, and make sure we do not react to it in any of the negative ways we unconsciously tend to react. Once we understand that this feeling of emptiness cannot be overcome by such foolish means, we can begin to look for ways to enjoy life, through personal growth, healthy activities, helping others, learning, creativity, productiveness, and so forth.

Regular meditation is a good remedy. Sitting quietly for long periods daily makes it easier to become and remain aware of emotional emptiness when it appears. Putting such recurring bad feelings into perspective gradually frees us from them. They just seem fleeting, weak and irrelevant. Life then becomes a celebration of time: we profit from the little time we have in it to make something nice out of it.

[1]These emotions are classified as forms of “suffering” (dukkha) and “delusion” (moha).According to Buddhist commentators, instead of floating with natural confidence on the “original ground” of consciousness as it appears, a sort panic occurs giving rise to efforts to establish more concrete foundations. To achieve this end, we resort to sensory, sensual, sentimental or even sensational pursuits.