‘The Emptiness’ & the Feeling of Emptiness (Two very Different Things)

Via Ben Ralston
on Jun 14, 2011
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There is a feeling that many people experience. It’s like a sense that there is something missing – inside oneself.

And there is an experience that can only be attained through the direct perception of reality.

Both of these things may be called ‘emptiness’, but they should not be confused.

The feeling of emptiness inside oneself is a symptom of a deep malaise. It has often been attributed to depression, and rightly so. However, I have found through my work that it stems (the root cause) from certain kinds of abuse trauma that damage one’s self-esteem.

To illustrate this, I’ll give a ‘real life’ example. Actually, this example is a very good one, because it represents what I consider to be the most common, and perhaps the most damaging (although also the least recognized) form of abuse: emotional neglect.

A child is born utterly dependent and vulnerable. She enters this world with very few needs: physical security (food, water, oxygen, physical warmth) and love (attention and emotional warmth).

Very soon she sees that her parents are able to do a vast array of things – they provide for all of her physical needs; they move around and communicate effortlessly; they cause miracles to happen spontaneously (light, fire, water… all appear to be under their power).

So naturally, the child feels that these two beings are as Gods. They seem all powerful, and she depends on them entirely (not to mention – they created her!)

But very soon, something strange begins to happen.

Days go by and she doesn’t see the God (he’s a busy man and works dusk ‘til dawn). Although she would dearly love to see him, he apparently does not feel the same way (after all: if he did, he would – he is all powerful!)

And perhaps even when he is present physically, he somehow is not really present. His attention is not fully with her. And she feels (deeply subconsciously in her child’s mind):

“What is wrong with me that my Father does not see me? What am I missing?”

She truly feels that an important part of her is missing – some beauty, or some power, or something precious. And where that missing part should be, is only emptiness.

That feeling of emptiness is incredibly painful…

because it is related not only to the emotional relationship with parents, but also to our very survival: if a child is not worthy of love, who will save her when she needs saving? How will she survive the many years of dependence that are to come?

The feeling is in fact so painful that it cannot be accepted: as a defense mechanism we resist it by suppressing it (into our subconscious) where it remains as a blockage, until healed. Subconsciously we continue to feel empty.

So the child grows up feeling unworthy of true love; unworthy of abundant happiness, health, and success.

This, or a variation of it, is what causes very many of us to have low self esteem: a parent’s (or both parents’) inattention; absence; or inability to express love.


The other kind of emptiness is not a feeling: it is reality.

When we develop beyond independence to inter-dependence; when we see things as they truly are rather than projecting our own selfish desires, needs, and fears onto them; when we acquire enough energy and personal power to elevate our awareness beyond the mundane… then we perceive the true essence of reality – and it is emptiness.



Nothingness and emptiness are not the same. But Nothingness is part of emptiness. This was expressed most concisely and most beautifully in my opinion by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj when he said:

“Wisdom is knowing I am nothing,

Love is knowing I am everything, and between the two my life moves.”

When everything is one, then nothing is separate, and the something that we thought we were disappears. This is transcendence; it is also frightening to someone who has not yet developed a strong sense of self.

You see, ‘in order to be truly spiritual, we must first be human’.

My wife taught me these wise words.

Too many people are turning their backs on their material selves: their bodies; their physical needs’; their animal nature.

Let me tell you something: nothing is not spiritual.  Everything IS spiritual. Yes, even money. Sex. Death. Disease. Depression.

I used to think that spirituality was the opposite of materialism – that was my definition. However, I have learnt that there is no difference between the two. They are two sides of the same coin. The same way that nothing, and everything, are two sides of the coin of emptiness.

If you are trying to be spiritual you are not being yourself. We all have material needs.

Don’t spend many years (as I did) trying to transcend materialism. It doesn’t work. You might have a transcendent moment, but you’ll still have to be back in time for dinner (or work Monday morning).

Instead, focus on balancing your spirit with its physical, material reality.

This is what has come to be known as being-ness.

Don’t chase after oneness – after all, it will find you (when you die)! Instead, use your time in this world to integrate your full being-ness.

I’ll end with a personal anecdote – a true story:

As a child I had a recurring dream; a nightmare. I was floating in space, utterly alone. I could wave my arms and legs, but there was no way of moving anywhere – I was weightless, with no momentum. Lost, alone, and powerless.

In the far distance there was a tiny speck of something. I had no idea what it was, but it felt like a toilet (odd, I know). So I was lost and alone and powerless, and apart from the stars and myself, there was only a toilet-like object in my field of awareness. The over-riding sensation was one of total desolation.

I had this dream many times all through my youth, until in my twenties it faded and I forgot about it.

Then, a few years ago I was in a meditation led by Tony Samara. I had a series of very powerful visions (which I won’t go into here – another blog, another time) but one of these visions was my old dream: I am floating in space, a toilet-like speck in the distance. Only I don’t feel alone any more. In fact, I don’t feel any sense of separation between myself and the toilet and the stars and the empty space. Rather, I feel myself as all of that – I am the emptiness in between! And tears flood my eyes and pour down my face, because I realize deeply that I Am That.

To say that this was a beautiful meditation would be an understatement: it transformed my life.

The purpose of my writing this is threefold:

1.  I want to highlight the two different kinds of emptiness: one can be a sign of progress; the other is something that inhibits progress, yet can be healed.

2.   I am promoting my work: I heal blockages, very successfully.

3.  I want more people to understand and realize deeply that spiritual progress depends upon material stability. We must accept ourselves and love ourselves fully as individuals before there will ever be any peace amongst us on this Earth.

So, help me achieve all three of these more fully by ‘liking’ (Facebook), sharing, and of course, I’d love you to leave a comment – comments are the currency of blogs!


About Ben Ralston

Ben Ralston has been practising personal development—necessity being the Mother of invention—since he was about six years old. He’s been teaching and sharing what he’s learnt along the way for a couple of decades. His main thing is Heart of Tribe retreats—whose very purpose is to help you fall back in love with life, no less. Leading these retreats alongside his woman Kara-Leah Grant—also an elephant journal writer (that’s how they met!)—they combine a deep well of lineage-based yoga teaching experience, with expertise in healing trauma and various other methods of personal development. Ben also works with clients one-on-one via Skype, writes, makes videos from time to time, and is passionate about parenting. He lives in an intentional, tribal community in the hills of Croatia, where you might find him gardening barefoot and talking to the rocks. Connect with Ben on Facebook or YouTube or check out his website for more info.


26 Responses to “‘The Emptiness’ & the Feeling of Emptiness (Two very Different Things)”

  1. Ben_Ralston says:

    Yes, nicely put Tobye.
    And I absolutely agree – it's not the parents *fault* because blame is not an issue. The real issue is – what we gonna do about it?! We have to move beyond blame, take responsibility for the way we are now, and do something about it.
    Pretty much all parents do the best they can: if they do a shitty job it's generally because they were given a shitty example themselves… we have to break the cycle.

  2. tanya lee markul says:

    Hi Ben. This really resonates with me. Thank you.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
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  3. Ben-
    I visited your website through this post and before I say anything I have to say thankyou. You are the FIRST healer/instructor/whatever that I have come across who even mentions the fact that you dont refuse therapy bc of price. Dont misunderstand please, I am not saying what you do should be done for free, but for me I can not afford any alternative forms of "healing" and I am deeply upset to have to have resorted back to my familiar spot in the chair across from the prescription pad. You see I have an extremely hard time believing this is my only choice, but in many ways it backs me up against a wall. Your post here is the first time in months anything has struck even the slightest reaction from me, it helps tremendously to know your not alone, and I have so much shit to work through I dont even know where to start, or if I should bother (I'm on medication for that right? why get all emotional?) Anyway you make it seem real, and attainable, tangible healing, and I feel like you truly want to be doing what your doing–I will be honest the first thing I did on your site was find the prices, before reading anything else at all–and I was pleasantly surprised. If I was closer to you I would surely come see you, I believe wholeheartedly in what your doing–and thanks again for your post, really I loved it.

  4. integralhack says:

    I am thrilled that you touched on interdependence–or what Thich Nhat Hanh refers to as "Interbeing" as a requisite to the experience of emptiness (the second sort).

    Often people without what Buddhists call "right view" confuse this emptiness with something else and it can become spiritual inflation ("I" had this experience, ergo I am enlightened and above the rest). Ironically, this experience is the opposite of the first kind of emptiness but arises from the same place: the ego–or false self–which of course, is empty.

    Thanks for the provocative article!

  5. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thanks for your warmth Emily. It means so much…

  6. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    Yes, I have tried to keep my prices as low as possible until now. I'm thinking of raising them though soon. The value people get from my work is actually priceless – imagine (for example) a woman whose relationship with her children was completely transformed – her testimonial says that the light in their eyes now that they can cuddle her means everything – after just one session.
    This therapy is going to change the world. It's slow progress though: just like when Galileo and others declared the world *not flat*, and they were persecuted for it; or Jesus said we should give to the poor… progress is always resisted isn't it.
    I actually do very little 'pro bono' work these days, and if you want to know why, I suggest you read this great article (by Simon Rose, founder of RPT): http://www.referencepointtherapy.com/blog/2010/05
    In a nutshell, there's a commitment to the work and big process of taking responsibility for one's problems that occurs at the moment we decide to give our money for the session – it makes a big difference to the outcome of the work. So I do see people for free, or for less, but only in rare cases.
    Plus, that's why I keep my prices low in the first place.
    I just saw that you've written here on EJ, I'm looking forward to reading your stuff! Thank you for the support, and for enjoying this piece, and if you have any questions don't hesitate to contact me personally.
    With love, Ben

  7. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thanks Integral, for an interesting and (obviously informed by direct experience) view. I must admit to having suffered from spiritual inflation in the past. I think it's hard not to without very strong guidance in these matters… and I was pretty much alone at the time in my spiritual practice.
    Thanks for the comment!

  8. rachel says:

    this is an excellent article, ben really doing well to identfy the two different types of emptiness, i am not sure about your claims for reference point therapy, but this is because i havent tried it, i do remember what your what i saw as extremel optimistic take on yogas ability to heal everything, all at once, especially if combined with meditation, ( no mention of deep seated traumas ability to withstand yoga at all) but this sounds like a good addition, and an accurate description of trauma and traumas roots also, so i would certainly be willing to give it a try, lolx

  9. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Rachel,
    I remember our discussion on the subject of whether or not Yoga can heal everything. I'd like to amend what I said back then: it can, but it's bloody difficult!
    Meditation, if done properly, begins with self- enquiry. That self-enquiry, if done properly, *can* heal the deep seated trauma. However, to qualify all that – very, very, very few people these days have the necessary discipline; commitment; time; and skills to walk that path fully. And to be honest, perhaps you are basically right – yoga after all was not designed to 'heal trauma'.
    As for RPT- yes, I agree these are big claims: but honest to God, RPT can heal the world, very quickly, very easily, and permanently. It really is that good.
    Thanks for your comment, it's nice to continue the discussion with you again after all this time!

  10. Irish says:

    Ben, You must have grown up with me in my house. It was like you are talking about me. I was shocked and relieved at the same time. Now that I am aware, I can at least start learning how to heal.
    Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
    Irish ( a women of few words but mean what I say)

  11. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thank you for your contribution to this discussion Irish. Often few words say more, and in this case certainly.
    You should be glad to know that the healing part is the easy part (contrary to what most of us are conditioned to believe). For more info please read my article: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/03/how-healin

  12. naima62 says:

    Thank you Ben.. I'm in the healing process as we speak, so to read your article felt like a huge push forward. My heart actually feels lighter..

  13. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thank you Naima – please read my article on healing: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/03/how-healin

  14. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

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  15. rachel says:

    great, ben, lovely to talk to you too, i will look and see where there are practitioners in the uk if any, do you know of any? it honestly sounds like it should work, i really look forward to trying it out, all the best

  16. […] ‘The Emptiness’ & the Feeling of Emptiness (Two very Different Things) […]

  17. Lisa says:

    Thanks for this piece on emptiness. I must have really needed this because I felt it right in my heart. As I try to make sense of the curveballs that life throws at me, I always find that I will see teachings about emptiness. It's funny how that happens. This one really connects the personal with the cosmic. It's hard to explain 🙂 Thanks for making me think this morning! Many blessings!

  18. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thank you Lisa.

  19. […] way is up!! Embrace your growth. Participate in it. And do so by being with each breath, by being tuned into every little thing that you do. Be in the moment and do your best. Each day get up and again do. You will get stronger, the […]

  20. AnnetteVictoria says:

    I highly recommend Jennifer's writing. Powerful and incredibly honest.

    Really nice article, Ben!

  21. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thank you for this Anne. And I'm really glad to hear that you're doing well. Congratulations!

  22. Wahido says:

    Dear Ben, great blog! Love

  23. […] isn’t all so esoteric though. In Zen, emptiness brings a kind of all-encompassing flush to the poker game of life. This is a wonderful thing […]

  24. […] this openness or emptiness is not sterile, it is also the origin of all the natural enlightened qualities, such as compassion. For when there […]

  25. Ben_Ralston says:

    A year or so late, but thanks Wahido!