August 4, 2017

A Buddhist Cure for the “Big Empty.”

When I opened my eyes on Monday morning, something was not right.

The rain was incessantly tapping on the roof. I couldn’t seem to shake this relentless feeling of detachment and loneliness that sat on my chest like a 500 lb cat.

That persistent and abhorrent emptiness has been following me since I was a child. Regardless of all the reflection, meditation, and work I have done throughout the years, when it wants to come back, it just does.

As I drudged through the workday, I tried as hard as I could to figure out where this was all coming from. I had a good gig the day before. I received praise and money and all of the things I once thought of as conditions that stood between myself and contentment. But I was hardly content.

Before too long, I remembered the wisdom of Buddha’s arrow parable. To paraphrase,

“If a man is struck by an arrow, it is not going to help us to inquire what caste the man is in, who made the arrow, what sort of bow was used, the victim’s complexion, where he was born or how tall he is. Just remove the arrow.”

Buddha goes on to say,

“I have explained suffering. I have shown you how to end your suffering and I have shown you the path to remain free of suffering. Everything else is distraction.”

This was comforting to me. I began the healing process that inevitably brought me right back to my cheery old self by Wednesday morning. It made me think, though.

There is so much emptiness around us, one would have to be more than slightly delusional not to notice it. The people in such visibly poor health standing in line at fast food restaurants, the throngs of people racing down the interstate at 75 mph checking their Facebook notifications and email, the people wasting hours playing video games and watching internet porn—everybody in this country doing whatever it takes not to have to sit and “just be a person” as Louis C.K. once put it.

Invariably, when our phones need to charge and the food is all gone we are once again faced with ourselves. So is there a way to fill that emptiness in a more mindful way? The Dalai Lama, a man with a degree of serenity and joy rarely seen in mere mortals, thinks so:

“A disciplined mind leads to happiness, and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering…I’m not referring to ‘mind’ merely as one’s cognitive ability or intellect, rather, I’m using the term in the sense of the Tibetan word ‘Sem’, which has a much broader meaning closer to psyche or spirit…”

So, how do we discipline our spirits and put ourselves on the path to lasting happiness? After re-reading The Art of Happiness, a fascinating collaborative effort by American psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler and the Dalai Lama, I believe there are three essential keys we can put into practice to get there consistently:

1. Vulnerability and Connection. Vulnerability takes an immense amount of courage and this can also be explained perfectly in a famous TED talk by the great Dr. Brene Brown. I recommend investing 20 minutes of your life to watching it. Essentially, she explains that we need to be brave enough to connect with people wholeheartedly without fear of judgement. The Dalai Lama, in one interview, made an excellent point that illustrated this perfectly:“I think that in many cases people tend to expect the other person to respond to them in a positive way first, rather than taking the initiative themselves to create that possibility. I feel that’s wrong, it leads to problems and can act as a barrier that just serves to promote a feeling of isolation from others.”

2. Compassion. To be truly joyful we must cultivate the courage to be vulnerable. There is a meditation that the Dalai Lama suggests that I found helpful to put myself back on track. We close our eyes and take three or four mindful breathes. We then picture, as realistically as possible, a little boy or girl in Somalia. In your mind, see them hungry, without water, and having no choice about their situation. Really feel the pain of a small child who is suffering this severely. Is this child related to you? Of course not. Is the child a friend of yours? Not at all. But he recommends imagining that you are that child.Embrace how it might feel to be in that place with those problems. This is the kind of compassion we need to foster. We need to experience the pain that a stranger feels. As counter-intuitive as it seems, it is only through this kind of authentic compassion for others that we will find true happiness. It is the very foundation of the disciplined and happy mind he speaks of.“…If you maintain a feeling of compassion and loving kindness then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that we can communicate much more easily with other people…feelings of fear, self-doubt and insecurity are automatically dispelled.” There, once again, we build some distance with the debilitating feeling of emptiness.

3. Connection. There is an argument made by the Dalai Lama that, not only are we all connected and dependent upon one another, but self-reliance is actually a delusion. The food you eat when you wake in the morning, the clothes you put on when you get ready to start your day—there are countless farmers, salespeople, entrepreneurs, drivers, and manufacturers all involved in our ability to live from day to day. Instead of trying to deny this, we should celebrate it. We should try with as much energy as we can muster to approach everybody in every encounter with an affinity and affection that we in the western world normally reserve only for celebrities and the wealthy.“Our emotional health is improved with affection.” So when a friend calls, get off the computer and listen intently. Keep your eyes off the clock and be in that moment. This is the third key we need to practice with zeal to keep ourselves free from that emptiness that plagues us so routinely.

I know for myself as I make my way through this weekend, it is markedly different than last weekend. None of my external circumstances have changed at all, and I take this as a good sign. It’s undoubtedly easy to measure one period of time against another if there is a new love prospect, found moneyor a change in events that will bring pleasure, but we can be assured that those things are fleeting and temporary.

Of course, I would never avoid those things outright, but there is a joy in my heart at this moment that cuts right at that existential emptiness we all spend so much time trying to escape from.

This is the difference between pleasure and joy—and an authentic cure for the “Big Empty.”


Author: Billy Manas
Image: Unsplash/Ayo Ogunseinde 
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

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