The dishwasher, the garbage, my bladder, my inbox – the process of emptying never ends. The intention to empty what’s filling up is second nature when it comes to some things in my life, a conditioned response that requires little or no thought. By way of contrast, I tried to clean up my office a few days ago. Stacks, piles, boxes, folders, and files accumulate perpetually in my workspace. With good intentions I save conference notes and handouts, client presentations and journal articles, drafts and re-writes of manuscripts, and the odd note which reminds me of some important task, long since forgotten. This process of emptying does not come naturally to me.
Emptying implies an action – something was once full or at least contained something. But now it is empty, due to some initiative or force. It’s the difference between canceling several appointments as well as postponing a meeting in order to free up a day and waking up to a day when I never had anything scheduled. I often feel anxious about the latter, when my day seems unusually empty. Whether trying to clear out some space or free up some time, emptiness is a paradox, something I both long for and fear.
Sometimes I confuse emptiness with an experience of a void, feeling a vacuum. That’s when I get scared. I feel heavy and depressed. That which is me seems not to be. The I of my existence suddenly seems very inconsequential and undefined. Nothing significant seems to be where I once was in the recesses of my mind. A day with no defined agenda, when no one would know if I even existed, can send me into a tailspin of anxiety and confusion. So, I try to keep my days full. But I know that is not optimal for peak performance or even modest momentum towards being the person I want to be.
Even the most technically efficient hard-drive cannot function without empty space. Defragmenting the system is the most painless way of creating more space on my computer. But what about my self? How do I defragment? First, I am learning most of all to acknowledge, to myself, that I am experiencing emptiness. That’s O.K. Maybe even desirable. I know that it will pass. Whatever the immediate circumstances, life will fill up again. However, if I can stay with the emptiness and not anxiously fill up the space, I am discovering that I am surprised with what opens up, what presents itself to me, what I see and hear, what I am motivated, maybe even inspired, to do.