where to find it, and how to fill it
When you think of the word “emptiness”, it seems fairly sad, depressing almost. A couple weeks ago I was at an “Introduction to Buddhism” course, and I’m sure you can imagine the general reaction that rippled across the classroom when it was announced that we would be discussing “emptiness.” But what followed was a concept that was far from sad and depressing — rather it was quite an insightful little piece of insight about life.
There are a few different types of emptiness in life, but as is the case with many of the things we discuss here, while it’s possible to view them as sad or unfortunate, I know that true pragmatists will always view them as opportunities to learn and make progress towards life goals. But let’s get back to the Buddhism classroom to start.
In Buddhism, “emptiness” is an almost philosophical concept that practitioners contemplate and meditate upon in order to decrease their attachment to people and things, and to decrease their reactiveness. It is described simply as the fact that “nothing has an inherent existence”. It’s hard to get a handle on what this is without an example, but luckily a real world example immediately makes it clear.
Think about a cup, sitting on a hypothetical table in front of you. The concept of emptiness says that the cup isn’t a cup in and of itself, but rather it’s only a cup because of the label you assign to it. The cup itself has no properties of “cup-ness”. You can break it down into pieces you will find no single piece that is a cup. We only call it a cup because it’s a label that we assign to a certain collection of matter that we deem to be for a specific use. So the definition of a cup does not come from the cup itself, it comes from our perception of the cup. This is what is meant by saying that the cup “has no inherent meaning.”
Here’s another interesting related concept. There are actually no colors. Colors do not exist outside of our minds. We only see colors because our brain takes a piece of a small range of wavelengths of light and interprets each wavelength as a specific color. In reality, everything is black, and reflects light in different amounts. There is pigment, which is black, on everything, and based on the chemical composition of the pigment it reflects anything in between all (white) or no (black) wavelengths of light. The light then enters into our eyeballs, which relay the wavelength to the brain, which paints it with a color for us. The world is nothing less than a bunch of molecules floating around in the darkness, and our senses pick up on some of them, then our brain turns these signals into a colorful projection of the world. Isn’t that kind of crazy?
Emptiness is nothing more than the realization that the things we see are not of themselves what they appear to be to us. They are simply collections of atoms floating around which our senses perceive in a specific way and our language and cultural influences teach us to lend an identity to. That is to say, if an alien, or even another animal that is not a human, saw the same thing, they would see it in a completely different way. They might even see different colors. In fact, many animals can see infrared or ultraviolet, which we are unable to perceive (I wonder how they look?). And we’re not talking about only things, we’re also talking about people. Nothing and nobody has an inherent existence, only the labels and perception we project and apply to them.
So what does this mean? Well, once you realize this, and the more you think about it, the less invested and reactive you act. Someone could be acting really mean towards you, but under the lens of “this is nothing more than a floaty collection of atoms, and it’s only my own narrow perspective that is making me feel emotional about this”, it’s easier to stay calm and relaxed. When you think about the fact that things are much the same, it makes it easier to be less attached to them. Things change, and they come and go (as do people). On top of that, everyone sees them differently, and our own perspective is so narrow and untrustworthy that it’s not worth getting as worked up about things as we sometimes are.
Life Purpose Emptiness
There’s another kind of emptiness in life that I have been thinking about a lot recently, and it has to do with the big question, the one we all fear and struggle to answer: “what is the meaning of life?”
The truth is that the meaning of life can be seen under the same lens as Buddhist emptiness to reveal its true nature. While many people project their own meanings onto life, life itself does not inherently have any meaning. It is empty of meaning — it can’t be denied.
This is scary though! People do not like to think about this. The concept that life has no meaning and we are just wandering around aimlessly wasting our time is not comforting. Then on top of that, after we die, all that we worked towards evaporates and decays away with our bodies and brains — this just makes it worse. What is even the point of living? This is a very uncomfortable concept. As such, people develop ways to consciously project and give meaning to life (just as we unconsciously do with people and objects). A primary and widespread method for assigning meaning is through religion. Religion developed simultaneously for all groups of people on all continents across the world. This cannot simply be coincidence, and it is not. Religion stems at least partially from a drive to attribute meaning to life.
So how can this concept help us? First of all, we need to stop avoiding it and get comfortable with the fact that life simply has no inherent meaning. It’s ok, it’s not that scary. Nothing actually has any inherent meaning. But this is not depressing, this is great. It means that we are free to figure out and decide what the meaning is for ourselves. What an incredible ability, right? Can you imagine if there was one prescribed “meaning” to life somewhere out there that we all had to follow? What if you didn’t like that meaning? That would really suck.
Either way, many people really struggle with this concept, and as such typically find a variety of ways throughout life to distract themselves from the fact that there is no inherent meaning, and avoid the big question.
Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe grappled with this problem of emptiness and our desires to fill it in much of his work. In one of his most well-known pieces, The Last Messiah, he proposes that humans manage to escape the problem of “life purpose emptiness” by distracting themselves from it in four ways.
The first method Zapffe presents is isolation, which he defines as “a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling.” An example he gives but quickly glosses over is that of doctors. Doctors see so many tragic and disturbing things throughout their careers that the only way to retain sanity for them is often to go through a process of disconnecting themselves from the patients and issues to a certain extent. In much the same manner, many people will simply push away the disturbing thoughts and feelings that can sometimes come with realizing life purpose emptiness as a coping mechanism.
Next, he presents anchoring, which turns out to be the coping mechanism that I am presenting here in this article, although I like to present it in less pessimistic terms. Zappfe says that anchoring “might be characterized as a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness.” Essentially, this means that, while our existence is without a doubt vast and inherently purpose-less, we can create for ourselves a little safe space within it, where we have goals, values, and self-applied purpose.
Zappfe suggests that “any culture is a great, rounded system of anchorings, built on foundational firmaments, the basic cultural ideas”, and also groups religion into this camp. He sees this as a negative for many of the same reasons that I condemn blindly subscribing to cultural or religious values. He also discusses how these values can limit our sense of freedom, and demonstrates how instances of depression and suicide increase when cultures start to tear and fall apart under the strain of revolutions. Finally, he offers an interesting explanation for why we always chase material goods and riches — that they offer more opportunities for anchoring and distraction to their owner.
The third method presented is distraction, described as “limiting attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions.” This is doubtlessly familiar to many, and can in some ways mix and merge with anchoring. Zappfe uses children as a prime example, as without some distraction they quickly become agitated until they are distracted once again with some toy or activity. While as adults we learn to distract ourselves in more sophisticated ways, the principle remains the same. Prison is presented as an example of this, as it eliminates most opportunities for distraction, causing the minds of prisoners to despair.
The fourth and final method discussed is sublimation, which Zapffe describes as transforming the pain of living through “stylistic or artistic gifts” into valuable experiences. Zapffe claims that his essay is written from sublimation, stating that “the author does not suffer, he is filling pages and is going to be published in a journal.” I’m fairly skeptical of this one, and don’t entirely see it as valid, so this will be a short paragraph. Feedback welcome here to expand upon it though!
Recognize any of these distractions? I certainly did. But the fact that you simply have managed to distract yourself from the emptiness doesn’t seem to me to be a comforting concept of a full and meaningful life. Think especially about when you grow old and think back upon your life. I’ll be willing to bet that you don’t want to think “yeah, I think I really did it right in life, I distracted myself from finding meaning the entire time!” What’s better is to gather yourself, push away your fear, and stare the emptiness down. Understand that there is no inherent meaning and accept it. Then start asking yourself how you can fill your own life with meaning. And no cheating — don’t just take someone else’s pre-prescribed meaning. You need to find your own.
Let’s Do This
To figure out your meaning in life is far from a simple task. You can’t trust your own opinions, which means you’ll have to do a lot of research. Even when you do research, you could easily be wrong. And also things change — research becomes outdated, the world shifts, and your values shift over time. You cannot just sit down and hammer out your life’s purpose in an evening, or even a weekend. This is a life long journey.
And guess what? That’s what I’m trying to do with Pragmatic Life. I’m trying to figure out my own meaning, and I’m laying it all on the line in public. Take what you want, leave what you want. Maybe we can even discuss it together. I’m hoping the process of writing this down will force me to organize my thoughts. I’m hoping that if I’m wrong about something, someone will call me out. And I’m also hoping that maybe some of my research and thinking will help other people to have an easier time or an expanded perspective when thinking about the same things.
If this is something you are interested in, keep reading, and please join the conversation. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback, whether on Medium or through an email or tweet. We all learn pretty early on that it’s much better to tackle difficult challenges not by yourself, but with a team. So let’s do it together 👬.
Photo is of the clouds, shot from a mountain near Machu Picchu. Being in a place like this makes you feel oh so very small…
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