How an Eastern Approach to Emptiness is Curing Depression and Anxiety
Written by Mica Mackenzie
I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life...and so has a huge portion of the rest of the population. Maybe fifty years ago it was taboo to admit to having these feelings and problems, but today it’s one of the biggest movements of the time. People are no longer brushing off depression and anxiety as something they have to ‘deal with’. Instead, they’ve come to see that it’s a journey—something you have to work at every single day.
In my own personal journey with these two mental illnesses, I’ve come to understand that healing is not the same for everyone, nor does it come about by the same methods. While medication, therapy, and healthy coping skills are all great treatments for depression and anxiety, I always found myself feeling like there was something else missing. I felt like those three major ‘fixes’ for mental illness weren’t quite covering it. I found myself thinking there must be something better—an alternative to the mainstream band-aids being put on these issues...and I was right.
By chance, I found this book (Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart) in the library a few weeks ago and decided I wanted to give it a whirl. (Now, before we go on, it’s important to tell you that I’m not a Buddhist, nor am I trying to convince you to be a Buddhist. I simply adore world culture and seek to learn about and understand as much of it as I possibly can.) This book was written by a therapist who attended Harvard, but who also has an intense passion for Buddhism and how some of its broader principles can be integrated into the world of psychotherapy. Through his own psychotherapy practice he has been able to successfully blend these two ‘philosophies’ to bring about massive changes in mindset in his patients.
As I read through his client and week-long meditation retreat stories, I became supremely inspired. He was nailing on the head some of the exact feelings with which I had been struggling and through his stories I even learned interesting things about myself and my behaviors. I walked away from the book deeply impressed (in more ways than one).
What he was saying shook up American Culture as I had been a part of it and it taught me, once again, that international perspectives can vary and bring about incredibly different results.
Here are a few of these perspectives, and while they may be a bit mind-bending at first, do your best to explore their truth.
Emptiness Is Our True Nature
If emptiness if our true nature, perhaps that is why so many of us feel it in our core. As one of the most common feelings in humans, emptiness is something we cannot run away from or ‘solve’ as clinical psychotherapy has tried to teach us. Instead, this book explores the Buddhist perspective on emptiness—allowing yourself to be at one with the empty feelings you have and letting yourself feel them fully.
Think about how many people in your life have told you they felt empty at one time or another. You’re not the only one who feels that way! Finally coming to that understanding enables you to see that it’s a universal thing. Everyone is experiencing feelings of emptiness, so why not consider the possibility that feeling emptiness is a fundamental part of human existence.
In the words of Mark Epstein:
“I found that emptiness was a rather ‘full’ feeling. I discovered that emptiness was the canvas, or background, of my being. I did not understand it, but I was much less afraid”
I think what the author means by this is something we can all relate to—how nice it is to know we aren’t alone in feeling some type of way. This fact didn’t better his understanding of why we all feel alone, but he didn’t fear it anymore.
Making Space In The Mind Is Important
If you think about it, by making ‘space’ in your mind, you are also inherently making the mind more and more empty. Epstein makes a good point when talking about this in his book.
He points out that humans (especially Westerners), have an obsession with ‘psychological materialism’—always trying to improve our self-confidence, self-esteem and self-knowledge. We’re caught up in an incessant pursuit in compiling intellectual ‘things’ and trying to ‘build or bulk’ ourselves up. This wretched cycle is what ultimately leads to us being miserable.
So he suggests that through meditation we can start to become acutely aware of the repetitiveness of our ‘thinking mind’ and can begin to truly tap into that empty state by looking past the constant whirl of our minds. The empty place you come to is our true nature where we are allowed to simply be.
It’s also this ‘empty’ place that has so often scared us. We are conditioned to fear the emptiness, thinking perhaps it may swallow us whole. But what if instead we acknowledged emptiness as the fiber of being that threads all humans together—something we all have in common that can bring us together? And then how would it feel to be swallowed whole by an ‘emptiness’ of that kind?
Developing The Capacity to ‘Be’ Is Necessary for Inner Peace
There is an analogy used in the book about the mother/infant relationship and how a mother who can hold her child without ‘engaging’ (with) them is allowing her child to simply be without any pressure from her. This, in turn, lets the child turn to observation, curiosity, and exploration. A similar thing is said to happen in meditation when you reach that empty, basic state—your mind is finally allowed to explore since it’s not being pulled in a million directions.
Not being afraid of emptiness is the first step, as I mentioned in the previous section. It’s something all of us can identify with feeling at one point or another and you should try to be at peace with it. Once you get to this point, you aren’t caught up trying to negate fear and anxiety. So, just like the infant in Epstein’s analogy, your mind can turn to exploration. And this is where the real joy can happen!
No one ever said it would be easy to deal with how repetitive our mind is or to have to feel those deeply rooted feelings of fear and emptiness, but as Epstein put it:
“This is the task that faces nearly all of us. We must learn to be with our feelings of emptiness without rushing to change them. Only then can we have access to the still, silent center of our own awareness. When we tap into this secret storehouse, we begin to appreciate the two-faced nature of emptiness--it fills us with dissatisfaction as it opens us to our own mystery.”
We must acknowledge and surrender to the fact that disappointments will always be a factor. Accepting that fact, rather than fighting or avoiding it, allows more mental energy to be spent exploring and creating, which is what I believe we all truly want.
Getting To This Empty, Creative State Is Not Possible Without Surrender
While surrendering to the fact that disappointments will always be a part of life is a good start, there’s also another aspect of surrender that’s necessary to get to that empty and peaceful inner place. I think this quote from the book sums it up pretty perfectly.
We must accept that life is life. “The reality is probably in motion and after awhile we might take part in that motion. But one can’t know’—meaning that sometimes no matter how hard we try to control or affect the outcome of things...they can still not go to plan.
After being introduced to this quote, it’s become one of my all-time favorites. It’s ironic and satirical and completely, 100% true. Life is chaotic and unpredictable. We must surrender to this, as well.
Tapping Into That Empty Space Isn’t Possible Without Tolerance
In addition to surrender, one must also practice tolerance in order to fully tap into that empty space. The book outlines three kinds of tolerance. Two are in another quote I’m going to share directly from the book and one from a subsequent chapter that I’ll summarize for you.
Through this quote we’ve established that tolerance is important because it can help you with your reactions to injustice and it ‘protects you from being conquered by hatred itself’—both of these being vital concepts to living a happy life, in general.
The final part of tolerance that we all must grasp is tolerance of ourselves. We already know that disappointment is unavoidable and that we must come to accept it, but why aren’t we applying that to how we look at the expectations we set for ourselves?
The Empty State Can Lead to a Deepening of Connections Within Yourself and the People/Environment Around You
I feel like it’s easy to see how relationships can deepen if we learn these key things:
To simply ‘be’ instead of ‘do’
To make room in the mind for more empty and creative space
To accept and surrender to the emptiness we all feel deep down
To learn tolerance of ourselves and the people around us who cause us pain
If we’re investing our time in building these skills, we’re not allowing our minds as much time to be self-conscious, anxiety-ridden, depressed or paranoid, which are causing so many problems in modern-day relationships. Learning to trust, accept, and surrender to one another allows for an open line of communication to be established and for a general peace to reign.
Before reading this book, I thought that maybe something was wrong with me for feeling empty and that I must do everything I possibly can to get rid of those feelings. I was trying to fight a battle that, deep down, I knew I could never win. It’s my hope that you found these perspectives to be as valuable and applicable to your own life as I found them to be for mine.
After all, maybe it’s through feeling the depths of human emptiness that we can begin to feel whole again.
Until next time,
Mica Mackenzie is the founder and CEO of The Quiet Nonsense, LLC. She currently lives in Dallas with her boyfriend, Hunter, and their goldendoodle puppy, Ted! Her dream is to see the growth and success of her alternative entertainment company, QN. She’s obsessed with all types of things philosophical and scientific and has a huge heart and passion for those struggling with mental illness. Feel free to keep up with her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.