Emptiness and fullness

We are good at emptying things. Dishwashers. Hampers. The trash. But how many of us are good at emptying ourselves — at letting go so we might be open to receive?

Here’s a Zen story that may help in our understanding.

A young student desired to learn from a certain master and was invited to his house for an interview.

The student began talking about all he knew, his past teachers, spiritual experiences, philosophies and on and on. As the master sat there and listened silently, he began to pour a cup of tea. He poured and poured and even after the cup was filled, kept pouring until the tea was spilling everywhere.

The student finally noticed what was happening and stopped his monologue to shout, “Stop pouring! The cup is full!”

The teacher said, “Yes, and so are you. How can I possibly teach you?”

I think “emptying ourselves” to receive might be one of the toughest spiritual challenges around. But it’s also at the heart of all true spiritual growth. When we are filled with ourselves, nothing else can enter. Divine love. Graces. Good.

But emptying ourselves takes a certain kind of courage. At heart, it’s about “letting go,” a topic I write about a great deal. We have to enter into a “poverty of spirit” that isn’t always comfortable. That means emptying ourselves of things we might want to hold on to — our pride, intellect, spiritual experiences, material gain — whatever it might be that blocks the Divine good longing to fill us.

I’m not speaking here to those who may already feel drained. That emptiness, I believe, comes exactly from NOT opening ourselves to be filled with the goodness, support or nurturing we need from ourselves or others. The Zen saying is true that “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” that is, we can’t give from what we don’t have first within ourselves, a lesson I’m always learning.

So how do we empty ourselves to receive in the busy-ness of our daily lives? After all, many of us are focused on jobs, families, caregiving for aging parents, school — whatever it may be — and time doesn’t allow for spiritual practices or for even the concept of letting go.

Maybe it’s not that complicated. We “empty ourselves” when we forget ourselves in brief moments of service to others, by offering a kindness, a smile, a door opening, an offer to drive an elderly neighbor to an appointment, listening to a friend or family member who needs support.

When we empty ourselves with these small acts of love, a greater good fills us, one of which we are all a part. 

We can also empty ourselves by having beginner’s mind — a tenet of some spiritual practices — when we see all things as new. In my own life I often find myself in a rut before I know it. That rut may be the same habitual acts that although need to get done, become boring after awhile. No surprises. Same old, same old.

In his book The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life author Thomas Moore explains how we must let go of what we know in order to uncover the new.

“The first step is to recover a beginner’s mind and a child’s wonder, to forget some of the things we have learned and to which we are attached. As we empty ourselves of disenchanted values, a fresh paradisiacal spirit may pour in…we may discover the nature of the soul and the pleasure of being a participant in the extravagance of life.”

This time of year it’s especially easy to get sucked into the holiday chaos, of falling into the habitual yearly routine of putting up the Christmas tree and outdoor decorations or holiday shopping and baking. When this happens, perhaps we can stop and take a breath, find a quiet physical space where we allow ourselves to be emptied of the frenzy so that the silence and love of the one who loves us can enter.

Another small exercise that might help comes from retreat leader Joyce Rupp. In a short ritual to help people realize the emptiness and fullness of their lives, she uses an ordinary cup. From her book The Cup of Our Life: A Guide for Spiritual Growth, she writes:

Hold an empty cup in your hands. Look at all the room the cup has for filling. Picture an inner part of yourself. Notice how much room there is for filling. Hold the cup out before you in the gesture of a beggar. Ask God to fill you.”

At the heart of it, we all thirst to be filled to overflowing. But first, we must venture the brave step of emptying ourselves. We can’t have one without the other.

May we have the courage to embrace both.







The Gift

Here in the Northeast, the weather is turning colder, leaves are falling and geese flock in chevron flight across sullen-gray skies. This time of year — one of giving thanks — seems right to share this essay again. Some of you have read this before. For those who haven’t, here is The Gift.


I have started walking again in the park. This has become a prayer, a way of grounding myself.

When my feet are pulled to earth, my body centers, then my mind and finally my spirit. It does not always happen this way, but when it does, it’s as if irritating gauze has been lifted from my eyes, as if the earth beneath my feet becomes the salivated soil the Messiah used to heal the eyes of the blind man.

The park has a pond at its center, thick with geese. They are there now, but soon they will be gone. They know it will be time to go.

How is it they have this inner sense of rightness, of being, without questioning? Is it the scent of snow crystallizing in the upper atmosphere, the blustery skies, the days of dim and muted light?

I think it is none of those, but an act of trust in the highest good of which they are a part. So they surrender. And in surrendering, they are protected.

Winter is coming and I dread it. I liked this season once, appreciated the mystery of snow, the way it coated roof tops and tree limbs with layers of whipped-cream softness. It smothered the world in comforting silence, the muffled sounds of cars lumbering by, a child on a sled, her squeal of delight echoing across a hill, pure and clear as a soprano’s piercing the frigid night air.

Now, as I have grown older, I wonder where and how I lost those childlike eyes, the thrill of innocence in the present moment, the staccato crunch of snow beneath my boots.

When did I lose the joy of building a snowman until my nose and cheeks were pink and my gloved fingers tingled? When did I abandon the delicious act of spreading my arms and legs on mounds of white to carve out angels?

I had become blinded by the winters of life, by deadlines and adult duties, meeting others through mist and fog — vaporous and not present — and hibernating, waiting for spring, hope and life.

One day, at the pond filled with geese, Sara Maria gave me hope. To say she gave me hope is to say everything. That day God was revealed to me and was embodied in this girl-child. She became Yahweh and Emmanuel, the ever-present moment of I AM and God with us.

In my life, I believed in God and often prayed to know God better. I sought direction and signs. I asked the eternal “why” but often, God was silent. Why then did God listen that day and choose to speak in that way? Was it because that afternoon as I sat on the park bench, watching geese lift from the pond and glide off into the dusky sky, a young father and his child filled my heart with an unexpected thanksgiving?

The sun was low, soft light filtering through the leaves, dappling field and wildflowers. Father and daughter walked hand-in-hand in the distance.

Patiently, he waited as she stopped at times to bend down and scoop up something in her hands. Even from afar I could sense his love for her, she, free to explore, and he, watching and protecting.

As they walked closer to me, I could see she was a pretty child, a round face and curious eyes, taking in all of life without question or judgment. Her thin legs would break into a happy skip and then she would squat, exploring the earth in great detail.

I knew they meant to pass me by, and I, in turn, would offer a simple hello. Then, the child did something unexpectedly — she stopped before me. She stood there, frail and elfin-like, her silent stance embracing me in acceptance.

She asked my name. I told her and asked hers in turn. We began a conversation of the highest realm, of her walk by the pond, of her father, of her mother at home, of the geese on the pond.

It was then I noticed she clutched something in her right hand — a bouquet of tattered and mottled goose feathers.

These were special, she told me, showing me the unique designs of each and then sharing what she would do with these when she returned home — dust her doll furniture, tickle her brother, tuck them in her hair and pretend she was an Indian princess. Her body was a ballerina’s as she spoke, tiptoeing around her father’s legs, lowering her eyes and then lifting them to meet mine.

Words spent, she cocked her head and grinned. She tugged at her father’s leg and he bent close to her small face as she whispered in his ear.

“Fine,” he said. “That’s a wonderful idea.”

She paused shyly, then extended her arm and hand, straight into my space, straight into my heart.

“For you,” she said.

I could not speak. What could I say to this gift from this stranger-child, a gift she had gathered with joy and love?

“Thank you,” I whispered. “Would you like to take one home with you? Pick the one you’d like. It will be our special feather.”

She nodded and after a few seconds of deliberation, chose one. Then, holding her father’s hand she said good-bye and walked away.

For days after when I walked in the park I would look for Sara Maria, hoping to see her again so that I might truly thank her. But I never did. I finally decided that this was the way it was meant to be. She was there for me at one moment in time when I needed her.

I took the feathers that day and gave them to the water, one by one, a symbolic gesture that I could not hold on to anything in my life, not even the blessings.

I let them float on undirected breezes, knowing that my journey had to be a letting go, a trust that wherever I am is good, secure and protected because of a higher power at my side.

Each feather became a prayer.


(Blogger’s Note:  In 2012, this essay placed fifth — among thousands of entries — in the inspirational category of the annual writing competition of Writers Digest Magazine.)

Avatar in a wheelchair

I met a neighbor walking her dog the other evening. I asked if she minded company and we began chatting about life. She’ll be 70 soon — I can’t believe in two years I’ll be there — and she seemed a bit down.

“I didn’t do a lot of things I could have when I was younger,” she said, the dog tugging at her leash for us to move faster.

“I studied art, you know, pen and pencil, pastels and I loved it. Even got my degree in fine arts. Then I married, had children, divorced and put the art away. And now …”

“And now?” I prompted her.

“It’s just too late to do anything with it. So in the mornings I do my crossword puzzles, read my books. I won’t ever go back to art and I’m fine with that.”

When we parted ways I felt sad about her words. She may be content with what she’s doing with her life — and if so, that’s fine — but my motto has always been: It’s never too late.

If art is an activity she enjoyed, why not do it again, for the sheer, delicious pleasure of it? She may never have a show in a gallery or sell her work, but so what? If art nurtures and feeds her soul, what more wonderful gift could she give herself at this stage in life?

The week before I happened upon another neighbor, this time in the hospital lobby. I spend much of my time it seems in hospitals as I care for aging parents.

I was rushing to get dad in his wheelchair and into the elevator to his doctor’s appointment when she snagged my attention from the periphery of my vision, a frail, almost elfin-like woman, lost in an enormous wheelchair. A ding of recognition — do I know this woman — hit me, but I let it pass as I had to get dad upstairs and settled.

After I spent the afternoon caring for dad at home, I had to return to the same doctor’s office at the hospital to pick up some paperwork and I saw her, still there. I was almost sure I knew her and walked over to her and asked, “Aren’t we neighbors? And have you been here alone, all day?”

We were neighbors and yes, she had been sitting at this hospital alone. All day. She was waiting for a medical transport, but she had missed the last van. I volunteered to drive her home, but she told me she had already paid for the service and she was OK, even though she had another hour to wait. I asked her if I could get her coffee. Wheel her to the bathroom? She assured me she was fine.

I sat down next to her and we began to talk. Within a few minutes I realized I was in the presence of a special soul, someone who talked of God always being with her, a God who never failed her.

Someone who had been through great pain but physically felt herself being cradled in God’s love. Who had sensed God’s presence deeply with her throughout her life. Someone who told me that most us in the world are walking around asleep and need to wake up to the miracles around us.

I listened in awe and wonder to this avatar in a wheelchair. When her transport arrived, I leaned over and hugged her. She had shifted my heavy, sad energy of caregiving in that one hour to light and hope. I didn’t want our conversation to end. We promised to pray for each other.

Life always brings challenges. And choices. Some of us are bound by our limitations in thought — what we think we can or can’t do — and some, although bound by wheelchairs, are free and unlimited.

When I was in my 20s, my first love introduced me to Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. I never forgot Frankl’s famous quote:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I’m always humbled by the people God puts in my path, teachers who come in the most interesting guises. Both these women continue to inspire me in different ways. They leave me questioning: What am I choosing? As a people what are WE choosing? And are we awake or asleep?