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October 2018


Inquiring Deeply About Emptiness

November 2018


Inquiring Deeply About Emptiness

There is a not uncommon experience people allude to as “emptiness”, meaning a deep sadness, yearning, or inner sense of something missing.  It often connects to a felt sense of deep deficiency or unworthiness.    This psychological emptiness is quite different in meaning from the Buddhist concept of the same name, which refers to the reality that things do not exist in the way we suppose that they do;  that life is empty of anything which is inherently substantial or permanent enough for us to hold onto.

A good way to think about the psychological experience of emptiness is in terms of parts of us which have been lost from awareness.   What has been lost from consciousness leaves a vacancy, a place which feels empty.  Sometimes emptiness is a hole in our lives which comes from the loss of someone or something.  It may arise in relation to something we want very badly but despair of ever finding/having. Psychic holes in the mind may also come about as a result of traumatic experience or something else barred from memory.

We can begin to explore emptiness by inquiring into the holes we find in our own lives.   What is missing?  In what way(s) do we feel insufficient?  What emotions do we not want to feel?  What in the balance of mind, body, and heart gets too little of our attention?

We can also explore emptiness by paying attention to what we do to ‘fill’  the holes we feel within:  our addictive attachments to substances, activities, and people.  Ironically, our improvised ‘solutions’ to pain most often result in new, worse problems!  By exploring the strategies we use to block the feeling of what is painful,  we can deepen our awareness of the underlying feelings.

When we turn our attention to exploring empty places within,  often we may find memories of hurt feelings and conflicts that block our natural ability to connect to others.   Our most habitual and powerful feelings and thoughts define the core of who we think we are.  When we are caught up in a sense of being unworthy, the universal sense that ‘something is wrong’ turns into the feeling that ‘something is wrong with me’.  This felt sense keeps us on the run, driven by desperate efforts to get away from these bad feelings.

In a different vein, the experience of emptiness can sometimes be illuminated by contrasting it with its psychological opposite, aliveness.  We can inquire about the experiences in which we have felt most whole and complete, most authentic, most at peace with ourselves and with our world.   What has blocked these channels of vitality and aliveness?

In my view, our empty places, our ‘holes’, can ultimately only be filled by connection: both connection with others and better connection to ourselves.   Healing relationships (including psychotherapy) help us through deep listening both to what we say and what we don’t say (and may never even have thought!).   Deep empathic listening connects us heart-to-heart and cultivates our ability to extend compassion and tenderness towards what is wounded within us.

Mindful awareness of the experience of emptiness is a useful place to begin on the path of healing.  If we have the inclination and/or interest, we may also find it useful at some point to contemplate the nature of emptiness itself.  In a philosophical/spiritual sense,  emptiness is the Everything/Nothing from which all manifestation arises.   From this perspective, paradoxically, emptiness is a vast reservoir of unrealized potential.

In the words of the Taoist sage Lao Tzu, it is the emptiness within the cup that makes it useful.

Picture Credit:  Farshad Sanaee


Inquiring Deeply About Praise

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter,
October 2018


Inquiring Deeply About Praise

The famed German novelist Thomas Mann apparently experienced quite a bit of anxiety about how his work would be received.  He quipped that he suffered from a  “P vitamin deficiency”:  chronic hunger for praise.

I personally resonate with the idea of P vitamin and its implied meaning: that approval fills deep needs and is an essential psychological nutrient.  It is quite evident that the need for approval is a driving force in human behavior, as well a basic regulator of self-esteem.  We are motivated to be seen in a myriad of different forms.  Praise and approval— as well as its close cousins mirroring, recognition, validation, and positive evaluation—   are all very high in Vitamin P!   Praise is an upper.   On the other side of the coin, the failure to receive praise which is wanted, needed, or expected is emotionally upsetting.

So, what is this about?  When we look into how the need for praise shows up in our experience, we confirm what Heinz Kohut postulated in psychoanalytic Self Psychology:   recognition and approval are self-delineating and life-affirming.  We seek validation for who we take ourselves to be and in order to feel a vital connection to our core experience of self.    In Buddhist psychology, the primal motivation is thehunger to be; to exist.

When we do not get sufficient Vitamin P from important relational others—when we fail to be affirmed as valuable, special, worthwhile, and/or lovable— our incapacity to sustain a coherent sense of ourselves shows up as emotional turbulence.   While each person’s experience is somewhat idiosyncratic,  the general tenor is usually anxiety, depression, or similar.    What I find in my own experience is a sense of deflation: negative mood and self-critical ideation.  The general idea of contraction seems to capture it.

The hunger to be seen is a primal relational desire:  the need to exist in the eyes of the Other.  This deep relational need stems from the fact that humans need other humans to survive.  To be abandoned as a helpless baby means certain death.  Psychological survival, too, depends on being seen.  This reality was dramatized in the classic novel of the late 80’s, “Clan Of The Cave Bear”, in which a female character was psychologically exiled for nonconformity to the tribal rules of her Neanderthal brethren.  No one was to make eye contact with her.  This was a brutal form of punishment.

Self is brought into being in relationship.  The prototypical moment is the one that occurs in the first moments after birth, when the new baby looks into the eyes of a mother who is looking back.  As Kohut put it, the self at birth is a virtual self, a self which develops in the process of being seen and responded to by(m)other. This is true in earliest psychological life and remains so throughout the life span. What is not validated by others will tend to be repressed or will simply fail to come into being.  In other words, if we are not seen, we cannot be fully alive.

So, the wish to be seen is quite understandable.   But how can we understand thefear of being seen? In psychological terms, we find at its core the fear that we are not worthy of being seen.  In Buddhist terms, this too is connected to a fear of non-being.

Our fear of being invisible connects both to our elemental fear of death and of existential emptiness. The fear of not being seen joins together with the fear of being alone.   This can become a futile quest to fill our empty places with other people.

So it is useful to inquire deeply into both the wish and fear of being seen.  We need to find within our own experience all the ways that, directly and indirectly, we seek P vitamin;  all the constructive as well as dysfunctional ways we seek attention and approval.  A compelling example from contemporary life is how people relate to getting “likes” on social media, which can assume the proportions of an actual addiction!  According to some, ‘thumbs up’  stimulates little bursts of dopamine in the brain.  (Maybe that is Vitamin P!)

In any event, when we inquire deeply, what we can also find is that recognition is not love. Our deepest desire is not for praise or approval, but for connection with others.

* Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis:  Inquiring Deeply
Routledge Press, 2017.