Thirty spokes are joined in the wheel’s hub.
The hole in the middle makes it useful.
Mold clay into a bowl.
The empty space makes it useful.
Cut out doors and windows for the house.
The holes make it useful.
Therefore, the value comes from what is there,
But the use comes from what is not there.– Tao Te Ching, Chapter XI
All is possible when emptiness is possible.
Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.—Nagarjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā
The earth was formless and empty.—Genesis 1:2
You and I and everything else are mostly nothing at all. If you took all the empty space out of my body, the actual mass of the molecules that make me up would be the size of a grain of salt. Which is weird, any way that you think about it. After all, I weigh 165.7 pounds, I am 5 feet, 9 inches tall, and my feet hit the floor with a fairly loud thud in the morning.
But much of that is illusion: the reason you can’t reach your (mostly empty) hand straight through me is that there is an electromagnetic force surrounding the electrons whirling about in the nuclei of all the molecules making up my enlarged salt-grain of a body. When your electromagnetic forces bounce off my electromagnetic forces, that is what we think of as “touching each other,” which can be really nice or really creepy, depending on who each of us is and how we are touching. It’s also why I don’t fall through the floor into the vast emptiness of space. Beyond electrons and protons there are quantum fields fluctuations and gamma rays and neutrinos and tons of other scary sounding things like the Higgs Field hanging around invisibly in all that emptiness.
So if everything is mostly nothing, why is it so hard to empty my mind in preparation for mediation? Because the emptiness makes the fullness possible. Even when my breathing is deeply deliberate, my posture correct (which is virtually never), my mantra repeated, I become more aware than I was before. I am aware that my knees hurt. I am aware of the itch on my nose. I am aware of the dust on the table, of the dog in the corner, of the rhythm of my heart.
I am a terrible yogi, a terrible pray-er, an utterly failing meditator. Nobody ever describes me as being “all Zen.” It’s more like, “Dude, you’re so freaking intense about this. What difference does it make if your coffee is not single-estate, shade-grown, organic fair traded as long as it tastes good? Maybe you should drink less of it.” Of course that type of snarkiness is what is wrong with the world.
There is a concept in Taoism of the value of emptiness, the worth of non-doing. It is a way of saying that, the Cosmos is mostly made up of nothingness, but that nothingness makes the Somethingness of Everything Else possible. Turns out that those ancient philosophers knew quantum mechanics. Without nothing there cannot be something. And the something is only known to us by the nothing that surrounds it.
I had a boss once that was famous for not making decisions. Faced with a crisis, pushed to “do something” about whatever was going wrong that day, he would smile and say he was going to think about it. Usually, that meant, “Leave me alone so I can read the newspaper. And shut the door on your way out.”
One day, I was desperate for a response from him. We had a real problem, involving the media, the public and just, possibly, the future of our organization. I sat down in front of him.
“Can we talk?” Without waiting for an answer, I launched into the situation and what I thought we should do. “I know you want to think about this, but we have to make a decision, and we have to make it now.”
He looked at me across the desk. “Sometimes not making a decision is the best decision you can make.” I left, red-faced and frustrated.
But then, the crisis passed, the world didn’t end, and we survived it all. That dude was all Zen. Or maybe all Tao. Or maybe, I was just an inexperienced, over-anxious, ego-maniac who thought he had all the answers. In any case, he was right and I was wrong.
The nothingness of his non-doing turned out to be quite something, like the empty space in the bowl or the cut-outs for the windows in the house. This does not mean that we should not engage with the world. Sometimes, you have to scratch the itch. It does matter where your coffee comes from.
But if you learn to breathe right, to pray right, to sit right, you will find whether it is a doing or a non-doing that is needed.