On Emptiness

Complete readings here.

"this bottle will one day be empty but that can be a beautiful thing"Phil 2:6-7a
“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself…”

I should really rename this series Sermon Mondays. After all, I usually don’t end up writing the post until late Sunday night or — in this case — Monday morning. This week I don’t even have a good excuse for my dilatory didacticism. I was just lazy. On the other hand I did spend a lot of time thinking about the subject of emptiness yesterday, so I think we’re in for a good ride.

I’d like to begin my homily today by riffing on what “not emptiness” feels like. And I’d like to understand the importance of that penultimate word: feel. When I was younger, I believed it was possible to fully understand the world. Not only that, I believed it was possible to achieve this understanding through an exercise of pure intellect. And, due to some adolescent readings of Chaos and Complexity Theory, I felt I was probably pretty close to doing so.

Ah, the hubris of youth.

He humbled himself,
becoming obedient
to the point of death…”

As I get older and crankier, I find myself less and less satisfied with intellectual frameworks of any kind (even the relatively loosey-goosey strictures of Chaos Theory). Now instead of trying to understand The Great Big Universe I’m trying to understand Just This One Fucking Moment. I mean, if you can’t get that right how do you expect to get the other thing?

So when I say that I want to talk about the feeling of “not emptiness,” I mean that quite literally. I’d like to help you locate that sensation, by describing how it feels for me. This is not an intellectual exercise, it’s an exercise exercise. Put your leg here, put your arm there, feel that stretch in your back. Okay? Okay.

So yesterday I realized that the feeling of “not emptiness” is most profound when I’m high. (I could also rename this “Stoner Sermons,” since so many of my spiritual experiences seem to be drug-related). If you’ve ever been high I think this will make immediate sense; if you’ve never been high, what the fuck are you waiting for?

(I firmly believe you have to try pot at least once in your life, because it will help loosen your mind’s death-grip on an objective reality. And the more you can let that go, the closer you can get to this emptiness thing.)

Anyway, if you’ve been high chances are good you’ve also been paranoid. It’s a pretty common side effect, which can also manifest as extreme self-consciousness or excessive emotionality. For me it’s a fluttery kind of feeling. I get tense, or at least physically uncomfortable. I shift around a lot, then get self-conscious about shifting around a lot.

All who see me scoff at me;
they mock me with parted lips,
they wag their heads…”

It’s kind of a looping, whirlpool-like mindtrip: once you start following the line of paranoid thought you get sucked into it. Outwardly I get very quiet and/or distracted, because my mind is racing so quickly to reinterpret the events of the world into the superstructure of my paranoia that I can no longer focus on the events themselves.

With hallucinogenics, the effect is somewhat stronger.

Indeed, many dogs surround me,
a pack of evildoers closes in upon me.”

This is what “not emptiness” feels like for me. It is a feeling that lives simultaneously in the pit of my stomach and in the rapid beating of my heart. It feels like sweat on my palms or an uncomfortable chair. It feels like a dry mouth, a tense back and a dull thrumming thought-pattern. It’s fidgety. Anxious. Self-conscious. And it’s how I spend a lot of my life.

“Ha!” I hear you shouting at your computer, “That’s fine for you, but I don’t walk around PARANOID all the time!” Of course you don’t. So here’s the phrase that sums it up for me: narrowing bandwidth. You may not walk around paranoid (or “body conscious” as a friend of mine calls his particular pot-phobia); but you probably walk around with a narrow bandwidth.

They have pierced my hands and my feet;
I can count all my bones.”

Imagine your body is a wave-generating antenna. Your full, true, honest self is capable of generating waves that run from head-to-toe, let’s say. An electric signal rises and falls the length of your body, slowly painting sine curves into the universe. Now imagine that paranoid-pot feeling again: do you see the waves getting smaller? Doesn’t it feel like that electric signal only bounces between heart and stomach? Or between eyes and mouth?

My God, my God,
why have you abandoned me?”

I don’t know if that works for you, but it really rings true for me. And what I realized yesterday, as I thought about this, is that I am more often at the narrow end of my bandwidth than I am at full spectrum. I modulate my signal with self-conscious doubt, with self-limiting fears, with false assumptions about the outer world. Too often I am trying to perfect or protect my sine curve, which makes it come out more like a seismograph than a steadily flowing line.

THIS is what “not emptiness” feels like.

Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’;
and when he had said this he breathed his last.”

So what did ol’ JC do, according to Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians? What, indeed, did Paul do as he sat in jail penning these letters? He went the opposite direction. He let go. He gave up striving toward anything, even toward God. He emptied himself. In short he got the fuck out of the way, so that his body’s bandwidth could expand and fill him, then continue expanding toward infinity. He didn’t contain the experience of himself or his world in any way. He opened to it.

Thanks for your patience this week, and God bless you.

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