Emptiness

We're all going on a bear hunt12 December 2015

I want to write about emptiness, loneliness, meaningless, and the apprehension of death. This is what I feel at the moment. But what to say? How to write about these feelings?

I might say that there are days when I struggle these feelings. There are days when I wonder what my life is for and I find little answer.

Having been a chaplain in a hospital, I am left with no place to hide from an awareness of death. It is a fact. There comes a point in life when everything is measured against the imminence of death. At 57, much more of my life has been lived than there is left. More and more, everything I do gets measured against this ultimate scale. What is of value in the face of this impending ending? And my little death is a microcosm of the vastly bigger (yet still minuscule) death of the Earth, in which all our plans are measured.

In all this my own absence to myself exacerbates feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and lack of meaning.


When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure. Victor Frankl

Our culture is perfectly set up to avoid real feeling and a search for a deep sense of meaning. Pleasure is to be had around every corner – the radio, the TV, the cinema, shopping, food, the iPod… Sod deferment of gratification. Distraction is a much more immediately attractive prospect than taking up residence in this body. But there is a cost to this.

Not being present to myself – to loneliness – compounds loneliness.

Emptiness, loneliness, meaningless, and death are conditions of being human, of being a creature. Being is given, a gift received; we are not self-made. Thus emptiness lies at the heart of human being. Emptiness, loneliness, and meaninglessness are the Way.

As it says in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt:

We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
We can’t go round it.
Oh no!
We have to go through it!

How do you go through it? Be a friend to yourself. Be tender with these feelings.

But, practically, how do you do this? How do you be a tender friend to yourself?

Every thought and feeling and image has its corollary, quite possibly its genesis, in the body. When you say, “I am hungry,” how do you know? I expect it is a sensation in your stomach. When you say, “I am lonely,” how do you know? Well, this is not quite so straightforward. We are so used to our emotions that we automatically translate physical sensation to thought. So when you say, “I feel lonely,” or “I feel sad,” or I feel joyous,” I ask you, “Where in the body do you sense this emotion?” It might take a moment, or much longer, to identify where you feel. But having felt where, you can get back to where it all started, usually somewhere below the neck and above the groin.

Now, you know how to be a friend. You know how to be kind or tender to a friend who is unwell, or unhappy, or hurt. Where do you feel this tenderness towards your friend? Again, this is usually somewhere in the heart and chest region, but may be elsewhere or more spread out than that. Spend a bit of time strengthening this feeling.

Here’s the trick. Extend this tenderness to yourself, to the place in the body where you feel lonely, or sad, or joyous. Be tender to yourself, specifically towards that place of feeling. Relax into this. Don’t strain. Just identify where you feel and allow yourself to be tender to that place.

Then, in the midst of loneliness, in extending tenderness towards yourself, you are creating a relationship with your loneliness, a relationship of kindness towards whatever in you is in distress.

Thus, loneliness is the way into relationship.

Emptiness is the way to fulfilment.

Meaninglessness is the way to meaning.


I am fine on the surface. I enjoy life, work, relationships. However, there is a depth of being this body that I wish for – without words, without pictures or icons, without thinking (i.e. beyond moaning, worrying, planning).

We tend to think there is something more important than breathing, but really breathing is pretty basic. Kindly mindfulness of the breath is not just some spiritual practice that will take us to new levels of spirituality. To breathe is to connect with the deepest springs of life in us, in the world.

This is what I want when I pray. But much of the time I lack, avoid, keep at bay, or step away from this. It is as if there is a deep ground-base of being, which is right here for the having, in which all has been given. I have arrived, I have enough, and all is well. But playing just above this deep layer, and just below the surface of life, is a threnody of loss, sadness, emptiness, loneliness, lack of meaning, failure and inadequacy, and the apprehension of death. In this middle layer, I cast about for comfort and resolution, but mostly resort to distraction.

True comfort and resolution can only be found, slowly, over time, through the persistent practice of self-acceptance and self-compassion.

6 thoughts on “Emptiness

  1. I found this profoundly sad and yet so familiar.
    I love the idea of reaching out to my loneliness from the friendliness and compassion of my own heart.
    But I wonder if we can really find true comfort and resolution by our own efforts within our own bodies.
    Isn’t our loneliness intrinsic to our spiritual separation from the True Source by our physical nature? As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
    Or am I copping out to avoid effort?

    • Thanks, Julia. This is really interesting and helpful. There is more I might have said. I agree that we are nothing without grace, which is always available. We do not find true comfort and resolution solely by our own efforts.
      In his Confessions, Augustine also says of God, “You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for You.” What if the True Source is deep within? To be friendly to ourselves is to call on that deep friendship of God within. Our practice (of self-acceptance and self-compassion) is our opening to the fundamental nature of God, which is love, deep within, which is always there. I do think we have a part to play, which requires the right kind of effort.
      Q. If not within our own bodies, where?
      Julian

      • Thank you Julian for reminding me of this of this wisdom and for giving me more of Augustines insights. It has prompted me to get on and order his Confessions [fabulous translation by Fr Ben O’Rourke 2013].
        A body without knowledge of the True Source within is indeed a very empty and lonely place indeed. The effort required for me is the practice of stillness and contemplative prayer….which just happens to be my Lenten discipline…..early days…….

        • Just an update on Holy Saturday, having been faithful to by morning contemplative prayer, yesterday a was givien a Holy Gift. Finding myself in my familiar deep dark and desolate place, my Pit, I stayed with the feeling and befriended it, befriended ME. The floor of the pit gave way like a sinkhole and I found God present, and surrounded by love, and quite frankly At Home.
          My Pit is really a Portal. The place I fear most is really my place of refuge restoration and recreation!
          Isaiah 45:3 “I will bring you treasure out of the dark places. That you may know I am the Lord who summons you by name.”
          I can’t tell you how liberating this has been.

  2. I just finished reading ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gwande and he is talking about
    knowing ourselves well enough so that when we are asked near to the end “what is important to you?” you are able to give a honest answer. Lovely clear bell kind of a book. Highly recommended.

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