We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
Tao Te Ching, Ch.11 (tr Stephen Mitchell)
This is difficult to remember and to practise. When I sit still, even for a few minutes, listening to the sounds coming in through the window, feeling the air, I remember that to experience whatever is happening right now, be it outside or inside this body, is to find joy in being alive, and to have the sense that this is what life is for. It is uncomplicated and uneventful.
From here, it is a fractional course adjustment to remember the presence of God, that (non-)context encompassing every context. It is so simple, so ordinary, so ‘nothing’ it is frightening.
The truth is that this is no more than my little, unimportant life: no special mission to accomplish; no requirements. I try to make my life important. I want it to mean something, to be more than ordinary. It is this from which I try to hide, run away. I look for excitement to fill the emptiness of being a creature (i.e. one shaped by an other) whose meaning is no more and no less than this moment-by-moment. And to be a creature is to have no foot-hold, no solid ground, no security. It is to be empty: I cannot self-create.
It is Sunday afternoon. The window is open. Air blows gently in. A dog barks in the distance. The fridge hums. I sit, listen, breathe, type. That is all. Nothing special. As one of my heroes, Thich Nhat Hanh, would say, this is a miracle. But, my God, it is a renunciation! Truly, to do nothing-more-nor-less than to be and keep alive: breathe, wash, dress, walk, work, eat, sleep.
This is also to be conscious, always and everywhere, of being in God. So crushingly simple; so devastatingly hard!
To be aware of this is to have the sense of having arrived. It is not perfection; it is nowhere else to go: no other achievement, no other acquisition, no other desire, nothing more needed to be complete. There never was. It is a clearing out of all ambition, all rôles, any idea of progress and progression.
What would it be like to come to Jesus like this, knowing that nothing is required by way of ambition and progress? No need to be special: I am not special. I am a merely creature. What would it be like to see every encounter in this light? Each other is also a merely creature and all ambition is distraction from the fundamental, essential, common concern of being alive, now and here, in God.
It is an enormous asceticism! I am habituated to filling in what feels like – what is – emptiness: reading when I am eating, watching TV when I have nothing to do, playing music rather than listening to the sounds of the world, listening to the radio or reading a book when I lie in bed. I eschew the empty spaces. Being immersed in TV is not only an hour’s faux-excitement: it is living vicariously. I am ordinary, but they are extraordinary; and I live, yet not I, but they live in me.
It is easy to forget this very simple, unexcited, ordinary, joyous sense of being alive: this life.
So, here it is:
- I am a creature (a ‘self-made man’ is oxymoronic);
- to be a creature is to be the idea of an other;
- and this is to be a kind of emptiness, a ‘nothing’, a cypher;
- so live (not vicariously);
- life is ordinary and miraculous;
- breathe, walk, see.