In his book Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, psychiatrist Mark Epstein tells the story of his first roommate in college, a guy named Steve, who signed up for the five hardest courses at Harvard and became obsessed with being the perfect student. He stopped playing his guitar, going out with friends, even stopped bathing. Every waking moment went to studying. On his way to his first final exam, Steve fell down several flights of stairs, had amnesia for the rest of the semester, and was forced to take the rest of the year off.
As a result, he fell apart.
Epstein uses that story to introduce the topic of embracing emptiness — how we can fall apart in a such way that we keep our integrity and move toward a place of self-awareness and inner peace. His book discusses how psychotherapy and Buddhist wisdom can be used together to process difficult emotions. The combination of Eastern and Western thought provided several key insights for me since I’ve been wrestling myself with feelings of emptiness.
Many of us are like Steve. We tightly clutch the helm of life, steering it with deliberation. We try our best to have some control over the persons, places, things, situations, and events that are part of our days. Until we can’t. Life throws us a curveball that we didn’t anticipate, and we become unhinged. Afraid to let go of our grip, we try to fix the situation, obsess about solutions, and apply different psychological patches to the holes, only to feel more despondent.
“Often we are afraid of falling apart, but the problem is that we have not learned how to give up control of ourselves,” writes Epstein. “We are looking for a way to feel more real, but we do not realize that to feel more real we have to push ourselves further into the unknown.”
Epstein talks about his initial fear of swimming and the process of learning to exhale underwater. It’s counterintuitive to open your mouth in a bunch of liquid that could fill your lungs and kill you. But in order to swim, you have to do just that. Even floating requires that you relax, trust the process, give up some of control. Let fear take over and you’ll sink.
Our emotions, like water, are not our enemy but our backdrop. Instead of avoiding them, tensing up when they surface, we would do better to relax into them, to exhale underwater.
Just feel it
When hit with difficult emotions, my first inclination is always to analyze them: Where did you come from? Childhood baggage? Faulty brain wiring? Low self-esteem? I treat them like a 500-piece puzzle that needs to be assembled in the next half-hour. By finding their origin, I am positive that I can pluck out their roots and eliminate them for good. This method has yet to work.
“Our aversion to emptiness is such that we have become experts at explaining it away, distancing ourselves from it, or assigning blame for its existence on the past or on the fault of others,” writes Epstein. “We contaminate it with our personal histories and expect that it will disappear when we have resolved our personal problems.”
His first medication instructors told him, “Stop trying to understand what you are feeling and just feel…. Just pay attention to everything exactly as it appears and do not judge.”
Tolerate, don’t eliminate
Uncovering our difficult emotions won’t make them go away. They’re still bloody painful. However, by sitting with them in awareness, we can get better at tolerating them, just like I’ve adapted to the odor of teenage boy socks in my house. By touching the truth of our emptiness, we discover ourselves in a new way, and this can lead to transformation. The trick is to relax into that truth and stop fighting the feelings, resisting the urge to want to change them.
“Only then can we have access to the still, silent center of our own awareness that has been hiding, unbeknownst to our caretaker selves, behind our own embarrassment and shame,” explains Epstein. “When we tap in to this secret storehouse, we begin to appreciate the two-faced nature of emptiness – it fills us with dissatisfaction as it opens us to our own mystery.”
Relief isn’t found outside of ourselves. Our strategies to fix and patch will only lead to more disappointment. We must “touch the ground of our own emptiness” to feel whole again.
According to the Buddhist tradition, much of our suffering is born in clinging to relationships and material items in our lives, attaching ourselves to their permanent status. If we can get comfortable with the idea that everything in life is transient, we free ourselves to experience people, places, and things more fully and spare ourselves the pain associated with attachment.
According to Epstein, intimacy puts us in touch with fragility and the acceptance of fragility opens us to intimacy. To love means to appreciate the fleetingness of a relationship, to be able to embrace impermanence. Per Epstein, “When we take loved objects into our egos with the hope or expectation of having them forever, we are deluding ourselves and postponing an inevitable grief. The solution is not to deny attachment but to become less controlling in how we love.”
There is a well-known parable in the Buddhist tradition about a young woman who lost her only child to illness. She begged the Buddha for medicine to revive him. He agreed to her request, but said that she would need to bring him a handful of mustard seeds from a house where no child, husband, parent, or servant has died. She visited each house in her village and inquired, but realized death had touched everyone, that pain is a universal experience.
I experienced the wisdom of this parable the other day. I had been up all night with painful ruminations. By four in the morning, the obsessions had turned to panic and I could hardly breathe. I reached out to the members of Group Beyond Blue, an online depression support group I started a few years ago. Within two hours, I received over 50 supportive comments chock full of wise, practical suggestions on how to quiet ruminations. Suddenly I wasn’t alone with my uncooperative brain. There was a group of warriors surrounding me, reminding me that what I was experiencing was hardly unique, that emptiness is a universal experience.
Don’t be Steve
Emptiness isn’t supposed to feel good. But it doesn’t have to disable us either. By resisting the urge to address difficult emotions like a tantruming toddler — analyzing them, changing them, escaping them — we can use our experience of emptiness as a teacher of truth, guiding us to a place of inner peace and transformation. Then if we fall down the stairs on the way to our exams – or the equivalent in our lives – we can go to pieces without falling apart.