Practice Points of Sacred Emptiness

Following the Breath as It Arises out of Nothing and Falls Away into Nothing Again
In this practice and the ones that follow in this chapter, we will repeat some of the material we covered at the end of the first chapter, but with a particular emphasis on pointing us toward the kind of emptiness we have been discussing here. Focusing on the breath is particularly useful in this regard.

The breath is life. Sitting in meditation, eyes half closed, awareness focused on the breath, this is perfectly clear. The breath is life, and the breath comes out of nowhere and returns to nothing again. Breathing out, we experience a small moment of faith. Perfectly attuned to this moment, we realize that we are releasing the breath into a void. We don’t know where it is going and we don’t know where it comes from. Yet the next moment, there it is again, out of nothing; literally out of nowhere, the breath has returned. The breath is life, and life comes out of nowhere, fills our body, animates it, and then returns to nowhere again. We experience this every time we breathe in and breathe out again. The breath, which itself is only emptiness moving, comes out of emptiness and returns to it.

The Body as Tabernacle: The Sacred Emptiness at the Center
The body has its own sacred architecture. When we sit for meditation on the floor, our legs are crossed or folded under us symmetrically. Or in a chair, they are symmetrically folded at the knees in front of us, the balls of our feet finding balance for us. As we tilt our hips forward, we feel a lift running up the central column of our torso, an energy pushing up at the sternum and the crown of the skull. This energy illuminates the body’s perfect symmetry, the symmetry of matter on either side of this lifting energy: our two arms, held at our sides at the balance point between tension and relaxation; our two hands, held at this same balance point; the banks of pectoral muscles on either side of our chest; our two breasts, our eyes, our ears. The body is perfectly balanced, a perfectly doubled structure pointing in to the center. As we sit in meditation with our eyes half closed, all this symmetry and the inrush of breath create a strong inward momentum. As our awareness follows the breath, we find ourselves being pulled into the sacred center, a place of light and air, of thoughts and impulses, in short, a place of no-thing. The matter, the stuff of our body, is also a perfectly harmonious shape, which, like all such forms, points toward its center, a place devoid of matter and stuff. So it is that we come to experience the emptiness at the center of our lives, the formlessness at the center of form.

Stillness, Silence, Balance, Focus: The Impossibility of Stopping Points
Sitting still, aware of our stillness, we are aware that we are never really still. The stiller we are, the clearer our focused awareness, the clearer this is. We are always moving. There is no stopping point. The back will not remain erect but is in constant need of shoring up. The hips give way, and that wonderful forward thrust we managed to attain, which sent all the weight and tension in our body falling down to the legs, and sent that lift up through the torso, collapses without our noticing and we have to thrust the hips forward again. The chin falls to the hollow of the collarbone. The back stiffens. The eyelids flutter. Sitting very still and wide awake, we are aware of what a shifting, gelatinous mass we are, constantly moving, stretching and collapsing, never completely still, yet relatively still—still enough to notice we are not completely still.

And we are silent. Except of course for the rushing of the breath, or the whoosh of the traffic outside, or a distant conversation. We have to be relatively silent, to see how much noise there is in our silence, how impossible true silence really is. As impossible as sustained focus, for example. We resolve to anchor our awareness in our breathing and our body, and we do, to a certain extent, but the more we succeed in focusing our awareness on these things, the more we discover how impossible it is to sustain. The mind continuously produces thoughts, and eventually these thoughts carry our awareness away.

So it is that we experience that the world is in flux, that there are no stopping points. So it is that we experience the truth. Still, silent, balanced, and focused, we experience the impossibility of these states. Yet without being still, silent, balanced, and focused, we cannot enter this flow. Moving around, making noise, unbalanced, and unfocused, we come to believe in a false world, a static world full of fixed objects, fixed states with beginnings, middles, and ends.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Tree on a Mountain in a Storm
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests the following meditation. Visualize yourself as a tree on the top of a mountain during a terrible storm. The wind and rain are blowing through your branches so fiercely that you are genuinely afraid you will be uprooted. He writes, “When we are oppressed by emotions, we feel very insecure and fragile, we may even feel that we are in danger of losing life itself.” We begin by identifying with the tree to attune ourselves to this psychological reality.

But why continue to identify with the tree? Why not identify instead with the mountain, as solid and immovable as the universe and unthreatened by any storm? After all, our roots go down into the mountain, and really we are quite stable. If we are the tree, we are also the mountain. There is no need for us to identify only with the most vulnerable, unstable part of what we are.

If we know how to withdraw from the storm, we will not be swept away. We must transfer our attention to a place about two fingers’ width below the navel and breathe deeply. We recite a silent formula in harmony with our breathing. Breathing in, we say, “Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain.” Breathing out, we say, “Breathing out, I feel solid.” “In doing this,” Thich Nhat Hanh concludes, “we shall see that we are not just our emotions. Emotions come and go, but we are always here.”