This morning on the bus ride into downtown, a young man took the seat next to me. He was munching on a large, chocolate covered sweet-roll with one hand; in the other hand he was thumbing through a novel. Not just any novel, but a graphic comic-book novel with bright, violent colors. In his ears were audio earbuds, through which MP3 music was audible, even to my failing hearing. At one point, the young man even took a phone call, removing only one of the earbuds to talk, while continuing to eat and to read his comic book at the same time.
It was a voracious orgy of sense fulfillment, and I both admired the young man's ability to juggle so much data, and was worried for his mental well-being.
His was an extreme example, but in this young man I recognized a pretty common human urge. As a modern culture, if not as a species, we seem to be intent on filling up all available emptiness and space with sensory stuff. I cannot even use a public restroom these days without also reading advertising placed at eye level on the wall above the urinal.
Because we are so intent on filling up every empty moment, every blank space, with excitement and sensory input, we might logically conclude that humans have some inherent nervousness and fear regarding openness and space. We're told that a large percentage of Americans are now so uncomfortable with silence that they use television and radio as sleep aids. If modern humans don't hear the voice of God, it may well be because they've chosen to distract themselves with Muzak instead.
This speaks, I think, to a certain existential uneasiness we have about our own identity. It's the information flowing through our senses that gives us an illusion of concrete solidness, and we force-feed ourselves all this experience, all these sights, all these sounds, all these tastes, to reassure ourselves that we do actually exist. Our deepest fear, I think—the one underlying all the other forms of nervousness—is that we don't truly exist. If we keep the forms flowing fast enough, we can fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
And so one of the very biggest moments in a spiritual practice comes when we finally run up against the inherent spaciousness of existence. This seems to be a necessary stage no matter what spiritual tradition you practice. Some Christian practices place a supreme value on "surrendering to God," which is a metaphor for recognizing the relative insubstantiality of our "selves". In the various eastern traditions I have studied, there comes a point when the practice inevitably discovers a certain kind of emptiness or hollowness that is quite jarring and disconcerting.
For example, ever one I know who has had a serious meditation practice speaks of coming to a time when the quiet, relaxed seeing-of-things-as-they-are reveals that things we once viewed as solid and concrete are in fact extremely fluid and ever-changing. It's certainly not all that hard to recognize that emotions, thoughts, beliefs, feelings don't have any material substance, and it's not all that long that you begin to recognize that even the things you regarded as physically solid, such as mountains and boulders, exist solidly only within a split second of time. Nothing is genuinely real in terms of permanent solidness; everything is in motion, at all times.
Lots of meditators will acknowledge that this is a point where they're forced to work through a time of despair or even depression. After all, we turned to spiritual pursuits in the first place in order to transcend the temporal, to discover something eternal. What we discover, instead, is that nothing eternal exists, whatsover. Form is the most fleeting of all things, and we begin to feel that we are being devoured, evaporated by this spaciousness we didn't really want to see. The very first intimations of this can be extraordinarily shocking. The rug gets pulled out from under you entirely, in a way that can feel quite devastating. Lots of people even talk about a physical feeling of vertigo, a sense that they are falling, when they glimpse the true spaciousness of things.
But then, if you begin to experiment at resting in the spaciousness, the fluidity, you begin to sense that it is within this spaciousness that genuine awareness, genuine freedom exists. You are falling, yes, but there really is no ground that is going to shatter you when you hit. You begin to have moments when you begin to appreciate the ocean, because you are no longer fighting waves. When spaciousness and fluidity are the matrix, all things become possible.
Ever so gradually, you learn that the antidote to pain isn't to grasp for the shore of a particular island, but to swim freely among all the islands.
Suffering is largely the process of trying to make things solid, when their inherent nature is spaciousness.