The house feels a little bit emptier today because both of my kids are at school for the first time in what feels like a very long time. My wife and I walked them out to the bus stop this morning and when I got back to the house it hit me that today was going to be different. During the past 18 months of this COVID-19 pandemic, our kids were usually home, but today it was just me and my wife. And our two dogs. So the house isn't empty — it just feels emptier.
When I teach yoga, I often quote Tias Little, who encourages his students to "empty before you begin." These words are intended to help people come into their practice and move on from whatever they were doing previously. For some of us, a yoga practice can be a place to get to know feelings of emptiness and non-grasping, to just be with each posture and each breath.
Emptying out the house today before beginning work felt a bit like that feeling of emptying out before starting a yoga practice. My house, like my mind during a yoga practice, is not totally empty. It's really difficult to truly empty the mind of thoughts. If we do experience feelings of emptiness, they won't last. The feelings of emptiness are not necessarily better or worse, but rather just a different state of being. Likewise, it's not better or worse that my kids are at school today.
Lots of meditation teachers suggest that empting out the mind is not really possible. Larry Rosenberg believes "there is something false about trying to let go. It is often really pushing away. Our practice is to observe the holding on." I'm not so much experiencing the emptiness of the house but the holding on to the fond memories of time spent in lock down with my kids. I'm working in the room where my daughter often sits, but today she is not here. Her seat is empty.
The house would probably feel a lot more empty if my wife and dogs were not here. Carl Sagan wrote, "In all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes all the emptiness bearable is each other." My empty house is bearable because it's not actually empty. Similarly, many people who attend yoga classes in yoga centers feel more comfortable being around people rather than practicing yoga by themselves. Not only can it feel daunting to have to select your own poses, the feelings of emptiness while practicing yoga can be intimidating.
My empty house provides a reminder that emptiness is not black and white. Emptiness is just a word we use in connection to letting go. Truly letting go and experiencing strong sensations of emptiness, even just briefly, can bring about a great sense of joy — that's why some people go on long meditation retreats. But we can also notice those feelings of emptiness in our daily life and investigate them. We don't need to judge them or analyze them to much. To just notice those feelings without running away or making them into a problem is but one way to bring a yoga practice off the mat and into your life.
Little, Tias. The Practice Is the Path: Lessons and Reflections on the Transformative Power of Yoga. Shambhala, 2020.
Rosenberg, Larry. Breath by Breath: the Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation. Shambhala, 2004.
Sagan, Carl. Contact. 1997.