The Need to Empty Ourselves

“Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves.”
Rebecca Solnit

I feel a compulsion to push breath from the corners of my lungs to the corners of the earth. Sometimes in a shout, a visible breath. To unpack everything I am until it forms clouds.

To become what poet Ocean Vuong calls a “torso of air.”

Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night – sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. the boy, beautiful

& gone …

From “Torso of Air”

"Sky 7" by Santeri Tuori. Featured in "The Need to Empty Ourselves."
“Sky 7” by Finnish photographer/artist Santeri Tuori, 2011-12. This piece is a pigment print mounted under acrylic made by multiple exposures superimposed, aesthetically appearing like both oil painting and photograph.

Hemingway once said he felt empty after he wrote. Early in his career, he’d write from his top-floor Paris apartment, empty his being, and then walk downstairs back into the world.1

Around the same time in a vastly different space, Nan Shepherd, an underappreciated Scottish writer of our communion with nature, said she fell asleep on a mountain and found “moments of quiescent perceptiveness with nothing between me and the earth and sky.”

Mountains are natural spaces to empty. They are still, eternal and vast, welcoming anything we devolve.

“Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent” wrote Annie Dillard in her sojourn to Tinker Creek, using words similar to Shepard:

You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.

Both women knew that mountains receive everything from us. Mountains, plains, empty spaces. And yet, many people find these vistas disconcerting. These scapes demand more than we can give.

"Sky 21" by Finnish photographer/artist Santeri Tuori, featured in "The Need to Empty Ourselves."
“Sky 21” done in 2014. Tuori’s photographs are taken in his native Finland, capturing the beautiful, textured atmosphere that exists where the air is clear. But without any reference points, the sky becomes air.
Most metaphors of life contain the concept of fullness, having, abundance. We pulse in energy, passion, feelings—things we hold within physically and metaphysically. In fact, it is the ravaging of our thingness within that articulates the worst illnesses. The vernacular for tuberculous was consumption, literally our self being consumed. Now we use similar words with cancer, it is ‘ravaging’ or ‘waging a war’ within.2

Surely, an empty person is missing something, lacking. It is the limitation of Western culture that the focus on having rather than being disallows emptiness.

The fantastical Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami admits he has sought a void every day of his adult life.

I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. […] The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pas away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. The sky both exists and doesn’t exist. It has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.

Murakami, born and raised in Japan, owned a jazz bar and wrote on the side. When he turned 28, he sold his bar to devote himself full-time to writing.

With the writing came the running. The two were well-suited – “the whole process […] focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon” could be said of either.

In Pilgrim, Annie Dillard went into the woods with feelings of emptiness and “an open palm.”

Like Dillard, Murakami makes a distinction between emptying and being empty. Murakami extols the state of emptiness. He understood what many of us arrive at inadvertently: being empty expands our possible fullness.

I think about a line from Christie Watson’s memoir on nursing in which “Nursing is a career that demands a chunk of your soul on a daily basis. The emotional energy needed to care for people […],” Watson writes, “I have felt spent, devoid of any further capacity to give.”

And yet she does give. Daily, weekly, the book tells us so. How? Did something become renewed? Did something fill that emptiness?3

We cannot expand outside our own boundaries when we hold fast to those boundaries. This scream, this urge to exhale – maybe it is a necessary compulsion that accompanies change. Or anticipation of change.

One of my favorite poets, Mark Strand, an American sage, once talked of oblivion, forgetfulness, the fullness of forgetting, the possibilities of forgottenness, all aspects of emptiness.

O is for Oblivion. I feel as strongly about it as I do about nothing. Forgetfulness, the fullness of forgetting, the possibilities of forgottenness. The freedom of unmindfulness. It is the true beginning of poetry. It is the blank for which the will wills.

The freedom of unmindfulness. The blank. I want to exist in that blank. In the void of Murakami, the oblivion of Strand, the empty palm of Dillard, the quiescent perceptiveness of Shepard…

Is there even such a thing as emptiness?

“In my opinion there have not been any ‘empty spaces’!” wrote British sculptor Barbara Hepworth. “Space is an active & tangibly appreciated, dynamic—it is a reality asking for the relationship of the human figure or sculpture to perpetuate its dynamic.”

Hepworth’s forms often contain the enclosure of negative space, manifested by a piercing, a hole, a thing missing. Critics have speculated that the emptiness within is a maternal, spiritual gesture, a commentary on the unknown. I think it was Hepworth’s way of putting something within, even if that something is merely space.

An emptiness is a space that shall be filled. As we empty ourselves, exhale, shout, and push everything out, we might leave it. And walk forward, without.

But it does not mean we cease to exist.

"Sky 6" by Finnish photographer/artist Santeri Tuori, featured in "The Need to Empty Ourselves."
“Sky 6” by Finnish photographer Santeri Tuori, 2011-12. The subtly amazing aspect of these photographs is the vantage point, as if Tuori took them from within, not below, the clouds. If I emptied yourself into the air this is how it would appear. Learn more.
Historian, memoirist, and wanderer Rebecca Solnit observes:

‘Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves,’ said a Tibetan sage six hundred years ago, and the book where I found this edict followed it with an explanation of the word ‘track’ in Tibetan:shul, a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by—a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there.

Footprints, shells, and photographic images are shul. Empty remnants. These words are shul, I am no longer the person who writes them.4

But as the poet Vuong reminds us, your body is more than a portion of night sealed with bruises […].” You are more than what makes a footprint. You are more than a shell filling and emptying.
You are the entire process.

Shout. Exhale. Empty. Exist.