There seems to be a natural and predictable pattern that people experience when healing from anxiety. The following comment on one of my recent blog posts is a sentiment I often hear:
“Sheryl, could you please blog about the “space” that anxiety occupies? This is exactly what I’m feeling right now. There’s nothing wrong; I have nothing to be anxious about. Yet there’s this sadness and empty feeling. I know it needs my attention but I can’t figure out where it’s coming from.”
Anxiety, like all emotions, is energy. Energy takes up space in our minds and bodies. When we attend to the anxiety and it begins to fall away, the space that anxiety previously occupied opens up. What’s often left is emptiness, and if we don’t fill the emptiness with the next obsessive thought or action, you will notice one or both of the following: 1. You’ll open a space for clarity and spiritual direction to enter and/or 2. The underlying feelings that you’ve been covering up your entire life will emerge.
Unfortunately, because we live in a culture that encourage us to remain busy and fill up empty time and space, when most people encounter emptiness they rush to try to figure out what’s wrong, and then they usually fill it back up again when the endless chatter of thoughts: Should I stay or leave? Now that I’m not anxious anymore, this must mean that I don’t care. Instead of pouring thought into the empty space, I encourage my clients to simply sit with it, to make a place for the emptiness; instead of resisting the quiet space, resist the cultural belief that says that there’s something wrong with emptiness.
In the three-stage process of transitions – separation, liminal, rebirth – emptiness is the defining quality of the liminal zone. This means that if you’re in a transition (and we’re all in the transition of life bookended by birth and death, it’s just that some transitions stand out in greater relief during this life journey) and you’ve worked through the first stage of grieving and letting go of the old life, familiar structures, and current identity, what follows is often emptiness. So it often happens for people who find my work that after they’ve worked through the initial layers of anxiety and learn that they’re not alone, the space opens up for wisdom and pain to enter. And, yes, those two experiences – wisdom and pain – are cousins in the inner world of psyche.
The truth is that it’s only when we work through the layers of anxiety that create static and arrive at emptiness that we can begin to find our clarity. As Rabbi Tirzah Firestone writes in With Roots in Heaven:
Sometimes the more powerful response is disengagement, to simply stop trying to appease this dark angel, to stop wrestling – reacting, proving, defending our worth – and sit still. By not reacting to our inner beasts, neither fighting nor trying to disprove them, we create an empty space in ourselves. Just as water requires an empty container in which to be collected, so the Self requires an empty space in us in to which to pour its guidance.
There is a striking passage in the Talmud: “Eyn makom panui l’lo Shechinah: Wheverever there is an empty space, there the presence of God is found.” When we are full of fears and anxiety – or even self-certainty – we make it difficult for the divine forces to enter our lives. But when we empty ourselves, God’s presence comes to fill the space. p. 303
In this sense , the emptiness is normal and healthy. It’s when we allow the emptiness – sit with it as we would a good friend – that something new can arise: a creative thought, an idea, an insight, a sense that everything is okay.
Alongside the clarity and spiritual direction, you may also find that grief, old and new, arises from the womb of emptiness, a lifetime of crying pushed down deep inside or an awareness of the sadness that accompanies a truly open heart. It’s important to distinguish between the natural emptiness that follows working through a layer of anxiety or surrendering into a good cry and the emptiness that results from closing your heart to pain.
Many people have a deep fear of feeling their pain. They’re afraid that if they cry – really cry – they’ll go crazy, lose control, fall apart, appear as weak, or die. These fears began in childhood when nobody was there to support you through your pain. As a young child, the overwhelming feeling of pain is too big for a young body to handle alone. Coupled with the prevailing cultural message around pain of “Get over it”, when a child is left alone to feel her pain, she’ll quickly learn to shut down. The walls jut up around her heart and remain there until, as an adult, she finds herself terrified of anyone coming too close.
It’s at this time, when anxiety or intrusive thoughts and mind chatter quiet down and give way to emptiness, that the deeper pain is invited to emerge. Then you have two choices: to remain stuck in the pain and continue to resist it or to make a choice to open your heart and feel the lifetime of pain that has been living there. As Michael Singer writes in The Untethered Soul:
If you close around the pain and stop it from passing through, it will stay in you. That is why our natural tendency to resist is so counterproductive. If you don’t want the pain, why do you close around it and keep it? Do you actually think that if you resist, it will go away? If you relax when the pain comes up inside your heart, and actually dare to face it, it will pass. Every single time you relax and release, a piece of the pain leaves forever. Yet every time you resist and close, you are building up the pain inside. It’s like damming up a stream. You are then forced to use the psyche to create a layer of distance between you who experiences the pain and the pain itself. That is what all the noise is inside your mind: an attempt to avoid the stored pain. p. 105
Please read that last sentence again. And then again. All the noise in your head – the intrusive thoughts, the anxiety, the what ifs, the ceaseless chatter of what Michael Singer calls your inner roommate – is an attempt to avoid the stored pain.
So here you are on this threshold, a precipice, where the anxiety has quieted and you’re left with the emptiness. If you stop moving and stop searching and find stillness, you’ll touch into what wants to be known. You’ll grieve, yes. You’ll cry out in old pain. You’ll find yourself raw and vulnerable. You’ll open to Spirit’s wisdom. You’ll find clarity. You’ll feel joy. It begins with the willingness to keep your heart open and experience whatever has been living beneath the anxiety.
Real life isn’t a Hollywood movie; it isn’t a two hour, Technicolor, larger-than-life adventure where every edited moment is alive and exciting. Real life isn’t People magazine; it’s isn’t an anthology of glossy paper with airbrushed photographs adorning the pages. Real life isn’t Facebook, a newsreel of snapshots like a window into the highlights of someone else’s life. There are moments – seasons even – of emptiness. We don’t capture those on film because they’re not very interesting to look at from the outside. But from the inside, if you stop and stay still, you’ll find your own inner world that has been waiting to be known that is more exciting, real, and interesting than any Hollywood adventure.