Living with the Void (Meaning & Mental Illness)

Buddhism doesn’t have a monopoly on emptiness.

When it sailed across the Pacific and set up shop in the West, it found itself in a land with its own views and temperaments toward absence. To keep the dialogue going, we can’t just bring Zen to the West, we also have to bring the West to Zen.

The other day I posted on FB, “I vote that instead of saying someone’s ‘depressed’ or ‘nihilistic,’ we go with, ‘Ah, the void is strong with this one.'” I love the term void. It conveys everything it needs to. It’s mysterious, dark, and dull all at the same time—just like depression.

At 15, depression is theatrical and grandiose. It makes itself known with desperate tears and big ideas like, “Everything’s meaningless.” At 32, it’s subtle. It can be so subtle that one might not even know one’s depressed. Instead of theatrical, it tends to make itself known through the little things.

It’s garbage on the floor because the can is full; it’s a pile of dirty laundry; it’s dust on a piano; it’s not returning dear friends’ phone calls. It’s watching movies and TV shows and wishing that we could be like one of the characters. It’s that excessive worry about a small physical ailment, or the opposite, a total disregard for health and well-being.

Hours, days, weeks, hell months can go by without even knowing that it’s there in the background, sucking all the color and vibrancy out of perception like a black hole stealing light from a nearby star.

The media tends to romanticize it, but there’s nothing romantic about it really. It’s ordinary and mundane.

And for the ones who were suicidal growing up, that never really goes away. That death wish goes from flashy cinematics, to a generally unhealthy lifestyle. Setting aside our knives, pills, and leaps from buildings, we take the slow road to oblivion by living in excess and lack.

I wonder how many of us feel like we’re living on borrowed time anyway; how many of us don’t have PTSD from puberty?

This is the void in the West. It’s that pit, that deep well in our minds that’s partially filled with cold, brackish water. That cold seeps into everything, numbing every pore, saturating every cell.

The void isn’t a question of meaning, it’s a declaration of meaninglessness. The absence of purpose. It’s giving up the ghost of essence.

The problem isn’t the void, though. We’re not wrong to be unhappy, don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Apart from neurotransmitters flipping out in the brain, there are plenty of valid reasons to be depressed. There are hundreds, and thousands of reasons, all of them close at hand.

The malfunctioning cortex just makes it difficult for us to ignore those reasons. Our fatigued mood makes it easy for us get fixated on them. Rest assured, no this isn’t all in your head. Life is shit, your sorrow is justified. Optimists, that shining prototype of Western civilization, are people whose brains are better at censoring that side reality.

Optimists can look away from the shadows. They live healthier lives, but I can’t help but find them a little bit ignorant, which I why I tend to avoid them. It’s hard to trust an optimist, because if shit hits the fan, they tend to censor us so that they can preserve their naive view of a sunshine and rainbows world.

The void brings us halfway to wisdom. It rightfully negates meaning and purpose, because those are both arbitrary human inventions. Now we just have to close the circle and let it negate meaninglessness and purposelessness, because those are also arbitrary human inventions.

When we negate meaning, we tend to set up the absence of meaning as a meaning. That’s the issue.

I remember when one of my mom’s favorite cats passed away unexpectedly at a young age. It was a brutal death, and it tore her apart. As she wept, I remember feeling nauseous and thinking, “Life is cruel.” Then, mindfulness came in and corrected me.

“Yes, life isn’t kind, but it isn’t cruel either.” Kindness and cruelty are both personal judgments based on incomplete information. Nature doesn’t have intentions. Without intentions, it can’t be kind or cruel.

Existential depression is a kind of purgatory, a state of limbo between ignorance and wisdom, bondage and freedom. We can spend our whole lives there if we don’t take proactive measures. The meds help us access better, more level moods, and that helps us to censor the darkness more, but we can’t live on meds alone. They’re tools, skillful means.

Therapy helps us to retrain our thoughts, it deconstructs certain associations we’ve made and builds new, healthier ones. That’s also a skillful means, and I encourage people to use them both as needed.

However, that doesn’t relieve us of our solemn duty to wake up and finish the thought we started thinking years ago. This all started with questions: Who am I? What’s the meaning? What’s it all about?

We answered those questions with, “I’m no one. There is no meaning, and it isn’t about anything.” But those are placeholders. Just like how optimists censor the shadows, pessimists censor the light. What we’re looking for is realism.

For that, we have to see things as they are, which means not fixating on the good or the bad. That’s what meditation’s for.

We have to give new answers to those questions without relying on this or that thinking. I’m someone and I’m no one are extremes. Meaning and no meaning, about and not about—all extremes.

Negating meaning, we find silence; negating meaninglessness, we find illumination. Silent illumination is the answer.

We see through our web of bullshit, it shines translucent. Not dwelling on anything, without even the slightest notion of yes or no, life unfolds naturally, and each thought is cared for by the genuine self.

Yin and Yang burn to ash and fertilize the field, and all boundaries between the mind, body, and surroundings enter the same void that once tormented us.

The well we’re trapped in, that we try so hard to claw out of, is larger than the universe, and smaller than a grain of sand. It’s never been. A mind-made illusion, a passing nightmare arising from a mind preoccupied with closure and conclusions.

If we can see through that to no-conclusion, then that’s the conclusion. No-beginning is the beginning. Then we can dance, and live without fear in the open world of mutual becoming.

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