I sometimes find myself asking the big “why” questions.Why keep striving towards my goals?
Why keep trying to stay fit?
Why keep writing articles like this?
In the end, it doesn’t matter. In less than 100 years I and anyone that cares about what I do will be gone. All our planning, plotting, and building will be bulldozed by the steady drive of history. Even the grandest sultans and empresses of yesterday are nothing but footnotes in history books now. No one will remember our small accomplishments in this short and harried life.
And in the longest view, even our very planet is doomed to be swallowed up by the death throes of our local star, vaporized into dust as Sol swells all the way into our orbit as a red giant. And that will be that.
Thoughts like this are the pathway lanterns that lead you down the road of nihilism. Nothing matters. Life is meaningless. If you end up in this spot, all the social and moral structures that you leaned on start to wobble. If nothing matters, why should you try to learn or accomplish anything? Why should you try to live a moral life? Why not just spend your days in wicked idleness?
What’s a human to do with the irrefutable fact that everything we care about will one day be dust? Nihilistic philosophy is the cold, intellectual, western answer to this problem. But the east came at the problem from a different angle. In Buddhism, it’s the concept of "emptiness."
To get a sense of emptiness in this context, you only need a few moments of quiet. Take some deep breaths, and notice the flow of your thoughts. Thoughts come one after another, like a line of cars on a busy street. But when you relax your mind and breathe, you’ll notice that sometimes there’s a gap in those cars. There are short moments when you’re not thinking of anything in particular, and are just “being”.
During these moments, is your personality obliterated? Do you become a mindless automaton? Not at all! You’re still present, but you’re not your chattering ego. You’re “empty” but very much alive. That's the kind of emptiness we're talking about.
People also find this emptiness doing their favorite activities. When someone’s racing downhill on a mountain bike or snowboard, or wrapped up in the process of creating music or art, their sense of self drops away and they become completely engaged in what they’re doing. Emptiness creates the space that allows us to be filled with the joy of the present moment. This feeling is so pleasant that people will plan their free time and entire vacations around pursuit of a few blessed minutes of this emptiness.
This definition of emptiness also interlocks nicely with our modern understanding of physical reality. If you look at your hand you see solid flesh and bone. But under a microscope you would see lines of skin cells. If you zoomed in again you’d see keratin protein structures. Zoom in more and you’d see hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen atoms in different arrangements. Zoom into those and you’d see protons, neutrons, and electron clouds. Zoom in again and you’d see those are just made of quarks, which are just fuzzy tangles of vibrating energy. At a certain point in this process, your very real hand has dissolved into nothing but empty energy. You’re made of emptiness. Kind of an odd feeling isn’t it?
I had a zen teacher who taught me that emptiness is like salt. When you cook, you need salt to add flavor and richness to the dish. But too much salt will ruin the food. A little awareness of emptiness is healthy, but thinking of nothing but emptiness spoils the flavor of life.
When you have this balance right, you end up in a pretty good place. Yes, you care about your work and want to do as good a job as you can. But you also know that at the end of the day all your striving isn’t nearly as serious as it appears. Your hopes, conflicts, and goals are just different shapes of energetic emptiness, and they don’t have to take over your life.
When it comes to fitness, awareness of emptiness is extremely useful. At Kenzai we often say “The ego is your worst training partner.” When your ego is making your nutrition and exercise choices for you, things don’t tend to go well. Instead of being open to your body’s true needs, you plow forward with a set of preconceptions about what you “should” be doing.
Here are some examples:
“I need to go on this extreme diet as punishment for eating so poorly this summer.”
“I used to be able to run 10 miles, I’m not going to stop at 5 even though my knee is killing me.”
“I can’t be seen lifting less than that guy!”
“I’ve done 20 days in a row, I have to keep going even though I’m sick today.”
“I want nice looking abs. Once I have abs things will turn around.”
In each of these cases, the person has gotten lost in the illusion of solidity and self-importance. A sprinkling of cheerful "awareness-of-emptiness" will go a long way, just like a sprinkle of salt can make a dish shine.
We started off with the question "Why do anything? Why even try to get in shape if it all amounts to nothing?"
To answer this question and stay in a good mental place, you have to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head at once:
1. You're just a sliver of the universe's energy, and as such empty of meaning, purpose, or significance.
2. This incredible fact that there is a "you" that springs out of this emptiness is incredible, and you owe it to yourself to be as healthy and fit as you can to fully embody that miracle. For a few brief decades you get to fill that emptiness with whatever you want, and the fitter you are, the more choices you have available to you.
Whenever I sprinkle a bit of emptiness-salt in my day, I somehow come away even more engaged with my wellness, and with a light, vibrant feeling that lasts for hours. That's the power of engaging with this most difficult of all questions — why. Emptiness gives you the space to smile back to the void and say, "Why not!?"
This is a challenging topic to put into words. Words are just more “stuff” that obscures the empty nature of things. Let the concept of emptiness sink in this week. Knowing that beneath everything you see, experience, and care about, is a fundamental emptiness that is unnerving. But once you get used to it, a second sensation of freedom arises. Emptiness frees you up to not merely act your part in life, but to truly live your life.
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder