How Do You Feel About Absence?

The other day while walking with a friend I noticed this clear outline of a leaf that had melted through the ice.

It’s gorgeous in it’s absence, isn’t it?

The striking beauty of that empty space got me thinking about the benefits of cultivating an appreciation for emptiness.   Huge gains come when we consciously invite more space into our homes, our schedules, our minds and our emotions.

Years ago, when my Life Coaching practice centred around uncluttering, I witnessed a family as they staged an intervention with an elderly member whose home had become cluttered to the point of danger.   In desperation one weekend the family convened and worked tirelessly to remove years-worth of old newspapers, gadgets, food and miscellaneous.   Eventually, the dumpster in the yard was full and the home was clean, tidy and safe. For the first time in recent memory, the couch could be sat upon, a game of cards could be played, and a cup of tea could be shared around the kitchen table.

The family waited eagerly for the homeowner to return.  When he walked into his fresh, clean home, his eyes filled with tears and he said, “It feels so…”

“It feels so… what?”, I waited to hear.    So beautiful?  So clean?  So much better?

It caught me by surprise to hear sadness in the word he uttered next.   Empty.

“It feels so empty.”

I suddenly realized his tears where not ones of gratitude but rather tears of loss. And I knew his discomfort with the empty space would likely yield a home filled to the brim with debris once again.

I’ve witnessed the phenomenon of discomfort with absence of ‘the unwanted’ many times since.  Even when the thing that has vamoosed is something we’ve been desperate to see go.

It happens, for example, when I’ve helping a client carve out free time in their over-cluttered schedule only to fill the hard-won space back in with more ‘unwanted’ commitments.   

This phenomenon is at play too when we first experience the absence of an unpleasant and long-standing emotional experience like stress, anxiety, anger or overwhelm. New techniques can rapidly free our emotional landscapes of unwanted emotions, but the inner peace that reveals itself when old emotional patterns disappears can feel, at first, flat, empty and strange.  It’s confusing to not having an inner touchstone to give definition to our inner space.   It may be unwanted, but it’s been part of us so long, we don’t know who we are without it.

It may not be obvious that there’s a strange comfort in our inner world.    But there is.  

If you think changing your usual hairstyle would be a big deal, it’s nothing compared to changing your ’emotional’ style.

If you don’t believe me, experience this for yourself right now!

Name an unwanted emotion you often experience and which you wish you could never feel again.

Anxiety, blame, self-judgement, whatever.

The emotion you choose will be a familiar part of your emotional landscape. It’s been there a long time and it’s sometime you’ve come to know quite well.

Now look again at the photo of the absent leaf, above.

And imagine that the emotion you just identified were to suddenly be gone, leaving behind only empty space within you.

Imagine what it would feel like to be you if the place this emotion has taken up in your life were to suddenly become vacant.  If you were to reach for that familiar emotion and never find it again.

No trace of it.   Can’t even recall what it was like.   The thoughts that always provoked it don’t get a response anymore.

You may want freedom from that familiar emotional pattern.  But understand this… a part of you finds comfort in the reliability of it always being there in easy reach.  And should that offending item or experience be removed, the initial discomfort of it’s absence would be highly disconcerting. 

Right now you might not even be able to imagine being without that emotion. And if so, you’re experiencing what I’m talking about.

We now know that our inner worlds can be cleared of emotional debris just as easily as our homes can be cleared of unwanted objects.   Our natural inner state is one of space, stillness and calm where emotions flow in, are fully experienced and pass through, like clouds gliding through a beautiful empty blue sky.   But most of us don’t know this or understand how to consciously shape the landscape of our inner worlds.

That’s why, this year, I’m writing articles like this, drawing parallels between our inner worlds and the physical world around us.  So we can all better understand how to live the lives we want, in the spaces (inner and outer!) that suit us best.  

And of course, if you want to work with me personally one-to-one, that option is always here for you.

Oh, and speaking of altering our physical spaces, check out this massive poster of a leaf (left) I just bought for our family room.  Massive, I tell you.

Holding it up is my good-natured husband, Dwayne. He’s such a good sport and when he saw it, he even repeated my frequent mantra about choosing accessories for our home, “Go big or go home!”