“We shape clay into a pot,” declares Chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching, “but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.” And just in case you missed the Asian line of reasoning, Honorable Lao Tzu (assumed author of the Tao) continues, “We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable.” And then, to tie it all together, the wise Ching chicken lays this lovely little enigma egg, “We work with being, but non-being is what we use.” Another translator teased it out even further with, “Being can provide a condition under which usefulness is found; but nothingness is the usefulness itself.” You might want to read that over one more time. Sometimes, we Western Civ. folk chug a bit slow on the Philosophical Choo-Choo.
I was born in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, back when there was more sand on the beach than concrete. More coconut palm trees than hotels. More shells than shell shops. My parents had moved there from Indiana in the early 1940’s. They came for the same reason that millions of folks have continued to come: To escape the friggin’ cold. They also came because Florida was, at that time, a kind of wild west. An untamed and undomesticated frontier.
Though it had been a state since 1845, Florida was undeveloped and feral. The total population of the State when my parents moved there was less than two million. Ft. Lauderdale, by itself, now has about that same number of residents. I’ve always admired my parents for moving into a new and uncertain scene like that.
Be that as it may, I grew up near the beach or in the water; and, as the result, it’s in my bones and blood. It’s in my dreams and fantasies. I go to sleep each night with a wave machine schwooshing gentle ocean chi into my sub-consciousing brain. The ocean mesmerizes me. Beguiles me. Woos and charms me. And one of the things I have discovered about the spellbinding nature of that mysterious mother (we did all come from her, you know), is that in her presence, my mind goes blank.
When I am in the presence of any ocean where no land is visible, my brain acts in kind: No mental horizon. No definition. No geography, topography, biography, ideography, mammography, photography, bibliography or pornography. And certainly not Howard-ography. Standing in the aura of the ocean, logic liquefies – thoughts and opinions dissolve – frustrations evaporate – hopes and dreams hop on the back burner. Mind and emotion take a vacation and leave… nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
I love the mountains and gladly make my home cradled in their powerful and welcoming arms. These splendid hills fill me with wonder and delight. Fill me with hope and rejuvenation. But it is the ocean that empties me. Pours me out and leaves a vacant vessel into which anything – anything – any thing can be decanted.
Never have I been good at meditating – religious or otherwise. Sitting quietly, being aware of my breathing makes me nervous. And too much religion gives me the heebie-jeebies. But plop my nappy-little-winter-white butt on a beach near an ocean and I become the Dalai Lama. Bare-Naked-Nothingness is my middle name. Gurus of the world, eat your heart out! Near the ocean, I make Buddhists monks look like gluttons. I become more empty than a book called “Wall Street Integrity,” more empty than television programming, more vacant than a real estate office in 2009.
“It is the emptiness that holds whatever you want,” says the 2500 year-old book of wisdom. But, if it ain’t empty, then there’s no room for anything. Anything.
“Mother, Mother Ocean, I can hear you call…” Keep singing, Jimmy. Time to empty out.