I used to live on the 3rd floor of an apartment complex. With no one living above me I didn’t have to worry about being kept awake by bowling practice, or have a track team abruptly breaking into my quiet, contemplative mornings. On the flip side though, I had to learn how to strategically carry numerous things from the car in one trip. On a frigid winter day, or during a hot, humid July I am quick to abandon the idea of the health benefits of going up and down three flights of stairs multiple times. And I discovered I could get $125 to $150 worth of groceries in one trip!
If it couldn’t be brought up in one trip, it stayed in the car until the next time I went out. I quickly adopted the practice of discerning what really “needed” to come up to the house if I was only making one trip. Interestingly, my definition of “need” changed day by day when I used this method!
While I celebrate being able to carry $150 worth of groceries in one trip, guess what happened when I got to the front door? Yup… I couldn’t open the door to get my precious cargo inside. Each time I did this, loaded up my arms and hands, I would pause and chuckle at myself. Of course I would have to put everything down to get out the keys, open the door and then in piecemeal fashion, get all the bags into the house.[quote]I played this scenario over and over throughout the 4 years I lived there, and it finally got me thinking… I had put great thought and effort into organizing and balancing all these bags so that I could get it up 3 flights in one trip, and each time I did it, I had cursory thoughts about having to let it all go once I got to my destination. Every time I approached the door to my home my hands were full, and I couldn’t take my next step, I couldn’t get my keys out to unlock the door… I couldn’t move forward. I had found an unexamined world in a mundane chore.[/quote]
What does it mean to have empty hands? Do I approach my life with empty hands? Sometimes I look at my empty hands as if something were missing. For me this idea is most alive when I think about not having children. I have always wanted them, lots of them. I can remember telling my mother I wanted 2 or 8 children because I couldn’t decide if I wanted a small family or a big one. Turns out I have neither. While I am making peace about not having my own children, I still experience great sadness and pain from time to time when I look at my “empty hands.”
When I have lost a loved one, or arrived at the threshold of a hollow home after the marriage was over, lost a job, or been unable to see where the rent money would come from, all seeming to slip through my fingers… these are times when I have looked at my little hands, palms up, and witnessed an abysmal emptiness.
And yet at the same time, each of these experiences has allowed me to gently rest my head in those same hands to cry in anger or grief, simply being present to what was alive inside me without having to change it. To heal and unlock the meaning of times like these meant I needed to empty myself and be a vessel for new life to be poured into.
This never would have happened if my “hands” were filled with other things – like noise in my mind, the busyness of trying to avoid the hurt, the litany of judgments, conclusions and preconceptions I create that race like wildfire through my inner world. Sooner or later I had to empty my hands in order to feel the aliveness of my universe, to move forward into the next moment, to see my world anew.
It makes me wonder if I have empty hands when another has come to me with a broken heart. When was the last time someone came to me looking to rest their weariness in my hands? When has a loved one, or even a stranger, yearned for compassion, comfort, love and belonging and my hands weren’t empty, but instead filled with answers to their questions, ideas for soothing their sadness, suggestions for prayer, notions of how their experience is much like my own?
My life has become about emptying, because it is in the emptying that I am open, and it is in being open I am listening. For in listening with empty hands I give my full attention to what is alive for us in every moment, and every moment is a new beginning, new life being poured into us. My job is to keep emptying, keep beginning, keep breathing myself open.
As an empty vessel, I am before you as my true self. When I bring my true self to you, I become that vessel in which anyone can find a soft place to fall, a home. Listening with empty hands allows you to pour yourself into me – to be changed by your pain, inspired by your dreams and to embody the hope and courage you show in bringing your broken heart to me cuts me to the soul and signals a willingness to be changed by what I hear, to see life anew.
When you fill any vessel, there is at some point a last drop of liquid that makes it run over. And so it is with listening… there is at last one drop that makes the heart run over. When I empty my hands, I see my life anew.