Emptiness (And Ice Cream)


She eats ice cream

Because of an emptiness

Deeper than stomach or bowels.

She is hunger in human form:

For loneliness,

For attention,

For love,

Expressed in pain medicine and ice cream.

Buying things might ease it:

A beautiful home,

Ferocious car, clothes,

Furniture, widescreen TV,

Computer, smartphone

Books, music,

But the emptiness remains unfilled.

“He’s not nice, he’s empty,”

My teacher said about the Dalai Lama.

That’s an emptiness I don’t understand.

What emptiness manifests as kindness

Instead of selfish sorrow?

What emptiness forgives his country”s enslavement,

While striving nonviolently

For that wound to heal?

It’s not the same emptiness

That destroys and fouls

Air, land and water

To power a civilization

Believing only in possessions and power.

It’s the emptiness of a man who freed slaves,

Of a man who labored

To free descendents of slaves,

And all the other oppressed at once.

Was that emptiness?

Or was that a man acquainted with grief,

Full to overflowing with tears

At the suffering humans impose on each other?

Was he empty, full,

Or both at once?

Whatever it was,

He acted out of it

To win a war,

To heal his country,

And possibly a whole world.

It was an unselfish hunger,

At least in that

His own suffering was not his concern.

And so I turn to look

At people I know to suffer,

Uncertain what to do to help.

I am empty from not acting.

Maybe they’re empty from acting on impulse.

Two different kinds of emptiness

Amounting to the same thing.

The question is what and how to build.

Even the wise don’t always know,

Must have faith

Their work will not be wasted

In torrents of emotion sweeping the world.

The sky will keep on crying

Until heaven too is empty.

And mortal emptiness is filled

With something more substantial than ice cream.


I wrote this at the beginning of the month. The woman in the poem was also a portrait of myself. Little difference between her and me, except circumstance.

But the whole idea of emptiness recalled to me that long-ago conversation with my meditation teacher, which I didn’t understand. Every three months or so we would have Sesshin, a period of intensive meditation, and each morning we would chant a piece of writing in Kanji; Japanese in Chinese script. It was a Buddhist text, I think a pretty early one, and part of it said, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” (there was a translation beneath the phonetic way to pronounce the Japanese). I never understood what that meant.

Now, perhaps, a memoir by William Patrick Patterson, Eating the I, explains that in terms I can understand.

Patterson entered the Gurdjieff work in New York City more than 40 years ago. His teacher had been a student of George Gurdjieff, and had been given responsibility for the work in the USA. While Patterson talks about what was being taught, and gives examples of how his teacher, Lord John Pentland, behaved, he balances some of the more important teachings with what was happening in his personal life. At the beginning he’s living with the woman who will become his wife, waiting to find a job. There are unavoidable tensions, since he’s extremely depressed, and she’s paying his way. They fight, and in parallel with that life, he begins to learn that he has different selves, with which he identifies at one moment, but which are gone the next.

He repeats PD Ouspensky’s experience of trying to “remember himself”, which he more or less explains as being aware of both body and mind, while he does errands. He sees someone on the street who looks Indian, and goes into a reverie about India, fantasizing about finding enlightenment there, and after his errands, realizes he’s forgotten to remember himself.

He denies in the group that he’s interested in black magic, then another group member finds a book about that in his bookcase, which he’d bought, read part of and completely forgotten. What else, he asks his teacher, has he forgotten?

Another clue is given in a group meeting. During a conversation, the teacher remarks that to really listen, one must be empty. That seems obvious enough. How often, when we talk to others, DO we really listen? I often catch myself waiting my turn and preparing what I’m going to say, instead of REALLY listening. The parts of one who do this are disparate selves, of which we’re usually not conscious. To know one’s self (ves), one must observe, which means splitting one’s attention: not only to what one’s doing, but which self is doing what, what’s happening in one’s body, in one’s emotions. Which part of me is doing what? What do I do that’s genuine, and what that’s merely habit?

When Patterson asks another group member what emptiness is, the man replies that we’re all constructs: little selves built around little pieces of our lives.

Patterson finds a job, and becomes successful at it. He marries the woman he’s been living with, perhaps a measure of the positive impact of his spiritual work. He becomes interested in Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama come to the West, and flirts with the idea of pursuing that way. It’s a pretty serious flirtation: When Trungpa asks him why he’s come (to Trungpa’s center in Barnet, Vermont), Patterson answers he wants to learn to meditate, though he thinks he’s come for a seminar. Trungpa tells him to do sitting meditation, alone, for ten hours a day for two weeks. Parts of Patterson don’t want to, but he does it anyway, which is more than most would do.

He sits for 45 minutes, rests for 15, then continues, from 7am to 5pm every day.The practice is boring, but he follows Trungpa’s cursory instructions on how to sit and breathe, and after more than a week finds that his mind has been breathing, that he can relax, let his body breathe, and observe that. Things slow down. He begins to enjoy the meditation.

On the last day he’s enjoying it so much that, rather than take his last 15 minute break, he continues sitting. Trungpa and other leaders of the center come to the room at the end of the day to meditate too, and Patterson meditates with them. He begins to get tired, though, his body begins to complain: back and legs especially, but when he hears Trungpa’s chair creak (usually signal of the end of meditation), the pain magically goes away. But the meditation doesn’t end. Once more comes the signal, as his body protests, once more the pain goes away, and returns when meditation doesn’t end. Then it’s over.

He considers joining Trungpa at a planned center in Colorado, but at the last moment reconsiders, and stays where he is. Still, he’s learned some of the correspondences between Gurdjieff’s teaching and Tibetan Buddhism. Meditation has given him opportunity to observe himself at a sort of leisure.

At his job Patterson is successful, though he has conflict with one of his superiors, something sort of archetypal, as with irreconcilable opposites. If he were to portray himself as purely heroic, he’d probably say he beat the man in some way. As it is, the man tells him, when he leaves the company, that he’s played for a stalemate, and that’s what he’s gotten.

At the suggestion of another group member, he meets an art teacher, and begins to learn to draw and paint, practicing to allow (after a good deal of practice) the painting to come out of him with little thought. Things begin to express themselves through him that have meaning.

He also becomes unfaithful to his wife with one of his coworkers, cares a good deal for her, but realizes that wife and family are more important to him.. They have two sons together. He travels, partly on business, partly on intuition. Eventually he feels it’s time to leave New York and go to San Francisco, for no obvious reason, but does so. There, after waiting a long time to find a job, he eventually meets a man called Sunyata.

This was a 90 year old man born in Denmark who had been a gardener in England when he met the poet Tagore, who invited him to India “to teach Silence.” It seems that Sunyata, a name he took in India, was a natural mystic, without much “headucation’, as he put it, who was born enlightened. He never had to struggle, as most do, to attain anything. The name he took means full solid emptiness, and he said, after he’d built himself a hut, that there he could “do nothing, be nothing, and enjoy nothing.”

He became known by mystics in the area, as well as some visitors, and much later was persuaded to visit the United States. He found that he enjoyed California, which is where Patterson met him.

He spoke, but not a lot, and with no particular authority, or even as if he knew what he would say next. But concisely. In most ways different from Lord Pentland, but similar in one : he felt to Patterson as if no one was there. “There was no “I” or ego, there seemed to be an absence and a presence, the ambiguity of which I had no words.”

Patterson was attracted to him, began spending time with him, and marveled at him. He says, “For Sunya was empty. There were so very few “I”s there. And what there were, as Sunya would say,”was never any problem.””

Gurdjieff speaks about having to fuse our “I’s, and there is little doubt that he did, and that virtually everything he did after that was intentional. Patterson never claims to have done this. He speaks of “breathing through” things, working to stay open, not to identify, and not to express negative emotions. Remembering one’s self seems largely a practice of avoiding identification, either with one’s states (“I”s), which come and go, or with influences from the outside. Gurdjieff said that we’re subject to more outside influences than we know, that the impulse for war comes from these, and that war could be avoided if we had the strength to resist these influences. But history is largely the story of war. For as long as we know about, we have been influenced, and continue to be.

Sunya, it seems, was a walking definition of emptiness, as his name states. But emptiness on a higher level than the emptiness we usually see in ourselves and others, which is essentially hunger, and which we usually try to fill in foolish ways.

I’m no different from the lady I wrote about. My addictions are slightly, but only slightly, different. The same hunger drives them. The same wish to be filled without having to do anything about it, other than consume.

That’s the influence of the world, the babyishness that still exists in me, wishing to be filled by others instead of filling myself by my own efforts. Or is that emptying myself of a lot of immature and foolish “I”s that I allow to run my life?

In either case, I’m not much different from anyone else. I look for satisfaction in the outside world instead of trying to create it.

Patterson eventually leaves the Gurdjieff group. At one point, a little while before doing so, he expresses to Lord Pentland that he doesn’t trust him or others who run the organization. At this point Patterson has been in the group a decade or so, and STILL doesn’t trust the leader? “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” might be the appropriate quote here.

So Patterson eventually does leave the group, but does so gratefully. The distrust he had expressed was his, whether or not there was any basis for it, but he also recognized that he had benefited greatly from what he had learned.

Since that time he has written a number of books, and made a film about Gurdjieff, his ideas and activities. The phenomenal contribution that Gurdjieff made to Western thought and practice (though it has little obvious influence) is something worth thinking and writing about. It’s quite clear to me that there is nothing dated about his ideas: they are as discomforting and applicable today as they were a hundred years ago.

Patterson has his own view of them, which no one else need agree with. He does have the advantage of having experienced the work from inside, which I have not. He also has the advantage of having persisted in his path, which I also have not. For me it’s theoretical, though it’s a theory that FEELS right. Patterson’s teacher, Lord Pentland, observes that we can’t rely on feelings, that we must observe them a long time while doing parallel work before they can become trustworthy.

And despite the feelings one of my “I”s has about Gurdjieff, his views and practices,  those feelings have so far not been enough to get me to try putting any of it into practice.




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