07/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Best Way To Fill The Emptiness Inside

Part 10 of a serial, "Sex Love Enlightenment." Click here for past installments.

Two months before I began seeing Billy, I went to a 5-day retreat with a terrific spiritual teacher, Adyashanti, determined to ask him about a subject that's not "spiritually correct" -- my relationships with men. What I learned from our interaction did not sink in immediately, but it prepared the ground, planted seeds for a new way of feeling and behaving in the arena of sex and love.

Adya, as he's called, was born Steven Gray in San Jose, CA. He came across the word "enlightenment" in his teens and became driven to attain it. He practiced Zen ferociously and read every spiritual book he could find, but after 12 years, felt he was getting nowhere. Then a question struck him: "Who is seeking enlightenment?" He couldn't really answer that, and realized it was futile to search any further until he found out who or what was seeking. This led to a spontaneous awakening in his 30s. He now has 5 books and hundreds of cd's in circulation, and you have to enter a lottery to attend one of his retreats. People call him the Brad Pitt of the spiritual world, because, well, you be the judge.


I expected to find about 60 people at the retreat in Monterey, CA, and was startled to see 350. We were asked to be silent the entire 5 days except during Adya's talks, when we could voice a question. I kept rehearsing in my head how I would phrase mine, and this was preventing me from hearing what Adya was saying. I was frightened: I knew lots of people in the room and was ashamed of what I had to say.

I decided to get it over fast. I raised my hand, walked to the microphone and said, "I've been married and divorced twice, and I still have this longing for an intimate partner. I know, I mean, I KNOW it's an illusion to expect that a relationship with a man will fill the hole inside. But the yearning is still there - I can't shut it off."

Okay, Adya said, keeping his eyes fixed on mine. "The desire itself is totally natural. Without that desire, you as a body would not be here." He smiled, and I had to laugh. "This room would be quite empty," he said. "All of nature - remember watching that show, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom? Apes, elephants, lizards, whales -- we're all hard-wired to cuddle up with... nature. Right? So when does that desire become a problem?"

"When it makes me feel that something's missing."

"Right. There's something in you that feels there's a hole, a deficiency, that's crying to be filled. And this thing grabs on to the desire for a partner and thinks, Ah, that will fulfill me. Everything will be okay if I can get the right man. But you know better, don't you?"


"You've been there. You know that even if you find the perfect mate who never bothers you... (laughter from the room) ...and is perfect in every way... That empty hole will still be there."

"I'm totally aware of that. It's a bottomless pit."

"And this is not just you," Adya said. "Why do you think people scrape the bottom of the Hagen Dasz container -- trying to fill that hole? Or they try to fill it with money, success, cars. But the only thing that will ever satisfy it is... You.

Excuse me? I said.

He laughed gently. "You understood every word until then, right?

More laughter from the room.

Adya said: "The part of you that wants fulfillment wants... You. It wants you to turn your awareness to it completely. And that's frightening, isn't it? Putting yourself in a hole that seems empty?"


Adya asked me to imagine looking down into the hole. "You couldn't put enough inside to ever fill it up, could you?"


Adya said, "You can't fill it because it's infinite space. It's what the sages call `emptiness.' So when you look at it from the top, you think, I'm trying to fill infinite space."

"I have a problem with `emptiness,'" I said.

"Of course you do." He asked me to imagine moving around to the other side of the hole, to the vast empty space below, looking up at the tiny hole. "I want you to speak to me from the emptiness. Take the view of emptiness. Just take it. Your mind will say, I can't, I have to jump off a cliff or go through a barrier. Never mind. Speak to me from the emptiness now."

I felt and imagined my way to the empty space. What came to my lips was: "It's all right."

"Does the emptiness feel deficient?" Adya asked.

I considered this. "No."

"Does it feel like it needs to be filled with anything?"


"Is the desire for a partner a problem? Do you have to fix it?"

Without thinking, the words came: "Just love it."

"There you go. Now you're starting to experience what we mean by emptiness. It's not just a blank void, is it? You'll find all kinds of things in that emptiness. There's a sense of well being. And love, big unconditional love. It rises right out of that emptiness."

"It's powerful," I said.

"Nobody else's love will ever be enough. Until it comes from that place inside."

Ahhhhhh. It felt as if my lungs had been constricted and suddenly I could breathe. Freely. There's nothing wrong with desire, I thought. It's natural. We all have desires. And we all have that inner space where love arises, calling us to bring our awareness there.

When the retreat was over, I felt as if a weight had been lifted. Something desperate in me had relaxed.

Two months later, when Billy and I began seeing each other, I thought I was ready. I thought the breakthrough I'd experienced in the retreat had prepared me to have a relationship without expecting it to fill an empty hole.

And God said, "Ha!" *


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* Julia Sweeney wrote the book, "God said, Ha!"