Help for Life Challenges

Emptiness: an overlooked aspect of receiving personal revelation I found in ancient Chinese philosophy

Close-up female hands working on the pottery wheel
“Clay is shaped into a pot, but it’s in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the pot depends.”
athima tongloom/Getty Images

When I started learning how to draw, my little hands were constantly coated in marker ink. They were guided by the determined mantra: NO empty space!

I never left a centimeter of the paper blank. My imaginary worlds were teeming with color, spilling over the confining edges of the paper right onto the table (much to my mom’s chagrin). I’m pretty sure that my disdain for paper margins singlehandedly drove Crayola’s profit margins through the early 2000’s.

Adulthood unfolded with a more nuanced palette, replete with similar shades that demanded higher levels of engagement and discernment. I felt I needed concrete footing everywhere my mind ventured, so I split the world into blacks and whites. Everything was either right or wrong.

And the determination remained: NO emptiness. I drew the world around myself with characteristic zeal for certainty and fullness.

Until recently.

I just finished reading Sacred Struggle by Melissa Inouye. It is easily one of the best books I have ever read. Her perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ is vivid and enriching, saturated with a lifetime of academic and intercultural experience. I found my own perspective widening with every page turn.

One particular chapter struck me to the core. Inouye draws upon a passage from the Dao De Jing, a famous philosophical text that largely influenced Daoism in China. It describes the indispensable nature of emptiness:

“Thirty spokes put together make a wheel, but it’s in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends. Clay is shaped into a pot, but it’s in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the pot depends. Wood can be cut and made into a house, but it’s in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends. Therefore, what has positive existence can be profitable, but where there’s emptiness is what’s useful.”

Inouye explains, “This notion of emptiness, the ability to receive, as the quality that makes a person useful, is a helpful antidote to the self-centeredness and broadcast mentality of our current age…. ‘Is your vessel empty—wide, deep, and useful?’”

She goes on to describe emptiness as the virtue that creates space. In order to receive anything—revelation, new ideas, different people—we need to have space in our heads and hearts, somewhere to accept it.

As someone who has always liked to keep her mental shelves fully stocked with absolutes and platitudes, I realized that my distaste for emptiness was rooted in my fear of the unknown. Emptiness is scary. Uncertainty and unfamiliarity, even more so.

The reason this particular Daoist insight struck me so poignantly was because I’d been fearfully ignoring an empty space in my life: someone close to me had adopted a worldview I couldn’t comprehend, based on personal struggles I couldn’t understand.

Rather than approaching daunting political and religious topics with openness, I chose instead to fill the space with the good old “live and let live” insulation. I hoped I could ignore this person and let the “problem” of their differences fade over time.

But avoidance immediately failed me. The temple made that clear. I’ve made covenants to love and lift, to embrace and connect with others.

What is obedience, if not openness to instruction?

What is sacrifice, if not openness in living?

What is consecration, if not openness in giving?

What is the gospel, if not openness to change?

Having hostile conversations in my head, counting up all the ways that this person’s worldview was an affront to my own, I was wastefully sweeping alternative perspectives beneath the metaphorical rug upon which I knelt and said all of my pretty, prescriptive prayers.

It was as if I was kneeling there, eyes willfully screwed shut, when Inouye came along and gently probed, “What are you hiding from?”

I so desperately wanted to patch over it all, to believe that my view of the world was full, complete, and correct. But avoidance was not the answer. I needed to make room for emptiness. Rather than fearing the hollow sensation of uncertainty, I could consecrate it as open space—room to receive an answer from heaven.

Only through Christlike emptiness could I receive a fullness of truth.

Later, I received a glimpse of blindingly sweet celestial compassion for that individual. It changed my life. I would not have received it if I had not made space in my mind for it.

I had to be open to being wrong.

Many of us hate the feeling of empty space. No uncertainty! No hollowness! Fill the space. Fix it. Cover it up. Stuff it to the brim with whatever you can. State what you know and try to ignore the rest.

To be sure, holding to the truths you have received is indispensably important. But why limit yourself to what you already know? Why put a latch on the windows of heaven, when the Lord is dispensing truth in such unprecedented abundance?

An era of restoration depends upon a people who are open to receive.

That’s why emptiness is not just useful. It’s essential. It fuels our search for wholeness. Uncertainty keeps us hungry for truth. In fasting, our empty bodies find spiritual fullness. In wilderness places, we find destinations of clarity. In nothingness, the expanse of heaven’s splendor can fully unfurl.

Perhaps that is why the Lord parabolically compares His disciples to vessels. As vessels of the Lord, we can be open space into which others feel safe pouring their honest thoughts and vulnerable feelings. We can be vessels where sincere expressions are safely held in confidence. Vessels of compassion, open to listen and receive. In our openness, we can learn to understand things that seem worlds away.

Our childlike hands, still so young and uncoordinated in the context of eternal growth, can fearlessly color pictures of expanding understanding, using an array of colors from mortality’s wonderfully messy palette of goodness. There’s plenty of room on the paper we’ve been given.

“As we trust the Creator who is the source of all difference in the world, we will learn to live without fear in the spaces outside our own experience. We will gain emptiness for receiving, and become useful vessels in God’s great plan.” —Melissa Wei Tsing Inouye

▶ You may also like: The simple thing my mom did that showed me the power of temple garments

Sacred Struggle: Seeking Christ on the Path of Most Resistance

Through her own experiences, as well as the words of scripture, scholars, and latter-day leaders, author Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye shares her personal conviction that, through Christ, we can gain the power of understanding. The sacred struggle to forge divine connections can not only relieve our own burdens but also teach us how to better bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters. Available at Deseret Book and

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