Thinking about nothingness

(ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! 🙂 )

What is it that you first think of when you read the term “nothingness”? 

Paradoxically, nobody actually thinks of nothingness — no matter what we imagine, we imagine something — this notion in itself is in complete opposition to the very term we’re thinking of. In fact, the term “nothingness” might possibly be one of the least understood ones out there. Both in its meaning, and in its usefulness for our lives.

Naturally, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about “void”. In fact, I don’t think the vast majority of us do. How could we, anyways? Our whole lives are made of up errands, worries, to-dos, hopes, dreams, regrets, complaints, and so on, that all constitute of something. Nothingness is practically against our very nature.

Perhaps for this reason, the following passage in a book I recently picked up really struck me: 

“The Daodejing points out that when clay is formed around emptiness, it becomes a pitcher that can hold water. Water from the pitcher is poured into a cup, which is itself formed around emptiness. The room this all happens in is itself four walls formed around emptiness. 

Do you see? By relying on what’s not there, we actually have something worth using.”

-Ryan Holiday, Stillness is the Key (chapter “Empty the Mind”)

I’ve heard a couple metaphors and stories along the same lines and I find myself positively delighted by them each time. These metaphors are just so beautiful, so intuitive, so simple… and so completely not how we live. 

I’m one of those people who tries to make every minute of my day count. I try to make use of my time, even by multitasking sometimes, although lately I’ve really cut back on that. I always feel guilty when I have some time in my day that was unaccounted for, especially with the mile-long list of to-dos to complete and goals that I’d so love to achieve. How can I justify it to myself when I have time and I don’t spend it on getting one step closer to achieving these goals?

Yet, it is only by resting for a while that the mind and body can be at all useful. An exhausted body will collapse, an exhausted mind cave in. Just like the clay pitcher can only be if it has emptiness around it. 

So, I suppose the question remains, how do we become more like the pitcher? I hope to one day be closer to answering this question. If you feel you are already, please help enlighten the rest of us in the comments. 

ESL Notes (8 words / expressions)

Definitions written with reference to Cambridge Dictionary

in opposition to: in contrast or in conflict with something. Basically, the opposite of something. (Back to the text)

out there: this is often used informally to say “in the world”. For example, when a person breaks up with someone, his or her friends will often say “don’t worry, there are plenty more women/men out there!” (Back to the text)

void(noun, countable): emptiness or nothingness. (Back to the text)

the vast majority of: a more complex way to say “most”. (Back to the text)

to strike someone (verb): to make someone have a feeling or idea about something. Often used with “as + adjective”, such as “It strikes me as odd that he never talks about his family.” When used without the “as + adjective,” it means that something was very impactful and you remember it very well for some reason. (Back to the text)

along the same lines: similar. (Back to the text)

to cut back on (doing) something (phrasal verb): to spend less, do less, or use less of something. For example, a person can cut back on sugar, or you can cut back on watching Netflix. (Back to the text)

cave in (phrasal verb): to fall down because of a lack of support. Usually applied to physical structures (ex: “The roof caved in under the weight of the snow.”) Here it’s used metaphorically as I imagine the mind almost as a physical space. (Back to the text)


Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • Do you know anybody whose actions are in complete opposition to what they say?
  • Do you believe there is a “one and only” soulmate out there for each of us?
  • Some people claim that losing a loved one or a beloved pet can literally create a void within you. Do you agree?
  • What’s something the vast majority of people believe to be true about your profession? Is it true?
  • Is there a particular view, work of art, or piece of music that really struck you?
  • Think of a friend who is really successful at what they do for work. Would you like to do something along the same lines?
  • What food or habit do you think it would be healthy for you to cut back on? Do you plan to? Why?

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply!

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