According to the Yoga tradition, everything we need is already inside us but we have somehow lost the connection with what we are at our core. The deepest part of us, our true Self, is complete and unshakable but covering this unshakable Self , are layers of misleading ideas we have about who we are. This is called the lower self.
The bigger the gap between our Self and our self, the more we experience an inner vacuum. This inner vacuum manifests itself in different ways in each person, and this sensation is at the base of all our uncontrolled and unconscious craving for external attention, affirmation and validation.
In my experience, I do see this vacuum at the base of emotions and behaviour that keep bringing pain for myself and others. I have observed that for me, the vacuum manifests itself as a perceived lack of love or attention from those close to me. When I feel the vacuum, I always blame it on what the external world is not doing to fulfill my ‘needs’. It has taken time and patience to accept this, and even more time and patience to convince my mind that I am ok. I still have moments where certain situations become difficult because my mind perceives them as a proof of my ‘unworthiness’, but little by little, it is becoming easier to take myself out of this limiting idea. Because that is what the inner vacuum does, it convinces us that we are lacking something and it is often because we ‘don’t deserve’ it.
Other people try to fill the vacuum with objects, with food, with projects, titles, goals, experiences… I am not saying that any of these things is wrong. There isn’t really an absolute right or wrong way to try to live a fulfilling life, and we all do whatever we can to feel satisfied. However, if you find yourself constantly running after or away from something, constantly stressed about your life, you might want to consider this idea. The typical way to discover if we are being chased by our inner vacuum is if we keep living in the “If…. I will be happy”.
All the external world can offer us are glimpses of moments of fulfilment because everything is in constant change and out of our control. This leaves us mostly unsatisfied, craving for more or disappointed because nothing and no one can measure up to our expectations. This inner vacuum can be at the base of our constant business too.
This does not mean that we should loathe the world or our lower self, what we need to do, is learn to take them for what they are: the self is our vehicle to be and interact in the world and the world is here to give us experiences to learn to know ourself better, first the lower self and its limiting tendencies, and by letting go of each one of these tendencies, we gradually get closer to who we really are, the Self. As Jack Hawley explains in his translation and interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita:
[…]this world is a learning ground, a place to discipline, train, and elevate all beings. If we decline to learn we cannot derive the benefit of the schooling.”
Hawley, Jack. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners (ch3 v16, p. 31). New World Library.
The ‘schooling’ is life, and we are here not to get caught up in the self and its limitations but to learn and grow to achieve a lasting inner peace and happiness. This way, we function better in the world and we fulfill our true potential. For our own good and for the good of the whole.
What is it that we need to discipline and train? The mind. To discipline the mind, we need to create the space to get to know our patterns of thought better. This needs to be done without judgement so the first step is acceptance. To accept that a limited view, an expectation, a craving is damaging our inner peace. The next step is curiosity. Ask yourself, why do I think like this? What triggers this or that emotion? And finally, little by little and with a lot of practice, start making small adjustments. Start by trying not to act on or react to the thought or emotion that you know only brings suffering in the long run, this way the mind starts to calm down in that area and eventually, you will manage to let go.
What kind of thoughts do we need to discipline and train our mind to let go of? Basically, all thoughts that lead us to believe that we are what we do and what he have, and by consequence we also are what we don’t do and what we don’t have. By identifying ourself with what we have and or do, we can easily allow sensory indulgences, expectations, and selfish desires to be at the base of my actions. The problem with this is that we never get completely satisfied mainly because the result of our actions is rarely exactly as we expect it to be so we end up frustrated or the feeling of satisfaction lasts just for a short while so we keep wanting more.
Being aware can help us recognise when our motivation to act is the inner vacuum and either refrain from acting or change the intention. A third option is to act to hide the inner vacuum for a while, but be conscious of it.
A quite common place where the inner vacuum messes up for us is in our interactions with other people. Ask yourself, how many times have you done something expecting a specific response in return? And how often have you been frustrated because the response is not the one you were expecting? If we go around believing that the world is there to fill our vacuum, that the world owes us something, we are going to live a quite tiring and frustrating life, not to mention selfish. So step nr1: have your intentions very clear, and try to understand your emotional reactions when the result of your actions isn’t the desired one. Be compassionate towards yourself and the person or people involved. Step nr2: try to move away from acting to fill your vacuum. For this, you need to start cultivating inner contentment and self-sufficiency.
In order to cultivate contentment (santosha) you can start by focusing on what you can be thankful for every day. Some people practice writing three things at the end of each day. No matter how bad your day was, there is always something to be thankful for, if only the practical things that we give for granted: a bed, food, clean clothes, etc. Contentment can then be extended also to the not so pleasant things in your life. As painful as some experiences can be, we can always draw something positive out of them. I remember the feeling of overwhelming thankfulness I have had every time I meet someone that is able to help my daughter who has special needs. I am not thankful that she was born with a syndrome, but I am thankful for the lessons I have learned since she was born, and the opportunity to meet so dedicated and wonderful people. It has also inspired me to be a more understanding and compassionate teacher and mum.
Self-sufficiency is slightly more difficult for some of us (or maybe for most of us), but it is very important. Think a bit about this one, if you were really satisfied with who you are, would you then be craving for someone else’s attention? If you truly respected yourself, would it then be so important to you that other people show respect to you? If you truly loved yourself, would you then need so badly for others to love you? All the things that you need, you can cultivate inside you, and then, you will easily see how much you already get from the outer world. You will also and most importantly be able to give more, and above all, you will be able to show compassion to other people when you recognise that their sometimes challenging behaviour comes from the same space than yours: the inner vacuum.
“Arjuna, those who have found the pure contentment, satisfaction, and peace of the Atma (the True Self Within) are fulfilled. They have nothing more in this world to accomplish, no more obligations to meet. Being in the Atma,these people are beyond karma.
Hawley, Jack. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners (ch3 v17 p. 31).
To be self-sufficient requires (again) practice and patience. It requires our full acceptance of who we are, compassion towards ourself, and the willingness to change our mindset from seeking outside to exploring innards.