The Empty Bowl: Creative Explorations of the Numinous

This past year I’ve become obsessed with the idea and image of the empty bowl. Perhaps it’s a natural result of the deep dives I’ve taken in some of my creative endeavors, but it has arrived almost daily in my consciousness as an image of almost mystical wondering and obsession. 

Some background information might be helpful. In 2005 I began a journey of studying and teaching the practices of the Work That Reconnects, originated by deep ecologist Joanna Macy. This is a body of practices designed to support activists and all folks concerned with injustice and the devastation of our planet. Through explorations in gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, and grounding our understanding of interconnectedness, we grow our capacities for a sustainable and deep practice of service to heal the world. I’ve studied and worked with Joanna and other facilitators of this work continuously for close to 15 years, and the philosophy is my spiritual ground in turbulent times.  

One practice in the work uses symbols and images of emotional states as a pathway to explore feelings such as grief, anger, or fear. The image for grief is a pile of dead leaves. The image for fear is a stone. The image for anger is a branch or stick. The ritual involves moving among the items, holding them and allowing them to aid in the expression of these emotions in order to unblock the underlying cause of them, which is love for the world. As the poet Wendell Berry says, “We will not save what we do not love.”  

In this practice, the empty bowl is a symbol for an experience that is more ephemeral. One manifestation of our pain for the world can be numbness, or confusion, or a sense of deep uncertainty. The empty bowl is the space that holds this experience, and it also offers the possibility of a space for something new to arise, perhaps a new understanding, acceptance, or inspiration.  

Like many folks, the events and politics of recent times have left me reeling with all of the above feelings, and particularly the uncertainty, numbness, and confusion associated with the empty bowl. Climate disruption, racism, fascism- all seem to have put us into a collective tailspin of reactivity, overwhelm, and shutdown. 

The bowl is arising in virtually all of my creative endeavors. In June of last year, in a vocal improvisation workshop, I did a solo where the bowl emerged as a keening song of grief and ambivalence. I don’t remember much about it (it simply emerged in the moment) but I remember one phrase became the chorus of the song-  

“Know. Don’t know. Don’t want to know.” 

I was wrung out after the experience, but in some ways I now felt the bowl not just as a place of uncertainty, but also as a place to rest in the midst of that uncertainty. The empty space became a kind of refuge.  A couple of days later, these words emerged. Perhaps it is a song, perhaps something else.

We fill the emptiness with stones 
with fire 
with memory and bones 
with fury songs and quiet poems 
and prayers for all the quiet ones 

This emptiness can hold a drum 
a knife, a seed, a place to hide 
but mostly what I fear has come 
a bowl of tears 
a rising tide 

Uncertainty is my lament 
my prayer 
my home 
my quiet friend 
to find this dance 
to sing this song 
an ancient sphere 
to waltz upon

When I started working in my painting studio, images of bowls crowded my brain: bowls in the sky, buried in the earth, emptying, filling, flying, exploding. 

The bowl started to be a source of meditation. 

Recently I’ve started a monthly gathering called Contemplative Practices for Activists and Other Engaged Humans. The empty bowl has found its place there as well. In our contemplative sharing practice, an empty bowl is passed, similar to a talking stick, for each person to hold as they share the truth of the moment. The bowl holds the emotion, the emergent thoughts, a space for quietude and deep rest for each participant.  

I’ve found great trust in the multiple layers of imaginative exploration. I‘m learning to honor the feeling of what can feel like obsessive reflection, to honor the gift that inspires contemplation of the numinous, the mysterious, the sacred. I grow increasingly convinced of the power of art as a vehicle for deepening into what feels like collective, emergent consciousness. And, I feel strongly that this work serves to grow our capacity to navigate the world with grace, and a willingness to serve and offer our gifts even in the face of uncertainty.