This is a serial about love and awakening. Previously: After making love with me most of the night, Billy leaves in the morning to see another woman. Click here to start with Part One.

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 that 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 your awareness 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, 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.”

Aaaaah. 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.

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 felt at the retreat had prepared me to have a relationship without expecting it to fill an empty hole.

And God said, “Ha!”

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

This blog is based on a true story, but I’ve changed names and identifying details to protect privacy. I’ve also, in a few cases, compressed time or altered elements to serve the narrative. The title “Sex Love Enlightenment” is an homage to Mark Matousek’s book, Sex Death Enlightenment



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19 thoughts on “PART 10 – HOW DO YOU FILL THE EMPTINESS?

  1. Anonymous

    We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it. – Rilke


    Just as an alcoholic is sorely tested at a cocktail party where spirits are freely flowing, you were also being “tested” with Billy the Bad. Did you really think you were strong enough to resist Billy’s allure by “embracing emptiness”? Ah, the ways we try to fool ourselves that we have become immune to our own desires!

    But, I do congratulate you for taking the gamble – perhaps it might have paid off if you’d been able to resist his sexual advances for awhile -or not. Who can know? But you and Billy were clearly on 2 different trajectories that had no hopes of intersecting. Looking back on your previous posts, it is all too obvious that this was all one big game to him – first, play on your sense of guilt and temporary physical weakness to make you feel that YOU are the one who has hurt HIM. Then, having knocked down all your defenses, one by one, zoom in for the kill by seducing you, both mentally and physically, and literally abandoning you before the fires of passion have even cooled. Put bluntly, I think you had long realized this was not a man to be trusted with your heart, but you let him take it anyway.

    I’m sorry, Sara…but your experience points out that vulnerability and emptiness do not necessarily co-exist happily. You opened yourself to Billy, and he let you down (not very nicely, I might add). It is normal to feel betrayed and frayed around the edges…but I have no doubt that you will heal, and probably use the experience as grist for a new book!

  2. michael

    I am so hooked. The minute i see the notice in my inbox all else goes on hold. Wherever this story goes, it feels like it will leave no part of the emptiness untouched

  3. Anonymous

    Even as you were describing your first encounter with Billy, as I read the words, I could feel myself being attracted to him, too. Even though I already knew he was a manipulative bastard. Guys like him have a deadly charm. Part of it is the very manly, sexy, assured, demeanor. And if they are bent on seduction, which of course they are, it takes a hell of a lot of will power to resist being the focus of their attention. Perhaps some women can spot this behavior up front and get out fast, but I think many can not. And even if they can see it, against all reason, they proceed in the relationship. No matter how smart and educated we may be, we don’t see/understand/acknowledge the truth until the pain forces it upon us. I don’t have any answers for you, because I don’t have any for myself.
    Thanks for your honesty.
    By the way, I loved “Cowboy”.


  4. Barbara

    Ha! The universe laughs at us and gives us lessons we may not be ready to see, hear or learn. On the other hand we may also just choose to ignore the lesson because we have some other stronger need that has to get taken care of. Second guessing ourselves can limit our possibilities for living. Reading this it appears that going with the flow is what you really wanted to do and hopefully were ready to deal with the consequences.
    One way or another if you are enjoying the ride without too much internal conversation then I see nothing wrong with it. Making sure that the intention is honest is where I would look.

  5. larry groo

    Your story lacks the personal context of your encounter with Billy. You must have defenses, some discretion, from experience with men;and make some risk analysis. This generic tale will otherwise re-occur in spite of digging deep into the ’emptiness’ on retreat. Don’t get hurt again. You’re our Sara.


  6. del

    I’ve been reading Adya’s books for a couple of years now, plus watching his videos.

    He speaks with much wisdom, and love the words he spoke to you.

    The one and true relationship that can satisfy us, is the one with ourselves. After that, all appears and is complete, with others and our world.

  7. laura neville

    All I could think about is “this is ME”..except I now stay far, far away from anything that even remotely resembles the man-woman thing. I admire your courage, Sara…but it does not sound like any kind of fun time. I would run for the hills!!

    And like the other readers…I eagerly await the next chapter!!
    Laura from Kansas

  8. slohabob

    Dear Sara, Like so many others, including yourself, I am involved in a spiritual path, and I know of that emptiness of which you speak. What I keep coming back to is reminding myself that our life’s journey is an ongoing adventure, a work-in-progress. I also remind myself that the only place and time it’s all happening is “here” and “now.” After reading and enjoying your writing, I’m still not sure what it is you are looking for in your life. Perhaps I’m too dense to understand it, or, maybe, you still haven’t told us. Best wishes! Aloha, Bob

  9. Dr. Barbra

    I think this is a test to see if you can learn to practice detachment while still attaching in your human body. The thing to be wary of is that the merging FEELS SO GOOD. Moving through merging and separating, attaching and detaching, is the desired end.
    It is tricky and takes practice. But if I can do it, so can you.

  10. Crysta

    I’ve decided that it’s really a simple test, whether someone is toxic or not: do you feel good being with him when your not having sex- that is, comfortable for the whole rest of the visit, or is there often something he says or does to ruin it all before he leaves? Some people “lose ground” if they can’t put you in your place each time; and Billy sounds like that type.

  11. Sunnymay

    Players know what they want and what they say they want and are never satisfied until the game goes their way. Then, on the off chance of possibly losing, players change the rules to personally suit themselves and save face by some sortof winning. If you can buy into that, then help yourself to the savvy flirtation with all the sass you can handle.

  12. Me

    Sara…I hope you did not pay Adya for the advice he did not give. You set yourself up for this by by not “being there”. Billy had a good time and left you wondering.

  13. slohabob

    Dear Sara, I’ve been thinking about my comment from earlier today, and I decided to see if I could put myself in your shoes to see what I would want if I were you. The answer I came up with is “I want everything!” That includes love, companionship, romance, sex and the space to pursue my creativity. The trick is to find a way to have all of those things in some kind of balance that works for you. If the other person is there to the point of smothering your creative energies, it’s a loser. If Billy is good in bed…you haven’t really said he is…that’s fine, but it wouldn’t come as a total shock if he was deficient in other areas. Once again, best wishes! Aloha, Bob

  14. JoAnn

    Adya was a great choice to re-focus yourself. When you can walk in the spiritual path, know who you are, and seek fulfillment by knowing, believing and trusing in the unknown, you fill the empty gap with this powerfull love that emerges from within. The problem is that it doesn’t sound as though Billy is very spiritual and he is only interested in his female conquests and filling his ego. Talking about leaving your bedside to see another women is so non spiritual and bespeaks an ego maniac!

  15. Sherrie Phillips

    I think this is just a case of the old “advance and retreat” theory. You weren’t so interested when BB was chasing you. Once he retreated you were “all in” and now he’s got you chasing him. Probably if you retreated a bit he’d come back your direction. Be careful what you wish for, ha-ha.

  16. Anonymous

    BEAUTIFUL teaching / learning / story! This is the pearl inside the shell of the rest of the story! I’m hooked in now. I can’t wait to hear the next episode! THANK YOU!

  17. Donica

    I still can’t really understand why you get into these “manly”, non-intellectual types. (I thought the same thing when I read Cowboy, though it was well-written).I picture you with a university prof, some kind of writer-someone with a life of the mind. Then you’d have a chance at real compatibility.

  18. bluekelpie

    Hi Sara,
    In Loose Change you, Tasha and Candy decided to be like Lawrence’s women and make life as interesting an adventure as possible. You were willing to suffer to do it. Well, your life continues to be a marvelous adventure. So, if you’re a bit impulsive, free-flowing, passionate in the moment etc… it comes from the knowledge that life is short and you’ve got to go for it, seize the day.
    Sometimes we end up being fearful or confused by our emptiness because we carry the belief that we need to be active and surroundeded by interesting people every minute. Sometimes that void seems foreign to us because we avoid it so much. Then it rears it’s head and shouts,”Come on down!” I think we just need to bring a little candle into it and look around once in a while. Space is good,too. I don’t think it needs to be filled. I think that we just need to embrace that part of us as a gift. I also think that people who are comfortable with that quiet, empty place within are more attractive. They breathe confidence. I also think that you were brave exploring that emptiness in front of hundreds of people. See, Sara, you were going on yet another adventure. Even though it was scary, you just made those butterflies fly in unison! And then it was all cool again. Well done!
    I think that we all have this void inside, not to be filled by relationships, but to help us keep the balance. We could transform it into the magical realm we enter into when we need to be alone and think. We could fill it with our thoughts, prayers and dreams. Instead of being afraid of or embarrassed by it, we can make it another room in our “home.”
    I love the way you create opportunities for growth out of you personal relationships! You are like a walking event! Loose Change opens with you attending a seminar on Eastern meditation; now we all get to share the retreats and questions with you. Thanks for that.
    Respect and Blessings, Joey

  19. Anonymous

    Upon leaving a wedding, I spoke with the rabbi and said I hadn’t found the right person for me yet. His answer though simple changed my focus. He said, “You have to become the right person.” With time I learned that you have to be a whole person and not look for someone to complete you. I value all my single years. Though married now (for the past 32 years), I don’t think I’d marry again. There’s a part of me that wants the freedom and independence being alone allows as nothing else does.

    Sara, embrace your alone-ness. Spend your time with people who feed your mind and soul. This hot sex stuff seems like empty calories. If you want the sex, accept it for what it is and not try to make a relationship out of it.

    I’m curious to see how your saga ends with this guy and what you’ve really learned deep down. You certainly have a way with grabbing your readers… But, you know, this same theme has been in “Loose Change” and a subsequent book about when you lived in Venice Beach. Good luck.

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