• Rodney Whitehouse

When Nothing is Essential


I recently had a communication breakdown with one of my clients. No big deal, breakdowns are part of the learning process, and handling them is part of my job description, but, reflecting on the process and the need for the process, I had the insight that nothing is essential. Say what? Ok, let me show you what I mean with this riddle:

What is the one essential quality that all these things need in order to be useful: a table, a cup, a house, a car, and a teacher?

If you said ‘nothing,’ you’re correct, but probably not in the way you think. If you meant ‘nothing’ in the sense that they have nothing in common, then you missed the point. But, if you said ‘nothing’ in the sense of emptiness or space, then you are correct. It’s the space inside the cup that allows it to hold liquid. It’s the space above a table that allows us to place things upon it. It’s the space inside a house that makes it a place where we can live. It’s the space inside a car that carries us from place to place, and it’s the “space” between the ears of a student, that allows a teacher to impart learning.

This last is so important, and is so often overlooked. Before we can learn anything, we have to admit, “I don’t know.” That is what creates the space for new information. Once you are sure you know all you need to know about a subject, you become impervious to new information. That is what has happened in our society, many people have become so invested in having the ‘right’ answer that, no matter how obvious the problems, they can’t allow any doubt that would open a crack for new learning. There is no space in their minds, so new ideas have no place to land and bounce off, leaving no impression.

You would think that all teachers would know this, but, not so much. Teachers come in all varieties. Poor teachers teach blindly, assuming space exists in their students, good teachers teach to the space in their students, but excellent teachers create space for learning in their students. In a way, teaching is like going over to the student’s house for dinner. If you just show up on their doorstep and demand to be let in, that probably won’t end well. If the door is unlocked and you walk on in, sit down, and help yourself to dinner, things may go well, but in a limited sense. But, if you meet the person and develop a rapport such that they invite you to dinner, then they have created a space for you in their home, and you both have the opportunity for a wonderful evening together.

This insight isn’t particularly new: The inspiration for this post came from Tao Te Ching, (The Way). Although dates from around 500 BCE, many of its commentaries on society, business and government sound like there were written yesterday. What that teaches us is that closed minds are part of the human condition, and have always been with us. So, blaming ‘the media,’ ‘the corporations,’ ‘the government,’ ‘the conservatives/liberals,’ is a waste of time because, in a phrase attributed to Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” You cannot be forced to learn, or convinced to learn; you can only be opened to the possibility of something you do not know. But, if our minds are closed, we will resist any attempt to change them. The harder you try, the stronger we resist.


According to the ancient philosopher Aristotle, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” and this points the way to real change. As we all know, empty space, once created, doesn’t remain empty for long, it requires regular attention to keep it empty. Tables, houses and cars accumulate ‘stuff,’ that must constantly be removed, packed, organized and discarded. In the same way, an open mind accumulates new facts and ideas, and it’s always so tempting to just shut off the flow of new ideas that challenge our worldview, and say “I know all I need to know about that!” Why not choose a set of beliefs and not have to think about them anymore? Because there’s a downside: you can’t change.


Is your life all that you want it to be? If you’re struggling, or maybe just not happy, maybe the issue isn’t ‘out there,’ but ‘in here,’ encoded in the unchanging beliefs locked inside your mind. Could you actually be sabotaging yourself without knowing it? Consider this, from How To Keep An Open Mind, by Kristi Hedges:


"Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer is considered an expert on mindfulness, which she defines as “the process of actively noticing new things.” While it may seem that being constantly engaged and sensitive would be rather tiring, in reality, Langer says being mindful should actually alleviate stress and anxiety. “The mistake most people make is to assume it’s stressful and exhausting—all this thinking. But what’s stressful is all the mindless negative evaluations we make and the worry that we’ll find problems and not be able to solve them.”

And according to Langer, the benefits of mindfulness are pretty extensive. Being more aware and in tune to the outside world can make you more productive, creative, charismatic and alert to new and interesting opportunities." -- Kristi Hedges

To paraphrase another quote, often attributed to Einstein: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." The paradox is that Change comes from Nothing, because Nothing invokes Something, which creates Change. Without space, without nothing, there is no room for new ideas and new solutions. In order to change your life, or the world, Nothing is essential! First you must create Nothing, because from Nothing comes Everything.

Take care!

As always, comments and respectful discussions are welcome.

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