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How to Use the ‘Meaning Vacuum’ with Your Clients

Four ways to help your client be cool with ambiguity to improve their mental health

The art of relaxing with not knowing is, I think, more profound than many people realize.

“Science is nothing but perception.”

– Plato

A simple story can contain more truth than a thousand textbooks.

The wise farmer

Once upon a time there was a wise old farmer. One day his prized horse happened to bolt and run away. It just vanished.

As evening set in, many of his neighbours came to him to sympathize, saying, “We’re so sorry to hear about your runaway horse! It’s most unfortunate!”

But the old farmer just smiled and simply said: “Maybe.”

The very next day, lo and behold, the horse returned! Not only that, it brought many young stallions along with it. Now the farmer seemed better off than he had been before.

The old farmer’s neighbours now came to him and said, “This is wonderful! How fortunate you are!”

But again the man simply said: “Maybe.”

The following day, the farmer’s strapping young son tried to break one of the wild stallions in. It was so wild it bucked violently and threw him to the ground. His leg was broken, and his arm too!

Now his neighbours immediately said, “Oh no, this is a terrible calamity!”

But mysteriously, once more the farmer replied with a philosophical shrug: “Maybe.”

Soon a terrible and unjust war began. All the local young men were conscripted to go and fight for their tyrant King. But the farmer’s son was rejected from having to serve because of his broken limbs. In that way he was saved.

And so the wheel of life turned.

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Assumptions, presumptions, and prejudgements

The art of relaxing with not knowing is, I think, more profound than many people realize.

Being able to suspend judgement, not being too quick to label something as ‘bad’ or ‘good’, can help us see what there really is to see. It can take the ‘kneejerkism’ out of life.

I call this skill being able to maintain a ‘meaning vacuum’ until such time as genuine evidence comes our way to help us make a real, not imagined, judgement.

The nature of a meaning vacuum

A vacuum (and no, I’m not talking about the cleaning device we all love so much!) can be defined as a space devoid of matter.

If “nature abhors a vacuum”, as someone clever once said, so too does emotion.

Early mankind was in awe of nature, but what was the meaning of it all? Creation myths abounded. We felt we had to assign meaning to why the stars were there, why thunder and lightning shook the skies, where we came from, and where, one day, we’d disappear to.

Real science should involve the scientist holding a meaning vacuum, with as little prejudice as possible – ideally none – until the true meaning of a phenomenon emerges from actual observation.

The inability to “be cool with not knowing”, to hold a meaning vacuum in the mind, actually maintains lots of emotional problems.

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From jealousy to depression

Many emotional difficulties, from anger to jealousy, depression, and anxiety, emerge when strong emotion has us fill an ambiguous event or situation with imagined meaning.

So, for example, if our partner is late home from work – an ambiguous situation – we may rush to assume:

  • “I bet she’s having an affair with someone else!” (jealousy)
  • “She must have had some terrible accident!” (anxiety)
  • “She’s staying away from me as much as possible because I bring her down!” (depression).

Actually, the emotional difficulties labelled above are essentially interchangeable. Notice all these statements could as easily be used by someone with a depressive mindset as a jealous or anxious one. The point is, they are all imagined negative assumptions.

An interesting study actually found that OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), too, stems from a difficulty in processing uncertainty.1

You’ll notice the more emotional someone is, the less like our calm farmer they will be in letting life’s evidence present itself to them in its own time.

The more agitated someone’s emotions, the more they will feel compelled to prematurely fill meaning vacuums with their own make-believe meaning. The opposite of the old adage “I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it!”

It may, in fact, be vital for our mental health to develop the capacity to, like our wise farmer, resist prematurely assigning meaning to ambiguous situations or events. To hold a ‘meaning vacuum’ in the mind so we don’t jump to unduly negative or scary conclusions before we know something for sure.

So how might we use this concept with our clients?

Tip one: Describe the meaning vacuum

One client, Chloe, had health anxiety and would worry incessantly about all sorts of things. She would have an ache or pain and immediately ‘know’ this meant some terrible disease.

If she saw an ambulance rushing down the street with sirens blaring, she would instantly assume that one of her children had been killed (not just injured, mind you, but killed!) in some terrible accident.

I described how we like to assign meaning to everything, and it was quite a rare person who could simply hold off on assigning meaning and relax with ambiguity… but that it was a skill she could learn.

Clients always seem to know what you mean when you talk about the meaning vacuum. And for Chloe, just hearing this idea seemed therapeutic.

But now we needed to get to the real hub of the skill of maintaining a meaning vacuum, one that I suspect our wise old farmer had in spades. That of being cool and calm.

Tip two: Calm the mind so it truly reflects

Agitated water tends to fragment and distort the reflection of the reality around it. The mind is the same.

When we’re emotionally agitated, the ‘winds of the mind’ are whipped up, so to speak. But when the water/mind is still once more, it simply reflects what is in this moment. That’s all. It’s clear and truly reflective.

I used this analogy with Chloe and it made sense to her. I taught her mindfulness and self-hypnosis, and when she could calm her mind and deal with stress better she found she could hold her meaning vacuum well. In fact, she could not just tolerate but actually relax with ambiguity until such time as actual evidence manifested.

In effect, she learned to switch off her imagination and keep cool and calm when she needed to.

“I’m developing sangfroid,” she told me happily one day.

As an adjunct to the above two strategies for helping our clients maintain life-enhancing meaning vacuums, we can also teach them this next approach.

Tip three: Generate lots of possibilities (then forget them!)

One method we use to help clients develop their capacity for meaning vacuums is to have them get into the habit of generating lots of possible explanations or meanings for some ambiguous event. Then they can simply remind themselves that they just don’t know.

So, for example, for someone who has been prone to insecurity in relationships, if their romantic partner hasn’t texted them back they might be tempted to just fill that meaning vacuum with “I knew it! They’re losing interest in me!”

Instead, they could conjure up all kinds of different possibilities:

  • “Maybe they don’t have their phone with them. They’ve forgotten it before.”
  • “Maybe they actually thought they had replied to me.”
  • “Maybe their phone is out of charge.”
  • “Maybe they’re in a meeting.”
  • “Maybe they’re working out at the gym.”

Ultimately, they can then remind themselves: “The fact is… I just don’t know.”

People who aren’t yet skilled at allowing meaning vacuums tend to leap to the very first (and often worst!) explanation that springs to mind, and stick with it.

After a time, Chloe found she could go straight to “I just don’t know” without having to generate lots of possible, non-threatening meanings. But if someone feels they have to fill a meaning vacuum before real knowledge enters the equation, we can remind them of an ancient principle.

Tip four: Remember Ockham’s Razor

William of Ockham, a philosopher from the 14th century, is renowned for his principle known as ‘Ockham’s Razor’.

Far from being a cosmetic instrument, his ‘razor’ was actually a psychological one, which asserts that we should not unnecessarily complicate explanations.

We can ‘shave off’ (get it?!) all the unlikely or more complicated explanations when faced with competing possible explanations for the same phenomenon.

The simplest explanation is likely the correct one.

We don’t need to concoct a conspiracy theory when simple governmental incompetence is so ubiquitous!

Likewise, if a close relative is late arriving we don’t need to imagine they’ve been abducted by aliens or caught up in a mass highway shooting! Chances are they’ve simply been held up in traffic.

If, after digging in the garden all day yesterday, I suffer a bad back, this is not “probably the first sign of an horrendous spinal tumour!” All I need to do is simply recall the hours of unaccustomed digging I did, and I can confidently put that down as the most likely cause.

The truth often has an elegance and simplicity to it.

So, we can help our clients to:

  • Understand meaning vacuums
  • Relax the perceptual agitations of their mind to be calmer
  • Get good at generating alternative possible reasons for ambiguous events
  • Remember Ockham’s Razor
  • Be more like the wise farmer and less like the assumptive neighbours.

I suspect a capacity for meaning vacuums may be a prerequisite for the development of real wisdom as well as better mental health. I also suspect that an inability to hold a meaning vacuum may block the working of intuition – and intuition is intrinsic to wisdom.

I suspect a capacity for meaning vacuums may be a prerequisite for the development of real wisdom. An inability to hold a meaning vacuum may block the working of intuition – and intuition is intrinsic to wisdom. Click to Tweet

We all have a wise old farmer inside of us.

Make Therapeutic Hypnotherapy Part of Your Practice

Hypnotherapy is, above all, the study of the use of communication to effect emotional change. Most clients can benefit from the experience of deep relaxation and leaving a session feeling refreshed and lightened of their emotional burden is an immediate indicator that things can get better for them. Read more about Mark’s online hypnotherapy skills course here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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