Your mind is empty (even if it doesn’t feel like it) …

Do you ever feel as if your mind is crammed full of thoughts you’d rather not be having? Or stuck in painful places, as if your thoughts Emptiness of the mind 1are thinking you rather than the other way around? Dragging you around with them wherever the heck they feel like it, even when you’d rather be somewhere else? And seemingly fixed and intractable even when you’ve been trying your darndest to change them?

I don’t want to spoil the plot so soon into this article, but I think I have to … your mind is empty! And by that I mean not that it is empty of thoughts, as it probably isn’t very often. What I mean is that your mind doesn’t exist from its own side, it is not real — it is mere imputation or projection or appearance of mind.

This means that we can, and one day will, totally break free. As soon as we realize the ultimate nature of our mind, its emptiness, we will be able to do whatever we want with our mind.

In Geshe Kelsang’s 23 books, I would say that there are more actual pages devoted to the emptiness of the self, the body, and other phenomena; but he has touched on the emptiness of the mind in various places, giving us more than enough food for thought. So I have been wanting for some time to share some ideas because it is — perhaps literally — such a mind-blowing topic. And I find it incredibly helpful personally.

My plan is to talk some about the mind, then about emptiness, and then about the emptiness of the mind. I have no idea at this stage how long this will take or whether I will ever get to the end of it, but here goes …

Sunset Hill 4First, some chillin’!
  • Good idea, maybe, to start with a little meditation to get us into the mood for reflection. For this is a PROFOUND topic 🙂
  • Get into a relaxed position and simply enjoy that you are here doing this, whatever “this” ends up being. Breathe out whatever is on your mind, letting it go, clearing out the mind with each gentle exhalation. Allow your mind to quieten, become more still.
  • Then experience your inhalation as radiant, clear light that has the nature of peace, breathing it right into your heart chakra. You can mix your mind with this breath, allowing your awareness to be drawn down into the heart with it.
  • Feel that you are now centered in your heart, not your head. Gradually shift your focus so that you are simply enjoying a peaceful experience at your heart.
  • Within that space, we’ll do a thought experiment. Allow a thought of your mom to arise.
  • Ask yourself: “Where is this thought or awareness of my mother? What is it? Can I find it anywhere in the physical world? Does it take up space?” Sit with the answers that are appearing.
  • Let this thought dissolve into an empty like space, an inner clarity, in your heart. This has no shape, color, or physical properties whatsoever. And it is awareness, knowing or cognizing moment by moment. Abide with this sense of peaceful clarity for as long as you want or can.

From that brief thought experiment, what sense did you get of the awareness of your mother? Could you find it anywhere in the physical world? Or was it formless, immaterial, sort of a different dimension?

We subjectively know already that our consciousness is non-physical. How? Because we are using it day and night and can turn inward to observe it in our own experience, as in this brief experiment. All our thoughts are formless, they don’t take up space, we cannot find them in the material world.

The ghost in the machine?

Which begs the question, how do we not fall into Descartes’ mind-body dualism in which there are two distinct realities, that of mind and that of matter? Since Descartes’ time, Western psychology has been talking about the “problem of consciousness,” for formless subjective awareness cannot exist, it must be an optical illusion of the neurons or something, for if it did exist how on earth would it interact with matter?

ghost in the machineThis apparent problem of the impossible or unproven “ghost in the machine” has led generations of Western psychologists and philosophers to feel the need to reduce things to the material and come up with explanations of how the mind must arise from matter, or form, most notably the brain. If we cannot observe it with the five senses or equipment used by the five senses, it doesn’t exist.

This intellectually-formed reductionist or materialist view of reality has caused no end of trouble if you ask my opinion, not least fixating people on the life of this body alone; yet is based on an unnecessary assumption. No accident that phrases like “It doesn’t matter” and “It’s immaterial” or even “Never mind” have been coined; they are reflections of this dismal dismissal of formless awareness. However, immaterial awareness matters a very great deal, and in fact creates our entire reality. If anything, form arises from mind, rather than the other way creates mind

According to Buddhism there is no problem with positing two primary realities, material form and formless mind, and these can easily interrelate, interface. In fact, they already do, for they exist in a state of mutual dependence. There is no need to fear a ghost bumping about in a machine.

There is no duality or separation between our mind and the world. Why? Because our mind and our world arise together.

Imaginary line

What this means is that our world arises as an appearance to our consciousness. We cannot find a material world outside of the mind. The world does not exist inherently or objectively, in the way that it appears to us at the moment. “Emptiness” in Buddhism means that the world, we ourselves, mountains, books — none of this exists from its own side, objectively, or, if you like, outside the mind.

And it also means that the mind exists in dependence upon its objects, the world it is perceiving. Which means, as I said back at the beginning, that the mind is also empty of independent, or inherent, existence. Which means you can learn to do whatever you want with it. (More on this later).

There is always a dependent-relationship between our mind and the world, the world and our mind. We are drawing a line between me and my consciousness over here and the world over there and, through this ignorance, we have duality. We experience an always moreorless disconcerting gap or separation between ourselves and our worlds.

mind matter dualityBut this is an imaginary line because matter and consciousness arise together — you cannot have one without the other. There are not two “distinct” realities, as in inherently existent realities — there are two realities that are mutually dependent. Understand this, and the whole problem of dualism goes out the window, leaving us with the possibility of a blissful, non-dual experience of reality.

I’ll attempt to share some practical examples in the next article on this subject. Meanwhile, your observations are most welcome.


Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

16 thoughts on “Your mind is empty (even if it doesn’t feel like it) …”

  1. Can you answer this question. I totally understand the mind dies not inherently exists, but my question is why train the mind then. Geshela talks about training the mind, for me its like keeping us stuck in samsara, strengthening the mind if we train it. Surely a better approach would be just let thoughts, feeling (mind) be and not identify with them, and therefore not strengthening the idea that mind exists. Training the mind in kindness, love and so forth are nice qualities, good karma, and will create a better life, but its still samsara. I never understood this obsession of training something that ultimately does not exist. Am i missing something!

    1. Hi Loz, here’s my attempt at answering this. The insights gained from experience of emptiness could also be called ‘oneness’. Everything is empty, therefore everything is of one nature, no duality. All of the teachings on training the mind convince us to act as if we were already enlightened and see no separateness between ourself and others. In short, the training of the mind is the brings temporary peace and and creates merit, whilst we also work towards the final goal of recognising the emptiness, and none separateness of all phenomena.

  2. To help me think about Emptiness and how the mind and matter are related, I remember that in ” How to understand the mind” Geshela talks about the primary mind as having six parts, eye, ear, nose tongue body and mental consciousnesses. These are how we experience the world around us. So if we didn’t possess these minds, then what would exist for us? Nothing. In this way “mind” and “the world” cannot be separated. Am I on the right track with this line of thinking?

  3. Good article. Thank you.

    What about subconscious feelings and thoughts, especially ones conditioned into us from the past. These are the messages barely discernible to the conscious mind.

    Here I am a 70 year old man, still haunted by childhood and relationship issues with my parents(deceased) and siblings and feelings of inadequacy and inferiority and feeling unloved, alone.

    Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Tom, some currents of thought do run deep due to familiarity. We have to bring them to the surface to deal with them. But we can only do that in the light of our expansive potential, not while identifying with them. One way is to identify more with your Buddha nature than with your feelings of inadequacy. I’ve written some articles about discouragement — type that into the search box in case they help, along with demons in the cellar. Also the articles on subtle impermanence might help a lot too, I hope so. Happy rummaging, let me know how you get on.

      1. Luna
        Thank you for your words of wisdom and encouragement.
        There is the theory of the traumatized “inner child” created from being raised in a dysfunctional family. This inner child continues in and controls the adult. When certain buttons are pushed uncomfortable childhood feelings are released. Think: adult temper tantrums.
        I recognize this wounded inner child in myself and the childish feelings that control my behavior and make me feel unhappy.
        Should I treat this as a delusion and stop believing this theory? Maybe I need to let go of this belief?

        1. Buddha did call all of us “childish ones” because we are dominated by our delusions. Samsara is dysfunctional. At some point we have to let go of it all.

  4. If mind and body do not inherently exist, At time of death it is said our mind flees from this body like a bird , literally travels from body. If at death this life and world completely disappear due to lack of inherent existence, how is it something travels through body? It sort of poses an image that the body would have to exist in order for that visualization to work. He uses the word travel. I often think of it more as the projection has ceased, slip back into subtle mind , experience bardo, take rebirth. Any advice on understanding this?

    1. It is helpful sometimes to think of the mind as leaving the body, like a bird traveling from one nest to the next — simpler and helps us understand how we are travellers bound for future lives. The subjective experience is more as you have described though — during the death process, all winds and gross and subtle minds are dissolving, the dream is ending, and our very subtle mind then re-projects another body, another life.

      1. And so is our v subtle mind also projecting our mind and even the very subtle mind itself? Like a self sustaining illusion? Is that logically possible? Also is the very subtle mind the aggregate of consciousness? If so, is there a way to break down consciousness in to smaller parts and that way establish its unfindability? I can’t seem to get very far with “consciousness depends on its perceived object”, because all my other emptiness meditations are done by looking within and separate from the parts, like the meditation Geshe-la describes in most of his books.

        1. Mind is merely imputed by conceptual thought. And you can look for it within its parts and establish its unfindability and therefore its emptiness. There are different ways to meditate on the emptiness of the mind — via its object, its temporal parts or moments, and various other parts. I hope to share practical ideas on how to meditate on all of this in coming articles 🙂

  5. I enjoyed this presentation. There is no “out there out there” or for that matter an “in here, in here”. We don’t have the world of the positivists or of the mentalists. Just clear empty space.

    I look forward to more of your writing!

    John [ former imputed chairman of the board 🙂 ]

  6. Hey Luna, thanks for your article. Could you or anyone share how you meditate on the emptiness of the mind itself? I find this way of observing thoughts and asking questions to see the emptiness of thoughts very helpful. However I am not sure how to approach meditating on the emptiness of the mind itself through logical reasoning. As you say there is much less on this in Geshe la’s books, I remember Losang once giving a teaching on considering the separate moments of mind, and contemplating the arising, abiding and cessation of each moment to realise there can be no arising abiding or cessation, and therefore the mind is empty because we cannot find any of these points, However I can’t really remember it and I didn’t understand it at the time either.

    I think it comes down to having a strong innate grasping at consciousness. It feels substantially existent. I know that the objects it perceives affect it, but it almost feels like there is something existing, pure awareness/consciousness at the root, maybe a bit like that thing the chittamatrin mind-only school posits, the consciousness basis of all. For me this feels really quite solid and real. Thanks!

    1. You are so right, that’s how it feels. I am going to try and explain how to dismantle that feeling in a later article. Thank you for sending the question, I’ll be able to use it 🙂

      And if anyone else wants to explain what they do in the meantime, that’d be great too.

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