During an idyllic mountain retreat on the emptiness of the mind not long ago, we spent all weekend looking for our mind and failing to find it; and then I drove home. On the way I picked up a watery coffee in a garage, thought, “I guess I should just practice contentment with this horrible coffee”, but then a few miles down the road was magnetically drawn into a passing Starbucks against my will. This was in a distant mountain town called, rather charmingly, Loveland.
A first-world problem
As it happens, giving into my attachment like that might have been a mistake. I walked from the car to the coffee shop, ordered my flat white, oh yeah!, and then glanced down at my hands. They were holding a credit card, but that was all.
I looked at my empty hands and thought “Oh dear, help!” The barista looked at me staring strangely at my empty hands and thought “That is a mad woman.” She just saw empty hands. But I saw a very significant object, the lack of car keys.
A very meaningful absence
Emptiness is also known as a “non-affirming negative phenomenon”. It is the mere absence of inherent existence or, to put it another way, the mere absence of the things we normally see. It is “non-affirming” because it does not affirm any other phenomenon.
For example, if I tell you, “My cousin is not female”, that would be called an “affirming negative phenomenon” as the object you perceive is the lack of my cousin being female with the implied observation that my cousin is male. (It is called a “negative phenomenon” not because it is bad, by the way, but because you have to negate something else to get to it, namely a female cousin).
But if I say, “There is no elephant in this room”, all that brings to mind is the lack of an elephant in this room, it does not imply there is a bishop, for example, here instead. You’re just left looking at a mere lack or absence of an elephant in this room, without any other object being implied or affirmed in its place.
Some absences or lacks can be quite significant. If you park your car, do some shopping, and then go back to the parking lot with heavy bags to find an empty space where your car was, what are you seeing? Are you seeing an empty space or are you seeing a lack of car? A passer by will be seeing just an empty space, but you will be freaking out because what you are seeing is a very meaningful absence. Not dissimilar to the absence of car keys in my hand.
This sounds a bit technical, I know, but it is actually exceedingly helpful to know that “emptiness” (also known as “selflessness”) is just a mere lack of something. What exactly? Emptiness is the mere lack of everything we have ever thought existed! Knowing this lack is quite significant, to be honest – it is profound knowledge that will free our mind if we become familiar with it.
Why? Well, you know that thing you are worried about? It’s not there. That person you are so hung up on? They are not there. That body which feels sick, not there. The politics you are so mad at, not there. They only appear to be really there because of our ignorance. Everything exists in a state of freedom. Everything is mere appearance to our mind with no substantiality, nothing behind the appearance. So, change your mind, change your world.
It takes time to get a direct or non-conceptual realization of emptiness, at which point all our problems are over forever; but even a slight taste gives us a liberating sense of possibility.
Centered in the solution
After this recent article my dad said: “Still trying to understand what the following means. ‘Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution.’”
What is the solution? The simple answer is that it is the realization that everything depends upon the mind, so change the mind and the worry goes away. We already know this a bit because when we are able to calm down and get perspective, for example by taking a few minutes out to breathe and connect to the peace in our heart, and perhaps connect to blessings, the situation always seems to improve, become manageable. This means not just that our perception of the situation improves, but the situation itself improves, because there is no situation outside of our perception of it, as explained here.
At its most profound, the solution is realizing emptiness, the mere absence of the things we normally perceive. Because the things we normally perceive are not there at all – which is a meaningful non-affirming negative or absence — we don’t have to get upset, worried, anxious, angry, etc., on our own or others’ behalf, any more than we have to get upset in a dream, if we only knew we were dreaming. For when we wake up, we realize that the situation that seems to be so real is not there — it is mere appearance with no existence from its own side. This doesn’t mean that situations, whether asleep or awake, don’t exist at all, but it does mean they exist in a state of fluidity and freedom, and that just by changing our thoughts we will change the situation.
My dad also asked what was mean by Nagarjuna’s quote, “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.” You know that scene in Kung Fu Panda where Po defeats Tai Lung after a lot of tedious fist fighting. They are fighting each other “out there” to begin with — pretty tiring and tiresome if you ask me — but then with a little twist of Po’s finger, the Wuxi finger hold, everything is dissolved away in all directions. I find that a nice visual for the power of realizing that everything is empty and therefore depends entirely upon our mind, meaning we can change everything effortlessly and immediately if only we realize this.
Does that answer your questions, Dad? If not, let me know 😉
That’s why as soon as we realize we are mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, like Buddha Heruka, we can send light rays out to purify and transform each and every living being instantaneously and effortlessly. For they are not outside the mind. (And I may as well point out that we are not outside our mind either, and nor is our mind outside our mind – a subject for another day.)
Emptiness — the mere lack of the things we normally perceive — can be accessed through searching for things with wisdom, through reasoning our way into reality in the traditional meditation on emptiness. You can read how to do this search in Transform Your Life and other books, and I’ll try to come back to it later if I live long enough.
Back to my predicament …
Back to my predicament in Loveland… Well, I ran out to look for the car keys and, dear reader, I had parked all of 100 feet away but they were nowhere to be found. Nowhere — even when another young barista decided to come out and help me comb the grass for them. So then, in my usual turn-to when I lose something, I started saying Tara mantras, requesting her help. Immediately a charming man appeared and, hearing of my predicament, helped me look and then said he’d stay and call people for me.
Because of course I had left everything in the locked car, including my phone. And including, as it happened, every single telephone number that I might ever have use for. That is one moral of this tale. Failing to dredge up even one phone number from my computer-addled mind, we tried emailing the only two emails I could remember. To no avail. We stood there for a while, me foolishly, both wondering, and then a cop showed up randomly.
Happened they knew each other. And then the cop started googling for break-in companies because he said he was not allowed to break into cars himself any more. But then Tara blessed his mind or something, for he changed his mind, “Hang on, I think I have a colleague who will break in for us.” (Yes, he really said “us”.) So I then had one charming man and half the Loveland police department trying to solve my problem, and lo and behold they did break safely into the car. Whereupon I was able to call one of my usual guardian angels, who appeared a mere 45 minutes later with a spare set of keys. During which 45 minutes I managed to memorize all of 3 phone numbers, including my own, for future eventualities. I wonder if I still remember them …
Moral of the tale
Okay, what was all that about? That mini-first-world panic went to demonstrate:
(1) A great example of a meaningful absence.
(2) The kindness of strangers and how we ALWAYS depend on others, it’s just that we can forget that when seemingly ensconced in our comfort zone cocoons/cars.
(3) An external problem doesn’t have to lead to an internal problem and can even be a source of happiness. For I was happier after all this happened then before it started, and I was already in a great mood from the retreat. I could not help but feel the warm fuzzies due to those 5 Lovelandy men spending their Monday afternoon helping me. And in another twist there was a huge thunderstorm while I was waiting in the car, but instead of being a problem it actually cleaned the car beautifully from the red sticky dust of the unpaved mountain roads.
(If my skin had been a different color it may [or may not] have been a different story – I was conscious of that too; and it gave me some more ideas for an article I have been wanting to write on the subject of discrimination.)
More articles on the emptiness of the mind coming up soonish. Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome.