Meditating on the emptiness of our self


emancipate yourselves10 mins read

Someone told me today that he felt like he was a very ordinary person. I am not sure whether he wanted me to contradict him or not, but the point is that he is neither inherently ordinary nor extraordinary. What he is and what he does depends on what thoughts he is identifying himself with. Same goes for you and for me.

According to Buddhism, by far the best thing we could do for ourselves is to stop believing in a limited, ordinary, and often painful sense of me as if it was the truth. To understand instead that we are merely imputed by conceptual thought like everything else.

If we don’t know how to stop holding on, it is hard to let go and reimagine ourselves because we don’t realize we exist in that state of freedom.

This is why we need to do the meditation on the emptiness of our self. Once we can dissolve away our stuck sense of self, we can start being who we want to be. We can change everything.

Step One of this meditation explained in this last article, identifying the negated object, involves gaining a clear image of the Me or I we normally perceive, the one that appears real or inherently existent. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang says:

There is something quite strange about the inherently existent I. If we do not investigate it, it will appear all the time and even in our dreams we shall grasp at it; but as soon as we actually examine it, it becomes very unclear. As we search for it, instead of being able to locate it we lose it. This very experience is a sign that the I does not exist from its own side, because if it did exist from its own side investigation would reveal it more and more clearly.

We can start by recollecting or imagining a vivid personal example, such as walking along a narrow path in the Grand Canyon (no railings!) when a GC pathtourist coming the other way bumps into us with his oversized rucksack and we start to lose our footing …. At that time we’re not thinking “My body is about to fall” or “My mind is about to fall”, but “I am about to fall!!!” And that I seems independent of the body and mind, real and solid, existing all on its own. Luckily I didn’t fall. True story! Happened last week.

(Given me an excuse, at least, to litter this article with my Grand Canyon photos …)

It is practical to use any of our current greatest hits — whether that be the afraid me or rejected me or worried me or stuck me or frankly any me we’d rather we shot of — because the greater the impact of our emptiness meditation, the more we’ll come to enjoy it.

This first step is the most important part of the meditation because the remaining 3 steps are really not that hard if we get it right.

And by the way:

When it is said that inherent existence is the negated object of emptiness, this does not mean that it is put out of existence by emptiness, because inherent existence has never existed. Nevertheless, because we believe that inherent existence really exists we need to examine this object and get a clearer idea of it. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

Step Two: Ascertaining the pervasion

If that self or me exists from its own side, as solid and real as it appears, it should be findable — and the more we look for it the clearer it should become. We should be able to take away everything that is not Me and be left with Me.

Likewise, we should be able to point to it and say, “Here I am!”, without pointing at anything that is not it. That’s only fair, wouldn’t you agree? You wouldn’t accept that someone had found the ketchup in the fridge if they are pointing at the mayo.

Where would we search for our self?!

In The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang says:

We should know that if our self that we normally see exists, it must exist in our body, in our mind, as the collection of our body and mind, or somewhere other than these.

The first obvious place to look for me is within my body and mind, as opposed to over there down the street somewhere.

But if I cannot find me in my body and mind, the only other option is that I am somewhere else.

In other words, I either have to be somewhere around here (imagine my hands waving around my body) or somewhere else. Grand Canyon view

In this part of the meditation we think this through and understand that there is no third possibility. This means that we can now look in these two places with the certainty that our search will cover, or pervade, everywhere this I could possibly be.

This is a helpful analogy from Joyful Path of Good Fortune (providing you don’t go thinking that the fish is jumping in and out … )

If we think there is a fish in our house, there are only two places where it could be. Either it is inside the aquarium or it is outside the aquarium. There is no third place it could be. If we establish that there is no fish inside the aquarium and no fish outside the aquarium, we can firmly conclude there is no fish in our house.

So now we go looking for our self with analytical wisdom — trying to find an actual me that corresponds or matches up with our vivid idea of me.

Step Three: Ascertaining the absence of oneness

We start our search in our body and mind.

Is my body me? (We can ask this question the other way around too – “Am I my body?” Whichever works better for you.)

No, my body is my body, not me. I’m not a pile of inanimate flesh and bones; there is a lot more to me than that! I have lots of interesting ideas, for a start. I have a body but I am not a body. My sense of me doesn’t even feel like flesh and bones. I cannot find my me anywhere in this body.

Also, try saying “My body” – and see how that has a different connotation or feel than saying “Me”.

Is my mind me? (Am I my mind?) Perhaps this is a more likely candidate?

No, my mind is my mind, not me. I am not a thought or an idea, there is a lot more to me than that! I can sit down, for a start. And I can type on this keyboard; something my formless awareness cannot do. If someone insults me, I don’t think they are insulting my thoughts but ME. And today my body has a fever and I feel ill, even though my mind doesn’t have a temperature.

Also, saying “My mind” has a different connotation than saying “Me”. They don’t denote the same things.

As and when you get time, do check out How to Transform Your Life or Joyful Path of Good Fortune or some of the other books for more reasoning on how you are neither your body nor your mind. One of these reasons may work well for you, it’s good to find one that clicks.

We will never find anything anywhere in our body or our mind that matches up or corresponds with our sense of me. I have thoughts and I have a body, but I am not my thoughts nor my body. pointing at the GC

Whenever we try to point at our Me, physically or mentally, we cannot. If we point at ourselves sitting here reading this, for example, and follow the trajectory of our finger, we end up just focusing on a part of our body, eg, our chest. I am not a chest. And it is even harder to point to the mind — we end up pointing at a thought, and I am not a thought. Or, if I am, which one?!

Everything we point to as we attempt to point to me turns out to be NOT me.

Is the collection of my body and mind me? (Am I the collection of my body and mind?) Since my body and mind individually are not me, perhaps I can find my self in a combination of the two?

But it is impossible for a collection of non-me’s to be me. For example, if we put two non-sheep together, such as two cows, how do we magically get a sheep out of that? We don’t, we just have two cows. My body is a non-me and my mind is a non-me; so how do we get a me out of that? We don’t, we just have two non-me’s.

We conclude that I am not my body, not my mind, and not the collection of my body and mind. Or that we cannot find a me in my body, my mind, or the collection of the two.

Step Four: Ascertaining the absence of difference

tree and hole Grand CanyonThat leaves only somewhere else for that me to be – perhaps as some separate possessor of my body and mind?

So, where would that be? Can we point to Me without pointing at our body or our mind?

Here is a helpful bit from The New Meditation Handbook for this part:

We should imagine that our body gradually dissolves into thin air, and then our mind dissolves, our thoughts scatter with the wind, our feelings, wishes, and awareness melt into nothingness. Is there anything left that is the I? There is nothing. Clearly, the I is not something separate from the body and mind.

Conclusion

The conclusion of this meditation is that we don’t find our I anywhere. It disappears. Where there previously appeared an inherently existent I, there now appears an absence of that I, like an empty-like space. As Geshe Kelsang says:

We allow our mind to become absorbed in space-like emptiness for as long as possible.

This is the emptiness of the self. It is the truth of the self, and meditating on it directly undercuts our ignorance, the root of all our suffering.

What an incredible sense of lightness and relaxation! I no longer have to cherish this thing or worry about it, because it’s not there! When we get it, we want to stay with that wonderful realization for a while. Forever, if we could.

So what, we may now be wondering, is my self?

The I is merely a designation imputed by the conceptual mind upon the collection of the body and mind. ~ The New Meditation Handbook

In other words, it is no more than an idea. And often quite a bad one!

hole in Grand CanyonDue to self-grasping ignorance, our I appears as far more than a mere imputation or label. It feels solid and independent, a real I existing behind the label, and we grasp at this as the truth; but if we do this meditation we find out for ourselves that we have been clutching at straws this whole time.

The I that we grasp at so strongly is merely a fabrication of our ignorance, the non-existent object of a wrong awareness. What happens to a thought when we stop thinking it? What happens to the self when we stop believing it is there?

Practicing wisdom

Please try out these four steps until you get a taste for losing your I. It can take a bit of practice, but that’s okay – we are generally happy to practice patience, love, etc, and so we can be happy to practice wisdom too, knowing it’ll get easier and more powerful the more we do. Unless we actually meditate on Buddha’s instructions on emptiness, they’ll just sound abstract or intellectual or complicated – when in fact they are the liberating path to incredible happiness.

Geshe Kelsang says in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:

We should learn to stop grasping at our self that we normally see by remembering that our self that we normally see does not exist. If this works practically, then there is no basis for experiencing problems and suffering.

squirrel at GC

If we really get a sense of its disappearance,  “practically”, we immediately feel a freedom. We are immediately opening the door to freedom. We don’t have to wait until we are Superior beings with a direct realization of emptiness; we can start accumulating mini-freedoms starting today.

Liberation doesn’t happen overnight – I think it is the result of many freedoms that we accomplish over the course of our lives through identifying our vividly appearing limited self and letting it dissolve away into the space of emptiness. Our daily neuroses start to subside immediately. For example, if we have let go of being that person who needs someone else to make us happy, we have instant confidence. Or if we are no longer holding ourselves as a competitor, fearing that our rival is getting all the glory and we are being passed over, we can enjoy our work again.

The possibilities are endless.

“Who am I relating to now?” This question is great for the meditation break, particularly when a painful feeling is arising. For example, if an inadequate neglected self is appearing, instead of immediately feeling. “Oh no, I’m stuck again!” we can be happy. “Oh yes! Fantastic. I need you to see you. Now I can identify you, which means I can abandon you.”blackbird at GC

If we are putting these instructions into practice, we are happy to recognize the enemy, to learn from it. “Let me see how this self is appearing to be independent and how I am grasping it as such.” We want to watch that until we see it clearly, at which point we realize how ridiculous it is. We see that it has no power other than the power we are giving it. The thoughts that revolve around that me create our present and future suffering, rendering us powerless and pathetic; but the moment we apply wisdom we can easily vanquish this enemy. And now we can be whoever we want to be.

As the great Yogi Saraha said:

If your mind is released permanently from self-grasping, there is no doubt that you will be released permanently from suffering.

I have this quote on my fridge. I sometimes think it’s all I need.

Over to you. Any questions or comments?

Related articles

Just who do you think you are?

How our sufferings revolve around a limited self

There is no boogeyman under the bed

 

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 36 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to our everyday lives, and vice versa. I try to make it accessible to everyone 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!

19 thoughts on “Meditating on the emptiness of our self”

  1. I so love your blogs of wisdom. The written thoughts start the process of contemplation.
    Thank you so much. 💕💕💕

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  2. Wonderfully inspirational.. .I am not a bunch of bones and stuff…this body is …I am not my body ❤

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  3. I tend to think this issue of self-concept is a really important topic in Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. That said I’m not convinced that characterizing our current limitations as “pathetic” and “needy” is helpful. For years I lived in a fortress of my own making, an attempt to dampen the impact of painful external experiences encountered at a time I wasn’t equipped to deal with them. There was nothing pathetic about this, and needy is the last word I’d use to describe myself. This defense enabled me to be extremely effective in facing things that for a lot of people don’t bear looking at. It enabled me to help people at the most difficult time in their lives, without ever making it about myself because I can easily sublimate my own needs in times of extreme stress. I’m the person you want with you in the foxhole. It’s been a huge asset when I needed it and given the choice of this versus becoming someone who simply avoids hard realities, presumably so that pixies can materialize and take care of all the hard stuff, I far prefer my own response. But obviously there’s a price for this and it was steep and entirely personal. It’s something I’ve learned to undo, slowly and very consciously so that I don’t live half a life. I also grew tired of attracting people with nothing to offer. One unfortunate side effect of appearing to need nothing from anyone is that’s what you get. If I could master the needy, pathetic thing I get the strong sense I’d be showered with support and encouragement as people tend to prop up people they think need it. I’m not one of those people. My general orientation makes people who have that caretaking tendency feel redundant. But that’s improved quite dramatically in the last several years. As I’ve become more whole the people I attract are healthier too, and that’s a very good thing ☺

    Meditation practice in non-duel awareness seems to have helped me the most, but none of it has been about negating self, rather seeing myself as continuous with my environment. This has helped thin out the barrier between myself and others enough to significantly change my life for the better. I’ve learned to know myself as both separate and continuous at the same time, a kind of unity state, and I don’t edit either aspect of this reality. That’s the important bit. I got a lot of very helpful lessons from Kadampa teachings but around this rather essential issue I found a lot of the language really turned me off. I see a strong sense of self is a hallmark of good psychological health, not some flaw to be extinguished. The words used around this topic (which I have to believe are chosen quite deliberately) seem to say otherwise. Curious to know what you think, Luna?

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    1. There was no value judgment meant ot be implied in this article. It was about the true nature of the self, its unfindability. The self appears in one way (real) and exists in another (mere name).

      There are many ways in which we identify ourselves — including needy, and so on, and self-sufficient and self-reliant. And many others, changing by the day, and by the lifetime. But the self that appears independent, outside the mind, existing from its own side, self-existent, inherently existent, and so on, does not actually exist. The self that exists depends upon mere name, mere conceptual imputation.

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  4. Dear Luna, I understand the concept of meditation, but people like me with sort of mental illnes, what can do in the time between two meditations to succed fight with thoughts? especially people with OCD, which is an ilness characterized with a lot of unwanted thoughts.
    Normal people have a lot of thoughts and that perturb meditation, but we, who have OCD, have MORE thoughts and even if we know that our thoughts are not real, we can’t fight against them.
    In my case, I’m afraid of not getting dirty from other people, (but not necessary for me) and not making others dirty (like I would be a vehicle of transfer).

    On the other hand, if I am not exist in this “real” world, maybe I can’t get dirty, and I can’t make others dirty. Much more, maybe it doesn’t even matter, because this life is just a dream. In fact, is there something that really matters except our inner peace?

    God bless you!

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  5. Nice pics!As usual an understandable practical article that makes the wisdom teachings clear and accessible.Thank you

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  6. Thank you for this lovely teaching! Just what I needed tonight.
    After many years of resisting the teachings on emptiness (or resisting practicing them, while understanding intellectually that they made a lot of sense), I’m finally enjoying some mini-freedoms! It must be all those blessings I’ve been asking for…

    And it looks like you had a beautiful trip to KMC Grand Canyon. I hope to visit there sometime soon. Love, Ink

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  7. Reading your article I think that I sometimes spend too much time on the conceptual part and forget to abide in the emptiness of the non-findable self.

    When I’m off cushion I try to find objects such as houses and cars and trees but am not able to meditate on them as I’m normally driving!

    The more I read about how to meditate on emptiness the the more I can understand that things do exist as mere name but they still appear so solid to my senses. Thank you for this teaching x 😊

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    1. There is no substitute for reading and practicing, for sure. It is true that we need to spend as much time as we can in emptiness — that is the actual antidote to all our suffering.

      One thing is that we don’t have to worry about having it totally perfect before we stop contemplating and start absorbing — we need the confidence that we are close enough for now to spend time enjoying this mere absence. That in turn will help us improve our analytical meditation.

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  8. A thought I’ve always had with the traditional emptiness meditation (I’m not by body, I’m not my mind, therefore I can’t be the collection, since both the body and the mind are “non-me’s”) is this: While its true that a collection of cows don’t equal a sheep, a collection of cows DO equal a HERD. So maybe the “self” is like a herd… What IS a herd? Is it 5 cows? 10? What if you just have 4? Who decides? That’s like the self… its mere imputation upon the body and mind. WE decide!

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  9. This reminds me of research around virtual reality. In one study participants kept their natural right arm covered with fabric and out of sign while a rubber(right) arm was placed next to the left arm. Participants saw the rubber arm being gently stroked while their natural arm was being gently stroked in the same places. Over time participants learned to feel their (fake) rubber arm being touched when they could see it being touched (when their natural limb was not stimulated). This suggests that the mind can grasp a fake limb as being ‘real’. Not only can we have difficulty finding
    an inherently existing aspect of ourselves, we can mistakenly believe that something that is not real is part of what we might identify as an aspect of self. Sort of mind-bending how (non-purified) mistaken appearance can lead to delusion.

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    1. I’ve seen this experiment too, and it continues to the point where, when the rubber arm is suddenly stabbed with a fork, the participant jerks their flesh arm away instantly by reflex, even though the flesh arm hasn’t been touched. It was fascinating, but I hadn’t actually thought of it as an example of imputing our ‘self’ onto something that wasn’t real in the Dharma sense. But it is. Thanks for reminding me.

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