For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible

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 WIFI.jpgcontentment 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

driving-homeNew terminology alert! Bear with me for a moment …

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 mountains-1passer 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.’”

mountains-3What 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 heartand 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 wuxi-finger-hold-1after 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 HUM.jpgeach 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 mountains-2including, 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.

Related articles:

Emptiness of the mind 

The kindness of others 

The non-thingyness of things 

 

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 around.world 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.