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

 

Compassion and the super-rich

A man walked past me on the beach recently dressed in a plain grey tee-shirt and ordinary looking shorts, only his state of the art new trainers and the X-Men type headset gracing his crown gave him away. I caught a drift of his conversation: “Yeah, the plane can stay there at the airport, we can catch the game, the car can take us back to the airport, and we’ll be back at the hotel no later than midnight.”

compassion and the super richHe is clearly one of the super-rich, in a world where cars seem to drive themselves and whole planes can be left casually lying around waiting for us. Yesterday I read in the paper that the top 5% of the US population buys 37% of the goods. What do you feel when you read statistics like this (and there are plenty of them)? Judging by the press, the Facebook comments I often see, and my own occasional grumpiness about it, I’m guessing sometimes maybe a touch of resentment or irritation? “Bl**** rich people with bonuses got us all into this mess!” An annoyance at society’s inequality and the decline of the middle class? A fear for the future? A burning desire to get involved in politics to put an end to careless rich people gorging on the rest of us? (I think being a politician is possibly the most thankless task of all). Envy arising from insecurity (especially when we ourselves are suffering from the recession)? Dislike? (If you count yourself amongst the super-rich, is there still someone richer, a neighbor perhaps, whom you feel annoyed about sometimes?)

Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day

I decided to write on compassion to celebrate Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, which is today, September 22nd. You can read a beautiful teaching given on this day in 1991 by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso here. In it, he says:

On this day we should especially remember Buddha’s kindness…. kindness of Buddha

The nature of Buddhadharma is compassion – an unbiased compassion that is not just for human beings but for every living being, including animals.

I often write about developing compassion for animals — today I feel like writing about developing compassion for rich people, who are also “living beings” and still in samsara 🙂

What is samsara?

In samsara, there are six realms, including the demi-god and god realms that outshine the wealth, possessions and glory of the super-rich as a sun outshines a firefly. But all these realms are in samsara and all of them are to be abandoned if we are to find true and lasting happiness.

Buddha called ordinary, suffering life “samsara.” What is samsara? Samsara is the experience of an impure, uncontrolled mind. Our world does not exist from its own side but is projected by our own thoughts. At the moment, due to our delusions and karma, we are projecting a world full of suffering.

This world is characterized by a lack of freedom. At the moment we experience only relative freedom. We are not free in significant ways. For example, are we free from being born, getting sick, growing old, or dying? These happen without any choice, whether we like it or not. At some point, without choice, we have to be separated from everything we love, we have to put up with things we don’t like, and we experience a lack of satisfaction. No one who is truly free would choose to experience pain over happiness.

The different realms of samsara are all dream-like projections of a mind distorted by delusions, in particular self-grasping and self-cherishing. Liberation from samsara, so-called nirvana, or the Pure Land, is a dream-like projection of a pure or non-deluded mind. Samsara is not a place, and when we are aiming to live a pure life free from suffering it is not necessary to go somewhere else to find Milarepa's cavethis. When Milarepa (who lived in Tibet in the 11th century) was asked where his Pure Land was, he pointed to his cave. Samsara is not outside our minds any more than nirvana is. We can remove the samsara from our minds by gaining true mental freedom from our delusions, and then we will naturally be creating and living in a pure world, with blissful experiences.

Compassion for everyone

In Eight Steps to Happiness Geshe Kelsang says we also need compassion for everyone in samsara, including those who appear to be better off than us. There is something missing otherwise, and we are in danger of feeling resentful, which undermines our spiritual progress. Of course, some people are rich right now, but that doesn’t mean they are not suffering. It doesn’t in fact mean that they are suffering any less than us. Quite possibly many of them are suffering more. They have all the human sufferings we have – sickness, birth, ageing, rebirth, no satisfaction, etc. And they often have more desire, trying to slake their thirst with yet more salt-water as attachment can never be satiated. He didn’t seem particularly excited, my friend on the beach, just matter of fact, and it struck me that having your own plane soon grows old, just like every other 21st century marvel even many of us hoi poloi have already gotten used to – cars, comfortable bedding, indoor plumbing, traveling through the air, high definition TV, computers, iPhones, etc etc. My great-grandparents would have thought they’d died and gone to heaven if they could have used a fraction of what we now routinely take for granted in our daily lives. Even beings in the god realms may be getting some ideas from Apple.

shit creek of samsara
Better to get out of samsara’s creek altogether!

So, we can do what we can to balance out society and make it fairer; and to preserve our democracy I personally think it behooves us to take some responsibility, at least by voting. However, it is impossible to fix samsara or make it work for any length of time, and having an unbalanced mind about the rich is not going to improve a thing for us or for anyone else. We have to gather all blame into our delusions, not rich bankers. Actually, rich people got their wealth from past giving. If they continue to give, they will also continue to create the causes for future wealth, just like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, and that is something to rejoice in, without feeling insecure. Every time we get annoyed or jealous, we burn merit or good fortune. But every time we rejoice in someone’s qualities or good fortune, we create the cause to have those ourself.samsara is not a zero sum game

There is not set amount of wealth, it is not a zero sum game. Wealth and possessions are a result of good karma or merit, so if we create merit we necessarily create the cause for wealth – it’ll appear from somewhere, even if we are in a desert, as there is no external world that is fixed. In a dream, things just appear due to the ripening of karmic seeds. It is the same in our waking worlds. If we are worried about running out of resources, the Kadampas say the best thing we can do is practice giving to others and offering to holy beings. In one concentrated mandala offering we can create the cause for whole worlds of prosperity and joy!

 

 

Choose Freedom

It may sound counterintuitive, but a free mind is a controlled mind. Having no control over our own mind is the same as having no choice in our thoughts. If we cannot choose what to think at any given moment, we automatically default to our habits and react with thoughts that we don’t even like half the time, such as attachment, envy, aversion, bitter disappointment, non-faith, unkindness, impatience, or whatever.

true mental freedom, controlling the mind
The two wings of wisdom and compassion will fly us to freedom.

Freedom is the ability to choose any thought we want whenever we want it, regardless of what or who is going on around us.

Thoughts are just that — thoughts. They don’t have arms or legs. They are not physical. They only exert dominion over us because we have always let them. It is like the sky letting the clouds run the show, not realizing its own vast and profound power.

We all want to be happy, and we all have the limitless potential for happiness and even bliss – so why is it so darned hard to stay happy?! For example, when people first start to meditate, they often complain that they cannot even get their mind to stay still and peaceful for a few seconds, for three rounds of breathing meditation, let alone for an hour, a day, a week, a month, a lifetime. If we simply cannot stay happy, even when external conditions are going our way, does this not mean, effectively, that we don’t have enough control over our mind?

So, our usual response is to try to bypass this by controlling our world and other people rather than trying to control our thoughts, and look where that gets us.

A traditional Buddhist image showing how the stages of concentration bring our crazy elephant mind under control.
Wild elephant mind

Buddha described our mind as a rampaging wild elephant, stomping around creating havoc much of the time. As mentioned in this article, Buddha called unpeaceful and uncontrolled minds delusions. I remember first hearing a teaching on the so-called six causes of delusions at Madhyamaka Centre and how much I appreciated having this very practical, seemingly fool-proof way of making headway in taming and overcoming my uncontrolled and unpeaceful states of mind. I realized I could start to think the thoughts I wanted to think whenever I wanted to think them. I could choose to be kind, loving, blissful, faithful, contented, cool, and wise whenever I wanted once I had control over my own mind. No one could stop me doing this, regardless of what they do, or say, or think!

In fact, the more obstacles put in our way, the more of an enjoyable challenge it can become to react in the way we WANT to as opposed to the usual, boring, choiceless, instinctive, negative way we’ve always responded in the past. To me, that is real freedom, and I want it more than anything else.

The first three causes of delusion are the main causes—if we have these three, we automatically have a delusion arising in our mind. The last three are conditions that make it easy for the causes to come together. Our temporary states of mind are like clouds in the sky — if the right causes and conditions come together clouds manifest, otherwise they don’t. Knowing these causes and conditions means knowing the techniques for controlling our mind.

(1) The seed of delusion

 The seed of a delusion is the potentiality for that delusion to arise; it is the substantial cause of the delusion. ~ Understanding the Mind

seeds of delusions, seeds of sufferingWe have at the moment potentials for irritation, attachment, ignorance, and so on. According to Buddhism, these are like seeds in our formless mental continuum, which we’ve had since beginningless time. For example, I have the seed of anger within my mind even right now, while I’m feeling peaceful, but it won’t arise without other conditions, such as an annoying object and inappropriate attention. We also have potentials for almost unimaginable bliss, goodness, love, compassion, wisdom, and so on – also like seeds. Which ones are sprouting in our mind right now depends on other factors, but right now we have the potentials for the dark side and the good side.

The result of spiritual practice is to dig out the seeds for delusions once and for all from our mental continuum. So-called Foe Destroyers have done this and as a result cannot develop delusions regardless of what is going on in their lives. We can imagine what it’d be like to be permanently freed from anger, attachment, ignorance, pride, selfishness, and so on – just imagining it feels like a relief, and starts bringing it on.

Interestingly and luckily enough, we can never destroy the seeds of our positive minds because they’re part of our Buddha nature, whom we really are, and are also based on a realistic, unexaggerated view of the world, not on inappropriate attention.

Ignorant, not evil

All ordinary beings have these potentialities in their mind, and they can be eradicated only by attaining the wisdom directly realizing emptiness and meditating on this for a long time. ~ Understanding the Mind

Our root delusion, from which all the others grow, is ignorance. Living beings are not evil — we engage in evil actions, we can have evil states of mind, but we ourselves are not evil. We suffer from an inner sickness or inner poison – our delusions — and all these are rooted not in evil, but in ignorance. We just do not know how things exist, and we think that things exist in a way that they don’t exist, in fact contradictory to how they exist — namely independent of the mind, having nothing to do with our perceiving consciousness, solid, real, inherently existent, “out there”, existing from their own side. There seems to be a gap between us and everyone else, between our mind and our world, whereas the truth is that everything depends entirely upon our mind, just like objects in a dream.

life is like a dream according to BuddhaJust a dream!

In a dream everything feels real and vivid, it seems to exist out there, independent of our mind.  Yet when we wake up, we realize it was made up by our mind. “Ah! I made this up! It’s just a dream! I projected the whole thing, it’s gone! It just came from my mind and then I thought it was out there, and I got really het up about all these things, and hmm, what was all that about?”

We’ve been doing this for years and years already, just in this life, every time we fall asleep at night. We still haven’t got it, have we?! We wake up every morning, “Ah, that was just a dream!” We fall asleep again at night, “Hey, what’s going on here?” Panic. Falling in love with people. Running away from other people. We wake up, “Oh, it’s just a dream.”

We’ve done this thousands of times, and still it hasn’t alerted us to the fact that, every time we dream, everything that appears to us is a projection of our mind that we are grasping at as real.

When I have a problem that seems intractable I imagine having it in a dream. I was talking to a good friend the other day who has just been through divorce. Not un-understandably, he felt disappointed and let down, like a victim, like it had nothing to do with him. This made him feel helpless and angry, with no clear way forward. He has a good understanding of Buddhism so I asked him: “If you had divorced in a dream, who would have been responsible for that?” If we understand that everything is a mere projection of our own mind, like a dream, we can see how we are responsible for what appears to our mind, for what happens to us. Knowing this always gives us a way to move forward, by changing our mind rather than bashing our head against an intractable brick wall. And when we change our mind, the situation itself changes – the brick wall does come down. He didn’t become undivorced, but the situation no longer appeared dire, and he got his mojo back.