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

 

Just who do you think you are?!

I saw someone at the airport recently carrying just a wallet and a skateboard. That’s it. Now, that is traveling light, I thought. And this dude was smiling at everyone.

traveling light

I was thinking it’d be even more wonderful not to be weighed down by our self-grasping and projections, our emotional baggage that we’ve been lugging around from life to life, including this one. Just to skate lightly through this life, loving everyone we meet, with an open, accommodating heart, knowing we are all just passing through.

Putting 2 and 2 together and making 5

In How to Transform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says quite directly: 

We may have the sincere wish to avoid suffering permanently, but we never think to abandon our delusions.

Do you ever wake up wanting to suffer? Thought not. This means that you do want to avoid suffering permanently; and presumably you’d also prefer to always wake up peaceful and relaxed if you could. But we keep getting the real causes of suffering and happiness all wrong.

Why do you think we are never deeply happy for very long, even though that’s all we want? Buddha’s diagnosis is that it is because of our delusions, and especially the self-grasping ignorance that “always abides at our heart destroying our inner peace.” There is always some tension and discomfort in our minds, or, if not, the threat of it. There is always some underlying dissatisfaction, feeling cut off, or needing something else — even in the midst of supposedly enjoying ourselves. And a world of pain when we are not.

ignorance is bliss

And all this suffering is because “The foolish mind of self-grasping believes or grasps at I, mine, and all other phenomena as truly existent.” This wrong awareness creates our other delusions, negative karma, and their suffering karmic results in life after life.

And it is also the basis for all our everyday annoyances — I think that “grasping” is a good descriptor for it, because we squeeze and we push, rarely able to relax into a non-dual experience of deep peace and wholeness.

The thing we grasp at most tightly is our own self or me. It’s exhausting, actually. We are all wandering around day and night clinging to this painful limited version of ourselves, one that no one else can even see; and it is incredibly important to see exactly how we are doing it and then stop doing it.

Four essential points

So I have been wanting for a long time to talk about the four essential points, or steps, for meditating on the emptiness of the self, like I did for meditating on the emptiness of the body. In brief, if the self, me, or I that we normally perceive exists, it must be findable in its parts or separate from its parts. We should be able to point to it without pointing at anything that is not it – that’s only fair.

But luckily we cannot find a real me anywhere if we look for it with analytical wisdom. I am not the body, not the mind, and not the collection of the body and mind – yet take the body and mind away and I disappear. It’s like trying to pin down a mirage. I’ll expand on those four steps now, hoping you have a few undistracted minutes to read this.

A Tale of Two Selves

But before we start, may I suggest we take a moment to connect to the peace at our heart, recognizing it as our limitless potential for change, our Buddha nature. Our principal peace of mind arises from our connection to enlightened beings (however we envisage them), especially through our Spiritual Guide. We are already communing with them the moment we experience just a little bit of peace at our heart, so we can receive their blessings and connect with their truth not by grasping or “working it”, but just by relaxing and abiding in it, letting go. Then this peace feels limitless. We have a deeper knowing. And we identify with this, thinking “This is me.”

There is more on how to do this explained here

lotus reflectionWe now have the space to take a step back and watch our painful limited self in action = Step One, below. It is a bit like A Tale of Two Selves – and their different paths and results. Here on the one hand is my Buddha nature – relating to and nurturing that will lead me to enlightenment. Here on the other hand is my hurt and limited self – relating to and nurturing that will lead me to more neurosis.

Our choice.

Step One: Identifying the negated object

When we meditate on the emptiness of the self, it is very helpful to start with the painful, limited self that we are currently holding onto – this is our target into which we fire the arrows of wisdom.

So, bring to mind the limited, painful self you are grasping at today.

If we are having any kind of delusion, this will not be too hard to do. For center stage of all our delusions is a big sense of Me or ego – and the stronger the delusion, the stronger that sense of me.

Let’s say we are really worried about something or someone. We even want to help them so bad, but we can’t, and it makes us feel inadequate, helpless, or infuriated.

What is going on here? Three things. We have a perception of that person as being in a bad way and it seems fixed. And we have a perception of ourself as someone helpless and hopeless, and this too seems fixed. And we are also grasping at the perception itself as real or fixed. These are called the “three spheres of emptiness” because none of these exists in the way that they appear, ie, real. We can learn to dissolve them all away.

Let’s focus on this perception of Me and ask ourselves: does this me feel limited? Does it seem fixed? Does it feel real, as if it is actually there? Does it seem to exist from its own side, nothing to do with anything, including the body and mind? Does it seem to be just arising independently, just arising on its own? Just a big distended me sitting here, existing in and of itself? 

self-cherishing 1As Geshe Kelsang suggests in Joyful Path of Good Fortune

We begin our meditation by considering, “How am I grasping at self? What is the I that appears to my mind?”

This real me is in fact the non-existent object of the wrong awareness of self-grasping. But this is certainly not how it appears — it seems to exist solidly and have nothing to do with our thoughts. It appears to be real. If this me is not real, what is?!?

Hard ego capsule

This me seems so solid and real, it’s a wonder no one else can see it. But they can’t, so where is it? If it was really there, outside our private thoughts, someone should be able to see it, surely?! 

So in this first step we bring to mind this inherently existent me or I as strongly as we can, such that we wonder, “If this me doesn’t exist, what on earth does?!” We want maximum impact on our mind when we go onto realize that this me doesn’t exist.

This is the worried self we want to serve and protect – but it is difficult because this depends on the other person cooperating and not worrying us anymore. This is on them – they are worrying me. The stronger the worry, the stronger the sense of the worried me and the stronger the sense of the problematic person causing my worry.

We can also use examples of embarrassment or fear. If we are standing next to the train tracks losing our balance, for example, we are not thinking, “My body is about to fall!” or “My mind is about to fall!”, but “I am about to fall!”; and that I appears to be something different from, and independent of, our body and mind.

about to fallEven if we are just sitting here reading this blog, we can consider what Geshe Kelsang says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

We do not feel that “I am reading this book” means the same as “My body is reading this book” or “My mind is reading this book.” The I appears to exist from its own side. This independent I, if it exists, is the inherently existent I, the I we cherish.

Although we cannot find that me (as we shall see), for as long as we continue to believe it and cherish it not a day will go by when we don’t experience problems and suffering. And this will continue in our future lives as well, as we hallucinate one painful and/or circumscribed self after another. We need to wake up from the nightmare of this ignorance and wake everyone else up too.

So in this first step we have to get this I in our sights. Allowing it to manifest obviously by remembering situations where we have a strong delusion functioning and we are self-centered — “What is that me that is so upset?!” — and then simply stepping back to observe it.

The worried sense of self. The hurt sense of self – imagine someone says something hurtful and the hurt self pops up. Or the neglected sense of self. The irritated sense of self. The needy sense of self. Something real and vivid. There it is! Recognize how you immediately believe it. So fast — it is instant. I am now in pain. And we want to serve and protect that self – it feels inherently in pain and therefore needs protection.

emptiness mirrorsWe all have a playlist of our personal greatest hits. So you apply your meditation not to an abstract notion of who you are, but to YOU. This way our meditations will change us.

This fixed me comes up all the time depending on our delusions.  We can see how our horizons shrink very small whenever we are caught and wrapped up in this painful, bounded, fixed self. When we have delusions, pretty much all our valuable energy goes into protecting this real me or I, leaving very little left over for other people.  We inhabit a very small universe. We are fragile — it is so easy for us to feel slighted and even more upset. Someone looks at us funny …  even someone walking past us can seem deeply personal!

I think our self or I can feel sometimes like a hard ego capsule, sometimes an insoluble one. But when we meditate on emptiness or selflessness we find it is not as solid as it appears and we can dissolve it away.

Freedom is just some wisdom away

The thoughts of a real me are just thoughts. If we go looking for this real me, we won’t find it.  Once we identify how we are grasping at the me or I that we normally perceive, there are many ways to understand how this is grasping at a false me or I – for example, everyone is me, so I cannot be the real me. And, as we will see, we cannot find this me anywhere.

Good to bear in mind that we are capable of wisdom, of understanding everything, of having infinite love and compassion for everyone. With self-grasping and self-cherishing, we stick our head in a thick obstructing cloud — oblivious to our potential and oblivious to other people. If our head is stuck in a cloud, it doesn’t much matter that there is infinite sky around it because we can’t see it. We are just thinking about me. 

However, if we dissolve away that me that doesn’t exist, we no longer have to change the world to suit it. We just get rid of it.  We can feel happy. Full. Contented. Not needing anything; we are free. If we see how we are not that limited needy person, we no longer need to try to manipulate and control others around us. The urge to do that has gone because we now feel fine. for whom emptiness is possible

And we are now also free to think “I am a being bound for liberation!” Or “I am a Bodhisattva!” I am not fixed so I can be anyone. That is who I am. That is what I want to be. We are in the driver’s seat now. 

Therefore, now that we have a fix on this negated object — the real me, the one we normally perceive — we can now use Steps Two to Four to dissolve it away. More coming up on this soon.

Meantime, comments welcome!

Do you really want freedom?

Meditation should never be abstract, but grounded in our own experience.

friend or enemyThe self we normally see doesn’t exist. But it is hard to spot that self if we are clinging too tightly onto it, too closely identified with it. So here is a meditation that will hopefully help us to sit back and look at it, and to witness how samsara twists around it. This will naturally lead us to the light, happy mind of renunciation, wishing to be free from the creeping vine of self-grasping and all other delusions.

First we can do some breathing meditation to settle into the peaceful experience of our mind at our heart. We breathe out whatever’s on our mind in the form of thick smoke, and experience our in-breath as clear radiant light that has the nature of peace. We can ride these light rays into our heart chakra, where they join the inner light of our own peaceful good heart, our Buddha nature.

Even if our mind is only slightly more peaceful, we let ourselves rest there — recognizing that this peace is part of the indestructible quality of our mind, within which is the potentiality for limitless peace. No rush. No agenda. No “Ok, got my peaceful experience, check. Next!” We give ourself time and permission to enjoy this, to identify with it, thinking “This is me.” Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to just be happy. I don’t have a care in the world.

Connecting to our limitless potential is a crucial stepping stone – renunciation is the wish for permanent peace and freedom, but if we don’t believe this is possible how can we develop this wish?

Also, abiding in this peaceful experience we have a heart connection to the peaceful mind of all enlightened beings, their blessings.

beautiful heartWe can allow that Buddha’s peace to manifest as our Spiritual Guide in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni, if we wish, do the Liberating Prayer, and spend a little time receiving blessings in the form of lights and nectars or just feeling the mind to mind transmission. Again, we give ourselves permission to abide there, enjoying that, feeling our Spiritual Guide’s bliss of permanent liberation flowing into our own mind. With our mind empowered by our Spiritual Guide’s realizations, we can easily gain his experience of renunciation and the wisdom realizing emptiness. We can believe that we already have his experience.

We get an intuitive sense of what liberation is like so it is no longer an abstract idea but grounded in our own experience and we WANT it and know we can have it. We are sampling it – a bit like how in Trader Joe’s the other day a store assistant gave me a sample of delicious pineapple juice and I decided to buy the whole carton.  So the wish to attain liberation is already growing within us naturally, even before we get to our actual meditation!

In general, suffering has inner causes. These are the negative actions or karma that are created by our delusions, the root of which is self-grasping ignorance.

Now we can bring to mind the self that we normally see. That self appears all the time and in different aspects so we can start with a very manifest version, perhaps a painful one, when we felt hurt for example. We stay in the peaceful space of our heart and see how we believed this sense of I, poor hurt me. Grasping is believing.

delusional unicornThen we built our samsara around it. We wanted to serve and protect this I (self-cherishing) — we wanted to arrange the world to make this I feel better, for example by getting the other person to be nice to it again; and uncontrolled desire was born. And anything that got in the way made us upset, and anger was born. In dependence upon those three poisons and other delusions, we then engaged in actions or karma to protect this limited self and fulfill its wishes. All this entrenched us in contaminated life, subjecting us to yet another episode of its continuous unrelenting suffering.

We can witness this dynamic in action and ask, “Is this what I want?” Compared with the peace we are experiencing in our heart at the moment, that would be a definite “No” to self-grasping and “Yes” to liberation from it. We also need some forward thinking. The danger is that we have been building up these samsaric (not-so-)merry-go-rounds since beginningless time, and if we keep doing this we will continue to suffer. The best we can hope for while grasping at a limited self is temporary liberation from particular sufferings, and this is not good enough for this life or countless future lives.

Naturally, then, the wish to attain permanent liberation arises — not because a wise person is urging us to develop this wish or because we think in some vague abstruse way that we ought to, but because we are seeing the unviability of self-grasping for ourselves. Our own insight leads us to the certain knowledge that we need to destroy our self-grasping ignorance once and for all. We want to realize directly that the self we graspignorance is not bliss at and cherish does not exist so that we no longer have any inclination to grasp at and cherish the stupid thing. How wonderful to have this freedom! We hold this wish for as long as we can so as to become deeply familiar with it.

Then we can apply this to others to develop compassion, for everyone is traipsing around from life to life in a futile attempt to protect and serve a painful, limited self that doesn’t even exist. And just as no one else really knows what sense of me we are desperately clinging to and protecting most of the time, so we have no clue what private hells others are concocting for themselves on a daily basis.

 

There is no boogey man under the bed

self-grasping ignorance destroyed by wisdom realizing emptiness According to Buddha, the way to attain true and lasting mental freedom is to realize ultimate truth, emptiness. What does this mean? We have to stop what binds us to suffering — our self-grasping, which is a deep ignorance grasping at a real or inherently existent self in objects and people, including ourself. We do this by cultivating a wisdom that realizes the lack (or emptiness) of inherent existence of everything that exists.

All that can sound a bit complicated or technical, but over the last few decades Geshe Kelsang has been making Buddhism more and more accessible to Westerners, and a few years ago I believe he put a realization of emptiness within reach of many people with the surprisingly simple but radical description:

The things we normally see do not exist.

This includes ourself. He also says:

The self we normally see does not exist.

That’s because the self we normally see or perceive is the inherently existent self. But it is also the self we normally perceive, the living, breathing, neurotic, sad, or happy “me” of any given moment, ie, it is not some abstract concept. “The inherently existent self” can be harder for us to get our heads around, it can feel a bit theoretical.

The mere absence of the self we normally see is the way our self actually exists. The self we normally perceive, grasp at, and cherish does not exist at all. The non-existence of the self we normally grasp at is the emptiness of our self, the true nature of our self.

(This is not the same as saying that the self does not exist at all. Emptiness is not nothingness. Things do exist as mere imputations or projections of the mind, like objects in a dream.)

Who are you?

The first thing to do when meditating on the emptiness of our self is to identify the object of negation, which means we have to figure out what it is exactly that does not exist – what is the inherently existent self as seen in our own experience, not in an abstract way, and how are we grasping at it.

Before Geshe Kelsang came up with his brilliant way of describing it, it was only too easy to be theoretical rather than practical about it.

For example, after receiving my first teaching over 30 years ago on identifying the inherently existent self based on the instructions in Meaningful to Behold, the resident teacher asked us to describe what we thought it was. The instructions had been good and entirely accurate, but it was hard to equate these with the self that I normally relate to, and nor did I really know I was supposed to. The self is a slippery thing when you try to pin it down, and when, as advised, you try to think about how it would look if it was inherently existent, it is only too easy to start making things up. Nonetheless, in meditation I thought I had found what might be it, so I put my hand up. Although it took longer than a sentence to describe, more like a rambling paragraph or two, this was the jist of what I said:

“If I think about it, my “self” feels like something in my heart, like something small, dark, and solid.”

Not the right answer. My teacher replied: “So, you’re a piece of coal?”

realizing emptiness of the self we normally seeIt may sound daft, but I know from talking to many people over the years that they too basically make up the negated object, and then try to realize its non-existence, which means they don’t end up focusing on emptiness at all. Then meditation on emptiness is no fun and doesn’t feel liberating, and they prefer to stick with seemingly easier meditation practices instead. If you find this happening to you, it probably means you have not yet identified the self you normally perceive clearly enough to get rid of it in meditation. In traditional parlance, you have not found the target, so any arrows of logic you shoot toward it, however sophisticated, will miss their mark.

It’s easier than you think

What I think is that once you have identified the self you normally perceive, the rest of the meditation on emptiness is not hard at all – with even just one or two considerations, such as trying to find it, you can see that it does not exist. This understanding is wisdom, and directly opposes self-grasping. It is exceedingly liberating, and on the spot pulls the rug out from under a host of regular, everyday problems coming from self-grasping (and also self-cherishing, which piggy-backs on self-grasping). Do this meditation enough — let the non-existence of the self you normally see become clearer and clearer — and in time you will dissolve away all your own samsara, which after all is only a product of your own self-grasping and self-cherishing.

Ocean of Nectar teachings at KMC NYCIt is my go to meditation when things come up (which is daily). Without any personal experience of seeing that the self we normally grasp at does not exist, teachings on emptiness can sound to us like dry, arid, logical arguments at a remove from our everyday reality, even though they are not. But when you do get it right, there is nothing better. And you can get it right early on, avoiding the mistakes many early students made before we had it explained in ways that were much easier for us to understand. Once you get it right, all the teachings you hear on emptiness, however seemingly complicated (such as those on Ocean of Nectar currently being received by those lucky students in New York City) are like butter soaking into hot toast. They click. They enhance our existing experience in very profound and exciting ways.

When Geshe Kelsang wrote Modern Buddhism, he proffered some encouragement to read the chapter on realizing emptiness:

I particularly would like to encourage everyone to read specifically the chapter “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta.” Through carefully reading and contemplating this chapter again and again with a positive mind, you will gain very profound knowledge, or wisdom, which will bring great meaning to your life.

I personally think there is no better chapter to read on emptiness, and hope you get a chance to read it lots of times, each time getting more out of it. The book is a free gift from the author.

Turn on the light

While we’re on the subject, I just wanted to say something more about how much Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of Kadam Dharma, stressed identifying the negated object, using our conceptual mind, as opposed to finding liberation by stopping conceptual thoughts altogether. realizing the lack of the self we normally see with Je Tsongkhapa's reasoning

If you think there is a boogey man under your bed, how are you going to overcome your fear of it? The only really effective way is to turn on the light and see if the boogey man is really there. It might take a bit of courage, but when you discover an absence of boogey man, you can really relax. You have to start with an idea of what you are looking for, and how it makes you feel, or you won’t know when you haven’t found him and have that incredible relief.

If instead you decide to stop thinking about anything at all in order to overcome your fear of the boogeyman, you’ll gain a temporary release from fear at most. But you’ll never be convinced he isn’t under the bed still – as soon as conceptual thoughts arise again, so will your fear.

This is why the Kadampas emphasize Nagarjuna’s view over other views that suggest meditation is just the absence of conceptual thought.

Turning on the light of wisdom by meditating on the emptiness of ourself, we see the absence of the boogey man “self” we normally see – we will see that it doesn’t exist at all, not under the bed nor anywhere else. If we do this over and over, we will gain more and more freedoms from the deep habit we have of grasping onto the boogey man self. It is like turning up the light in our room brighter and brighter until we cannot fail to see with our very own eyes, directly and vividly, how that boogey man simply is not there. Then all our samsaric fears shrivel up, never to return.