Emptiness is a term that is, as far as I have come across, universally misunderstood and confused. I have never heard it described clearly.
This is partially because one word, emptiness, is used to describe at least 3 overlapping but different concepts. People move between talking about the different concepts without even realising they are doing it.
The three concepts are:
- Emptiness of meaning. This is what this blog post is focused on.
- Emptiness of non-duality. A simple expression of this is that you can’t have space without solid and vice versa. A more complex version is that a rainbow only appears to have 7 colours because that is the spectrum our eyes can see – things arise in relationship with each other.
- Emptiness used to describe spaciousness of phenomenology and experience. I write about that here.
Not being able to talk clearly about these things separately causes a lot of confusion around experience, awakening and appropriate use of meditative techniques.
Emptiness of Meaning
Emptiness in terms of meaning is not the emptiness of phenomena itself, it is the emptiness of our individual perception of that phenomena. It is the meaning given to that object or experience that is empty, not the phenomena itself.
What does that mean practically? There is a physical reality of matter and energy that we are experiencing, that we add a layer of perceptions on over the top.
It is the perceptions that can be described as ’empty’. Emptiness in this sense is an adjective, not a noun. Another word that would mean exactly the same thing and is less loaded with preconceptions, would be nebulous.
By learning to open to being more present with the physical reality, and less present with the fixed ideas we have about what is going on, we can learn to see things in quite radically different ways.
The mind’s perception of any situation is largely false and irrelevant because a moment in time is so complex that we are unable to understand it fully. Emptiness is being able to hold this level of uncertainty in your experience.
A really good on the ground example of emptiness (or nebulosity) is Season 1 of the TV series The Affair. In each episode you see the same events unfold through the eyes of different characters – the events are radically different because everyone experiences them differently and gives different meaning and importance to them.
As a viewer this is frustrating, you want to know what really happened. But as it goes on you realise there is no fixed truth – just what things mean to each person in each moment. Emptiness is this realisation applied to all experience.
Fixed perceptions and ideas are there for a reason – they keep us safe and functioning in the world. We hold them because we have to be able to operate within fixed parameters. Emptiness of meaning is removing those parameters to be able to perceive things in different ways.
You dismantle fixed perceptions by being meeting suffering, or the things we resist, with an open mind and allowing it to express itself fully.
Rather than thinking something is bad and shutting down around it, you are allowing it to impact you emotionally. If this is taken to the bottom, you will no longer have the resistance around the concept – you are free to experience reality as it is.
An example of this is that if we feel like we want to cry in front of someone, we may not be able to be present with that. If it is too painful or embarrassing or shameful for us, our minds will create a fixed perception. We will create a story that says that someone or something about the situation is bad or wrong, we will choose to get angry or aggressive instead and/or we will project that sadness onto the other person and believe it is them that feels sad.
Rather than just being with what is really happening, these are all ways that our minds take reality and turn it into a false fixed perception that we are looking at. We are distorting reality to make it more acceptable or bearable for us.
If you are able to be present with the suffering, then you don’t need to create these mirages. You’re allowing reality to express itself freely exactly as it is.
Once you’ve learned to let yourself express yourself in this way, you will have removed that fixed perception and then you are able to see the emptiness of a situation.
We can’t extrapolate that someone crying when they are sad means anything in particular – it doesn’t mean someone has done something wrong, or even that the situation is necessarily unpleasant, it is just a healthy expression of what is happening in that moment for someone.
The more aspects of reality we are able to be with directly without judgement and the more we dismantle the walls around suffering (or resistance to reality), the more emptiness becomes a part of our reality. This is one of the natural outcomes of awakening.
In order for this to happen – we have to be safe expressing whatever we are expressing in the environment we are in.
As soon as our bodies go into fight or flight mode, there is automatically a duality being created in the mind that means that we will create a fixed idea about something being ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. Our brains are in survival mode, we are trying to win against our enemy rather than trying to be present with what is here. This is why physical and psychological safety are so important to awakening – why people used to retreat to monasteries and up mountains in order to achieve enlightenment.
Emptiness, in this sense of the word, is an aspect of Vajrayana Buddhism, which means that it is an embodied insight.
The end-point of emptiness is that you can switch your mind off and arrive in your intuitive sense of the world and the direct experience of your body.
It’s like you’re experiencing the world without any fixed ideas layered over the top – you’re with the direct experience of life, just going with the flow in each moment and allowing things feel how they feel and mean what they mean without your mind getting involved.
This is very hard to describe or imagine if you haven’t experienced it. This type of emptiness is not something we can get our heads around it’s something we learn to embody over time as we become more able to be there with our direct experience of the world.
One of the implications of emptiness is that it very clearly points to the fact that it is not our perceptions that create our reality, but our reality that creates our perceptions i.e. our mind is just an after-process.
What this means for practice is that if we create environments where we feel safe and accepted as we are, this completely changes our experience and being present with our experience and meditation becomes a lot easier.
Rather than ‘holding ourselves together’ and behaving in ways that we deem are acceptable, we are allowing reality to be as it is and for us to start from a place of presence rather than a place of trying to be something we’re not.
Rather than wrestling with ourselves in a small and continual fight or flight mode – where we believe we will be told off or rejected for being a certain way – we are in a state of relaxed presence. It is is easier for us to meet ourselves, change habit pathways and open to news ways of experiencing reality and new ways of being from this place.
When we are together, like in any shared practice space, we give each other a certain space that we are allowed to operate in. The space that we know we will still be loved in, without being scolded or rejected in some way. The more space we can give each other, the more fluid we are able to be. If you give someone permission to feel a certain way they are much more likely to be able to be present with that thing.
Just this change in atmosphere can entirely transform someone’s experience. Rather than spending all their energy wrestling with that thing, they just accept it as it.
The less energy we are putting into resisting our personal experiences, the more we are able to open to the more universal experiences, like the impersonality of experience or the impermanent changing nature of all phenomena.
Embodying a sense of emptiness opens up a doorway for us to experience the world in different ways. I have written about this here – when emptiness becomes richness.