We all have core beliefs about who and what we are that we hold to be true but which ultimately have only relative value, at best. These are what we call our identity in that we identify them as “me” or my “self”. The true nature of self, however, is empty or emptiness.
At a deep level we are never separated from our true nature, even though most have forgotten this truth. This means that at some level we know there is something wrong with identifying our self as some content of consciousness rather than as consciousness, itself. When, therefore, our beliefs are exposed to criticism or in some way threatened, we are apt to feel defenseless for we know the criticism is true and that we are not what we pretend to be.
To say that at some deep level we know our self to be empty does not mean we recognize we are this no self. From our present point of view emptiness is a negation of self with the meaning of personal death. The instinct of the ordinary man or woman then is to avoid emptiness as a means of ensuring one’s personal survival.
To avoid emptiness we fill it with things to create an identity. Like one floating in a vast sea who grabs onto some nearby flotsam, we select an object of desire and grasp at it saying, “This is me!” Believing this to be our salvation, is it any wonder that the thought of letting go creates fear and dis-ease that is then seen as a warning that emptiness is near?
In “The Places That Scare You,” Pema Chödrön writes that what we most want to avoid is crucial to awakening. “These juicy emotional spots are where a warrior gains wisdom and compassion. Of course, we’ll want to get out of those spots far more often than we’ll want to stay.” (p. 34)
If we accept that behind our core fears lies emptiness then we better understand why Chödrön says these “juicy emotional spots” are crucial to awakening, as what we awaken to is our true nature as emptiness.
When near my emotional hot spot I must admit it appears but briefly, like a flash of lightning in the night sky. There is a tremendous energy in that flash that is quickly followed by my old habitual ways of dealing with it that can best be described as avoidance or denial.
Needless to say, in my earlier years the emotions feed by this energy were often overwhelming. This discomfort automatically triggered the awareness to turn away and toward old, well-established patterns that initially were alluring and brought comfort.
It is through meditation and mindfulness practice that I am beginning to slow this automatic response so I can stay with the discomfort. Much as time slows down at speeds close to light, my practice is allowing me to get longer glimpses of the central tender spot within. In doing so I catch myself before I turn away, holding my fear filled images in the awareness to see that they are not real. This process gives me a better understanding of why meditation is a matter of staying alert to watch thoughts arise and fall, while not becoming attached or averse to them.
It is at that moment where the awareness has become conditioned to withdraw from unease that the opportunity for awakening lies. At that moment we have the chance to break from our traditional identity to see the self as emptiness. Yet because this moment is also is laden with fear, aversion and denial it is best approached with patience and self-compassion. Without it, we risk developing new ways of closing this open space that is the true Self.
I note within myself something that may benefit others and wish to share that today.
There are times when I tense up and feel a bit anxious, usually over nothing of consequence. It’s an automatic reaction that probably dates back to childhood; perhaps to times when I might have done things my parents or teacher would disapprove.
To give you a better idea of this, recall a time when you thought you lost your ID or wallet. Do you recall that sudden feeling of, “Uh? Oh!” As if you’ve just had all supports taken away and fallen into a big hole in the pit of your stomach? Well. That’s the feeling I’m talking about but usually not so extreme.
A Buddhist might say this feeling reflects attachment to the sense of self, symbolized by the ID or wallet. When this identity is suddenly taken away we may feel suspended in air without any ground to walk on. One suffering PTSD knows this feeling in a very extreme form. Most, however, are acquainted with it as tension and a wish to withdraw when criticized, given a look of disapproval or something small of that nature.
Our reaction to personal criticism, to use that example, begins with tension but may end with anger, fear, depression or any of a variety of responses depending on how deeply attached we are to the self. The reason for this is clear. Criticism of the self is a negation of self.
If you think yourself artistic, popular or attractive and someone comes along and criticizes those qualities, that criticism is equivalent to having a hole punched in your self-image: a hole that reveals your self to be empty.
Meditation can help ease the tension and meditation should be used to bring stability to one’s thoughts and emotions before progressing onto any deeper forms of discipline. But there does come a time when progress depends on facing the truth about your true nature.
Emptiness is your true nature.
That may sound quite unappealing. In fact, most would prefer to spend their entire lives filling the emptiness of their true nature with things, thoughts and activities than to actual come face to face with it. But you can use those holes in the self, if you want to know your Self.
The key is found in the simple affirmation that emptiness lies behind your feeling of discomfort and tension.
Now. Usually when we feel discomfort we automatically begin to deny and withdraw. So it may take a bit of time to slow that reaction down to see that what is really making you uncomfortable is your own emptiness revealing itself to you. But if we stop our automatic reactions we can learn to feel at ease with our holes. Eventually we will even be able to recognize our true nature as emptiness and be comfortable with that. And when we are comfortable with emptiness, have we not transcended the self?
Many have seen a movie where the principal character is suddenly thrust into the role of pretending to be someone they’re not. Tension builds as each new plot twist has the protagonist coming ever closer to being found out. The tension that underlies this storyline is palpable evidence of a common human experience: we fear being exposed as something other than what we pretend to be.
For many this fear is something that lies only at the periphery of consciousness. For others it is the source of a daily tension that leads to anxiety disorders, depression or even addiction to ease the psychological suffering. Still others report it as that feeling of “something is wrong” that led them to a spiritual path.
In Hakuin’s painting, “Blind Men on a Bridge,” this feeling of tension is aptly portrayed as three blind men edging ever closer to falling off a bridge into the abyss below. This painting represents a Buddhist view of how anxiety may grow as we begin to release the idea of self and recognize our true nature to be emptiness.
To some, this release of self may be felt like a raw nerve exposed to the elements. Pema Chödrön, in her book, “The Places That Scare You,” describes it as a soft spot, “a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound.” Of this soft spot she writes, “It is equated, in part, with our ability to love.”
Whether experienced as a raw nerve or a vulnerable soft spot, this doorway to our true nature is something we’d rather not enter. We prefer the security of that which we know, so when the warning tensions arise that we are about to be found out, we shut the door.
We never really escape the door to emptiness. It lies immediately behind the stories we tell ourselves about who and what we are. So whenever we are confronted or questioned, the door opens a bit. Then we react by withdrawing, physically, or through emotions of anger, depression and anxiety. And when, over the course of time the tension becomes too much, we may then escape through craving and addiction.
Yet, if through mindfulness and meditation we learn to withstand the unease of leaving the door open just a bit, we can overcome our discomfort. A discomfort born out of the uncertainty of living without the icons of who and what we thought we must be.
When we leave that door open and accept our inadequacies, embarrassments, anxieties, loneliness and fear, we begin to love the self, not for whom we pretended to be, but for who we are. And in loving our self this way, we begin to love others. We see in them the same uncertainty and unease that we found in self and recognize there our common humanity.
To quote Zen Master Hakuin from his Zazen Wasan,
"How near the truth yet how far we seek, Like one in water crying “I thirst!” Like a child of rich birth Wandering poor on this earth, We endlessly circle the six worlds.
"The cause of our sorrow is ego delusion, From dark path to dark path We’ve wandered in darkness—
"…And if we turn inward And prove our true Nature— That true Self is no-self, Our own Self is no-self— We go beyond ego and past clever words.
"Then the gate to the oneness Of cause and effect Is thrown open. Not two and not three, Straight ahead runs the Way.
"Our form now being no-form, In going and returning we never leave home."
Each of us carries an inner image of what we think we should be. In most respects we consider this image to be the real us, even if it does need a little work. So when the world tells us a different story we often react with a lot of tension and distress.
We can alleviate this distress by accepting the new reality or rejecting it. Which avenue we choose usually depends on how much it conflicts with our core beliefs or, to put it another way, how tightly attached we are to our image.
A slight adjustment to the self-image can usually be done with little trouble. Yet every alteration is a reminder that the self is not as real, or permanent, as we like to believe. When this idea finally takes hold in the unconscious mind, a crisis of identity arises. Questions that one does not always accept into consciousness arise, like, “If I am not who I thought I was, then who am I?” “If my beliefs are false, then on what ground do I stand?” “If I am not real, then what remains but emptiness?”
The moment a person questions the foundations of their being there begins an existential crisis. Yet this moment often comes unawares, and is often precipitated by a trauma, leaving the man or woman so confused over the true source of their overwhelming distress that they attempt to alleviate it through avoidance and denial. But this strategy only prolongs the crisis and often prevents it from ever being resolved. Unresolved, the individual sinks ever deeper into despair, depression and anxiety with addiction a real possibility.
Denial that manifests as a fruitless clinging to the self lies at the core of any existential crisis. Many such crises can be temporarily resolved by accepting a more realistic view of the self. Buddhism, however, takes the stand that replacing one self-image with another never truly ends the crisis and that it can only be resolved with the realization of no self.
To realize no self is to realize emptiness.
To the mind in crisis, emptiness is perceived psychologically as a vast, frightening space in which there is no ground to stand and no security found. It lies behind the broken images of self and all negative judgments of self-worth. It is the one thing the mind seeks to avoid yet the one thing that will set it free. Not knowing this the mind engages in self-protection strategies based on isolation, mistrust and withdrawal; with the result that the world becomes smaller and smaller as the mind denies more and more.
Buddhist practice is designed to steady the mind so that it can come face to face with emptiness. Through meditation and mindfulness the mind is trained to stay in the present moment, such that when emptiness appears in its psychologically frightening aspect, the mind will not deny or be overwhelmed by it.
Yet what happens when one accepts emptiness? Consider these words by Jim Bedard in “Lotus in the Fire: The Healing Power of Zen.”
“I began to fall. But unlike the heavy sinking sensation I had experienced over the past few months, it was a buoyant feeling of release and letting go. My body felt weightless and unburdened. An unraveling began in my chest as if a large knot were becoming undone, and I merged into the One Mind of all beings. Tears of joy ran down my face and soaked my gown. This is impossible, I thought. How is it during the most difficult time of my life I can be so full of joy and gratitude? Whether I lived or died seemed to matter little. In my true Self there was neither birth nor death. All things in the universe are none other than my own Mind. Indeed, the universe unfolds as it should.”
Finding release in one’s True Nature is a journey of Self-discovery that begins with the willingness to open up to new possibilities. The path evolves by disciplining the mind to accept subtler and subtler definitions of self until the final release into Emptiness. It is a path few are on, and fewer still complete. Yet the path is always there, waiting.
It is known that exposure to life and death situations, serious injury or violence whether real or threatened, may lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in one person but not in another. From this we may conclude that trauma does not lie in the event, itself, but in some internal realization the event precipitates. I suspect the trauma lies in a sudden realization of the true nature of the self, or sense of “I”, that has previously been ignored or denied.
Buddhist thinking says that humanity falsely sees the self as a unique and real thing that exists independent of all else. This belief creates the idea of the other that stands in direct opposition to self. It also creates an inner emptiness that, with the idea of the other, drives humanity into grasping for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. It is through this grasping and avoidance that we remain stuck in Sangsara, the eternal cycle of suffering, death and rebirth.
Individually, we grasp at or avoid people and things according to how we want to be seen and how we see ourselves. This means that each one of us seeks to sustain the idea we have of our self. I think this point very important so will repeat it; we seek to sustain the idea of self.
The self is sustained though the grasping and avoidance of specific traits, people and things that then become identified as the self. But as the world by its very nature is constantly changing, the day must come when our identity falls away and we come face to face with the inner emptiness. It is our own unwillingness to face this emptiness, i.e., the loss of self, that precipitates trauma.
When faced with change an individual that holds tightly to his or her identity will suffer more than one who grasps lightly. When things change, one who has clung tightly may be traumatized to find the self is not a real and enduring thing. He or she may feel suspended in air with no ground on which to stand. And PTSD may result if the impermanence of self cannot be accepted.
The self’s true nature is impermanence. We may fight this by grasping at pleasure or accumulating riches but as these have no more substance than clouds in the sky, we suffer. Yet we need not despair. To quote Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, “All Buddhist practices are directed to overcoming such notions so that we may open up to a level of being that is much vaster than this tiny little ego we cling to so desperately.” (Into The Heart of Life, 2011. Snow Lion Publications. p.50)
There need be no thought that the human brain is defective in the mass of humanity. The human brain is actually quite a marvelous instrument that for the most part does what we direct it to do. If we ask it to solve a problem of life, higher mathematics or science, it works tirelessly to accomplish the matter as long as we continue to ask it to do so. Even when our attention is directed elsewhere the brain continues its efforts, sometimes producing a solution to a problem long since forgotten.
It is because we forget that the brain does what we direct it to do that we run into trouble. Take, for instance, the successive traumatic effect war has had on people over the last two hundred years. If we assume, as some do, that trauma can be handed down from generation to generation, then even those who have not been to war may suffer post-traumatic stress handed down by parents who lived through the last century’s major wars. This means the mass of humanity may be working with brains that have been taught to operate according to rules of survival in situations where survival is not an issue. If so, is there any wonder that nation upon nation makes and sells arms in the name of better protecting their interests?
I tend to the notion that as a result of past wars humanity has trained their collective brains to see life as a matter of survival. And because the brain gives a sense of reality to whatever thought it entertains, the mass of humanity have come to believe that, in essence, the “other guy” is a threat that must be defended against.
There is hope for humanity and it comes in the form of educating ourselves on the true nature of our brains and reality. We must come to recognize that just because the brain tells us there is a threat, that does not mean there actually is a threat. Just because the brain makes it appear that our beliefs are real, it does not mean that other beliefs are incompatible with our own. As the Dalai Lama said,
“We all want happiness, not suffering, and as a consequence we have to see if the mind can be transformed. Tibetan Buddhist culture is not just about prayers, reciting mantras and performing rituals, it involves explanations of the nature of reality. We Tibetans have the most comprehensive presentation of what the Buddha taught. We should not feel deprived, but proud of the knowledge we possess. What’s more we don’t need to rely on any other language to access this knowledge because it already exists in Tibetan. Don’t waste your time getting drunk or gambling. There’s no reason to feel low or demoralized; much better to be confident and optimistic.” (http://www.dalailama.com/news/post/1083-how-to-achieve-happiness-and-the-unsung-heroes-of-compassion)
Transforming our minds is not a matter to be completed in succeeding generations. It is something we can accomplish now. We can retrain our brains to look at reality in its true nature. One step in this process is to see that our brains tend to assign reality to whatever we imagine. Another is to accept the possibility that if we imagine our neighbor to be our enemy, this may not actually be so.
Be confident and optimistic of your ability to change your mind. Be confident and optimistic that you can see reality as it truly is.
Watching thoughts arise and fall is rather, should I say it, enlightening?
There doesn’t seem to be any thought that is not assigned some degree of reality. Even when I can positively say that I’m just imagining something, my brain still wants to color it real.
I don’t have any problem with my brain telling me, for example, that the stranger in front of me let a door close before I got there. But when the thought arises that he or she did it “on purpose” and I react with a tinge of resentment, then I have to wonder what good it does for my brain to make even imagined events, seem real?
Long ago it was probably a good survival tactic to have primitive man act “as if” the source of a noise in the nighttime forest was a predator. But today it seems we behave as if anything that offends our self-image is a predatory fact that needs to be acted upon. That the offended one may be the only one who knows an offence has taken place seems to make no difference. There still seems to be a need to act upon this “as if” situation.
When my cat sees something curious, she investigates. If it’s nothing then she licks her paw and walks away. Yet when today’s average person finds nothing in the curious, he or she returns to it again and again thinking something is there that was missed. They’ll buy a lottery ticket, even though they’d have to buy 26 million to have a good chance of winning a major prize. They’ll go to the pub every Friday to have a good time, even though they’ve never woken up the next morning feeling a good time was had. They’ll have the same discussion with their partner, even though it always ends in an argument.
It does seem the average person’s brain is locked into a reality that is neither conducive to happiness nor even real. Yet most everyone acts as if what he or she is doing makes perfect sense.
Viewed simply, the brain takes input from the senses, processes it and then projects it outward. When creating this projection the brain does not automatically differentiate between objects of the senses and those of thought or imagination. All are seen as possessing some level of reality.
Believing that thought exists independently of the mind (i.e., has self-existence), one lives in a state of dream illusion. It is like a dream because one believes in this thought world’s reality. It is an illusion because this world is false. Humanity, en masse, lives in this world of dream illusion.
An obvious example of dream illusion is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. With PTSD, those who experienced a trauma continue to live “as if” some threat still exists when it has long since passed. But we need not look to extreme mental health disorders to find examples of dream illusion. We need only look inside our own minds.
We live in dream illusion when a first impression becomes the way we see someone for the rest of our lives. We live in dream illusion when an imagined person we’re having an inner conversation with is thought to be the actual person we want to talk to. We live in dream illusion when judgments of right and wrong, good or bad, become our reality. For do we not then react by seeking revenge through anger when we are wronged? Or become depressed when we judge our self to be bad?
Knowing the need to awaken from dream illusion one may begin meditation by trying to stop thought. But one soon learns that thought is not so easily stilled. So the next step is to simply watch thoughts rise and fall. Still, there are some thoughts that do not fall as easily as they rise. These we can work on by holding them in the awareness and gently seeing them as unreal. The more deep-seated these thoughts, the longer it will take to undermine and weaken them.
As you become better at letting thoughts go, your ability to just observe them will grow. So will your ability to select a thought and examine it without being drawn into the dream illusion it creates. Of course there will still be times when you get caught up in the dream illusion and feel as if all of your work has been for naught. That’s to be expected because meditation is not a linear process. One area of life may have its problems resolved only to have another set of problems take its place. This is the natural ebb and flow of life. It is to be expected.
Eventually you will find thought taking a back seat and the ground of thought, i.e., consciousness, coming to the fore. This, too, you can examine by asking, “What is its true nature?” “How does this calm, motionless state arise?” “How can it be maintained?” “Where does it go when a thought arises?” “Is there a difference between this and the thought that arises?” “Is there a difference between this and me?”
These questions may seem esoteric at the moment, but when the ground of consciousness comes to the fore it will be natural to examine it with such questions, phrased in your own way. Examining consciousness in this way is the beginning of transcendental intelligence.
With the start of this third year of August Meditations I see that, sadly, our world seems to be in more conflict than 2013. But I don’t think anyone should lose heart. We should continue with our daily practice as it does make the world a better place. We should continue those actions that bring happiness to each other and ourselves.
On a personal level, I see this past year as one of refining and deepening last year’s statement that, “I am Pure Consciousness,” so that it reads, “I am awareness.” Whereas the former was more a statement of intellectual knowledge, the latter is an assertion of an unfolding inner realization that seeks to re-establish my inner identity as awareness, instead of as the objects that lie therein. Part of this involves realizing that the thoughts of my waking life are no more real than the dreams of my nocturnal one. Some progress has been made here but much work still lies ahead.
Realizing one’s true identity takes, according to the Mahayana or Great Vehicle teaching, “hundreds and thousands of eons.” But, as Eihei Dogen, the founder of the Soto School of Zen, wrote, “You experience immeasurable hundreds of eons in one day.” The eons he speaks of are comprised of the immeasurable present moments, or now, experienced each day. It is here, in each absolute present moment where all of creation exists from moment to moment, that enlightenment unfolds in your daily life.
As your personal enlightenment unfolds you should take heart in that it contributes to the eventual full enlightenment of all of humanity. As Dogen said, “your practice affects the entire earth and the entire sky in the ten directions. Although not noticed by others or by yourself, it is so.” So, even when your practice is weak, continue to practice with the assurance that you are helping humanity.
Practice is more than just sitting in meditation. Practice includes accepting whoever you meet and whatever arises as part of your path. It is here in your daily life that you have the opportunity to develop patience, love and understanding. It is here you uncover inner obstacles to expressing loving-kindness and compassion. And it is here that you can work through those obstacles to bring greater happiness to others and yourself.
Tomorrow will not come for many that live in the world’s conflict areas. One day it will not come for you. That day may be today or it may be many years off. Regardless of how much time you have, don’t waste today’s opportunity to practice and through it make the world a better place.
A psychologist might tell you that the greatest challenge to mental wellness is the failure to recognize that thoughts exist only in the brain. A Buddhist might simply say that thought is empty. The Buddhist might also speak of Sangsara, or Samsara.
Sangsara is a term used to describe the consciousness of objects combined with the delusion that objects exist independently of the observer. Awakening to reality destroys Sangsara in the sense that the delusion is destroyed. In the psychological sense, this means that thought is no longer seen to exist in the world as an independent, separate thing made of concrete substance.
Most of us know delusion as the stalker who believes a public figure is in love with them. As the hypochondriac who believes they are ill when no trace of illness can be found. Or as extreme jealousy where one believes his or her partner is cheating, even though there is no evidence to support that claim. The Buddhist would tell you, however, that the belief that any thought is something real and concrete is a delusion, and one shared by most of humanity.
It is easy to see delusion acting within yourself. Simply wonder if you really did lock the car door or if you really did put that credit card back in your wallet after your last purchase, and see how quickly that thought is felt to be real!
If you take that feeling into meditation and examine it, you will begin to see that not just that thought, but all your thoughts are felt to be real whether they correspond to the physical world or not. If you examine that feeling deeply, you will begin to see how your mental world extends into the outer world. You will begin to see that you are reacting to that mental world instead of your actual physical surroundings.
In seeing this you will begin to see how, as the Buddha said, you are bound to appearance. And how deeply your attention is fixed, as if hypnotized; upon an illusion you’ve mistaken for reality.
Knowing a thought to be just a thought, frees you from bondage to that thought. Knowing all thought to be just thinking, frees you from Sangsara.