Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Buddhist Emptiness, for Troubled Times

Ok, I'm a little late for it, but it was just recently the celebration of one of the most important Buddhist holidays - the commemoration of Buddha's first teaching, Turning the Wheel of the Dharma.

In honor of this, I'd like to share one of the most powerful Buddhist teachings there is with you.  The teaching on Emptiness.  There are probably some scholars out there who could do a much better job of explicating all the nuances of emptiness philosophy from different historical perspectives, I'll leave that to them, because what I want to share with you today is what I've found to work, both for myself and for others.

And I want to share with you this practical philosophy of "Emptiness" because it's a perfect antidote for the frustration that comes with times such as those we're living through now.  

First, on the word.  "Emptiness" is a translation of the Sanskrit word "Shunyata," and from what the scholars tell me, it's not a bad translation.  But for our practical purposes, I like to use the term "openness" to get the feel for how we might use this notion.

When you read the scriptures that talk about emptiness, you can sometimes get a nihilistic vibe.  It's all about negation - you have no self, the world doesn't exist.  Some people use this to make Buddhism into a way of spiritual bypassing: "the world doesn't exist, so nothing really matters!"  Others see this philosophy, and they're just turned off, the don't give it a second look.  But I was taught that these two responses mean that you didn't receive the essence of this teaching, because any good recognition of "Emptiness" should give birth to compassion.  Instead of feeling turned off or like nothing matters, a teaching on emptiness should empower our awakened hearts to love more deeply.

How can it do so?  Because at the heart of it, Emptiness meditation breaks up the core of our assumed certainty.  The scriptures use strong energy of negation to help us shatter the fortresses of solidity that we've built around our ideas.  Emptiness meditation is an assault on cognitive dissonance.  It can effectively disarm the pain of being stuck in cognitive dissonance because that's all wrapped up in this thing called "grasping to a self."

It's a big topic in Buddhist philosophy, but for our purposes here we can just say that because the universe seems chaotic, mysterious, constantly changing, and unpredictable, often we respond by trying to create an island of solidity called "me."  Now, of course, "you" are also mysterious, unpredictable, and yes even a little chaotic!  But our ego-constructing defense mechanisms ignore that and try to pretend that there's a solid, unchanging "me" here.  In modern terms, this is the action of the Default Mode Network, and can be how we encode habits of depression, anxiety, and other painful waus of limiting ourselves.  We don't just stop at grasping to a self of "me", but then we go on to grasp to solidity "out there" too.  We try to make things that are constantly shifting into something we could pin down and hold onto.

There are a few problems here.  Of course, as part of maturation, we need healthy ego development.  We need to develop a sense of self who has a place in the world.  It helps if we have safe environments and loving families too, to do that process.  But if our sense of "me" becomes too rigid, it can lead to encoded patterns of trauma or stress that become part of an identity locked in to our self-sense.  Even more challenging is when we begin to see the world through these rigid filters.  In attempting to narrow down the world in order to gain a sense of safety, we block out a lot that is beautiful, new, and awe-inspiring.  Rather than living into the possibilities of the future, our mind replays home-movies of the past. 

This, then, can be where cognitive dissonance comes into play.  One of the best explanations for why we may have full on fight-or-flight-or-freeze reactions when our ideas are threatened, is that we've somehow merged that idea with the sense of "me", so if you threaten my economic philosophy, you've threatened "me" - them's fightin words!  Not only does this kind of understanding give us a clue to how to heal many of the terrible breaches in our personal relating, but it also brings with it a key to the much-sought peace of mind.

It's not just that we're taking our ideas and sharing them with others as if they were the one true answer, we're also relating to them that way ourselves.  It's so attractive to part of us to act as if we know exactly what's going to happen, what everything means.  This is what the fictive "me" craves most - to have that certainty that will finally make it feel safe (by being a tiny master of the universe).  But universe doesn't work that way, "safety" is not something that's guaranteed here, and it gets LESS likely the more rigid you are. 

While safety isn't guaranteed, we do have the option of Openness.  A fabulous old joke asks "why can saints levitate?"  answer: "because they take themselves so lightly!"  When we drop the addictive attachment to being right, to having all the answers, to creating a rigid island of control called "me", what we actually drop is a lot of tension.  The certainty and control we were desperately clinging to is something that was never really there - we don't lose anything by letting go, nothing except tension!

So as we face the trials of this time - pandemic, mass disinformation campaigns, racism, and ever widening divisions - it's tempting to grasp to one answer.  It's easy to tell ourselves that the pandemic means our job prospects are hopeless, or that widening social divisions mean that the dream of a just society is ground to dust.  It's easy to create nightmare fantasies that our brains replay and torment us with - because the torment feels like a type of certainty!  

The Buddhist alternative is to let go of the fantasies and be with the arising situation - resting in a sense of openness as one's identity rather than a fixed or rigid notion of "me," or set of beliefs.  When we do that, we're actually MORE capable of making good decisions - because we're not confusing a set of hallucinations and projections for reality.  And beautifully, we're more capable of compassion too - we've stepped back from our rigid sense of "me" and something in this has been shown to widen our sense of Who we are so that includes other "mes."  The mind relaxed through emptiness meditation is as much likely to identify as We, or as All, as it is to identify as it is to identify as "me".

A quick note on practicality.  Just in case you still think this sounds a little formless or nihilistic or removed from reality, I should tell you that Emptiness never gets taught by itself, it's always paired with teachings on Karma, or Interdependant Origination.

Karma here could just mean Cause and Effect.  In ancient times it meant a law of reciprocity where what you do comes back to you, and you can see how that could stave off the nihilism factor - "yes, things aren't fixed, but if you hurt someone, you'll get hurt too, so act right!"  You're given a moral compass with which to navigate the formless, changing universe.   In modern understandings, we might just think of this as the laws of physics.  While it is silly to fixate on our pet ideas and get all cognitively dissonant about them, we also must note that actions have equal and opposite reactions, 2+2=4, and so on.  What's wonderful is that when we set the mind in a state of openness that doesn't have to grasp and create addictive fantasies or catastrophizing trauma replays, we are more likely to see how the laws of cause and effect operate.  We're not meditating ourselves into an anti-science stance where thermodynamics disappear, we're just surrendering our projections - best we can - which may allow us to see what would be the most effective.  We've moved from trying to figure out what's "Right vs Wrong" and into the much less fanatical realm of "what are the facts?"

Finally, Interdependent Origination brings us into advanced "karma" - asking what happens to cause and effect in recursive systems comprised of many nodes and links.  Causes are causing other causes which in turn influence the "original" cause (which was caused by other causes).  Understandings of chaos and complexity can clue us in to why Emptiness meditation can be so important for our thriving.  Because in chaotic and complex systems, there's great "sensitivity to initial conditions".  This is the old Butterfly Effect - a tiny change can cause a big hurricane down the line.  So when it comes down to our world, our choices, the outcomes of our actions, complexity - Interdependent Origination - can help us to remember that we'll never have ALL the answers, but can guide us back to the understanding that in such systems every participant and every act is IMMENSELY POWERFUL.  

Rather than feeling disempowered or like nothing matters, Emptiness meditation can clue us in to our deep importance - an importance dependent solely on our relationships.  Rather than a claustrophobic sense of "me" constructed to withstand an unfriendly universe, and a set of "rules" set down to limit the chaos, we emerge into a field of dynamic change, and even beauty.  As we let go of the need to know and be right, the openness created can allow for the emergence of insight, of poetic meaning, and of deep relating and compassion.

With Emptiness we empty out nothing but what we don't need - the elaborations of tension protecting a non-existent "me" and all it's pet strategies and beliefs.  With Openness, we open our heart to the life in all its wildness, and give our heart's gift as we can only do when we've lain the armor down.