Emptiness and the Mental Conundrum

If I ever form a band, I’m going to call it “Emptiness and the Mental Conundrum.”  Of course that band will have a brief career and disappear into obscurity very quickly.

In studying the nature of mind,  it’s clear that one important piece to understanding mind is to be with emptiness.  When I first heard the term, I immediately thought about nihilism; the notion that nothing really matters because everything we experience is meaningless.  The reality that we are “born to die”, in the immortal words of about 1000 poets, is one source of nihilistic thought.

The trick to understanding the Buddhist concept of emptiness for me was to understand that the idea is not, in any way, nihilistic or depressing.  The point is to recognize that all experiences, thoughts, things are inherently of “empty essence.”  It does NOT mean that things do not matter; we are affected by cold or hot weather, illness, anger, laughter, a new car, a happy baby,  all of those life events and material objects we possess do affect us.  We are not detached, zombie-like, to the world around us.  We are present in the world; we feel, we act, we express, we understand. I’ve thought that if I can really comprehend this idea, my understanding of the world might open.  Hmmm.

In a recent teaching from Sogyal Rinpoche, he mentioned this concept, the concept of emptiness, and explained that when we say “empty” we don’t mean “nothing”….the meaning, the idea is better expressed in Tibetan: tongpanyi = anything can arise in the unnamable space.  With this understanding, it’s easier to comprehend that anything can arise in our world.  A cup can be brought into existence using clay, hand work, and fire.  A cup can be destroyed by dropping it on the floor, the pieces flying in all directions.

Staying with this idea, all things come into and out of existence through “dependent arising” or “interdependence” or “cause and effect”.  Using this idea, I grasped or understood that a thing, an idea, an emotion, comes and goes…it is, in fact, essentially “empty”…only present from a very brief moment.  Once I realized that all things begin and end, rise and fall, I am no longer attached to that thought, cup, event, in the same way.

I say “in the same way” because we know the person, thing, idea is present in the moment.  Those things are not nothing and so we are not going to wander the earth destroying things, people and such.  We are ethical creatures (most of us are!) and we are not going to create chaos and destruction.

So as I weave my way through these ideas I sometimes get lost.  It’s like a forest with a path that appears clear only to slowly disappear in the distance.  I think I get it….and then…well, you get the idea.

So, I played around with the notion that a thing is empty of essence.  Here’s the thought experiment I used: I drive a car.  It’s a small Nissan that zips around town…nothing fancy or special.  I like that car.  My daughter says I “wear the car” but whatever.  I am attached to the car, driving the car, owning the car, playing music in the car, just being in the car.  Maybe that’s uniquely American to just be able to drive and drive on roads that seem to go forever.

And I know, I really know, that this car will pass.  I will no longer own this car.  In the distant future the transmission might go out, engine cease to function, or the car gets damaged and becomes unworkable.  Or I sell it and I buy another car.  Regardless  of what happens to it, it will be gone….it’s pieces broken into a myriad of smaller pieces….parts to be sold, reused, or disposed of.  At some point this car I so loved and cared for will no longer exist as a car….the metal will breakdown, crumble; the paint will fade, flake off, or wash away.  The car as I know it now will no longer exist.

Nissan Versa
The Car I Wear Each Day

So the fun question is, did it really exist?  Of course it did.  It was designed, manufactured and sold (to me).  The car came into existence through a series of events: it’s existence in my possession was dependent on a series of decisions, actions, tools, metal, glass, plastic, etc.  It exists.  At some point, however, it will not.

Staying with that theme, at some point the car will not exist. I can visualize, imagine or think about how the car did not exist at some point, did exist, and then did not exist.  Further, even as I now own this car, the plastic, the metal, the glass is comprised of molecules and atoms.  Those atoms are made up of electrons, etc.  Those protons electrons etc are further made up of quarks.  All of those pieces of the car work together to make up what I know as a car.  However, any one of those pieces alone are not a car.  The mirror is not a car.  The glass window is not a car.  Simply put, the car is an idea and a construction dependent on all of these other pieces together.

Mark Epstein, M.D. wrote a book about this idea of everything being dependent on another thing using a psychological approach: Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart.  In this book, Dr. Epstein talks about the whole idea of seeing the world as dependent on various pieces….and by extension that our minds, our thoughts are also made up of these pieces….we don’t like something or someone because of some incident or thought about that thing or person.  Letting go of these attachments to ideas we think can help free us from our own mind!

As I sit here today, I wonder at the my own thoughts and what those thoughts say about me (to me).  If I am a collection of thoughts and those thoughts fly away from my mind each second then who am I? Fun stuff.


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