Farnoosh, the mind and heart behind Prolific Living, has one of the most elegant writing styles in the realm of personal development blogs. Her beautiful musings on lessons she wishes she had learned earlier in life stimulated my own reflections on this provocative subject.
The original idea to write about life lessons was initiated by Abubakar Jamil who authors the blog Rebooting Your Mind. Abubakar has invited personal development writers to participate in the series, which has produced a wonderful collection of advice from the best bloggers on the planet. Here’s my contribution.
Often, I will focus on the power of one, whether it be an action, a lesson, or a new positive habit. “What might be the one point of attention that will leverage the most personal evolution for me?’ In the current context, the question became, “What one lesson would have powerfully changed my life for the better had I understood it early on in life?”
The illusory nature of reality readily leaped to the forefront of my consciousness as the answer.
What is the illusory nature of reality?
Please don’t be put off by the abstract sound of this proposition! There’s much to be learned when you explore the nature of reality.
In my view, the biggest mistake made in life is automatically taking all phenomena to be real, solid, permanent, lasting. By phenomena, I mean both the self, the world around you, and all the transitory thoughts and emotions that arise in your mind and the minds of others. Although on some level you may know this to not be the case, the hidden assumptions of permanence and solidity are the very ones that run the drama behind our entire existence.
What does the “illusory nature of reality” actually mean? Another word to describe this is “emptiness.” Don’t be alarmed! Emptiness doesn’t mean void or nothingness, but rather it means beyond our ability to perceive with the senses or to conceptualize. Quite the contrary to being voidness, though everything is empty it appears as form.
Empty of what? Empty of any inherent, independent existence. There is a Tibetan phrase to illustrate emptiness, which translates as: “free from permanence and non-existence.” Emptiness goes beyond the two extremes of eternalism, believing everything to be permanent, and nihilism, believing in non-existence.
At the same time that everything is empty, this inconceivable emptiness gives birth to all form. In fact, emptiness and form are inseparable. Therefore, emptiness might be more correctly understood as fullness or the complete potentiality that exists in the universe. Mingyur Rinpoche describes emptiness as an “unlimited potential for anything to appear, change, or disappear.”
Emptiness isn’t an idea or a concept made up by the Buddha. Neither is it a concept or an idea at all. Rather, the Buddha observed how reality actually is. Interestingly, his observations are being born out by modern physics.
Reflecting on emptiness
To help achieve an understanding of emptiness on a profound yet experiential level, Buddhism offers a series of analytical meditations in which you consider whether phenomena are impermanent, singular, and independent. These are not lightweight exercises that are done for five or ten minutes now and then, but points of reflection to devote your mind to for weeks and months at a time. Deconstructing your concrete version of reality takes repeated mental exploration and countermeasures.
Remember, phenomena means not just external matter, but also the self and all the thoughts and emotions that glide through your mind. Indeed, the very nature of mind is empty yet its nature is cognizant. No matter how deeply you look, you cannot find anything that is permanent, singular, or independent—which is the point behind these exercises. While you might understand this intellectually, the process of personal investigation has far greater power to erode your erroneous thinking and allow this view to penetrate deeply into your being.
How understanding emptiness helps you in daily life
All suffering stems from attachment to what exists around and within you. Isn’t this the case? If you look at any suffering that arises, you can see that it stems from attachment or its partner aversion. For example, why are you sad, frustrated, or angry when you break a new possession? It’s due to attachment.
When you understand the illusory nature of existence, you realize that ultimately there’s nothing to hold onto anyway. Everything is constantly moving and changing at a sub-atomic level as well as transforming on a gross level, although it sometimes appears to occur more gradually on a gross level. This is equally so with our thoughts, which are seldom still for a moment. Grasping onto anything is like trying to hold onto running water. It just creates needless suffering and unhappiness.
Recognizing this fundamental truth makes it far easier to relax, let go, and allow the fantastic display of existence to unfold before you. There’s far less grasping, tension, and distress when you accept impermanence, change, and the illusory quality of life as the natural order of existence. A feeling of compassion naturally swells up as you understand firsthand all the unnecessary suffering that occurs for yourself and others simply due to our mixed up notions of the way the world actually is. There’s a greater sense of ease and spaciousness and more wisdom expressed in your actions.
At the same tine, you learn this is not an empty emptiness. Things are not non-existent either. Everything arises due to interdependence, as the result of causes and conditions. Your thoughts and actions have consequences and they affect others. “As you sow, so shall you reap.” This understanding gives rise to ethical and compassionate action—a sense of personal and universal responsibility. You come to understand how foolish it is to act with negative intentions. In the end, you harm yourself as much or more than others.
An exercise in emptiness
Mingyur Rinpoche also speaks of emptiness in this way, “The sense of openness people experience when they simply rest their minds is known in Buddhist terms as emptiness…”
So in addition to the analytical meditation mentioned above, there is a direct way to begin to get a glimpse of emptiness through meditation. The following exercise in emptiness is from Mingyur Rinpoche’s book, The Joy of Living, Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness. This exercise uses the movements of mind to gives us a taste of emptiness.
In this exercise, “…you’ll look at your thoughts, emotions, and sensations very closely, as they arise out of emptiness, momentarily appear as emptiness, and dissolve back into emptiness. If no thoughts, feeling, or sensations come up for you, just make them up, as many as you can, very quickly, one after another. The main point of the exercise is to observe as many forms of experience as you can. If you don’t observe them, they’ll just slip away unnoticed. Don’t loose any of the thoughts, feelings, or sensations without having observed them.
Begin by sitting up straight, in a relaxed position, and breathing normally. Once you are settled, start to observe your thoughts, emotions, and sensation very clearly. Remember, if nothing comes up for you, just start gibbering away in your mind. Whatever you perceive—pain, pressure, sounds, and so on—observe it very clearly. Even ideas like “This is a good thought,” “This is a bad thought,” “I like this exercise” are thoughts you can observe. You can even observe something as simple as an itch. To get the full effect, you’ll want to continue this process for at least a minute. Are you ready? Okay, then go!
Watch the movement of your mind. …
Watch the movement of your mind. …
Watch the movement of your mind. …
The point of the exercise is to simply watch everything that passes through your awareness as it arises out of emptiness, momentarily appears, and dissolves back into emptiness again—a movement like the rising and falling of a wave in a giant ocean. You don’t want to block your thoughts, emotions, and so on; nor do you want to chase after them.
Understanding emptiness has transformed my view of the world and entirely changed my life for the better. I hope this little taste of emptiness might also wet your palate. What do you think about the notion of emptiness and possibility?
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