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The most important lesson of my life

“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. -Buddha, from The Sutra of the Heart of Transcendent Knowledge

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. …

Now stop.

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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  1. Understanding emptiness and the futility of craving and clinging has also been the most important spiritual lesson I have learned. The lesson of emptiness I learned is the absence of independence means as form we do not stand on our own. We do not define ourselves; we are all connected to everyone and with everything. Through meditation I have learned how to experience oneness (interdependence) by surrendering my perceptions of independence and objectification of self. Chanting the Heart Sutra is among my spiritual practices. I particularly like this version of the Heart Sutra in Pali by Imee Oi so I’m sharing it with you.

    • TimeThief, I am very inspired to hear you understanding of interdependence and interconnectedness and how you cherish the Heart Sutra. Thanks very much for the link to this beautiful version!

  2. The depth of this post is amazing and I think the concept of the illusory nature of reality is something we can all benefit from.

    Realizing that we all came from nothing and that we will all return to nothing is quite a humbling experience. It puts into perspective our short time on earth and allows us to be grateful for the moment.

    All of life, and all of eternity for that matter, is nothing more than a blip in time. Holding onto grudges, possessions, relationships, people, money, desires, fears, or anything else, really is a waste of energy.

    Attempting to hold onto anything only results in gaining a loss of time.

    • Raam, you are so right, it’s the holding on that gets us into trouble! Emptiness is the basic view of Buddhism, and it is indeed profound. In Buddhism though, if my understanding is correct, the idea is not necessarily that we come from ‘nothing’ and return to ‘nothing’ per se but rather that emptiness is beyond description and non-material. This might be what you mean as well, but it’s difficult to discuss in words what is truly non-conceptual. In Buddhism, it is held that there is a continuity of a very innermost subtle level of consciousness from one life to the next. This is not the same as the concept of a ‘self’ or ‘soul’ because it is not permanent, singular, or independent. The Dalai Lama compares this not to a soul, which would be like a string of pearls with a thread running through it, but like a stack of die, each is separate but supports the one above it. The Dalai Lama’s explanation of this continuity of the subtle level of consciousness is on page 93 of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The belief in rebirth is probably a leap for most of us although it was a tenet of Christianity for many hundreds of years as well. Whether we believe in rebirth or not, the main point is exactly the one you underline – holding onto anything just creates suffering. That’s something we can observe for our self.

      Rebirth strikes me as a little bit like the ultimate nomadic life! One day you are in Vietnam, the next day you are in Nepal.

      Thanks very much for your comment. I’m happy to hear how your resonate with emptiness!

  3. What a beautiful and thought provoking post. I used to think of emptiness as a scary thing, because what would be left when there was nothing left? But now I see it as you’ve described, the source of endless opportunities and an opportunity to left go, to release. I think I’ll need to read it more than once to grasp all of the messages, but thanks for the learning so far. And, thanks for mentioning my blog in an earlier post, I only just saw it, but I appreciate it so very much!

    • Claire, Thank you for your kind words. As you say, the idea of emptiness can be very frightening when it’s not understood correctly, that’s for sure! I appreciate the understanding your are taking away from this post, which are right on target. I’m glad it’s stimulated your thinking. I appreciate your taking the time to comment. So glad you are keeping the gratitude flowing!

  4. Dear Sandra, I don’t know what to say in response to the sweet compliment you start off your post with – except thank you so much!
    I must say that philosophy has been a very difficult topic for me and while I read your ideas on emptiness and how to look at it, I have a hard time conceptualizing it in my mind. My favorite phrase is. “If you look at any suffering that arises, you can see that it stems from attachment or its partner aversion.” – Now that I can relate to – may be not all suffering, maybe some suffering comes from within, from loneliness, from mistakes of the past, from deep regrets, from wronging someone, but again I guess we can argue some of that is attachment to life itself. No matter, I am very happy that I inspired you to write about your own life lesson. Thanks for being so kind!

    • Farnoosh, When I first began to meditate, I didn’t focus on the philosophical aspects either for many years. Philosophy is not everyone’s forté by any means, and I wasn’t naturally drawn to it myself. I can fully understand your feelings on this.

      As time went on, I found that on a very basic level and in a simple way, it was very helpful to consider what my ‘view’ of existence actually is. We all do have some view of existence that is the driving force behind our life whether we are conscious of it or not. For me, it puts meditation into a bigger perspective so that it is not simply a short-term self-help technique. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, but meditation can also take us much further.

      Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts. And thanks again for all your beautiful writing.

  5. I think we make our own reality. When we believe in magic, we find magic. When we believe in beauty, we find that too. That’s why I think it’s so important to answer the question, “What do you want your life to be about?”

    I like your use of the “power of one” and your insights on emptiness.

    • J. D., Thank you for adding your insights. I appreciate how you are bringing such a magical perspective to others at Microsoft and to all those who are fortunate to connect with your blog and find such a tremendous Source of Insight. You have an incredibly honed talent at finding the lesson in whatever manifests in your world and simply amaze me. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it very much.

  6. Sandra,
    First I want to thank you for your compliment on my article on the oil spill. I felt your appreciation.

    I’ve been a student of A Course In Miracles for nearly 30 years and I get what you’re saying hear. I can’t even imagine how easy it would have been to live with my overbearing father if I knew then what I new now. I could have just allowed his insanity to flow right out of my space and being.

    I also have to confess it doesn’t matter how long I live it I’m human so I fall back. As I read this I admitted to myself how attached I’ve been to my hubs eating a healthy diet. Poor hubs;)
    Now that I recognize my attachment I’m releasing my suffering this moment. I’m grateful and I agree Farnoosh is awesome! xo

    • Tess, The Course in Miracles is very much about emptiness, isn’t it? I confess when I first encountered the Course in Miracles many years ago, I didn’t get it at all! Fortunately, I got a second chance through my study of Buddhism. You are on a beautiful, powerful path indeed. It’s brilliant to see how transformative it has been for you. Yes, we all fall back as long as we are human, but once we have this perspective there seems very little chance of falling back asleep again entirely and many opportunities to get back on track. Like your husband’s perfect diet. 🙂

      Thanks very much for leaving a comment. I appreciate it so much. I resonate with your wonderful blog precisely because of the kind of this perspective that you bring to your writing. Sending you warmest wishes.

  7. Oh and I just signed up for your RSS feed;o) Woot woot! I wish I new how to verbally express this to my grandchildren, 13 and 16 until I find a way…I will continue to live it as a role model.

    • Great! I’m so happy to stay connected with you. I’ve signed up for your email updates. This is an interesting aspiration, to find a way to communicate this to teens. Please write about it when you find good ways.

  8. Sandra,

    Lovely post and I’m happy to include it in the Life Lessons Series.

    Thank you.

  9. Sandra, I was most moved by this passage:

    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.

    This is a wonderful life lesson, though I must admit I had some trouble grasping it at first. I suppose by the ‘illusory nature of reality’ you mean that reality is fluid and constantly changing. It’s true too that I have only very recently been considering this state of mind/being. Friends come and go, interests change, the world changes, nothing is ever permanent. I have long been thinking about all the biochemical reactions that go on inside my body, after learning about it. It never ceases to amaze me that all of these reactions will go on and on in perfect concert so that I may live my life.

    Thank you for a mind-opening post! The comment thread is lovely again as well!

    • Lynn,

      It’s taken me many years and study to grasp this more fully, so I completely understand that it can be tricky to comprehend at first. You might call it impermanence plus! Impermanence is a significant element, but in Buddhist philosophy things are also not singular nor are they independent. Glad that this was a meaningful post for you. There’s a famous Tibetan saying that goes: “Do not mistake understanding for realization, and do not mistake realization for liberation.” I am not saying I have any realization of this truth, just some theoretical understanding.

      I enjoyed the comments on this post too. They are quite amazing themselves! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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