This happens, for instance, in the psyche. Our sense of identity seems solid until we try to locate it in the mind, where we discover only a mass of competing influences without fixed axis.
If we seek solidity in ‘real-world’ experience, we discover that our minds offer us halls of mirrors. Perceptions are but reflections within the corridors of mind; they supply traces of reality rather than direct contact with it. (This truth has been explored by many philosophers, beginning at least as far back as Plato.) The world we experience is a projection in awareness, useful but lacking substance.
Emptiness is also detectable in physics. Down at the level of atoms, solidity vanishes. In its place are found energetic swirls that are simultaneously point-like and diffuse. Matter that appears solid is mostly empty space, and the processes that occupy that space can be described only as mathematical abstractions. It’s as if we peer into a room we believe full of furnishings but find only floating motes of dust.
Insight into emptiness is valued by Buddhists because it reduces suffering. Knowing mental and physical processes to be diaphanous and shifting frees us from taking them too seriously.
That’s all well and good, but when we come home to an injured child or pet, we rush to assist no matter how refined our feel for emptiness. The world demands participation even as it vanishes on near inspection.
How do we reconcile traditions that help us discover emptiness behind the screen of experience with those that call us to act compassionately? In one Buddhist practice angst dissolves in a void. In another, metta prayers entreat that ‘all beings be freed from suffering.’ How is it possible to believe reality illusory while also caring about distress within it?
I recently launched a new website: MindfulBiology.org, devoted to helping us feel more friendly toward our bodies. Why should we nurture affection for a human organism that disappears, at subatomic grain, into a buzz of abstractions? Wouldn’t it make more sense to declare the body a distraction and spend our days pondering the vast, crystalline emptiness?
Perhaps, but we’ve already seen that emotional separation proves unsustainable. Life insists we take it seriously.
The answer to this dilemma is the Middle Way. The Buddha emphasized that neither worldly indulgence nor ascetic denial provide relief. The best we can do is engage with the world while handling its challenges with a looser grip.
In terms of MindfulBiology, we use life science to to understand our human forms as temporary processes of that arise, live for a time, and then dissipate, stamped all the while by history. With this perspective on our own baffling complexity, we feel less sense of entrapment, ownership, and affront. Detaching in this way is useful in the face of physical discomfort; it is also a tonic for feelings of disappointment and embarrassment as the body ages. When the mind can monitor the body from a slight remove, it feels cushioned against distress.
At the same time, our body is a sensitive organism. As our living home in the world, it deserves our affection and care. Denying the body’s importance in deference to a rarefied sense of emptiness hardly seems wise. So we hold the soma in love, while keeping in mind its transience. We allow it the inevitable changes of age. We accept its limitations. Knowing the body to be a evanescent swirl in the currents of time, we appreciate it all the more.
To summarize: nothing appears substantial when probed to depth. Mentally, we find a shifting population of influences without central identity. When our mind interacts with the world, it tries to objectify what it sees ‘outside,’ but everything the mind experiences is already ‘inside,’ where perception is as insubstantial as the play of light on a movie screen. And even if we ignore that problem and treat the inwardly perceived world like something outward and objective, physics presents us with an unbounded space of abstract vibrations. What a strange, empty place this is!
But for all this dizzying emptiness of matter and mind, the grounded experience of daily life compels us to participate. We can’t ignore the ceaseless activity that begs our involvement at every turn. Even though it’s a play of formless energies, we embrace life as it presents itself.
For some people, like me, solace comes from climbing toward an unobstructed view of reality. As we peer further and further, we begin to make out a truth of great healing power, a truth that is ever shining for us. Part of this truth is the fact of emptiness, but another is the need to act in the world. If we learn the lessons that are offered, we begin to behave with less personal concern and more compassion. With heart in hand, we greet life in its empty mists.