The Possibilities are Emptiness!

November 30, 2009 | By | 8 Replies More

“Emptiness is described as the basis that makes everything possible”
The Twelfth Tai Situpa Rinpoche, Awakening the Sleeping Buddha

“The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”
Pema Chodron

Buddhism makes people uncomfortable when it talks of emptiness. Most Western minds immediately go to “nothingness” as the equivalent, which I am learning is not accurate. Mingur Rinpoche has a fantastic chapter on emptiness in The Joy of Living. In it he makes my language geek happy by explaining the Tibetan words for emptiness – “tongpa-nyi”. He says Tongpa does mean empty, but only in the sense of something we can’t capture with our senses, and better words would be inconceivable or unnameable. Nyi, he says, has no particular meaning but when added to a word conveys a sense of “possibility”. Suddenly, instead of nihilism, we have an “unlimited potential for anything to change, appear, or disappear.” That is cool stuff.

We, as human beings, simply can’t conceive emptiness in that sense. Our minds are limited – they can only deal with so much – even with training. The assumptions we make and the perspectives we develop and yes, even the absolutes we live (and too often die) by, are simply our own constructions helping us navigate a reality that would otherwise overwhelm us. I’m not just talking about moral or ethical realms here, I also mean our physical reality. We are comforted by the thought that the chair we sit in and the floor we walk on are “solid” but science teaches us something else. The history of science itself demonstrates our understanding of the world is evolving. Quantum mechanics shows us things we didn’t dream of 100 years ago. We keep learning new and better ways to grasp how the world works – our knowledge shifts constantly like sand in a desert storm.

Facing the possibility of everything being in flux frightens us, and so we create shields that offer protection, that make us comfortable. We then think we can know ourselves, the world, and those around us. We know what to expect, we know what to accept. We order our existence, and we feel safe. Often we don’t know that we are creating a structure with which to experience the world. We are born into them as much as we seek them out, but the effects are the same.

Habits of knowing, like habits of behavior, are comfortable, like well-worn shoes or a tasty turkey pot pie. Fear of losing that comfort and the accompanying feeling of safety is why we, collectively, often lash out at anyone or anything that is different from us. In those situations our core concepts of who we are and how we live are at risk. But when our worldview is so rigid it prevents us from adapting to what is, our carefully constructed truths are no longer places of refuge, they more resemble prison cells.

Consider a man who has been laid off from his job as a machinist who can only see himself going into work at a factory, but all of the factories in his town have closed. His options for factory work in his town are nonexistent. If that is all he can see for himself his options are very bleak. But if he can open his mind and see another way to put his skills to use – not as an employee of a factory – he can devise a plan of action. I don’t mean that he will transform himself into something different with brand new skills. But if he can let go of the rigidity of what work once meant to him, he has a better chance of finding ways to leverage what he currently has to offer.

The challenge is to hold lightly to everything I believe, and to see the lack of fixity as a source of possibility instead of a recipe for loss. As someone just getting started on this practice, I can say it feels much like standing and stretching luxuriously after being stuck in a painfully cramped space. One can learn to do a fine backstroke in the abyss, and abyss is more a fertile sea of possibility than terrifying vacuum. What a happy surprise.

Image: © Rozum |


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Category: Human animals, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Quality of Life

About the Author ()

Lisa lives and works in the city of St. Louis, and is striving to develop the right mix of both while asking herself what it means to live a good life.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I am one of those persons you are contemplating when you write: "The challenge is to hold lightly to everything I believe, and to see the lack of fixity as a source of possibility instead of a recipe for loss."

    To hold lightly to "everything" sounds distressingly shallow. It sounds relativistic. Consider whether you would hold lightly if you were confronted with a starving child.

    I'm not trying to attack what you've written, Lisa, because much of our pain is brought on by clinging ferociously to ideas the cravings that should be avoided and left to whither. But neither does it satisfy me to keep everything tentative.

    Where I typically find myself is a position of skepticism that take many vacations to commit deeply to what appears to be right and good. It's a highly unsatisfactory way of viewing the world, and I'll be the first to admit that it might be caused by my failure to understand Buddhism well.

  2. Lisa Rokusek says:

    Erich, I wonder what you hear when you hear "hold lightly". To me it doesn't mean a lack of belief, passion, or intention. It means understanding that everything is changing – including my perceptions, feelings and emotions. If everything is changing then I am less apt to unkindly judge other folks, but it doesn't stop me from acting in the world.

    When faced with a starving child (or a lost child, or a crying child, or even a dog who cannot see or walk) I spring into action. Holding lightly to what I believe doesn't render me without compassion – I think it helps me practice it.

    I still believe, I just know that my beliefs are changing, just as who I am is changing. We crave fixity, but there is none – keeping this in mind just helps me remember that fact.

  3. Lisa Rokusek says:

    Yeah, Erich, very close. That, coupled with how Buddhist theory/practice nicely dovetails with neuroscience is of why I am drawn to it. My comments about the abyss were a nod to Nietzsche.

    To me, acknowledging every facet of existence as impermanent and transient is just facing the way the world already works – we simply refuse to see it. We might feel uncomfortable with this awareness as it can feel as if we've lost the ground beneath our feet, as if we've lost the basis for critical thinking, belief, or engagement in the world. But that is simply our collective delusion talking.

    The ground already shifts beneath our feet, and we're still able to have relationships, offer opinions and act in the world without the control we crave.

    Acknowledging a lack of permanence doesn't take anything away from us, it merely helps us see life for what it is, and to accept things as they occur. But it isn't just a passive acceptance – much like postmodern theory the loss of Truth as a absolute given to us opens us up to new infinite possibilities.

    At least that is what I am exploring and attempting to get at, anyway.

  4. Tim Hogan says:

    I'm reminded of the old saw that in an universe of infinite time, with an infinite number of monkeys randomly hitting the keys on an infinite number of typewriters, someday a monkey must render a verbatim copy of the total works of the Immortal Bard!

    We're all one of those infinite number of monkeys in an infinite universe.

    In our infinite universe, when confronted with any issue we have an infinite number of possibilities in dealing with any particular event.

    Two tricks: humans are not immortal (except the Bard!)so we are limited to a finite time to evaluate an infinite number of solutions, and; for every possible issue there is always, in an infinite universe, some context within which we may find our optimal solution.

    ALWAYS! I find that very hopeful, and seek not to cloud my way with too great an attachment to stuff which prevents solutions and obscures insights. I think that's what it is to not hold things too tightly; you eliminate possibility. I do not say all possibilities are always what you wish to actually perform but, the thought experiment of running through possibilities or more focusedly upon capabilities has been tremendously helpful to me personally and professionally.

    Attachment is what brings on suffering, and if we adhere to that which makes us suffer or causes others to suffer we limit possibility.

    A number of years ago, I found out my law partners wanted to dissolve the partnership when I showed up at my offices, and the door locks had been changed! I thereafter held fast to a belief that my ex law partners had caused all the problems with my life and career but, in a moment of insight realized it was my attachment to this belief which kept me from realizing that they had just decided to no longer be my law partners, and I was the one upset, angry and getting in the way of myself moving on with my career and my life. In my attachment to "being right" and to their "being wrong" I had no possibility to see a future where I created any new possibilities for me and my life.

    It literally was an "Eureka!" moment when I realized what a goof I had been. I laughed aloud and at about 2 a.m. on June 24, 1992, I set about creating the possibility of a new future for my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife of 12+ years!), my law practice and a future with a family of my own free from the attachment to my prior feelings about my ex partners.

    No matter what we may have or be, there is always hope. For me, hope brought the possibility of love. The future which I created for the possibility of love left me open to finding my wife, open to having a family and to being blessed beyond any measure I truly could conceive.

    There is infinite possibility in emptiness!

  5. Ben says:

    Even if the observable universe were filled with monkeys typing for all time, their total probability to produce a single instance of Hamlet would still be less than one in 10^183,800. As Kittel and Kroemer put it, "The probability of Hamlet is therefore zero in any operational sense of an event…", and the statement that the monkeys must eventually succeed "gives a misleading conclusion about very, very large numbers." This is from their textbook on thermodynamics, the field whose statistical foundations motivated the first known expositions of typing monkeys.

  6. Tim Hogan says:

    Waaaaah, now I'm hopeless! F—n' Ben!

  7. Lisa Rokusek says:


    No worries, you nailed what I was trying to say, regardless of monkeys!

    Thanks for helping me clarify – I love your comment!

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