“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.
I recently came out of an emotional bad spell – emerging from it felt a lot like hitting the surface after you’ve been underwater just a little too long. This spell of anxiety/fear/depression/whatever it was taught me more than usual because it happened smack dab after I had a really awesome year business wise. I was on a high. Things were so good I had to go buy a suit so I could go to Las Vegas and get an award for being so awesome. That is important to note not because getting an award is important (but it is kind of cool, right?) but because of what happened after the award.
Intellectually I knew that all the activity I had in the funnel would end, and I’d be back in building mode. I knew it and even tried to prepare myself for the letdown. My business is cyclical – I know that. And I like building mode. Building mode is how one gets to closing mode. I just had a run of especially good fortune and my building mode was a distant memory, which I knew was not such a great thing for me. In the midst of my crazy happy frenetic good luck mode, I tried to prepare for what would come after the constant activity of balancing all the stuff in the hopper died down. I know how I can be – I get squirrley sometimes, so I tried to prepare.
There is a saying: “Trying lets us fail with honor.” I failed. I’m not sure I had any honor, either.
“I woke up one morning and I was scared. Not just a little scared, either. I was in full-on panic mode. I remember thinking, “Dammit, Lisa, this is exactly what you worked to prevent.” Yep it sure was. In my defense, I had a crazy end of September/October. We had family in from out of town (stressful), my Mom had spine surgery (surprisingly stressful), the foster greyhound we rescued need to be carried up and down our stairs in order to go outside (it takes both of us – constantly coordinating schedules is stressful), I bought a car (consumerism is, for me, fraught with drama, tension and guilt – stressful, but I sure like the car) and Ginger decided to feng shui our bedroom. Not only was I going through something hard, I had to do it with our bed facing a new and opposite wall. Things like that do bad things to me. I spent an entire sleepless night focused on whether the bed facing the other direction was symbolic of me never closing another deal. During that mental wrestling match I started doubting my employ-ability (I only have one suit!!) and by morning I had tearfully decided my only option was to make this thing work or I’d end up living in a paper box. I went to bed scared, I woke up panicked and I think Ginger wanted to throttle me (I wanted to throttle me).
[more . . . ]
I’ve repeatedly written about Geoffrey Miller based on the many provocative ideas presented in his earlier book, The Mating Mind. (e.g., see my earlier post, “Killer High Heels“). A gifted and entertaining writer, Miller is also an evolutionary psychologist. His forte is hauling his scientific theories out into the real world in order to persuade us that we didn’t really understand some of the things that seemed most familiar to us.
In his new book, Spent, Miller asks why we continuously buy all that stuff that we don’t really need? Miller’s answer is twofold. Yes, human animals have been physically and psychologically honed over the eons this to crave certain types of things over others to further their chances at survival and reproduction. That’s only half the answer, however. We must also consider “marketing,” which is
The most important invention of the past two millennia because it is the only revolution that has ever succeeded in bringing real economic power to the people. . . . it is the power to make our means of production transform the natural world into a playground for human passions.
Is the modern version of marketing a good thing or a bad thing? The answer is yes.
On the upside it promises a golden age in which social institutions and markets are systematically organized on the basis of strong purple research to maximize human happiness. What science did for perception, marketing promises to do for production: it tests intuition and insight against empirical fact area market research uses mostly the same empirical tools as experimental psychology, but with larger research budgets, better-defined questions, more representative samples of people, and more social impact.
Here is a July 2009 interview of Geoffrey Miller by Geraldyne Doogue of the Australian Broadcast Network:
Most of us are quite familiar with the downside of marketing. It encourages us to buy things we don’t really need. But marketing doesn’t merely clutter up our houses and garages; it corrupts our souls:
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers wrote to say that Buddhism had two fundamental flaws:
A) It dodges the issue of death “through the conceit of reincarnation.” and
B) It “blames victims for their circumstances (karma).”
Succinct and persuasive arguments, in my mind. Yet I, just like this reader, am sympathetic to many of the other ideas offered by Buddhism.
“True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason.” – HH, the Dalai Lama
Think of people as a cross between ants and marbles constantly moving in somewhat random patterns. A mass of movement, whirring about, jostling for position and direction going about our business of motion. Sometimes we bump into each other and those bumps impact direction and velocity. When we bump, it is a function of being in the right place at the right time to have whatever impact we do. We go about our days, bumping into other marbles in the checkout line, while making lane changes, and while making a living. Many contacts happen without us being aware of them, without thinking. People often have tunnel vision and are focused only on our own paths. The reality is, though, that the opportunity for real connection is always there, we simply must expect it from ourselves. Even amidst seemingly random patterns we can choose to forge bonds with each other, but we must be committed to seeing other people with compassion.
One day I was on my way to the grocery store to pick up a prescription. It was a gray, blustery day. Traffic in the parking lot was horrible, and I could see an even more frustrating backup while a car inexplicably sat in the way of any traffic in any direction. I hate that. I was not in the best of moods that day, and after I waited five long minutes I got out of my car and walked to the head of the line, which was now edging out into the street. I gestured at the driver and at that moment a man walked out of the store and headed over to the waiting car. He asked me what my problem was, and I said that I was going to ask her to move the car so the traffic could pass. I was on my best behavior, I was professional, pleasant, not at all nasty. I really didn’t expect the vitriol that spewed from his mouth at me. I can’t remember the details but I remember my reaction. Instead of flinching back I took a step forward, straightened my posture, stuck out my chin, and said his attack was unnecessary. He then said, “What are you going to do, hit me? You big dyke.” Bizarre. I am anything but big. I am a little thing, even if I am strong, and I don’t necessarily transmit dykeness, at least that is what folks tell me. I was really taken aback . . .
I am sitting cross legged on a pillow on the floor, which I try to do daily these days, when my cheek begins to itch. A 20 minute daily sitting meditation has, over the past year, become more routine for me. I sit focused on my breath. I am my breath, in, out, not controlling, [...]