The Buddhist concept of emptiness – the idea that nothing is permanent or exists independently – is a hard one for some people. Not me. I say this with no particular pride or arrogance. For me, hearing that the self doesn’t exist, that we create the world with our minds, just seems like a statement of fact. Life is but a dream? Cool.
The relative world? That can be harder.
Last Saturday I spent 6½ hours at IDP meditating on the emptiness of self. Consider your body: Can the self be found there? Nope. In the emotions? Constructs? Is Nancy in the word “Nancy”? God, no. (It’s a long story.) No self to be found anywhere. No problem.
But who, then, leaves the building? Who puts on whose shoes, which have been worn to a distinctive shape by the particular pressure of relative bones? Everything seems strange – or maybe it was the non-person perceiving it who was strange. The subway stop was different; has the A train always stopped here? The order of the stops … was that the way it had been before? I walked up a different set of stairs to exit and found myself on a cross street, where nothing was familiar. Even when I got onto the right street, I was astounded. Had it been this wide? Were the blocks this long? At some point, I decided that if I had gotten on the wrong train, left it at the wrong stop, and walked out the wrong staircase to a street that existed in a parallel (or otherwise other) universe, I would be OK with that. We’ll see what happens and deal with it.
As it turned out, all was right with Brooklyn. I started to recognize the dresses in the store windows, then the restaurants, then the street where I turned to get to my friend’s house.
But coming back to the relative world after hanging out in the pure energy and potential of emptiness can be a bit of a hard landing. Nothing is permanent or unchanging here, but sometimes it can’t change fast enough. Everything arises from causes and conditions, but to be honest, some days those conditions suck. Knowing that the sacred exists doesn’t make the mundane less … mundane some days.
My aspiration is to change that, to bring the qualities of the ultimate into the relative world, to embody them and – thereby – share them for the benefit of all beings.
After the retreat, casting around, I picked up John Welwood’s “Toward a Psychology of Awakening,” which IDP Senior Teacher Ethan Nichtern had read from during the weekend. I’d read a lot of the book, been deeply touched by its wisdom, but never finished it. I started where I had left off.
“If the absolute side of our nature – undifferentiated being – is like clear light, then the relative side – differentiated being – is like a rainbow spectrum of colors contained within that light. While realizing undifferentiated being is the path of liberation, embodying qualities of differentiated being is the path of individuation in its deepest sense: the unfolding of our intrinsic human resources , which exist as seed potentials within us, but which are often blocked by psychological concepts.
“… The more we cultivate the full range of human qualities latent in our absolute true nature, the richer our quality of personal presence can become as we begin to embody our true nature in an individuated way. This type of individuation goes far beyond the secular, humanistic idea of developing one’s uniqueness, being an innovator, or living out one’s dreams. Instead it involves forging a vessel – our capacity for personal presence, nourished by its rootedness in a full spectrum of human qualities – from which we can bring absolute true nature into form: the “form” of our person.
“By person I do not mean some fixed structure or entity, but the way in which true nature can manifest itself in a uniquely personal way, as the ineffable suchness or you-ness of you. How fully the suchness of you shines through – in your face, your speech, your actions, your particular quality of presence – is partly grace but also partly a result of how much you have worked on polishing your vessel so that it becomes transparent.”
Get me the Windex. I’ve got a vessel to polish.