I’ve been on a quest recently to understand a bit more about the concept of emptiness. I wrote about it previously (you can read it here) where I argued that perhaps only those who have no desire to be human (as in their purposes in life are greater than living out their human lives) are prepared to conquer and defeat the human need for attachment and practice emptiness in their lives.
If you are interested in the definition of Buddhism’s emptiness, you can read it here. As with many publications, the definition is too ethereal and abstract to be practical for me, so I sought to understand how to practice emptiness. At first this may seem to counter my original post where I mentioned that it may be impossible for one to be empty and not attached if one also wants to live as a human. Well, what if you make the conscious decision to live more monk-like, there are still practical steps one needs to take to reach the state of emptiness. That’s what this post is all about – a practical guide to being empty, if you will.
First, being empty is not about being nothing. Being nothing (as in nihilism) is believing that existence is without meaning or purpose. In other words, if you believe in nihilism, you believe that everything is non-existing and a non-reality. Rather, being empty is, first and foremost, being objective about your surrounding. Everything is real, and everything around you exists. To be empty means to be able to see everything that exists and is real around you with an objective mindset. The more objective you are in assessing the situation around you, the closer you are to being empty.
What do I mean by being objective? The operating definition I like to use for objective is, “free of personal bias and opinion.” It is easier to be objective when assessing situations around us if we are merely third parties looking into the situation. For example, imagine you are an American watching a badminton Olympic match-up between Norway and Indonesia. Assuming you have no ties to the players or the countries in whatever way, shape, or form, chances are you don’t have a preference in who wins or lose. More likely than not, you will simply watch the match as an independent observer and be very objective about the outcome of the game. “May the best player win,” you may say.
Let’s say instead of watching the Olympic game, you were looking out your window and saw two strangers arguing over which box was a more appropriate container for the light bulbs they had. Assuming you could hear their arguments, more likely than not, you would internalize each of their arguments and decide who was more right based on the arguments presented. Again, being a third party and thus being objective allowed you to make a call free of your personal bias and opinion.
The situation becomes harder when we cannot be objective in our assessment of the situation. This happens when 1) we are directly involved in the situation, or 2) we have ties to the persons involved in the situation. For example, let’s imagine you saw your significant other standing really close while talking to a person of the opposite gender. There could be many reasons why they were standing really close to each other — the environment in which they were conversing made it hard to hear each other, or the person of the opposite gender could be hard of hearing. Yet chances are, the first thought that came to our mind might be, “they are flirting with each other!”
So how does one remain objective in situations like that? In my opinion, two big steps are involved. The first step, acknowledgment, is to be taken immediately: it is important is to acknowledge that your assessment of the situation is not objective. You will also need to acknowledge that your feelings and emotions are the reasons you are not objective. Those acknowledgments should help you put yourself back in control of the situation at the moment the situation occurs.
The second step requires cultivation (which really means time and preparation). One way I’ve found to cultivate objectivity is to understand the “whys” behind occurrences. So in the example I gave above, I study the meanings behind non-verbal cues in my everyday life so that when I need to, I am ready to decipher what they mean. I am also an avid student of human relationships, so if I see my significant other potentially flirting with another woman, I would want to understand why he is doing that. By answering the whys, you force yourself to be removed from your emotions and thus your biases. The more distant you become from your biases, the more objective you will become; the more objective you become, the more empty you are.
Notice that distancing yourself from your bias and opinion does not require you to deny what’s happening around you. It simply allows you to see things for what they are, not that they don’t exist. It also allows you to see things outside of a bias lens that may distort the image that you are actually seeing and experiencing. The more you are able to see things without the distorting lens, the more empty you become.
Disclaimer: I am not a Buddhist, but I subscribe to a lot of their teachings because I find them an insightful tool to living a fulfilling life. As such, I welcome all practicing Buddhists to add their comments, especially if what I’ve written is incorrect.