Comfortable with Emptiness

I came across the following eight or nine years ago on a blog called Beyond Karma. The title of the post was “Cease to Cherish Opinion” and the line that has stuck with me is: “Do not seek the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.” You can and will have opinions, of course… but hold them lightly. Don’t cherish them. At least that’s been my understanding. But the “Do not seek the truth” part has always puzzled me. Why wouldn’t you want to seek the truth? Because (I think) “truth” is a concept. A word we’ll come back to in a minute.

“Rely only on direct experience. It may feel little uncomfortable to rely only direct experience, because what do we really know from direct experience? If you go into it, there isn’t much we can be sure of. “I exist,” there is Awareness, and all experience is in the Now. That’s about it.”

“Get comfortable with the emptiness of no beliefs, no ideas, no concepts, no knowing, no desires, no anticipation, no system, and no future.”

The notion of “emptiness” comes up a lot in Buddhism and Taoism. But what does it mean to to have no beliefs, no ideas, and all the rest. I’ve read that last sentence so many times the words lost all meaning and became just sounds coming out of my mouth. So I looked up the definitions.

Belief – an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
Doesn’t sound all that iron-clad, does it. “I’m not certain, but I believe…” Okay, I can sorta see no beliefs.

Idea – a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action; the aim or purpose.
A “possible course of action” isn’t the sort of thing you can take to the bank, is it. And who hasn’t admitted to being “fresh out of ideas.” Sure. No ideas.

Concept – an abstract idea; a general notion.
I’m thinking I could go for a while without a concept. I thought an ‘idea’ seemed a little ‘abstract’ so an ‘abstract idea’ is fuzzy enough to put down for a bit.

Knowing – be aware of through observation, inquiry, or information.
To know something through “inquiry or information” doesn’t seem that rock solid. We get bad information all the time. But isn’t observation as good as it gets, reliance-wise? David Blaine says no. Our powers of observation aren’t really that powerful. I can get comfortable with no knowing.

Desire – a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.
This one sounds easy to give up but we all want things to be the way we want them to be. Even after they aren’t, if you know what I mean. But desire feels like an emergent property to me. I don’t decide to desire. Desire just is. From out of nowhere (probably the brain). I’d be happy to relinquish desire if someone can tell me how.

Anticipation – the action of anticipating something; expectation or prediction.
This is sort of a ground ball. Maybe. Anticipation must be of a future event or time but the anticipating can only happen now. The future is, after all, imaginary. Not real. Not yet. If I’m anticipating something — even something very pleasant — I’m missing out on the here and now which is the only real time. So let’s “be in the moment” and no anticipation.

System – set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular.
This one has me stumped. What would it mean to be comfortable with no system? And why would we want to? If I had to guess, this has something to do with spontaneity. Don’t plan, just wait and see what happens.

Future – the time or a period of time following the moment of speaking or writing; time regarded as still to come.
Did we cover this with anticipation? The future only exists in my head. Mind stuff. Sure, I can think about the future but I can only do that thinking in this moment. Now. Put me down for no future.

So we’re “comfortable with the emptiness of no beliefs, no ideas, no concepts, no knowing, no desires, no anticipation, no system, and no future.” What is this state of being? What could be happening?

I could hear a bird singing. I could feel the sun on my face. I could smell that first delicious whiff of a double espresso.

Seems to me the one thing beliefs and ideas and concepts and all the rest have in common is thinking. Thoughts. But no thinking is required for most of the really good stuff. I’m not sure it’s possible to intentionally stop thinking but we do experience moments where the mind becomes still and focused. Jumping the boat’s wake at 40mph is something you do (not me but you, probably) without thinking. The guitarist completely in the groove, playing that song she’s practiced a thousand times. Those moments in deep meditation when the chattering voice in your head becomes silent for just a moment. Emptiness filled with a special kind of awareness, perhaps.

Homo Deus: Free Will and Consciousness

This is the second of three posts featuring excerpts from the new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). The first post dealt with traditional religions, creeds and ‘isms.’ The excerpts below are some of Dr. Harari’s thoughts on the concepts of free will and consciousness.

The obvious problem with posting selected excerpts the the absence of contest which you can only get by reading the book. I encourage you to do so.

Free will exists only in the imaginary stores we humans have invented. […] (The question is not whether humans) can act upon their inner desires — the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.

I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. […] I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.

Once we accept that there is no soul and that humans have no inner essence called ‘the self’, it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘How does the self choose its desires?’ […] There is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass away within this stream, but there is no permanent self that owns the desires.

If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?

(There are) at least two different selves within us: the experiencing self and the narrating self. The experiencing self is our moment-to-moment consciousness. The narrating self is forever busy spinning yarns about the past and making plans for the future. […] It doesn’t narrate everything, and usually weaves the story using only peak moments and end results. […] Most of us identify with our narrating self. When we say ‘I’, we mean the story in our head not the onrushing stream of experiences we undergo. […] We always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps even beyond).

If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable.

Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with sbits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. […] But in the end, they are all just stories.

Every moment the biochemical mechanisms of the brain create a flash of experience, which immediately disappears. Then more flashes appear and fade, appear and fade, in quick succession. These momentary experiences do not add up to any enduring essence.

The Fear Basket

I’ve struggled with worry and anxiety my entire life. Tried a little counseling. A mild anti-anxiety drug for a while. Lots of reading on the subject. And, in recent years, meditation. I suspect a professional would put me on the low end of the anxiety spectrum, if there is such a thing. At this point in my life, I don’t expect to ever be completely worry-free. I’ve learned to live with it.

The subject comes up in just about every book and article I’ve read on Taoism and Buddhism. The term most often used is good old “fear.” And it seems we fear the one thing that is inevitable: change. And, of course, we fear that biggest change of all, death.

I think most adults know that fearing what might happen at some future time is pointless. And, yes, we know that most of the things we fear never happen. There’s a part of me that will always believe that worry/anxiety/fear is either hardwired into our brains and/or learned behavior at a very early age. These days I’ve been dealing with worry (anxiety sounds too clinical and fear a bit extreme) from a Buddhist/Taoist perspective. Here’s how it plays out in my head.

Anxious thoughts pop into our mental stream with some regularity. We don’t choose our thoughts. At least, that’s my understanding. Thoughts bubble up from somewhere in our subconscious and quickly (usually) get pushed out by the next thought. If you’re really busy and involved with something, most thoughts don’t stick around long.

Now Buddhists and Taoist are quick to point out that we don’t really have permanent self. The “me/I” that we all feel is inside somewhere, watching things and calling the shots, isn’t really there. I know, I know. But it’s damned easy to imagine there’s a me, myself and I. And that’s who reaches out and grabs that fear thought when it floats into consciousness.

“Whoa! What’s this on my leg? Is that a stage four melanoma?” The passing thought doesn’t pass. It goes into what I’ve been calling the Fear Basket. The Fear Basket is what the self lugs around to hold all the thoughts I’m worried about. Think of them as stones of varying size. There’s no limit to how many stones your basket will hold so it can get damned heavy. Occasionally, we can toss one of theses stones. The lab report said benign pigmentation. Nothing to worry about. Yeah, okay, if that was the only stone in your Fear Basket. You get the idea.

But if our Buddhist/Taoist friends are right and there really is no self… who’s holding the basket? I’ll admit the “no self” thing is a tough one. I’ve been wrestling it for years. But here’s something of which we can be certain: those rocks might be heavy but they’re not real. Not yet. So when I feel that basket getting heavy, I’m going to focus on a rock and see if I can make it fade like Jim Kirk getting beamed up by the Enterprise transporter.

I tell you what else might work but I’m not there. Yet. A real basket you carry with you everywhere you go. Worried about the stock market? Find a rock of the appropriate size and put it in your basket. Concerned that bald spot is getting bigger? Look for a fist sized stone and put it in the basket. When someone asks you why you’re carrying around a basket of rocks, explain that each rock represents something you’re worried about. After telling that story half a dozen times you might decide to just put the damned thing down. Or at least dump the rocks.

UPDATE: The Fear Basket can only contain rocks when someone is holding or carrying it. The longer they hold/carry the basket, the heavier the rocks become. And, paradoxically, the more difficult to set the basket down.


“This very large thing (the net) provides a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall, planetary scope) and a new mind for an old species. It is the Beginning. […] At its core 7 billion humans, soon to be 9 billion, are quickly cloaking themselves with an always-on layer of connectivity that comes close to directly linking their brains to each other. […] By the year 2025 every person alive — that is, 100 percent of the planet’s inhabitants — will have access to this platform via some almost-free device. Everyone will be on it. Or in it. Or, simply, everyone will be it.”

— The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

“All information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself anywhere without moving his body— even to distant regions of space. But this will be a new kind of individual— an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity. And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences. […] If all this ends with the human race leaving no more trace of itself in the universe than a system of electronic patterns, why should that trouble us? For that is exactly what we are now!”

— The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts

“Humanity is developing a sort of global eyesight as millions of video cameras on satellites, desktops, and street corners are connected to the Internet. In your lifetime it will be possible to see almost anything on the planet from any computer. And society’s intelligence is merging over the Internet, creating, in effect, a global mind that can do vastly more than any individual mind. Eventually everything that is known by one person will be available to all. A decision can be made by the collective mind of humanity and instantly communicated to the body of society.”

— God’s Debris by Scott Adams

In all of my reading about Taoism, Buddhism and other eastern mystical traditions, one theme repeats over and over. That there is no permanent, on-going self. That feeling of “me” and “I” is an illusion. And the source of all suffering. Clinging and resisting is mixed in (I want things to be the way I want things to be) but I won’t try to tackle that here.

There is nothing more difficult for me to comprehend than the idea that my feeling of “me-ness” is just an illusion. Not real. I’ve been struggling with this for many years. And I’ve grabbed on to various metaphors in an effort to see (or feel) how this could possibly be.

For the last week or so I’ve been thinking of myself as a computer connected to a vast network of other computers. Over the years, every part of the computer has been replaced. The monitor, the hard drive, the keyboard, all the internal parts… all have been replaced. In no sense is the computer the same computer that was there in the beginning.

In this tortured analogy, the computer operating system is my brain(mind?). But from the very beginning, the OS was being continuously updated. This is where the analogy gets wobbly because who or what is using the computer? I don’t have a clue so I’m gonna say the computer OS is using itself and, in the process, creating an imaginary sense of self that believes it is operating the computer. Why is it doing this? No clue. How is it doing this? No clue.

But every day the OS changes and evolves as it processes ever more information. Emails, text messages, videos, songs, news articles, and all the rest. Every new bit makes a tiny change in the OS so it is never the same from one moment to the next. From the computer’s perspective, everything is humming along fine. An endless flow of new and interesting stuff.

But let’s assume we can only keep the hardware and software running for 80 years. Manufacturer’s planned obsolescence or something. The network knows this and when one computer goes “offline,” another one comes on, running the latest OS. The network is always becoming. It only exists as an entity in relation to the network.

But the imagined self — the ghost in my machine — is horrified by this prospect. It doesn’t know (can’t know?) it’s not real. It’s non-existence is horrifying and unimaginable (take a moment to appreciate the irony). I took a moment to watch the final scene of 2010 (A Space Odyssey) in which Dr. Chandra explains to HAL that it will be destroyed.

So, no self… happy ending (No ending, actually). Self… The End. Oblivion. Easy choice. But it is only from my God-like, Creator of the Analogy perspective that any of this can be considered. The only way I can keep my head from exploding (one of the most difficult parts to replace) is to imagine the “always Becoming OS” can generate this view, this understanding and in so doing, recognize the illusory nature of the self. Enlightenment.

Additional reading:
Neuroscience backs up the Buddhist belief  that “the self” isn’t constant, but ever-changing
You’re a completely different person at 14 and 77

The story we keep repeating

“(We) are impressions left by something that used to be here. We have been created, molded, formed by a bewildering matrix of contingencies that have preceded us. From the patterning of the DNA derived from our parents to the firing of the hundred billion neurons in our brains to the cultural and historical conditioning of the twentieth century to the education and upbringing given us to all the experiences we have ever had and choices we have ever made: these have conspired to configure the unique trajectory that culminates in this present moment. What is here now is the unrepeatable impression left by all of this, which we call “me.” […] What are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads?”

— Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

Like feeling warm or cold

“Don’t try to get rid of the ego-sensation. Take it, so long as it lasts, as a feature or play of the total process — like a cloud or wave, or like feeling warm or cold, or anything else that happens of itself. Getting rid of one’s ego is the last resort of invincible egoism! It simply confirms and strengthens the reality of the feeling. But when this feeling of separateness is approached and accepted like any other sensation, it evaporates like the mirage that it is.” — Alan Watts

Still the Mind

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at Tue, Oct 7, 10.59.49 AMExcerpts from Alan Watts’ Still the Mind (An Introduction to Meditation)

We fail to distinguish between the way things are and the way they are described.

One’s actual organic being is inseparable from the universe.

I found out that unless one has something to give people, there is nothing one can do to help them. Just because I thought I ought to help, it didn’t mean that I had anything to give.

The whole energy of the universe is coming at you and through you, and you are that energy.

You can only know what you can compare with something else.

What we call the past is simply the traces, the fade-outs trailing away from the present. Continue reading

The Tao of Zen

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at Tue, Oct 7, 10.53.56 AM“The Tao of Zen is a nonfiction book by Ray Grigg. The work argues that what we recognize as traditional Chinese Ch’an/Japanese Zen Buddhism is in fact almost entirely grounded in Chinese Taoist philosophy, though this fact is well shrouded by the persistence of Mahayana Buddhist institutional trappings. Utilizing an array of scholarly commentary on the two traditions and historical deduction from what can be considered to be the best primary source material available, the author traces the development of Taoism and Buddhism in China and Japan for two millennia.” (Wikipedia)

I’ve read this book twice and expect to read it again but I wouldn’t know where to begin to describe it. The Wikipedia link above is a good start. As is my habit with nonfiction, I highlighted as I read.