Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to, and takes nothing away from, the raw data of physical and mental events.
You look at events in the mind and the senses with no thought of whether there is anything lying behind them.
This mode is called emptiness because it is empty of the presuppositions you usually add to experience in order to make sense of it: the stories and worldviews you fashion to explain who you are and the World you live in.
Although these stories and views have their uses, the questions they raise – of your true identity and the reality of the World outside – pull attention away from a direct experience of how events influence one another in the immediate present.
They get in the way when you try to understand and solve the problem of suffering.The problem with all this, is that these stories and views entail a lot of suffering.
The more you get involved in them, the more you get distracted from seeing the actual cause of the suffering: the labels of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ that set the whole process in motion. As a result, you can not find the way to unravel that cause and bring the suffering to an end.
If, however, you adopt the emptiness mode – by not acting on or reacting to the anger but simply watching it as a series of events, in and of themselves – you can see that the anger is empty of anything to identify with or possess.
As you master the emptiness mode more consistently, you see that this truth holds not only for such gross emotions as anger, but also for even the most subtle events in the realm of experience.
This is the sense in which all things are empty. When you see this, you realize that labels of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ are inappropriate, and unnecessary, and cause nothing but stress and pain.
You can drop them. When you drop them you discover a mode of experience that lies deeper, one that is totally free.
To master the emptiness mode of perception requires firm training in virtue, concentration, and discernment. Without this training, the mind stays in the mode that keeps creating stories and worldviews.
And from the perspective of that mode, the teaching of emptiness sounds simply like another story or worldview with new ground rules.
If the World and the people in the story of your life do not really exist, then all the actions and reactions in that story seem like a mathematics of zeros, and you wonder why there is any point in practicing virtue at all.
And so it’s psychologically more conducive to liberation to remember that the thinker or the feeler or the experiencer and the experiences are all together – they’re all one. But, if out of anxiety you try to stabilize or keep permanent some kind of separate observer, then you’re in for conflict.
Now, that’s not a very good idea. It’s more that memory is a dynamic system, not a storage system. It’s a repetition of rhythms, and these rhythms are all part and parcel of the ongoing flow of present experience.
In other words, first of all, how do you distinguish between something known now, and a memory? Actually, you don’t know anything at all until you remember it. Because if something happens that is purely instantaneous – if a light flashes, or, to be more accurate, if there is a flash, lasting only one millionth of a second, you probably wouldn’t really experience it, because it wouldn’t give you enough time to remember it.
How is this? Because memory signals have a different cue attached to them than present time signals. They come on a different kind of vibration. Sometimes, however, the wiring gets mixed up, and present experiences come to us with a memory cue attached to them, and then we have what is called a ‘Deja vu’ experience: we’re quite sure we’ve experienced this thing before.
But the problem that we don’t see, don’t ordinarily recognize, is that although memory is a series of signals with a special kind of cue attached to them so we don’t confuse them with present experience. They are actually all part of the same thing as present experience. They are all part of this constantly flowing life process, and there is no separate witness standing aside from the process, watching it go by.
You’re all involved in it.