One of the key themes of Buddhism is the idea of emptiness. In a sense, this idea is a tool which stops us from grasping too hard at what we think of as our self.
We invent myths of ourself. We decide that we are that thing we see in the mirror. Or we decide that we are that person with an apparent talent or skill. Or we accumulate wealth, and then decide that we are that person with a name, a job, a reputation.
But in the end, what the idea of emptiness teaches us, is that none of these things are us in a true sense.
If we don’t believe that we are, fundamentally, emptiness, then we can become subject to all sorts of fears. We fear losing our jobs, our livelihoods, our homes, our health… not realising that the whole concept of loss is based on an identification with that which we think we might lose. So, if you identify with riches, then of course the loss of riches will affect you, because you are grasping at them; and if you identify with health, then of course the loss of health will affect you, because you are grasping at an idea of your self as a healthy one.
In this way, first comes a myth of self, an idea of our self as so-and-so. Next, inevitably, comes the fear of loss, because we are attached to the self we have just invented.
Did we simply decide one day to invent ourselves like this? It doesn’t seem a very logical way to be, to suffer in the name of something false. I guess one answer is that no, we didn’t consciously decide to invent our self-image. It may be more the case that we were fooled into inventing it by our development as living beings. It was useful to our survival to be able to imagine ourselves into all sorts of identities. So we painted ourselves when we wanted to identify with a tribe; and the tribe went hunting with us, and we fed each other. We called ourselves names within the tribe: and this helped us to organise in certain ways, to take on specialist jobs protecting ourselves and each other from perceived enemies.
In this way, we cultivated in ourselves and others, through cultures, ways of perpetuating the myth of self, the fiction of a name, of an identity which was worth defining and defending. These identities have sprung up into a network of such things: not only individual names, but countries; collections of countries called unions; world organisations, even. You can see them everywhere: they have badges, flags, colours; they fight wars; they kill others, and put them down, in the name of dignity and survival.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It seems that our identities support our continued existence. But this is only true if we assent to the idea that our aim is to perpetuate our existence.
What if we chose a different path? What if we decided that this myth of the self isn’t worth pursuing any more? That, in fact, it may be doing more harm than good? That every time we assert that we are different, and special, we are damaging both ourselves and other people?
In terms of damage to ourselves, think of the effort it takes to wake up every day and support the myth, the illusion, of your self. How many minutes do you spend putting make up on, dressing up, gathering together your self-image, so that you can go out into the world and pretend to be something that you strongly suspect you aren’t? Is it really worth all the anxiety, all the fear of loss? Is it worth those collapses, when you suddenly feel inadequate to the task of supporting that ‘you’ which gets further and further away from gentleness, relaxedness, peacefulness?
And in terms of damage to other people, think of the innumerable ways in which you decide you are different to others: how you ignore them, and do them down, deface their reputation because you want yours to be better. Think of the time you spend making sure that your ‘team’, whatever it may be, gathers the best resources, loses the least wealth, ends up looking the coolest, or the best, or the healthiest, or the most attractive, or whatever is your fashion of the moment.
THE RELIEF OF EMPTINESS
In the light of the stresses and strains above – of the sheer psychological pressure of maintaining the illusion – might it be a relief to realise that the self you are trying to sustain (that monstrously fictional self-image) is not you at all? Might it be a chance to breathe again, if you took off the self-imposed mantle of king or queen of your own world, and softened into a simple piece of emptiness?
You could drop your grasp on wealth. You could drop your grasp on job. You could drop your grasp on how you are supposed to look, to feel… you could let go of the image that you only half believe in anyway. And you might free yourself up to relax into something else more worthwhile. Evolution and self-interest have had a go, and it was all very stimulating, but why not try an alternative that doesn’t push you into addiction, competitiveness and pointless striving?
We have decided, almost without thinking, that we have selves to maintain with names, jobs, reputations. Attachment to these personal selves give us, in turn, a deep fear of loss that haunts us all our days.
These myths of the self derive from our animal evolution: we were the ones who survived, and killed others even, by inventing protective self-identities.
But now, in modern society, we are left with fundamentally mythical, invented selves, which we have conned ourselves into protecting at all costs. Our anxiety is often borne of the thought that we cannot preserve those selves indefinitely – because others compete against us; because we age; because there are not enough resources to go round.
In that context, what a relief it would be to drop that self, to simply decide it doesn’t need protecting, because it never even existed in the first place! Why not try relaxing into a different way, letting yourself breathe, opening your eyes, and releasing your grasp on such things.
Welcome to the Buddhist idea of emptiness. It might just help you drop your anxiety.