Running on emptiness

If you understand emptiness, then all things, like clouds in a blue sky, will appear and disappear.  They will have no hold over you. Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

This article is an attempt to discuss some of the advantages of meditating on emptiness.

Emptiness is a way of describing how things really are.  One main reason it is important to contemplate emptiness, is that, by doing so, we can loosen the hold of all the false beliefs we hold, and all the false perceptions we labour under.


Usually, we don’t question our perceptions.  We get up in the morning, grab our toothbrush, get dressed… we don’t question whether our toothbrush actually exists.  This crude appreciation of reality is adequate for many daily purposes.  Like animals, we can eat, sleep, and perform other functions without too much philosophical thought.

‘Crude’, or ‘gross’, reality works in this basic way.  It is a life we can conduct almost without thinking.  We follow the routine, we grab what we’re given, we copy others… it’s a life of sorts.

However, if we looked more closely, we would see that the things we think we see, are not really there.  Instead, they are like ghosts, labelled by our minds as things.  Even our own body is like this.  True, it is composed of parts we are familiar with – our hands, our feet, our organs… but we do not know exactly what the body is in itself.  If we took away the parts, piece by piece, then eventually we would start to question what this body actually is.

The same is true of a car.  Visit a breaker’s yard, where cars can decay, and you can contemplate exactly what this thing is that we call a car.  If one contemplates all the different stages of composition, then one begins to understand that the ‘gross’ truth of existence is inadequate. We start to see that all realities only become so when they are undertaken as thoughts by a mind.  In other words, nothing is anything, unless our minds make it so.  All things, in themselves, are emptiness.


Once we have gained a sense of this emptiness, we can be more wise and ‘subtle’ in our thinking.  If we understand that reality is only a question of our labels, then we cannot take those labels quite for granted.  Just as the meaning of a dream is up for argument (because the so-called objects in it are only meaningful to a mind), so the meaning of waking things is up for argument (for the same reason).  Sleeping and waking are different worlds, but the two are closely related, in that it is our minds that make meaning of both.

We have moved beyond the ‘gross’ world in which we just pick up our toothbrush in the morning.  We have travelled to a ‘subtle’ world where we appreciate a whole other layer of potential meaning.  At first, the emptiness of things may seem shocking or surprising.  (If you want an example of how emptiness can come upon us, then think of grieving someone you love.  The ‘gross’ truth is that someone has died.  But grief means we encounter so many ‘subtle’ truths and meanings that are hard to explain to someone who is not grieving.)


Meditating on emptiness is powerful, for the reason that it helps us to escape the trap of simple worldly existence.  If we do not want to become wise, then we can carry on a perfectly moderate life by copying everyone else, eating, sleeping, etc etc.  But once we have seen some of the subtle truth behind our gross existence, we may find it hard to go back.

Meditating on emptiness can also assist with the elimination of anxiety.  To be worried about something is to make it important in a particular way, to decide it has a simple existence.  But if we examine our anxieties carefully, we may come to see that they are composed of the same stuff as a toothbrush, or a body…  if we take away the parts of an anxiety, eventually we will see that its composition owes itself to our minds.  Equally, if we understand the subtle truth of the emptiness behind the anxiety, then it loses its hold over us.

Meditating on emptiness, because it loosens the hold of all of our presumptions and assumptions, can have a profound effect on mental health.  It can take a long time, because our mental habits are quite ingrained.  But it can work.  And if it works for us, we can pass the skill on to others.