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Buddhist Emptiness & Relational Mindfulness

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, "emptiness" (śūnyatā) refers to the concept that everything is “empty” of independent substance - - in other words, things (including events and people) are interdependent.

In practice, what does this mean? Think of the phrase: There's no such thing as a free lunch: When you see something that's described as a free lunch, you know to look underneath the surface, and to find the strings that are attached to it.

This approach invites us to go beyond the illusions of our perceptions. We now see the world as a web of relationships, instead of objects and beings that exist independently of anything else. We see processes, instead of things that don’t change.

Let's look at this in a different way:

Do you feeling peppier in the spring?  Or, if you have allergies, are you feeling down because of all the sneezing?

Conversely, do you notice how affected you may be by the darkness of winter? How the cold may make you less eager to go out and exercise?

Why am I talking about the effects of the seasons and the weather on how you feel?  I want to make the point that what we call the "self" is not something that is fixed, permanent, rock-solid.  Instead, it is the result of how we "dance" with our environment: Things around us are a certain way, and we have a way of reacting to them… Then things around us are another way, and we react to them in another way.

This is interesting in terms of how we conceive of the “self” philosophically or spiritually.  But it is also highly practical.  If you think of the “self” as something that is solid as a rock, then you’ll feel it is very difficult -- or even impossible -- to change.  On the other hand, if you think of the “self” as a series of ways in which we "dance" with our environment as it changes, then you can't see the “self” as something that is much more fluid and changeable.

For one thing, this suggests that one way of changing who you are is to make some changes to your environment.  For instance, if you are permanently tired and grouchy, it may be that changing your work life might help you be a happier person.

There is also another angle to this.  If you think of the "self" as the way you react to certain circumstances, you may start to become curious about what might happen if you started making some changes to the way you react.

If you’re asked the question "Who are you?", chances are you’ll respond with your name.  Pressed further, what would you say?  People often describe themselves through a role, e.g. a doctor, a lawyer, an artist, a stay-at-home mom...

But, really, who are you?  What is it that makes you hard driving -- or easy-going -- in your endeavors?  What is it that makes you embrace change, or resist it?  What is it that makes you who you are? 

You can say it is your personality... your character... your psyche... your mind... but, then, what is it that makes your mind what it is?

I find it helpful to think of our mind (and our sense of self) as something that results from an interaction on internal and external factors.  Imagine several circles, each of which is included in a wider circle:

- The first circle is the brain, our central processor.

- Then there’s the rest of the nervous system -- -- through which we receive and transmit all kinds of information.

- Then there’s the rest of the body.  If you wonder what your body has to do with your mind or your sense of what you are, conduct some simple experiments: drink a lot of coffee or a lot of alcohol, or take a sleeping pill... and see whether this affects your experience of yourself and how you act.

- Then, there’s the environment you interact with.  What does this have to do with who you are?  Well, for one thing, imagine how different you would be if you had had a different education... taken a different career paths... lived in a milder climate (or a harsher one)...

- And then, there’s the rest of the environment, the part you're not interacting with -- the road not taken.  This is not directly influencing who you are.  But, let's say you take on a new career, or move to a different place, or start a diet or an exercise program... this new environment would then have the potential to shape your life and your sense of self.

Think of all the above as a series of concentric circles, very much like Faberge eggs or Babushka dolls (each time you open one, you find a smaller one inside).  Each of the concentric circles is a system of its own (the brain, for one thing, is a complex system).  But it is in turn included in a larger system (successively, the nervous system, the body, the word you interact with, and the world at large). 

I am suggesting that you think of your mind, and your sense of self, as resulting from the interaction of these different systems. Now, what's the point?  Well, this makes a big difference in how you approach making changes.

If you think of yourself as a monolith, then, when you make a change, you have to move the whole monolith, and it ain't easy.  Say you're a couch potato, and you want to become somebody who exercises.  Or you're a procrastinator, and you want to become somebody who deals with things in good time.  Or you're anxious, or depressed, and you want to become a person with more regular moods.  Within this context, making this kind of change feels overwhelming. It feels like your mind is a big boulder; it is parked someplace, and you have to exert enormous efforts to move it to someplace else.

In the model I'm suggesting, there is no such thing as this big boulder.  Your mind, or your sense of self, is the very fluid result of the interaction of a bunch of things.  It may not be in movement, but you know that it is fluid, that it has the capacity to move, and that movement is an organic process.

To use a simplistic example, let's say that what you're dealing with is starting an exercise program.  Traditionally, you'd think in the following terms: "I need to exercise.  I don't really like to exercise.  So I have to force myself to do so."  So you essentially use your willpower to push the heavy boulder. And it’s exhausting.

In the model I'm suggesting, you see change as the result of interactions at many different levels:

- At the broadest level, the environment, this is about expanding the environment you are currently interacting with to include exercise.  In practical terms, it means looking for what is going to make it easier for you to start to exercise regularly.

- At the body level, you know that you're going to encounter some resistance as you start exercising.  But you also know that bodies are geared to moving, so you will pay attention to finding ways in which some form of movement is pleasant to your body. You will build from that instead of pushing hard to force yourself to move in some way that antagonizes your body.

- This program of exercise is based on harmony with the environment (which makes it more convenient to you) and on harmony with your body (so movement is more natural and more pleasant).  As you make this happen, you are in harmony with your nervous system: you are monitoring what it feels like to do what you do, and you take into consideration what you feel, instead of just pushing yourself.

- Cognitively, you will then be more likely to perceive this change as a harmonious, organic process, in which each step influences the others and contributes to the overall change.  And, as you change what you do, the connections within your brain change, creating new pathways that make it easier to sustain the change.

Who are you?  If you see yourself as a monolith, chances are you will be experiencing changes as major struggles.  On the other hand, if you approach changes as an organic process involving the many systems you're part of, chances are you'll be experiencing more of a sense of fluidity.

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