Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 6: Emptiness Is Not Nothingness
It is said that when the Buddha presented the teachings on emptiness to his followers, some of them had heart attacks. The early teachings of the Buddha on interdependence implied that there were some actual things that were really “there.” That is, there were some things that couldn’t be broken down into smaller component parts. These small things could combine and recombine into all sorts of aggregates that were themselves impermanent and not solid, but these little things were real. There was something that could be counted on. When the Buddha gave the discourse on emptiness known as the Heart Sutra, however, he proclaimed that there wasn’t anything at all that was real in that way. According to this discourse, all phenomena are “empty.”
What Is Emptiness?
What does that mean? To say that things are empty is to say that they are not what we think they are. They are empty of our thoughts, our concepts, and any language we might apply to them. We cannot reduce the flow of experience to discrete pieces of any kind.
Sometimes when I teach about emptiness, I use my hair as an example. I have always identified myself as a redhead; as a child I had strawberry blonde hair. One day not long ago, I was participating in a group meditation retreat in New York State. I happened to look into the mirror over the sink. “Hmm,” I thought, “in this light, my hair looks light brown.” I quickly reassured myself, “But it’s really red. It’s just the poor light in here.”
Then it occurred to me that there was no “really” about the color of my hair. It was always dependent upon causes and conditions: the light, the condition of my health and vision, how recently I’d been to the hairdresser to have it “brightened.”
In the same way as my hair has no “really,” neither do I. There is no “really” to who I am. That, too, depends on the coming together of causes and conditions in the moment.
It gets even worse. All of those causes and conditions are themselves empty of any “really.” The Buddhist teaching on emptiness says that we cannot find anything at all that is free of this kind of interdependence. We can never pin down anything as, to use a Buddhist term, “truly existent.” To be truly existent would mean that something or someone existed in a solid, permanent way without being dependent upon anything else. The Buddhist view here is that nothing exists separately from its interdependent nature. All that comes together is changing and in the process of falling apart again.
This is not different from what we saw in the teachings on the three marks of existence, but it takes us further. Everything we experience is empty of any true existence of any kind; there are no little particles to be found. Modern physics has reached a similar conclusion when it points out that at the most minute level, reality sometimes acts like a particle and sometimes like a wave, depending on how it is being perceived.
Instead of perceiving some real, external phenomenal world, what we experience are our own mental constructions. It would be easy to mistake this teaching as nihilism and think that nothing exists at all. This is not the Buddhist view. Buddhism regards nihilism as an error. In the Heart Sutra, the Buddha taught that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” That is, even the idea of emptiness is a form, a concept. We may very well try to turn that into something real, too. Even emptiness is empty of our ideas about it.
The Buddhist teachings are known as the Middle Way. Buddhism rejects the two extreme views: either that things exist in a solid, permanent way (eternalism) or that they don’t exist at all (nihilism). Instead the Buddhist teachings regard the existence of things as dependent on conditions, and so they speak of “dependent truth” or “relative truth.” In contrast, “absolute truth” refers to that which does not exist dependent on any particular conditions or circumstances.
Something is happening; it’s just not solid and truly existent. We still have vivid experiences. We are not totally delusional. Well, maybe we are delusional from this point of view, but our delusions are based on some arising of experience. Emptiness is quite fertile: all thoughts, energy, and perceptions arise out of the womb of emptiness. Whatever occurs is not solid and real, yet something still happens. This has always felt like a bit of magic to me: even though we cannot find anything real, still a kind of brilliance keeps occurring. Then, in turn, these vivid experiences dissolve once again into emptiness.
If we look closely at anything, we can penetrate into both its empty and its vibrant nature. A common example is to look at a flower. I have a friend who grows outrageous dahlias in her garden. From the point of view of emptiness, there is nothing solid in any particular dahlia. It is clearly impermanent and will wither and die with the first frost, if not sooner. It has no true unchanging color or shape. It begins little and grows larger. It is made up of the rays of the sun, the compost in the soil, the water, the bulb from which it emerged. It is made up even of my friend’s hard work, her breakfast, the tools she uses, and myriad other things. When we look into each of these, they, too, are the result of interdependence. There is nothing solid to be found. They are empty not only of our thoughts about them but of any unchanging, independent existence. Still, there is a big, showy dahlia to enjoy.
In 1992, I had the good fortune to have an interview with Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, a senior teacher in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. I wanted to meet with him because he had written a wonderful small book on emptiness.
Emptiness in the Therapeutic Encounter
An understanding of emptiness has implications for how we approach our work as therapists. It can alter how we listen to our clients as well as how we regard our own favorite theories of what might be happening in therapy.
Holding the Story Lightly
As therapists, if we remember this advice from Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, we can simultaneously recognize both how painful suffering is while at the same time seeing that it is empty of any true existence. What does that mean? To begin with, generally it means that it is not helpful to our clients when we collude with them so that they need not experience anything painful in therapy. Nor do we avoid the sharpness of being with our clients’ pain ourselves. Instead, we invite our clients (and ourselves) to bring curiosity and mindfulness to what they are actually experiencing. In that way we follow the Khenpo’s advice to acknowledge the truth of suffering. Of course, there will be times that we help our clients establish some stability in their lives before tackling their more difficult experiences, but the ultimate goal is to assist our clients in taking a path toward working with their experience of suffering. At the same time, we can hold lightly the story line that a client brings to us. Not only do we understand that the story is the result of many causes and conditions coming together, but we also understand that these causes and conditions are themselves not solid and real.
Recognizing the Emptiness of Projections and Diagnostic Labels
Therapists and counselors are actually quite well-trained in recognizing that both our clients’ and our own versions of things may be riddled with projection, transference, and counter transference. Where Buddhism goes further is in seeing that there is no absolute truth to be found even when we have thoroughly examined these projections. Story lines are just that: stories with varying degrees of accuracy but never completely true.
Emptiness implies that any time we use a label or diagnosis to describe a client’s situation, we could remember that it is only a label, another story. It is not unusual to forget that a diagnosis is a convenient description. Sometimes therapists start to call clients by their diagnoses as though that is who they were: “a borderline,” “a psychotic.” Whenever we do this, we are turning diagnosis into a kind of ego, a false sense of a person, which inevitably leaves out the uniqueness and the ever-changing process of who that person is.
Being Willing Not to Know
An essential feature of our experience as therapists is uncertainty, not knowing. Alternatively, putting this in Buddhist terms, we could say that we as therapists need to learn to be able to rest in emptiness or openness. When we embrace and understand emptiness, we will be more able confidently to experience whatever arises when we are with our clients, be it more confusion or flashes of wisdom. Otherwise, we are just as likely to help our clients come up with yet another false story.
Having said that, I would also like to say that some stories and thoughts are more constructive than others. Sometimes, our work is to assist clients in finding more useful narratives. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and its variations can be quite helpful in showing clients how their thoughts lead to feelings and behavior. Replacing dysfunctional thoughts and habitual patterns with more encouraging ones can be enormously useful. Still, we can understand that these thoughts are what the Buddhists call “skillful means,” and they are not ultimately true.
Supporting Clients’ Discoveries of Emptiness
When we have an understanding of emptiness, we may hear what our clients say in a new way. I worked with a young man recently who confessed to me that he had always had a sense of things not feeling really solid. Carl even called this feeling “emptiness.” When he had shared this feeling some years previously with his pastor, the clergyman had told Carl that he was depressed and needed medication. “I know I’m not depressed,” he told me. “I just know that all the things I’ve tried to be aren’t really who I am.”
He went on to list the different ego-stories he had tried unsuccessfully to maintain: high school football player, mechanic, guitar- playing folk singer, graduate student, father, husband. While he had done all of these things, none of them felt satisfyingly “real” to him. He experienced tenderness and longing as he described this to me, but he was not depressed. From a Buddhist point of view, he was recognizing egolessness and emptiness.
Often what we as therapists are trying to do is help our clients find ways of being that are more spontaneous, creative, open-minded, and flexible. We would like them to let go of their fixed ideas about themselves, their partners, and their lives. They would like to feel more connected with themselves and others. These therapy goals are, in fact, also “emptiness” goals.
One last implication of emptiness for therapists is recognizing that our role, and even the practice of psychotherapy altogether, is empty. It is tempting to identify ourselves as some kind of helper and make astory about ourselves based on it. To the extent that we solidify such a view, we then require someone to need our help. We end up with a dualistic predicament: for me to be a helper, I need someone to help. This can lead to codependence (not to be confused with interdependence). Codependence is ego based, not emptiness based. In order to feel important or special or even just “existent,” I may cling to my identity as “psychologist” or “psychotherapist” or “counselor” or whatever label I have assumed.
We can easily make a big deal out of therapy. Instead, we could see that it is simply an available form. Because there is such a thing in the culture as “therapy,” we can take that empty form and possibly be of help to people who are suffering.