The secret behind emptiness of the mind.

If you think you know Emptiness, you don’t. The reason is, you were thinking.

Thinking by itself is words, images, sounds or sensations (some sensations). The content of thoughts is not very important, as all thoughts contain some sort of information processing. Whether that information is important or not, depends on the person who is thinking. For eg. money may have a lot of importance in the life of a businessman, but an artist may not give much importance to it.

Wikipedia defines thinking as “ the mental process in which beings form psychological associations and models of the world. Thinking is manipulating information, as when we form concepts, engage in problem-solving, reason and make decisions. Thought, the act of thinking, produces thoughts. A thought may be an idea, an image, a sound or even an emotional feeling that arises from the brain.”

Therefore, we are constantly occupied with thinking, without ever having a mind which is empty. Emptiness is not dullness. Dullness can be a result of boredom, excessive pleasure or exhaustion. Emptiness is more like awake alertness without a purpose or direction.

Dullness or inaction is similar to a tired horse that has been running for a hundred miles, and now is standing motionless, and without a purpose. Emptiness, on the other hand, is like a horse that is well-fed, healthy and alert, but not moving in any direction.

Emptiness is the state of our mind before it takes action, whereas, dullness (thoughtlessness) is a state of mind once it is exhausted from thinking.

Emptiness is a creative state of mind, while dullness is an uncreative, and often a destructive state of mind. From emptiness we do not feel like escaping, rather, we want to go deeper into it. When we are dull and thoughtless, we prefer to engage in a pleasurable activity like eating, drinking, smoking or sex.

We never seek to escape from emptiness, however, we cannot stand dullness. These are two completely separate states of mind.

Why is emptiness so elusive?

Emptiness cannot be sought directly. In other words, you cannot force the mind to become quiet.

The mind is like the sea. The surface of it is always choppy, turbulent and great mightly waves crash about in it incessantly. You cannot calm the sea by forcing the waters to remain steady. The water reacts to other forces such as the wind and the gravity of the moon.

Similarly, there are other factors which govern the activity inside the mind. These factors are mainly of two basic types.

  1. Desire
  2. Fear

Anything else, which creates movement inside the mind, is a variation of either desire or fear.

Our brains, as complex as they are, evolved to survive dangers of the wilderness. The brain has had a singular focus for millennia, which is to thrive and survive in nature. The higher form of thinking, conceptualization is nothing more than a method to distinguish between an opportunity or a threat.

Therefore, all thinking evolved as a means to enable us to manipulate our surroundings, to build tools to hunt, fight, or to cultivate the ground beneath our feet, to congregate in groups, and to create a society. Essentially, to survive. How do the two motivating factors work in this case?

  1. Desire: Example, we had a desire to stay warm, so we built a fire.
  2. Fear: Example, we were afraid of being attacked by a bear, so made a spear.

If our brain never wanted to manipulate the environment it found itself in, it would never have engaged in thinking, planning or conceptualizing at all.  Thinking, therefore, is the result of the subconscious activity of desire for pleasure, or the fear of pain.

Since desire and fear are always active within us, emptiness is a rare phenomenon. It certainly, cannot be brought about by planning, and if we were to wait for it to happen, we would probably wait for eternity.

How to develop Emptiness, a Zen story.

A Zen teacher by the name of Mokurai, had a disciple named Toyo. Toyo went to his master one day and asked him why his spiritual progress was so slow? Why hadn’t he attained enlightenment in spite of having practiced for many years.

Mokurai said,”Two hands together make a clapping sound, but what is the sound of one hand? If you can tell me, you’ll be enlightened.”

Toyo went home and meditated upon it. While meditating, he heard a beautiful tune being played in the distance by the local musicians. He said, “Ah! I have got it”. He went to Mokurai the next day and played the same tune to him.

Mokurai said, “That tune is beautiful, but it is not the sound of one hand. Go back and meditate more.”

So Toyo went back, thought more about it. It began to rain that evening. Toyo thought,” Yes this must be it!”. So he went back to his master the next day and told him about the sound of rain.

Mokurai said,” Yes, rain is quite peaceful. But is it the sound of one hand? I don’t think so. You still don’t have it”.

Toyo took back many sounds over the next few days, a bird’s call, the sound of thunder, all of which were rejected. One day he got so frustrated that he slapped himself in front of his teacher, and asked. “Master, is this the sound of one hand?”

Mokurai laughed loudly, “That’s the sound of pain and impatience, not the sound of one hand! Go try again, and this time, do not return until you have it”

Toyo went away, and for one year he thought over this problem. Eventually, he returned to his master.

Mokurai asked, “So you are back, surely now you know the sound of one hand. Show me.”

Toyo kept quiet for a while, then spoke, “Master Mokurai, I no longer wish to find the sound of one hand. I do not know what it is. The only sound I know now is that of silence. That is all.”

Mokurai said, “Good! Now you know the sound of one hand”.

Does this story confuse you? Don’t worry, your’e not alone.

This story is what  Zen practitioners call a Koan (pronounced Ko-Ahn). It’s a method to develop emptiness through asking questions or telling stories.

Koans, are stories which create a state of paradoxical quietness through thinking. They invite the mind to think, yet offer no logical path for thoughts to follow, creating a kind of active silence. This silence is both creative, and yet inactive. It does nothing more than bring about an understanding of the truth in oneself.

This sudden understanding takes the brain from ‘trying to think‘ to ‘realization‘, to ‘ no need to think anymore‘, which is the state of emptiness. Students of Zen spend decades studying them in order to achieve perfect Zen.

Yet, how can we create Emptiness in daily living, if we don’t have access to a Koan?

Finding your T.A.O

Generally, when we act, we act with a sense of purpose, effort and a specific aim in mind. There is nothing wrong with this kind of action, except that it creates a state of confusion and disorder in our minds. We become stressed, overwhelmed and tired.

In order to enter the state of Emptiness, this struggle must completely come to a stop. This struggle is a result of effort. How can one get rid of effort? No matter what you do it is an effort. Even trying to get rid of effort is an effort. So what should one do? The answer lies in becoming aware of your TAO.  Only Awareness has the power to end your struggles, without creating more struggle in the process.

Effortless action has no parallel, or contradiction in this world. It creates harmony and peace in our minds.

Ask yourself these questions

  1. What is my Thinking at the moment?
  2. What is my Attachment at this time?
  3. What is the Outcome I seek through my actions?

For example, if you are searching for a job it would be.

  1. My Thinking is if I don’t find a job quickly my career is over.
  2. My Attachment is that I need to find the perfect job.
  3. The Outcome I want is I find a job as soon as possible.

You will notice that your most prevalent thinking, your attachment, and the specific outcome you want is not only creating stress for you, but also limiting your options. If you can let go of these three things, then you realize your mind becomes totally effortless and empty. The secret to an empty mind then is not to seek emptiness but to end all striving, in all its subtle forms.

Then, you can live your life as it happens. Without worrying, and stressing over particular outcomes. You act as you are required to, and you act easily, without stress. If you happen to get interviews, you give them fearlessly, as if you have nothing to lose.

And, it is true! You do indeed have nothing to lose.

Nothing that is worth having, can be taken away from you.

With an empty mind, all action is non-contradictory and easy. Nothing is difficult. Nothing is painful. Nothing creates suffering.

But, our mind immediately says,  “But what if I don’t reach my goals, with an empty mind?”.

Goal seeking, for an empty mind is not like a dog chasing a car, but a child holding a flower in her hand. 

Goal seeking becomes a part of playful exploration. Just like a game, if interrupted today, can be picked up tomorrow, goals can be lost today and found tomorrow.

Surrendering cannot be described to someone, it has to be experienced. Once the mind becomes empty, and life becomes easy our creativity and productivity flowers. Not only do we understand why Emptiness is more valuable than complex thinking, but also we fall in love with Emptiness. We crave it and strive for it.

Remember, Emptiness cannot be found by directly chasing it, any more than water can be held by grasping at it.

Flow with the present moment without trying to change it, and Emptiness will find you.

Recommended reading on Zen:

  • Zen Koans:
  • Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: a Collection of Zen and pre-Zen Writings- Paul Reps
  • Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn- Stephen Mitchell and Zen Master Seung Sahn


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