Sacred geometry

The Wonder of Emptiness - Seeing That Frees (Part Two)

Date7th September 2013
Retreat/SeriesCambridge Day Retreats 2013


So let's continue this thread, this little journey that we're on. And I want to talk now for maximum an hour. But it will be a little longer because I want to pursue this a bit deeper. And then as I said, at the end of the day, there'll be plenty of time for discussion and questions. So be comfortable, comfortable enough for forty, fifty minutes or so, an hour, probably a little less.

You know, when we talked about blame, in a way, we're talking about a lot of self, the way the self particularly -- either this self or another self -- gets constructed, gets solidified and built up. Let's stay with this business about the self for a while, and then we can see if we can go deeper, and talk about the emptiness of self. We're still talking about the emptiness of self. And let's actually stay for a while, and just talk within the self, this experience of self -- let's stay, just for now, at the personality level, what I call the 'personality level' of the self. This, actually, nowadays, is where most people in our culture, where there's no food scarcity, generally speaking, we're not plagued by wars on this territory and all that -- generally speaking, most people suffer these days at the level of the personality. Not completely, but that's where a lot of suffering is. So it's really worth looking at that level, this business of emptiness at that level.

But here, again, at the level of our personalities, or the personality of another ... [people shouting in background] [laughter] We ... [people cheering in background] [laughter] We tend to construct and crystallize, if you like, self-view. So either this self or another self -- we construct a view of what our personality or the personality of someone else is like, gets built up and gets solidified. And then we get stuck with that a little bit. So for example, when we talked about blame, if you like, there's a situation, something happens or doesn't happen, and then we point the finger of blame. And out of that can come a more pervasive conclusion, a more continuous conclusion about how I am. I blame myself, and it kind starts encrusting more constantly about how I am, how my personality is, my defects, etc., or another person. And blame can start encrusting into shame, something more continuous, just feeling bad about who I am and how I am -- not just for one event.

[3:00] So then we're in the whole area of, how do I tend to define myself? What are the self-definitions that walk around with, or the way that I tend to define someone else? "I am this kind of person. I am that kind of person. I'm an angry person. I'm a failure. I'm a damaged person. I'm a" -- whatever it is, you know. Some of them have some truth to them. Some of them, really not true at all. Many of these are actually quite painful. Something like "I'm a failure" is just a painful self-view. There's no way around it. Carrying around that kind of self-definition is painful.

Sometimes, though, we carry around a positive self-definition. But that also is kind of painful. It's a kind of a prison. I'm fixed, then, in this view, and somehow I have to keep pumping it up and keep protecting it. And someone might not agree with me, and then we get into a bit of a thing. So even a positive self-view actually, in the long run, works as a prison. It might be that I need to develop a positive self-view, maybe, as a state. But eventually, even a positive self-definition will be a limitation. I will feel it as a constriction. So some of these self-definitions, whatever -- there's obviously a whole range possible. Some are obvious. It's clear to us how we're defining ourselves or another. Some are really not that obvious, and oftentimes, we don't even realize that we're carrying these self-definitions, that we're binding ourselves or another in a self-definition. We don't even realize that they're going on, and they're still operating, and they're still constricting, and they're still limiting.

Sometimes, these self-definitions, we realize they're there because we repeat them to ourselves. So the internal dialogue, the internal chatter is saying, "I'm a failure," or "You're a failure," or whatever it is, or "You're this," or "You're that," to oneself. Sometimes they're more non-verbal. They're sort of imbued in the being in some way that's not actually verbally manifesting that obviously. Sometimes they're visible more because we say them to others -- not so much to ourselves, but that's what we find ourselves describing ourselves to others. And sometimes, they're visible because they come out in the roles that we tend to take up within, say, a group dynamic or a little social scene or something: "I always tend to end up being the one that people laugh at, the sort of clown, a bit of a loser," or whatever, whatever it is. And so that self-definition is manifesting through the role that I find my way to, again and again, or the behaviour.

Sometimes these are so subtle that it's only when they shift, and we move out of those kind of self-definitions for a minute, half an hour, a day, some months, or for the rest of our life, that we actually realize they've been operating in the first place. They're so entwined in the being and so sort of our habitual mode that we don't even realize they're working in us.

Many problems come out of this -- many, many problems, many constrictions. But one of the long-term, similar to what I said this morning, when there's a kind pervasive self-definition, this pervasive binding, it will tend to influence the perception. So I feel that I am a certain way, and then based on that self-view, that self-definition, I tend to look at experience, at the world, at my existence, at my story, and at myself through the lenses of those self-views and self-definitions. "I am a failure" tends to shape my perception and certainly colour it, colours it darkly, doesn't it? "I'm a failure" -- I tend to see things darkly. "I'm a failure" -- I tend to find evidence ('evidence') for my failures. It programs perception so that I focus on the negative, and it programs perception to give it a dark tint, for example. And then I'm gathering 'evidence,' so-called, or so it seems, for what a failure I am. And guess what? That goes back in the consciousness and programs perception more. And the whole thing either snowballs or just gets locked into a self-perpetuating, seemingly self-evident view of things. [7:58] So this is a problem. This is dukkha. This is dis-ease, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, imprisonment.

So what to do about all this? Well, one thing that can come powerfully to our rescue is actually something very simple, and that's just the sustaining of awareness, the continuity of mindfulness. So this is a real gift here, because if I just start sustaining mindfulness, I start to see, it starts to become evident, the absences, the times when that quality, whatever it is -- let's say I'm an 'angry' person. That's just, "That's me. I'm angry. I've got this problem with anger," or whatever. You start to see, "Well, there are lots of times when anger isn't there, or lots of times when I didn't fail," or whatever it is. Of course, it might be positive: "I'm a really kind person. I'm a really genuine person." And you start to see, "Well, there are lots of gaps in that, times when I wasn't so genuine," or whatever.

And conversely, through the continuity of mindfulness, the opposites of this, whatever I'm defining myself -- they start to become evident, so that if I think, "I'm not very kind," I start to see moments when there is kindness. So absences and presences of a thing and its opposites, a quality and its opposites, start to become more obvious through the continuity of mindfulness, the continuity of awareness. It's like the lie cannot stand the scrutiny of a closer and more continuous awareness. [9:25] And we start to see, this self-definition is not really ultimately true. It has lots of gaps in it. It doesn't really hold water. It doesn't really stick together.

And it's not, through doing something like that, through keeping the mindfulness more constant like that over a period, that then I go to the other extreme, and just replace a negative self-definition with a positive one, because that too starts to, begins to puncture. Sometimes people practise affirmations and that sort of thing, and that can be a helpful stepping-stone. But eventually, as I said, that too will become a prison. And if you practise just a more constant mindfulness in a period, a limited period, then you don't tend to lock into more positive definitions either.

So how might one practise this? Well, a number of things. When there's dis-ease, when there's any kind of dis-ease, sometimes it's just worth popping in the question: is there a self-definition wrapped up in this? So I'm feeling whatever it is -- angry, upset, hurt, or just something -- and just asking: is there some kind of self-definition operating here, of self or of other? Is it wrapped up, is it part of what's constellating, supporting this whole thing? And what is it? What might it be? Can I identify it?

But secondly, what's really possible is, over time, beginning to pay attention at this level in the being, into this whole area, and beginning to be aware of, "Well, what are the self-definitions that I tend to constellate? What are the self-definitions that I tend to keep forming and gravitating to? What are the ones that are operating in me?" So over some days, even, beginning to list them. Actually make a list. And then maybe you've got a list of different self-definitions, and maybe then you can look at this list. And looking is actually quite important. Writing it and looking is quite important because it externalizes something. You see a lot of this is happening inside. It's so close to us that we don't even see it, and don't see that it's operating. Once you've externally written it down, then literally it's externalized, and you've got more space. It's something on a piece of paper that you can have a perspective on, whereas here or inside, it's hard to get a perspective on.

[11:49] What happens, then, with this list, if I read it through with mindfulness, and slowly? How does that feel, to do that? What happens if I do that? And through that process, I can actually begin to get, actually ask a question: "Is this true? This one there, whatever it is, I am such-and-such. Is that true?" The mindfulness and the externalization, etc., starts to create the ability to sort of loosen this perspective.

Then, maybe, I could pick one -- let's say, "I'm an unkind person" or "I'm a kind person," or whatever it is. Pick one, and I take a period of time -- let's say a day, let's say two days, maybe it's on retreat, maybe it's off retreat -- and I just really practise a continuity of mindfulness, general mindfulness. And then I start to notice the absences of that quality. I think I'm kind; I'll see moments where that is not what arises. If I think I'm unkind, I'll see moments where that's not true either. I start to see the opposites manifesting as well. Very, very simple practice, very simple. And notice what it feels, how it feels to do that. Some space is coming in where there was no space before. Some doubt, some helpful doubt is coming in. Some questioning is coming in where there was no space, no doubt, no questioning. We're loosening the prison. We're elbowing some more room in the tight binding of self-definition. Very, very simple, but actually really helpful. Really helpful.

So this is maybe the second practice we're talking about today. This kind of questioning of self-definition that I've just described is actually a really good place to start, if you're interested in following this thread of emptiness deeper and deeper. Why? Because, similar to some of the stuff I was talking about this morning, sometimes when people hear about emptiness, and the person has said, "Oh, I feel uneasy," or there's fear and that kind of thing, and it feels too much to take it all on, you just start where the dis-ease is, where is the dukkha is, and something quite simple. And just beginning to unpack that, beginning to pry it open and (really important) feel the freedom there. Feel the freedom when it opens. That gives me confidence: "I've seen this much emptiness. Okay. That feels good. Maybe that next little step will also feel good. I can trust it." So it's a really good place to start.

[14:34] Okay, now, some of you have been meditating for quite a while, and some of you will be newer. But some of you, perhaps some of those who have been meditating a little longer, may have had the experience sometimes -- you're meditating, and things get quite quiet. And if you like, what happens is the whole structure of the personality dies away -- not forever, but for that time when things get quiet -- as if the whole personality just melts and disappears. And one is left with, if you like, a level of being that doesn't have much personality with it at all. Anyone tasted something like this, ever? Yeah? Okay.

Sometimes a person says, "Oh, there was no self then. There was an experience of no-self. There was just experience, and I knew it, and there's this experience and the knowing of it." Actually, still, oftentimes, there, there's still what we might call an 'existential' self, an existential level. The personality is quiet, but there's still, if you like, there's just an existence of some thing as a centre of gravity, as a being that knows something other, other things. Does that make sense, if I say that? It's a more subtle level, quieter than the personality. Sometimes when the personality goes quiet, people are very disturbed, and it's again, a little fearful. It's an acquired taste, and you dip into that again and again, and you realize there's tremendous beauty and freedom there, real loveliness there: "Forget about Rob. Rob's gone. He's dead right now. There's just being without Rob." And it's something very, very lovely, very open, very, very beautiful. But it's not actually an experience of no-self. It's an experience of quietening the personality temporarily. And there's still, at that point, this existential level of self. We need to see that that level is empty too. That's still a construction. It's still a fabrication. So it's not the end of the journey. There's still more to it, more to go.

[16:49] How are we going to go further than that, even? Further than that, deeper than that? So I can't remember what I said in the question and answer period, because we got into this as well then. I can't remember what I said earlier, but what we're doing with all this is practising ways of looking, practising these shifts of view that tend to, that have the capacity to deconstruct, to unpack, to melt and dissolve what has been built up, what has been fabricated. So when we did the blame thing, I said, "Let's do that meditation together," and it unfabricates. It deconstructs something that been constructed, fabricated, yeah?

What I want to say today is we can regard the whole of Dharma practice that way. That's the central thing that it is. It's a set of practices that deconstruct deeper and deeper, and more and more powerfully. So yes, deconstruct something like blame. Yes, deconstruct something like what we were talking about, papañca. Yes, deconstruct self-definitions, and then go deeper and start deconstructing the construction of personality, and then deeper, even, to this existential level of self. And there's a whole set of practices that move in that direction of unbuilding, loosening, melting all these constructions, these fabrications: the fabrication of self and also the fabrication of things that we perceive, issues and objects in the world.

Actually, when we talk about mindfulness, you could see that mindfulness is one of those practices. You can see mindfulness as a practice that builds less. Through the very simplicity of attention, it prevents, or it subverts, a lot of this big papañca and big storying. You understand? We said, "Let go of the story." Yeah? What we were really doing is letting go of a certain level of fabrication. And that basic mindfulness takes you to a certain level of, you could say, unfabricating. But you can go much, much deeper than that. And that's where other practices come in.

So there's one I want to touch on as a third option. It's actually probably the easiest way of going deeper, but it's actually a bit limited, unfortunately, because we're only here for a day. So I just want to introduce it because it's simple. I'm also introducing it because it's connected to some of the other things we talked about -- for instance, the self-definition thing. But that is the contemplation of impermanence, the contemplation of change and impermanence.

[19:36] So what do I mean by that? Once you reach a certain age -- 4 or 5 or 6 -- it's pretty obvious that things are impermanent. It's not rocket science to realize that things change, right? What, though, if we sustain a way of looking that tunes into that changing nature of things, that actually seeks it out and, again and again, brings attention to the change, change, change, the flux? So sustaining a way of looking that's focused on impermanence, on moment-to-moment change. So what does that mean? It means noticing change when/where it's apparent, deliberately remaining focused on it, and tuning into it, again and again, coming back to that, staying with the sense of change, the perception of change, the flux, the birth, and the death of experience, the shifting of experience, the dance of it, the textures moving, the fluidity of things. That, not the breath, not the mettā, not anything else, that's what you focus on, coming back and back to the sense of change, just as fast as it's revealing itself. You come back to that sense of fluidity and the texture of everything.

So, listen. [rings bell] This sound -- okay, I'm going to hit it, and you can focus on the sound. And see if you can hear the fluctuations, the fluidity, the sense of change in the sound itself. [rings bell three times] Might be too soft. [people shouting in background] Never mind, listen to them, whatever they're saying. [laughter] Are they going to shut up now? Come on. [laughter] Everything's changing. The textures ... [people screaming] It's changing. It's music. Can you hear? The shifting patterns of sound -- even my voice right now -- shifting patterns of sound. So you're putting on lenses that are really interested just in change -- in this case, in one sound that's happening. [rings bell] Can you hear the waver?

Now, if we do it with the bell, or with them out there, there's a kind of narrow focus here. You're taking one sound, one object, and focusing into it very narrowly. If you do this as a practice, or maybe even when the bell's going, or the mind wanders, it's like, "Actually, that's okay," because if I'm interested in impermanence, the very wandering of the mind can be regarded as something that's impermanent. "Look, something's changed: the focus of the mind." So it's all good. It's all good. You can't fail with this. You just, whatever happens, "Oh, there's impermanence again." Everything, everything, everything is seen through this lens. I'm hungry -- I want to see impermanence again and again. You're really, like, putting these goggles on. And that's how I'm going to see everything: inner, outer, everything. So you can do it focusing on one object. You can do it more open. They've gone quiet now, but you could, like we were doing with the standing, open the whole attention. Just be aware of all these different sounds coming together. So it's people shifting in the room. There's breathing, coughing. There's the voice, the texture of the voice shifting. And within that, again, tuning into the change, the arising of sounds, the shifting around, and the passing. The birth, the death, of everything.

[23:40] Now, you could do that also with the body sensations, for example. There's a place somewhere here, right about where your jawbone curves, somewhere. And put your index finger there, and press. And there's a place that hurts a little bit. [laughs] What it's doing is just giving us some good, clear sensations to find. Okay, you found it? It's a kind of interesting point. And if you just keep it -- I mean, don't hurt yourself. But if you just keep your finger there and actually tune into the sensations, you see, "Oh, there's a kind of throbbing to it. There's a pulsing. There's a flickering of those sensations." Can you feel that? It's the impermanence, it's the flux, it's the fluidity of things. Yeah?

You could pay attention to your hands right now. Just be aware of the sensations in the hands. There's all kinds of -- hard to describe -- like flickering, pins and needles, kind of. Can you feel that? Maybe it's easier if you open the palms. It's quite delicate. You're tuning into something. Moving the fingers in there -- yeah? Can you feel it?

You could open to the whole body, as we did a couple of times today, and actually open to the whole dance of flickering and flux of sensation in the whole body. You could do it with taste -- interesting thing, to take a meal, and really pay attention to the dance, the flux, the change in the sensations of taste during a meal. You could do it, obviously, with smell. You can do it with sight, which is interesting. So again, what if you just, as you're looking at me, it's like, just see this as 'changing visual field,' changing impressions in the visual field. It's not usually how we tend to look at things. It's a different way of looking. Yeah? You get what I'm saying? It's just change. And actually, even if you hold something steady, you could be aware of a very subtle sense of shifting.

[26:01] Okay, at this point, some of you are thinking, "Well, what's this got to do with anything? And why is this ...? What the hell relevant is this?" Again, I repeat what I said before. This is the thread that I want you to take with you: what we're doing is practising different ways of looking. We're really shifting gears to practise a different way of looking. And I'm going to explain why.

When, if you took this, what I'm suggesting now, this contemplation of impermanence, this focusing on it, and you actually took it and you did it as a practice, you took it and did it, you will probably find that as you do it, you start to feel quite free and quite open. Strange. When I start to see the fluidity in things, something lets go. I don't have to tell myself to let go. I don't have to tell myself to relax and release clinging. The very seeing of the fluidity -- something organically in the being starts letting go. And that starts feeling quite free. I'm letting everything come and go, focusing on the change. And a very lovely sense of freedom, or relief, or peace, or spaciousness, or release starts arising.

[silence, laughter] We still awake? Is it okay? Yeah? All right.

So that's what the Buddha calls -- it's a really skilful practice. It's a way of letting go. It's a way of opening up freedom in the moment. I don't have to always just stay with the breath. You can actually practise this and feel the freedom coming into the texture of experience and the texture of consciousness. So that's one reason to do it.

Another reason is, going back to the self thing, this self that we feel so intuitively, we sense it, preverbal, pre-intellectual, it feels to be something fixed and something permanent: "I am Rob. Period. Whatever happens, I'm Rob." And I feel myself Rob, or whatever, or someone else. That's the way we sense the self. But when I start to look with these goggles, and I see impermanence, I start to look inside, and all I can see are things that are shifting. All I can see are phenomena that are changing. There's nothing that's not that. Where is the self? Where is it? It feels so obvious, so taken for granted. I put these goggles on, and I look closer, and I keep looking, and I keep looking, and lo and behold, I start to realize: it's an illusion! I cannot actually find it. It does not exist in the way that it most obviously feels to exist. Yeah? I have to see this. So I call it a 'way of looking.' It's not a way of thinking or a nice intellectual philosophy or something. It's a way of looking. I start to engage these ways of looking, and they start to palpably make a difference.

Remember, going back to this morning, we typically have ways of looking, and the self-sense tends to solidify and cause problems and cause dis-ease. And the whole of the Dharma -- all the practices, the whole thing, all of it, generosity, everything -- is a way of looking differently, turning around, that unlocks, unfabricates, melts, dissolves, opens out, deconstructs. So that's just one of those. Where is the self? All I can find is that which shifts, that which changes, that which does not last.

So I can do this with the texture of experience -- pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. I can do this with one object, like one sound. I can do it with the listening in general. I could do with thoughts, if you're a bit calmer in meditation -- really interesting to look at thoughts and just see impermanence in the realm of the mind, in the thinking. Sometimes it really helps to do sound first. We can open up to sounds, and then thoughts become easier to do then. Or I just have these goggles on and look at everything. And my having fun, putting these goggles on, just moving through the world, inner and outer, and everything, everything, everything is seen that way.

Okay, why? Why? I really want this to make sense, because oftentimes it doesn't make sense, like, it just sounds like, "Well, so what?" Because we're so used to thinking of practice as, "No, practice, meditation is about being with what is, and coping with what is, and meeting with what is, and loving what is," and all that stuff. And I said at the beginning: no, that's only part of it. What practice is really about is practising ways of looking that open up the whole sense of what is real, what's solid, what is not. Yeah? So this is one of those. Really, really important. So it brings the letting go in the moment, the freedom. You can feel it, and that's good. That's nice. We like that. We like freedom. It starts to deconstruct this whole sense of a self. You start to see it's just a fabrication. Okay, second thing.

But there's something even deeper here that I want to touch on. The Buddha has this teaching of the aggregates, the khandhas, or skandhas. How many people have heard of that? Okay. What that is is, there is form, bodily form, there are feelings, and there are perceptions, and there are thoughts and intentions, and there is consciousness. And the Buddha said there is all that, and we tend to identify with that. We tend to think, "That's me," or one of those is "me," or it's "mine." "I am the body," or "The body is mine." "I am my feelings," or "Those feelings belong to me." "I am my thoughts," or "Those are my thoughts."

Sometimes, or in fact quite commonly nowadays, this teaching is a little bit incompletely understood, I would say, and it's taken to mean something like, "Oh, the Buddha was saying there is no self. There's no personality. What there is is a process of aggregates. There's just the arising of consciousness, knowing something, a thought, a perception, and there's just this rolling through time, without any real owner. And that's the Buddha's teaching on no-self." But I would say that's not quite it yet. That's not quite the full depth of things. So this kind of sense -- as I said earlier, the personality dying down, and there's nothing left but this impersonal process -- can feel, eventually, very beautiful. Sometimes it's a bit freaky at first, or it feels a bit strange. But eventually it feels very beautiful. But still, it's only a level. It's only a level of deconstructing. And we can go deeper than that. So that's what I would call a kind of 'reductionist' view: say, "Steve doesn't exist. Steve is just a process in time of these aggregates, like some kind of machine, trundling on." That's a reductionist view of Steve. Maybe he likes it, maybe he doesn't like it, but it's actually not ultimately true. It's a reductionist view. It's not ultimately real. It's not a final reality. It's a helpful way of looking, at one level, and we can go deeper. It's not the full mystery of what's going on.

[33:45] So some of you in here will have had an experience, or experiences, plural, just from being mindful, perhaps on retreat, perhaps off retreat, or perhaps in nature, or from, for instance, doing that kind of impermanence practice that I was just talking about, and things start to deepen. And the personality goes quiet. But even then, it goes deeper than that. And there's a sense of this consciousness, these feelings, and these thoughts -- they're not-self. They're just kind of happening. They're not taken to be 'me' or 'mine' in the way that they usually are. Usually, we have a thought -- we don't even think, "Oh, that's my thought." We just feel it as that. We have an emotion -- sadness or depression or whatever -- we tend to think, "It's me," or "It's mine." That's the habitual way of seeing things. That's the default. It's not a big intellectual process. Now, sometimes, often through meditation, it pierces deeper than that. And there's a sense of these things happening -- perceptions and feelings, and thoughts, and intentions, and emotions, and the knowing of them -- and none of it is belonging to anyone. It's just 'not me, not mine, not-self.'

Then, actually, I would say it's possible to piggyback on that and develop an even deeper way of looking, where you actually encourage that shift, to see things as not-self, to see experience, body, sensation, emotion, perception, thought -- see it as not-self. So just like the impermanence goggles, you're putting on an even deeper pair of goggles, of a way of looking, of seeing things as not-self -- including awareness. Sometimes people say, "You're not your body. You're not your mind. You're not your emotion. You are the witness. You are awareness." And actually, that too is just a level. You can go deeper than that, because you don't have to identify with awareness. There can be an unhooking even from awareness. And what happens if I put those goggles on, and I take that for a ride? Where does that take me? What does that open out? What mystery does that reveal?

[36:12] Going back to something I said before, different ways of looking tend to deconstruct, to different degrees, the sense of self. They tend to unfabricate it, deeper and deeper, and also the sense of the world, the sense of objects. Some are more powerful than others, and there's a journey, here, of employing different ways of looking, developing those skills that open out, melt, deconstruct more and more. So the impermanence one that we were talking about, with these goggles and seeing all the change, that's very, very powerful. But actually, it's also limited. It's limited. It'll keep seeing momentary phenomena and the time in which they happen. It can't penetrate deeper than that.

But having said that, let's dwell a little more on that one, because it is the simplest one, these goggles of impermanence. We start to see, when you do that, just like with the self-definitions, you start to see the holes or the gaps in things. You start to see, "Oh, this is not quite as solid as it seemed." So for example, in the self-definition, "I think I'm a grumpy person," I start to see, "Well, there are plenty of times I'm not grumpy," or whatever. But also with objects of perception -- so for example, the weather, or an emotion. So for example, sometimes we have sadness, let's say, or a feeling of depression. And we get afraid of that feeling, and we'd rather go somewhere else and distract ourself, because our assumption about it is that that emotion is something very solid. And we're afraid, we're scared of it, so we avoid it, or we have a drink, or we go to the refrigerator, or we turn on the TV, because I say, "I don't want to go into that solid -- I don't want that assault of that solidity, that heaviness."

If I start to practise, say, the impermanence on the emotion of sadness, let's say -- I'm afraid of this emotion. It's too much. It feels too solid, too heavy. And I start to look at it in this very deliberate way of looking at the momentary flux. I start to see, "Wow, this really is not solid at all -- at all." It's got all kinds of gaps in it. I have a moment of sadness. And then, actually, there's a moment of nothing. I just feel okay. And then the sadness comes back for a moment. And then there's another moment of sadness. And then there's a moment of peace. Where did that come from? And then the sadness comes back. Then there's a moment of joy. This thing, it's nowhere near as monolithic as it seems.

So this thing that I was afraid of, and seemed so real and so solid -- it was actually fabricated. I start to expose the gaps in that. And that starts to bring in some looseness, some space, some lightness. It's unburdened from this oppressive heaviness that it seemed to have. Well, the same with weather. We hate the weather -- today's lovely, but -- it's rainy, or it's, "Oh, what a drag." Actually, it's lots of little moments with gaps in it. So again, it's deconstructing something. Not to say that that's the reality of things -- that would be reductionist. But it's a different way of looking, and that can bring some freedom.

When we do this, we start to, begin to notice how the mind stitches things together to actually create, how it actually builds things. Do you remember those dot-to-dot drawings when you were a kid? It had the numbers, and you connect the dots. Depends on your age, whether you remember. [laughter] I remember. It's a bit like that. This sadness -- we've stitched it together. This depression -- we've stitched it together. We've joined the dots. This terrible weather, whatever it is -- we've joined the dots to create something that's more solid than it actually is. The mind is fabricating. It's constructing. It's solidifying. We need to see that, and start to bring that awareness in, and it starts unfabricating.

This dot-to-dot thing -- we can take it a little bit deeper. Let's take the example of sadness. I start to become aware, through this focus on impermanence, of the way that the mind joins the dots and stitches something together, and then has this oppressive sense of solidity, which it believes is the real reality. Yeah? I start to become aware of that. I can take that understanding into the way that I'm with sadness. And I start to just see, "Oh, this is a construct." I'm aware of that as I'm looking at it. And that starts to lighten it. There's a deliberate way of looking based on my previous insight that this isn't as solid as it seems.

Or we can go around a little bit more, because this moment of sadness, this little moment of sadness, when I have this sense of this big, monolithic block of sadness, uninterrupted, solid, heavy thing, when I have that sense, then this moment is felt and interpreted intuitively as -- it carries the weight of the whole block. It's not just an isolated moment. It's a moment that's an instance of this heavy, whole big thing. And that makes the moment heavier. And then this dot in the dot-to-dot, this now-heavier dot starts to fabricate a heavier whole, that the part makes a heavier whole. The dot makes a heavier [whole], because it's heavier. Now I've got this heavier part. It feeds back to the heavier dot. And again, you've got this either vicious cycle or this thing that's locked into place through the view. Now, we can understand that's going on and bring the understanding in, and contemplate it as we're looking at the sadness, seeing how these things are constructions, and actually begin lightening the whole thing. If you do that -- not that you're attempting to do this -- what you will see is, the whole starts deconstructing. The very sadness starts deconstructing. Through my awareness that it is a construction, it starts dissolving. The sadness cannot sustain itself, or the depression, or whatever it is. So again, practising ways of looking.

[43:02] To repeat this big principle, what we're really doing, one way of looking at, one way of understanding what we're really doing in the whole of practice, in the whole of meditation, is that we're practising ways of looking that unsolidify, that unfabricate, that loosen, that open, that lighten, that melt, that dissolve, that deconstruct what has been built. That's what meditation, that's what the whole path is. We have a tendency to have ways of looking that solidify and construct, cause more problems. That's the tendency. And we're finding ways to have the opposite, to have the opposite effect. And that's the whole of practice. We have ways of looking, typically, that build self, build dukkha, build problem, build dis-ease, build solid-seeming, real things, and we're practising the opposite, in many different ways.

And that's why, at the beginning of the day, I said emptiness is fundamental. It's absolutely fundamental in terms of, you can see the whole of practice as, "This is what we're doing." We're deconstructing. We're lightening. It comes into everything. There's nothing that doesn't include this. Every moment of every day involves this principle. It's not some optional thing for the super-advanced people in caves somewhere. It's actually -- right now, it's happening. Right now, whatever you're feeling right now, it's happening. It's happening. And either the construction is leading to something that's causing a bit of, or a lot of, discomfort and dis-ease, whatever it is; or it's not, or we're looking and relating in a way that's dissolving, opening, melting, unburdening -- all the time, all day long, most of the night.

So you know, within the Dharma, we have a range of possibilities there: the impermanence practice, this seeing things as not-self that I referred to. How many people are aware of this Big Mind practice? Does that ...? Anyone? Okay, well, that also is a way of looking that deconstructs, you could say. The mettā practice, or as I said, mindfulness practice -- these are all ways of deconstructing. They each have different power, but they're all ways of deconstructing. You can see the whole Dharma that way.

[45:31] So for example, how many people know the loving-kindness practice? Quite a lot. That's great. So I don't know if you've ever done it for quite a while, or really, you know, had some days when you did it, or just when it feels like it's really humming along nicely, and there's really some energy in it. At that time, when it feels like it's really got some flow to it, the mettā practice, the loving-kindness practice, what does the self feel like at that time? And what's the perception of the world? Isn't it different than, let's say, the other extreme of what we've talked about, papañca, this morning? And getting obsessed about something, whirling around a vortex, and the self seems so tight and so solid, and so constructed, and so real. Everything's so real. And when the mettā is strong, everything's kind of less substantial. It's opened out. It has this almost airy feeling to it. Have you had this taste? Yeah? And then somewhere in the middle of that spectrum is just our normal state of consciousness, neither particularly obsessed in a vortex nor particularly light. So you've got mettā, normal state of consciousness, papañca. Do you see what I'm saying? In terms of the perception, the sense of the self and the world. So there's a spectrum.

Which state of mind or what place on that spectrum reveals the real self, the way the self really is, or the way the world really is?

Yogi: Is there such a thing? No.

Rob: Okay. That's what I'm getting at. Anyone want to ...?

Yogi: I mean, is the world just a fixed but real [?] ...?

Rob: Yeah. Okay, so that's what I'm getting at. It's not. Precisely, yeah. So there is not such a thing. In other words, we move up and down on that spectrum. And as meditators, we're privileged to extend that spectrum in the lovely direction. But basically, we still move. We still move. Lovely states of consciousness -- that's a lot of deconstruction, etc., a lot of opening, a lot of beauty, less self, less of all this solidity. Normal state -- yeah, you know. Problem -- everything solidifying. We just move, zip up and down. And as ... what's your name?

Yogi: Joanna.

Rob: Joanna. As Joanna was saying, is there really a fixed way that the world really is, that I can say, "Oh, it's that point on the spectrum that reveals the truth. This is the true Rob or the true Steve or the true way the world is"? There isn't. Flipping around the language, we say it's empty. The self is empty. The world is empty. It does not exist, to repeat what I said at the beginning, independently of the way of looking. There is no independent existence of anything. It's empty of that, empty of that. Understanding that here -- not just here [in the head], but here [in the heart] -- liberates deeply. And the deeper we understand, the more radically it liberates -- quite miraculously, almost.

So sometimes people want to say, unlike what Joanna said, they want to say, "Surely, mindfulness reveals, because then you're just being with things as they are." But actually, mindfulness has a subtle sense of self involved in it: "I am aware of this." It has a subtle grasping to it. And it's still fabricating to a certain extent. It's cut a lot of the story stuff, but it's actually still fabricating to a certain extent. These other practices have the power to go deeper, generally speaking.

What happens? Well, if I take something like that seeing things as not-self, the body as not-self, the thoughts, the awareness, the perceptions, the feelings, the emotions, and seeing all of it as not-self, and I put those goggles on, and I just keep doing that, and I keep doing that -- some of you have had this experience. But what actually happens is that this deconstruction goes deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper. And the self dissolves -- not just the personality, but the whole sense of self. And the world itself, the world of appearances dissolves. It dissolves. There's a fading of the whole realm of perception of self and other, and world, and time, and awareness, and all of it. And you're just following this thread of deconstruction that goes right to some mystical kind of opening.

What's it pointing to? We really start to see, as I said at the beginning of the day, nothing is independent of the way of looking. Nothing has an independent existence, an inherent existence by itself. Nothing -- not even time, not even space, not even awareness. Nothing. It's all empty, in the language, and I've seen that, because I've just pulled on this thread, from -- very simple -- I just pulled on this of unfabricating. This deconstruction thing is not the whole of the emptiness story. That's one way in. It takes you to a certain level. And I start to see, all of it is empty. All of it is construction. Miraculous, and miraculously freeing.

And wrapping up, saying that someone, obviously, that hasn't had that experience and reflected on it, and as I said at the start of today, and I say, "Oh, time is empty, awareness, and the present moment, not just the past and the future, space, and all that," one of the reactions a person can have is, "It just sounds outlandish and a bit ridiculous. It's hard to believe that." We tend to think, "Of course this is real." [knocks three times on hard surface] "Don't be silly. And I can understand, you know, my papañca being a fabrication, but not all this."

But listen to the Buddha:

Whatever is considered as 'true' by the world, with its deities, with its meditators and priests, its royalty and common people, is rightly seen as it actually is with right discernment by the Noble Ones [that means people who have had very deep insight] as 'false.'

Whatever is seen as true, when you have very deep insight, you realize that's false. It's wrong. Everyone's thinking a certain thing; it's actually wrong. And conversely:

Whatever is considered as 'false' by the world with its deities, its meditators and priests, its royalty and common people, is rightly seen as it actually is with right discernment by the Noble Ones [by those with deep insight into emptiness] as 'true.'[1]

It's completely turning the understanding of things upside down on its head. Completely counterintuitive, completely radical. That's where all this is going.

Last thing: so there's a journey here. It's not that one can, generally speaking, do that all in one go. But last thing: emptiness, this whole thing that we've been [talking about], is also empty. It's not that we make a 'thing' of that. It's a tool. Someone was, in the question and answer period -- it's not even that we always want to look in terms of emptiness. Sometimes we can look in terms of emptiness, in terms of not-self, and seeing the holes in things, and deconstructing. And sometimes we can look and speak, and communicate, and relate in terms of self and personality.

What's more important than anything else is this freedom. So emptiness is a whole investigation that brings a tremendous amount of freedom. But it's something that we can use. And also, like a tool, you can pick it up, use it, put it down, and pick up another tool. So we're not stuck or tightly bound even to the view of emptiness. What matters at the end of the day is freedom, freedom, freedom. And that's part of what I said earlier: flexibility of ways of looking. So I can look in terms of emptiness; I can look not in terms of emptiness. I have the flexibility, the freedom of the flexibility. And that's really, to me, a big part of what the Dharma is really about: immense flexibility, at lots of different levels and depths of subtlety.

[53:50] Emptiness is probably the most powerful tool -- not probably; it actually is. There's no question about that. It's easily the most powerful tool in terms of melting suffering, in terms of relieving dis-ease. No question, hands down. If you develop some of the things that I've been talking about today, they are easily the most powerful deconstructors of dis-ease, easily. So it's the most powerful tool, but that doesn't mean it's the one that I'm always going to use. Sometimes it's not appropriate. Sometimes we want to do something else. Sometimes there are other ways of looking that are important. And the Dharma is really about freedom. It's not about being entrenched in this view or that view -- even a view of emptiness. Freedom, flexibility.

  1. Sn 3:12. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry