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Why bother with spring cleaning if everything is empty?

The Buddhist concept of emptiness – the idea that nothing is permanent or exists independently, that there is no self – is a hard one for some people, but I find it comforting, For me, hearing that the self doesn’t exist, that we create the world with our minds, is a relief. Life is but a dream? Cool.

The relative world? That can be harder.

Last Saturday I spent 6½ hours at IDP meditating on the emptiness of self. Consider your body: Can the self be found there? Nope. In the emotions? Constructs? Is Nancy in the word “Nancy”? God, no. (Note the strong aversive reaction. It’s a long story.) No self to be found anywhere. No problem.



But who, then, leaves the building? Who puts on whose shoes, which have been worn to a distinctive shape by the particular pressure of relative bones? Everything seems strange – or maybe it was the non-person perceiving it who was strange. The subway stop was different; has the A train always stopped here? The order of the stops … was that the way it had been before? I walked up a different set of stairs to exit and found myself on a cross street, where nothing was familiar. Even when I got onto the right street, I was astonished. Had it been this wide? Were the blocks this long? At some point, I decided that if I had gotten on the wrong train, left it at the wrong stop, and walked out the wrong staircase to a street that existed in a parallel (or otherwise other) universe, I would be OK with that. Let’s just see what happens.


As it turned out, all was right with Park Slope. I started to recognize the dresses in the store windows, then the restaurants, then the street where I turn to get to my friend’s house. (Note the craving for clothing that brought me back to reality.)

But coming back to the relative world after hanging out in the pure energy and potential of emptiness can be a bit of a hard landing. Nothing is permanent or unchanging here, but sometimes it can’t change fast enough. Everything arises from causes and conditions, but to be honest, some days those conditions suck. Knowing that the sacred exists doesn’t make the mundane less … mundane some days.

My aspiration is to change that, to bring the qualities of the ultimate into the relative world, to embody them  and – thereby – share them for the benefit of all beings.

Tall order.

After the retreat, casting around for guidance, I picked up John Welwood’s “Toward a Psychology of Awakening,” which IDP Senior Teacher Ethan Nichtern had read from during the weekend. I’d read a lot of the book, been deeply touched by its wisdom, but never finished it. I started where I had left off.

If the absolute side of our nature – undifferentiated being – is like clear light, then the relative side – differentiated being – is like a rainbow spectrum of colors contained within that light. While realizing undifferentiated being is the path of liberation, embodying qualities of differentiated being is the path of individuation in its deepest sense: the unfolding of our intrinsic human resources , which exist as seed potentials within us, but which are often blocked by psychological concepts.

… The more we cultivate the full range of human qualities latent in our absolute true nature, the richer our quality of personal presence can become as we begin to embody our true nature in an individuated way. This type of individuation goes far beyond the secular, humanistic idea of developing one’s uniqueness, being an innovator, or living out one’s dreams. Instead it involves forging a vessel – our capacity for personal presence, nourished by its rootedness in a full spectrum of human qualities – from which we can bring absolute true nature into form: the “form” of our person.

By person I do not mean some fixed structure or entity, but the way in which true nature can manifest itself in a uniquely personal way, as the ineffable suchness or you-ness of you. How fully the suchness of you shines through – in your face, your speech, your actions, your particular quality of presence – is partly grace but also partly a result of how much you have worked on polishing your vessel so that it becomes transparent.

Time for spring cleaning.


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Yes, it's like leaping off a

Yes, it's like leaping off a cliff into the dark night; scary. In fact because we are the night as well as the cliff and everything else, there's no actual leaping that has to happen, but to the extent we experience ourselves as separate and therefore leaping it can be pretty daunting!

Hi Nancy, Funny, but I too

Hi Nancy,

Funny, but I too have had similar experiences with groundlessness while exiting the subway. Coming out and not having my bearings, I wonder if I'm in the right neighborhood, even though I'd gotten off at this stop a million times. Its a little eerie at first but if I relax, its pretty cool. I always seem to notice things I hadn't before and experience the environment in a different light. Inevitably though, I'll notice a familiar landmark then direction and orientation will swoop back in and the familiar framework for experiencing that particular neighborhood will kick back up and I just go on in the usual routine.

All this makes me realize how much of our world is totally affected by our habits and particular perspectives.

Maybe the ID Project should develop an emptiness subway retreat? :)

Thanks for the article,


there was a moment

where I asked myself if I should be having a panic attack, and it was sort of cool that that seemed like a choice, not an inevitability, although I don't typically have panic attacks.

it's sort of delightful to see familiar things in a new way. thanks for your comment.


relative-absolute and absolute-relative

There's another twist to this story, however, which is really tricky, but nevertheless extremely important. The picture that many people outline, and I think you're outlining above, is something like two worlds, the "relative" and the "absolute", and they look kind of like: ABSOLUTE / (relative) I.e., sort of two "levels", with the absolute kind of the big container of everything, which differentiates itself into the relative, where all the "stuff" is and where "things happen". This picture has its value, but it's also very misleading, because it makes it seem as though these are two different levels of reality which you can start to drift into thinking are somewhat independent of each other, or where you have to kind of reach over from the relative world to pull in bits from the absolute, but ordinarily you're just kind of separated from the absolute. As though there's an absolute reality where the Diamond Sutra or Heart Sutra are valid, but mostly only when you're in samadhi or deep clarity, but then there's this messy relative reality where all the stuff we normally deal with lives. The absolute reality starts to seem sort of far off, a bit detached from ordinary concerns. But there's another picture which I think is a bit more accurate, or includes more features of what is actually the case, which is captured in the Heart Sutra's "form is none other than emptiness, emptiness is none other than form"; that is to say, the absolute and the relative are in fact exactly the same world. Everything that we think of as part of the relative, differentiated reality is, if you actually become more fully appreciative of what it IS in its fullness, actually not in any way separated from the absolute, suchness, THIS, it IS that, already, even when it appears differentiated. The way I imagine it is something like an iceberg, where you see the top of the iceberg but it's of a piece with this larger and larger ice but in fact the iceberg itself ends up being connected with the entire universe if you really fully appreciate its full substance. All of these "ordinary" appearances and so forth are connected in this way, to this larger reality that is vast and goes outside of ordinary limits and so forth, and this is not just a theoretical idea but something that is concretely present at all times. It's something we can actually rely on. There's nothing wrong with spring cleaning, of course. However, the way "spring cleaning" is usually presented is: in order to work with relative "things" (the self, our concerns, things, other people, etc.) we have to use other relative "things" (psychological ideas, moving stuff around, arranging our lives). And there's nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. But there is more one can appreciate than this, even if what you're interested in is spring cleaning. And that is, to participate more fully in this vastness of even ordinary "things", to follow those out and allow them to become more what they actually are. On a surface level this might naturally turn into what appears to be spring cleaning, except you can use not only tools in the logic of the apparent world but rely upon forces and flows that are unconscious, which go beyond anything that seems apparent. Problems which seem very intractable in ordinary space become much less so when you have a larger dimensionality to work with (which is where we all really live, we are not in fact living in so-called relative reality, we live in the whole enchilada.) Ordinary problems can be worked with using ordinary logic, but there's a much better way to go, in fact, where everything you "do" is actually already in this vast space. That allows us to live in both the relative and absolute worlds at the same time, to appreciate them as exactly the same world. There's a spaciousness present in each ordinary moment which is always available, but we don't ordinarily appreciate. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form: this is concretely available, even when things are messy. It's a different sort of approach to spring cleaning.


this is the point I'm hoping to get to, where I can live from that knowledge. it's one of those things, I think, that take time and experience to get to -- you have to experience and trust in the absolute before you can make groundlessness the ground.

Yes, it's like leaping off a

Yes, it's like leaping off a cliff into the dark night; scary. In fact because we are the night as well as the cliff and everything else, there's no actual leaping that has to happen, but to the extent we experience ourselves as separate and therefore leaping it can be pretty daunting!

(Sorry for the double post. Keep getting confused by the posting interface :)

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