In this essay I want to touch upon a central element of Buddhist philosophy: its view of reality as “empty”. Across various Buddhist traditions, this seminal idea is taken to mean some version of the proposition that the very structure of existence is without an inherent essence upon which we can confidently rely to provide a sense of apprehending and so mastering the world. Admittedly, dwelling on one concept within a total religious philosophy is a narrow focus indeed, though the importance of this particular idea for Buddhism generally cannot be overstated: it is essential to comprehending the general Buddhist understanding of our involvement in the world. Specifically, the doctrine of emptiness underlies its entire understanding of human nature, the relationship of mind and world, and comprehension of the origin and proper response to suffering.
This essay is in three parts. In the first section I will outline my understanding of the trans-cultural nature of Buddhist thought. This discussion involves the introduction and application of the concept of emptiness, and therefore evolves naturally into the second part of this essay, which is a formal analysis of the doctrine itself. In the third section I will suggest some ways in which the concept of emptiness may illuminate our comprehension of the practice of psychotherapy.
Buddhism Through Western Eyes
This opening section serves as something of a caveat: although for many years I have maintained an active interest in Asian religious thought and practice, I am fated by birth to approach its expressions through my own, indelibly Western understanding. This is both a help and a hindrance, something that I should explain a bit more fully. First, approaching any Asian religious tradition as an “outsider” is helpful in forming a more critical and perhaps creative stance toward its premises. And, after all, Buddhism is simply that: a worldview, one of thousands that occupy the minds of human beings on the planet. It was devised and elaborated by time-and-place-bound human beings in the course of the 2600 years since the man Siddhartha Gautama lived and taught in India. He was a young aristocrat who recklessly abandoned his social standing to face and seek to unravel the nature of suffering, minus what he correctly knew to be the emotional buffers of his wealth and power. Hence, in a real sense, he also began his inquiry as an untutored outsider, a disillusioned, wandering nomad who I can only presume felt profoundly alienated from life. Much like anyone who peers into Asian ways of being from a great cultural distance, so too Siddhartha began his spiritual journey as one relatively bereft of intellectual or emotional guideposts to indicate a sure direction, apart perhaps from some of his grasp of the implications of his childhood upbringing in a Hindu culture. In the course of his literal and metaphoric trek he came to a new, vital comprehension of reality and human nature, one fashioned as a modified, what we might say is a highly distilled vision of Hinduism, yet one that welled up from, merged with, and expressed his highly personal experience; his own, particular phenomenal experience of being-in-the-world, as Heidegger (1927/1962) puts it.
This seems to be an invitation for non-Buddhists interested in his legacy and insights to do likewise: that is, to venture into the unknown territory of this Asian worldview and tease out if and how it may be integrated into their own emotional predispositions and concrete, historical circumstances. I accepted this invitation some years ago and have found that Buddhism helps me to better explore and deepen my own, time-and-place-bound sense of life and the meaning of its vicissitudes. Its helpfulness in this regard is, to a great extent, because rather than despite the fact that it is a perspective existing outside of my taken-for-granted world. Now I may return the favor in kind: the fact that I did not grow up surrounded by Buddhist spiritual and social symbology provides me with a certain needful distance from its allure (which I find considerable, intellectually and aesthetically), and an ability to formulate and pursue certain implications of the Dharma, the Buddhist scriptures, that may never occur to someone from, say, China, Thailand or Japan.
Of course, the very circumstances of my life that may provide me with a unique window into the meaning of the Dharma, that is, my position as a cultural “outsider”, simultaneously obscures or renders me insensitive to many of its facets and expressions. For example, I cannot know, though I can try to imagine, what it is like to venerate the figure of Siddhartha as an historical figure embedded in the “everydayness” of my life. My involvement with this tradition has always been, and will forever be, intellectual more than anything else. This is not to reduce the life of the mind to second-tier status. On the contrary, a stance of abstracted speculation is a legitimate place to start, it seems, as the shared understandings and language of an intellectual community are as much a genuinely human context, a “jumping-off point”, within which to consider the Buddhist approach as is, say, one’s embeddedness in the life of a rural village in Myanmar. But humility, a necessary precondition for “openness” to Being, is in order. This is in due regard for the fact that, in viewing Asian spirituality through this particular window I am necessarily turning away from all other possible viewpoints.
This does not mean that someone from a non-Buddhist culture must walk on proverbial eggshells when considering the way in which Buddhist concepts and the actual practice of Buddhist meditative or other spiritual traditions may find a place in their life. This is so because, perhaps more than any other religious tradition, Buddhism is uniquely able to be integrated into the daily lives of all people at all times, that is, regardless of their cultural backgrounds and historical situations. And this, in turn, is because the Buddhist perspective on the human condition is extraordinarily malleable: by its very nature it allows itself to be shaped, reinterpreted (within broad limits, at least), and more or less seamlessly joined to individuals’ spiritual lives, whatever their particular existential circumstances.
Arguably, the central elements of Buddhism seem to demand that it be reframed in this highly individual or parochial manner. This is due, in part, to the fact that it is foremost a general perspective on existence, and only secondarily a proscribed set of culture-specific practices. Therefore, my own “radical” understanding of Buddhism is centered on the rudiments of this general window on life, and only tangentially on the interesting but ultimately secondary attributes of its appearance in different cultures. Put simply, my understanding of Buddhist teaching is that there is nothing to believe, no particular set of rituals to which one must attend; in short, no “correct” or “orthodox” way to engage with and incorporate its vision of the world into one’s life.
Admittedly, this is not a widely held interpretation of the Buddhist tradition, though I feel it is most true to the logic of its metaphysics. Just don’t repeat the view suggested in this essay to the Buddhist faithful, especially in non-Buddhist lands where devotees to Asian spiritualities suffer an inferiority complex as latecomers to the enlightenment game, and so double down on dogmatic interpretations of “right belief” so as to prove their credentials. They want to “get something” out of years of study, sitting in meditation, and so forth, not cognizant of the fact that at day’s end there is really nothing – and by this I mean no “thing” – to be gotten: just a clearer understanding of one’s nature. And, in the East, the vast majority of Buddhists are no different in their view of their spiritual lineage than those from any other religious community: namely, its ideas and perspectives are not so much objects of contemplation, but normative aspects of their specific ethnic, cultural, and often racial identities lacking any deeply-felt meaning beyond that of a fixture, albeit an important one, in daily life. That is, they are the Asian equivalents of what we in the West term “Sunday Christians”. I am not at all critical of this extremely common approach to religion. If unreflective adherence to a specific cultural form gives one a sense of peace, then who am I to criticize this? However, I do think that this approach to a spirituality is one that misses out on an opportunity to fashion a more genuinely human life, one based on something beyond mere survival and/or social acceptance.
To return to considering Buddhism’s singular capacity to find a place in every life: philosophically, this is a direct, practical expression of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. The Buddha’s teaching that Being, including the structure of the mind, is fundamentally without static, eternal attributes or qualities constitutes the basis of its unusual capacity to be fitted to the spiritual practices of people from extremely diverse backgrounds and experiences. This is why a large number of Japanese Buddhists are also practicing Christians, usually Catholics, who move untroubled between these two commitments. I assume that this is cause of dismay for some of their priests, whose prototypically Western training may influence them to see this dual commitment as reflecting a loss of nerve, or a cowardly fear of throwing in one’s lot with Jesus alone, who they have been educated to see as having cornered the market on truth. (Or, being Japanese themselves, they may simply “get it”, and wisely ignore their faith’s teaching on this issue, much like the American priesthood largely ignores church edicts about birth control, reapplying a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.)
Even thoughtful Westerners are remarkably unanimous in their suspicion of anyone who shows a deep interest in multiple spiritualities. A friend of mine, an otherwise perceptive Kleinian psychoanalyst, once interpreted my wide-ranging interest in world religions as a “perverse” fascination, by which I think she meant an unconscious state of lust for an illusory spiritual object composed of dissociated, fetishized “parts” of different traditions: kind of like wanting to have sex with a centaur, I suppose. Hence, even in the intellectual classes the age-old Western need to think of reality as an “either/or”, a grim confrontation between incompatible choices, is endemic; this despite the recent flowering of interest in comparative religions and so-called “new age”, integrative viewpoints, which, for all their superficialities, I think are often unfairly dismissed out-of-hand as silly self-indulgences for those unwilling to grow up and face what is taken for reality.
But Buddhism considers such views to be wrong-headed, and this is precisely where its concept of Being’s emptiness is important. In the next section I will discuss this idea in more depth. For now, suffice to say that a worldview holding that Being is without an essential nature that can be made into a private “possession” is one that can find a friendly reception everywhere. That is, Being’s lack of unchanging attributes puts it beyond our ability to turn it into an enduring doctrine, thus avoiding the Western bugaboo of thinking that a religious understanding of the world means the attainment of certainty and unshakeable conviction that one is on the “right” spiritual path.
This is why I see the Buddha’s insight into human nature as trans-cultural. That is, while emerging from within the symbology of ancient Indian Hinduism, the Buddha accented and developed aspects of its worldview that I believe are mostly applicable to all people in all times and places. This is quite consistent with his preference for the revelatory nature of concrete human experience, over and above ideology: what happens when we stop thinking, scheming, and responding to social pressure, others’ demands, and our own anxiety about all manner of things, and simply observe the flow of thoughts in our minds. It seems reasonable to suppose that as part of this project he also saw a need to put the unique sociocultural trappings of one’s historical circumstances temporarily to the side, so as to explore and piece through the mind’s primary structure in as direct a manner as possible, this being the most authentic focus of a spiritual inquiry.
To say this differently, it strikes me that, consciously or not, the Buddha sought a “bare”, ritually and dogmatically unadorned jumping-off point for this endeavor, one optimally empty of the preconceptions of any particular cultural environment. To be clear, he did not harbor the illusion that one’s cultural upbringing can be utterly stripped from awareness, nor I suppose would he have seen this as desirable. For example, without India’s ancient and intellectually profound Hindu traditions in his background, the Buddha would have lacked any coherent sense of where to begin his own deliberations. I think he simply proposed that even the most beautiful and conceptually rich preconceptions be mentally “bracketed”, moved to the periphery of one’s attention for a period of time, so as to establish what Heidegger calls a more or less unencumbered existential “clearing” from which new experiences can announce themselves, minus our all-too-human compulsion to label and categorize them. This is perhaps why most of the iconic historical spiritual figures at some point engaged in a retreat from society, so as to contemplate the world without the hypnotic distraction of the buzz of daily life with others.
If the Buddha’s formulation of a trans-cultural spirituality was in any way a conscious intention on his part, it was certainly not driven by some evangelical fervor to establish a universal religion (this monopolistic goal is found mostly in Christianity and Islam). Rather, I suspect that he believed that such a position was simply loyal to the spirit of what he defined as the essential object of authentic spiritual concern. He taught that this object is simply what is fundamental to all humans at all times and in all places: the fact of consciousness itself, the universal human experience of consciously existing, which is populated by our awareness of our “being-here” (to play a bit with Heidegger’s notion of “being-there” or, in German, Dasein) in the passage of time, and as headed toward non-existence…the latter being the main source of our unhappiness, dread of life, and frequent obnoxious self-indulgence.
So, to reframe this in Protestant theologian Paul Tillich’s (1958) terms, the Buddha’s “ultimate concern” was to understand our relationship to the “Ground of Being” as it manifests itself in daily awareness, with special attention to our anxious comprehension of the inevitability of loss and death. I infer that he thought that one may study this as a problem transcending all particularlity of sex, gender, nationality, language, religion, or time…and this, I think, accounts for the particularly “philosophical” nature of his teaching, which has the form of a thoughtful, systematic, and doggedly logical exploration of the human condition rather than, say, a set of moral codes. Buddhist morality comes from the “ground up”, in the purely natural, unpremeditated upwelling of compassion for all sentient beings that follows from this self-understanding, rather than from the “top down” in the form of ethical “shoulds”.
Hence, what follows is my own, possibly iconoclastic but I believe essentially valid understanding of Buddhism, infused with a veritable chef’s stew of ingredients gleaned from my multiple, quite Western interests: existentialism, the subterranean mystical elements of my Protestant heritage (yes, there is a Protestant mysticism, though it is largely unknown to the faithful), psychoanalysis, postmodernism (though not much, as I dislike its cheaply-bought relativism), art, art criticism, and the lived experiences of the many patients with whom I have been involved as a clinician over the years.
All that said, let’s look at the Buddhist understanding of “emptiness”, or in Sanskrit, “sunyata”, an idea first developed within the Indian Mahayana school.
The Concept of Emptiness
Siddhartha became enlightened as to the nature of human suffering while sitting in a wordless, and probably depressive state of contemplation under a Bodhi tree. At that moment, according to the Dharma, he became transformed, and thereupon returned to daily life having discovered his “Buddha-nature”. A foundational aspect of this enlightened state is embodied in the Buddhist doctrine of “emptiness”. All of Being is “empty”, in this particular use of the term. As my readers are very likely concerned with the interface of philosophy with psychological matters (also a core preoccupation of Buddhist thought), let’s analyze what it means to say that the mind exists in a state of emptiness. This is an immensely difficult idea for Westerners to grasp, because we are socialized to believe that emptiness can only mean nothingness, or non-being. That is, in this way of understanding the concept, emptiness means an existential vacuum lacking any distinguishing characteristics or substantial existence. Hence, we often apply the term derisively to describe people we find dull-witted or intellectually vacuous, like Uncle Mike, who has built his life around his Twitter account.
The English word emptiness is an entirely inadequate translation of sunyata, and one that begs misunderstanding by Westerners, though I have yet to come upon a better equivalent in my native language. So, we must unpack this notion: in Buddhism the mind, like Being itself – of which it is a manifestation – is said to be without an essential nature that can be turned into a mental object, “grasped” objectively, as it were, and employed as we would a tool. Intellectual attempts to lay hold of mind’s actual or “innermost” nature are ultimately futile, because consciousness is not able to get “one up” on itself, to use philosopher Alan Watts’ (1972) plainspoken phrase. This is no more possible than the acts of biting one’s own teeth or looking into one’s eyes. Observing consciousness cannot objectify or “other” itself, as the phenomenon being inspected is none other than the very phenomenal world of the observer him or herself. Hence, at the end of attempts to analyze and then categorize the nature of mind, we always end up devoid of any stable, “truthful” abstract formulas upon which to rely to engage in the dutiful moral endeavor – heavily promoted by Protestantism, though endemic in Western culture since the Greeks – of “knowing ourselves”. And this, I think, is what Buddhism means when it asserts that the mind is empty: the term refers to our native inability to split consciousness in two, as it were, creating (as we incorrectly imagine) a viewer that views itself.
So, in Buddhist philosophy, our human nature – this essential “is” of its “is-ness” that we desperately want to know – is perpetually just beyond the outer limits of normal comprehension, although, paradoxically, it eludes logical definition precisely because it is also at the very core of the mind’s being-in-the-world. That is, sunyata – the “void” – constitutes the very bedrock of our humanity and the existential platform for our encounter with the world. Certain philosophers call this inexpressible or “empty” dimension of mind the point of its “absolute subjectivity”: the innermost of the innermost of our experience of existing, the depths of which necessarily slip away from awareness the moment we try to mentally lay hold of it. Or, to use an analogy, trying to define “mind” or human nature in an adamantine final conceptual formula is like attempting to capture the horizon: no matter how fast we run toward it, no matter how far we extend our grasp, it remains perpetually beyond possession.
As noted above, the Buddhist view of mind is that it is no less than an expression of Being itself, reflecting its nature in microcosmic form. Hence, when we consider the mind from this standpoint, we are also simultaneously plunged into a contemplation upon the core elements of Being itself. This selfsame conceptual leap is found across cultures, in any endeavor to clarify the relationship of the mind’s qualities to the larger fact of existence in which it is cradled. For this reason, early twentieth-century American psychologist William James, who maintained a deep interest in experiential religion, over time turned his attention from the study of the human subject to ontological matters (the Greek term “ontos” meaning “existence”, and “ontological” indicating the analysis of Being’s nature). However, like the Buddhist philosophers, he too was forced to stop short when trying to describe this in philosophical terms, finally avowing only that it is a “something more” that is fully within and yet just beyond our understanding. (The limits of language are illustrated here by the fact that I must rely on the word “it” to indicate what I am describing, even though this “it” is not an “it” at all.)
Even the finest words can merely allude to the ultimate nature of Being. These simply gesture, as it were, to its presence, as when one registers that a swirling dust cloud indicates the dynamic presence of the wind, which is “empty”, in the Buddhist sense, of describable qualities. This is why certain Buddhist traditions use words in quite baffling ways, in the attempt to evoke or precipitate an awakening to the elusive “All” that is Being itself. The Japanese Buddhist tradition of Zen is renowned for such playful verbal assaults on the inner truth of the self. A famous example of its upside-down use of language goes like this: a monk approached his master, asking if it was possible to calm his mind. The master replied, “Show me your mind, and I will pacify it”. “But”, said the puzzled initiate, “when I look for my mind it isn’t anywhere to be found”. “Then in that case it is already pacified”, said the master.
Here the monk may pause to consider what we referred to above as the nature of absolute subjectivity: not as an abstract idea, but as an emotionally-informed realization that, try as he might to unpeel the layers of the mental onion within which he believes his “true” self is hidden, within each layer he finds that there is another, and then another after that, and so on, ad infinitum. Should he strip away all possible layers he will be left with, you guessed it: nothing, or more correctly stated, “no-thing”. Specifically, no “thing” that is dependably solid and static, hence capable of being manipulated, since the layers were actually all that the onion ever consisted of from the start. So he is left empty-handed, as it were, which also happens to be a loose translation of the Japanese word “karate” or “kara” (empty) “te” (hand). Contained within this word is Buddhism’s view of the psycho-spiritual basis for egoless action in the world, as I will explain.
The martial art of karate is imbued with the Buddhist regard from egoless of “empty” action. In this regard, I might mention that Zen Buddhism’s particular rendering of the notion of emptiness has informed much of what we have come to know as the characteristically “Japanese” aesthetic. Its culture-specific rendition of the doctrine of emptiness is famously expressed in the layout of Japanese gardens, for example, with their stylized accent upon open, “empty” spaces created from meticulously groomed rock. (A photo of one such garden graces this essay’s featured image.) Further, in artistic renderings of the Buddha one notes the distinctive ways in which his hands are positioned. These hand placements are called “mudras” from the Sanskrit meaning “signs”), each with a particular meaning. The photos contained below show two examples of mudras from Indian statues of the Buddha. On the left the Buddha is depicted with his left hand resting on his lap, open and facing upward. In Sanskrit this gesture is called the Bhumisparsha or “Earth Witness” Mudra, and refers to Siddhartha’s request of the earth to affirm his worthiness to be called the Buddha following his enlightenment. The hand gesture on the right is called the Varada or “Compassion” Mudra, and, quite naturally, symbolizes compassion. The openness of the hands is obviously a common theme in both examples. While there are other stylized Buddhist hand positions that do not
expose the palms in this way, one is nonetheless impressed with the way in which these particular mudras convey the same emotional tone of open receptivity to Being constituting the notion of sunyata, making them compelling metaphors for the Buddhist credo of “non-grasping” after permanence.
As mentioned above, the Buddhist emphasis upon non-attachment also informs the martial art of karate. In this stance toward physical battle the combatant surveys their opponent from a stance of “no-mindedness” or “no-thought”. This allows the ensuing combat to be directed, not by the frightened, hesitant, and therefore inhibiting actions of the objectifying-ego, but from an intuitive sense of the natural rhythms of the self derived from its groundedness in sunyata. As any athlete will tell you, one never attains competence as long as one is continually reflecting beforehand on one’s actions on the court, parallel bars, baseball diamond, or football field. The hesitation this creates undermines the possibility of what Buddhism, in its description of the “Noble Truths” calls “right action” (here I expand on this concept’s usual confinement to morality). Like any obsessional stance toward existence, in laboring mentally to attain success one loses the sense of the total “forest” of one’s involvement with the world and sees only individual trees. Here action becomes encumbered and made awkward (often comically so) by the discriminating ego, because it lacks a felt sense of its involvement with a total environment. In this case, as in any competent engagement with the world, “getting it right” is, to use a common scientific term, a matter of being attuned to the promptings of “instinct”, though the idea of instinctive action is too tied to the simplistic ideas of Western neurobiology for my taste. In my view the word “spontaneity” is more fitting, though perhaps I am quibbling too much over terminology here.
In the Japanese Rinzai or “sudden awakening” tradition of Zen it is common to employ the use of koans, generally known in the West as absurd mental riddles posed as challenges to students; though beyond this description even educated Westerners usually have little understanding of the actual intent behind what merely looks like a strange and possibly charlatan exercise in pseudo-profundity. Koans such as “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”, “Does a tree that falls in the forest when no one is present to hear it make a sound?”, and “What is the sound of a single hand clapping?” are meant to engross the initiate fully in what is ultimately an absurd and hopeless quest to find the answer to his or her spiritual conundrum: an idealized, static, and eternal reference point that, once possessed, he or she believes will be the key to permanently eradicating uncertainty. The psychology behind the koan is essentially in line with William Blake’s aphorism, “Let the fool persist in his folly and he will become wise”. That is, one should pursue the inner logic of one’s assumptions to the bitter end. The confrontation with the failure of one’s chosen course will speak more convincingly to the truth-seeker than the finest arguments, and then he or she will “give up”, in a positive sense, and perhaps become more genuinely receptive to alternative viewpoints.
Or maybe not, at least this time…and so the student of Zen may redouble their efforts to allay suffering through the familiar effort to “nail down” a “correct” response to the koan. After all, he or she presumes, this time all of one’s mental effort is sure to pay off. But, life being what it is, the initiate will again experience mental distress, as an acceptable response continues to slip through their fingers. And so they may return to the mental puzzle yet again, more determined than ever to better the challenge of trying to conquer what he or she understands as the entryway to the profound and distant, maddeningly elusive goal of enlightenment. After encountering still more defeats, he or she might finally and permanently give up this tortured mental straining and striving. This is desirable, as surrendering such a mad quest is the precondition for awakening to the understanding that what they were seeking has been immediately and fully present to them all along; hidden in plain sight, as it were.
This same counter-intuitive methodology also appears in the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, essentially a “soft” spirituality rooted in evangelical Protestantism. For example, AA’s wiser members generally do not stand in the way of a member’s desire to drink, and, in fact, are often heard to give drunkenness the “green light”, assuming, of course, that this is what the individual really desires. Exhorting, imploring, reasoning – in short, trying to help – do not work with an addict in this state: this the senior members know from having experienced their own recoveries, and the insatiable nature of their own, alcohol-fueled willfulness. In fact, most are aware that all such aggressively educative tactics only drive the person tempted to imbibe further into a corner, where they steel their ego-driven determination to win what has turned into a battle of wills with “the program”. As with the use of the koan method in Zen, here too the unstated message is the same: “Follow your desire through to its predetermined end, exhaust all your best reasoning, and then, if you feel ready, consider if this worked for you”. I see this as an implicit invitation to explore the nature of the will, and, in doing so, become attuned to the restless, ever-grasping property of consciousness itself.
The Buddhist understanding of emptiness is sometimes conveyed in spatio-temporal metaphors. Modernist composer John Cage, who was influenced by Buddhism, incorporated this concept into some of his piano compositions, in which he attempted to draw attention away from the well-articulated sound of the notes and toward the silence existing between these. His boldest foray into this area is perhaps his composition “4:33” or “Four Minutes, Thirty Three Seconds”, which consists solely of rests, and so is “empty” of sound. Here Cage sought to provoke his listeners’ emotional response to the phenomenon of silence itself, which he understood as possessing its own distinct form of the fullness that we naturally associate solely with phenomena that “forward” themselves clearly and assertively to the foreground of our awareness.
The sound of a note clearly struck on an instrument is only evident to us because it exists in an integral relationship to the backdrop of what we usually think of as its absence. However, what Cage intended to show was that this “absence” is illusory: silence may be a “no-thing”, but this is not the same as a “nothing”, a “zero”. Rather, in silence Cage inferred and sought to illuminate the existence of an alternate kind of presence, what is more accurately thought of as a state of pure potential: a dynamic, pregnant state of possibility. So, understood thus, perhaps Buddhist emptiness is analogous to what in Christian scholastic philosophy, drawing from Aristotle’s metaphysics, is called the “unmoved mover”; the source of all that exists, expressing itself in the multitude of activities constituting the world, but which itself operates out of what Taoism, an historical source of Zen, calls the principle of “non-action”. This is the absolute “still point of the turning world” at the heart of the continual, frenetic activity of being. In Cage’s avant-garde works this references the stillness of silence, a palpable but undefinable “no-thingness” from which a figural “something” is born and forwards itself to human consciousness.
Reflections on Emptiness and Psychotherapy
Applying the concept of sunyata to an analysis of the psychotherapeutic endeavor is so vast a topic as to warrant its own book. Or more likely several, rather dense books. (As may be inferred from the length of this essay alone, it is a peculiar quality of discussions of any mystical viewpoint that they tend to be amazingly long and often pedantic, despite – or more likely due to – the very ineffableness of the topic, which challenges us to prove the sanity of our idealization of reason, I suppose. That said, there is a certain joy in dancing about the edges of an idea that continually escapes one’s grasp. In this circumstance a wise thinking person will merely smile in recognition of the fact that they are flirting with a dimension of Being that is perpetually beyond them; and unfulfilled striving provides its own strange brand of ecstasy, I think.)
In any case, here I will briefly touch upon a few issues related to the topic of emptiness as it relates to psychotherapy, the implications of which interested readers may wish to pursue independently. Inspired by Cage’s work, I thought to consider the phenomenon of silence in the psychotherapy session as a means to pursue a discussion of emptiness in this professional context. I will discuss this in the context of a particular kind of therapist-patient interaction, one in which both parties become embroiled in a common, shared set of emotional responses to the material at hand. This variety of interpersonal dynamic is of deep interest to those North American neo-Freudian theoretical schools called “relational” or “intersubjective”. While I am not enthusiastic about many of the theories of these schools, their general approach seems most useful here, as it is one that acknowledges the symbolical containment (or what I have called embeddedness) of both parties in a broader, overarching existential context, one transcending the private interior worlds of either person. This understanding of interactional dynamics in treatment is not the same as the Buddhist view of human consciousness as existing in the larger metaphoric “womb” of Being. Consciously at least, relational and intersubjective thinkers do not concern themselves with such ontological issues, and so for the most part do not work them into their ideas at all. However, if Buddhism’s perspectives are at all true, then all of us are always, unavoidably engaged with, and commenting on the nature of our containment in Being, however much we may insist that we are “only” concerned with an isolated, in this case concrete clinical problem. We are all constantly philosophizing, even if we do this non-cognizantly and poorly: every act we perform, idea we entertain, and intention we indulge emanates from some fundamental presumptions about its place in the larger scheme and ultimate direction of our lives.
To return to the example of silence in the therapeutic dyad: it strikes me that a lull in the verbal interchange between psychotherapist and patient can be quite important, therapeutically. I’ll try to be true to the spirit of Buddhism in addressing this phenomenon, by beginning my analysis with the concrete experience of silence in this working dyad, and only then working up to an abstracted explanation of its meaning. The first thing we notice about silence is that it is generally deeply uncomfortable for the patient, and, not uncommonly, for the therapist too. Personally, I am not usually fazed by points in the dialogue when words trail off and all one hears is perhaps the whirr of the air conditioning unit or “whoosh” of cars in the street (especially pleasant to hear on rainy days, when the pavement is soaked). In fact, I often welcome such transitions, as it seems to offer entrée into an interpersonal space in which a more genuine interpersonal encounter may occur. This is particularly the case with those patients whom I find irritatingly gabby, individuals who gush forth sentence upon sentence in what sometimes seems to be a desperate attempt to aggressively force themselves into the symbolical container of my consciousness.
Of course, this use of speech is all “diagnostic”, to use therapy-speak, of this person’s painful and invariably deeply unconscious emotional conflict. If I can pause and consider my emotional reaction to this symptomatic outpouring of defensive wordiness – which, unfortunately, is not always the case – I generally come to some understanding of the desperateness of their need. What this need may be varies widely, of course, according to the patient’s character and history. But such an encounter typically seems to embody two key aspects of any symptomatic behavior, the first defensive, as I have mentioned, and the second, which is always harder to discern, an attempt at self-healing. To explain: language used defensively, in the manner I have described, simply reproduces in the consulting room an interpersonal circumstance which is likely to reinforce the patient’s unconscious conviction of their state of hopeless isolation, and the sense of self-loathing that accompanies it. More to the point, in engaging me in this way, the patient unwittingly though purposefully (inasmuch as unconscious behavior is always goal-directed) thrusts me out of their life as a potential source of concerned understanding. Part of this inheres in the very off-putting, invasive quality of their chattiness, which a reasonable third party is likely to observe and think “Well, no wonder you don’t have any friends”.
An understanding of the patient’s personal history is essential here, as it provides the narrative clues as to the meaning of what motivates this compulsion to repeat such a clearly self-defeating pattern: perhaps they suffered tremendous emotional neglect in childhood, or a traumatic loss, be it literal or symbolic (as when a young boy feels that he has “lost” the unqualified love of an emotionally detached or critical father, for example). And so on. My capacity to piece together what I may know of this aspect of their history with what is occurring before me, in vivo, is critical in forming a fuller understanding of such an individual’s pathology.
The goal guiding this methodology is to remain in emotional contact with the patient’s unarticulated feelings, rather than impulsively going into action, which only serves to further obscure these. This is challenging, because it requires me to first be cognizant of my own emotional world (perhaps such a wordy patient reminds me of some narcissistic figure from my own past, as well as being an artifact of something occurring with the patient presently) and “hang in there” with myself as I try to raise my instinctive response to the level of awareness. If I succumb to annoyance or discomfort I am likely to respond as yet another embodiment of some frustrating object from their past, one who perhaps glibly offers superficial “supportive” comments to shut them up or, if I want to more aggressively counter the feeling of ineffectiveness that they have aroused within me, a blunt, smartly-worded interpretation to the effect that they are being evasive, acting out, and so forth.
The second and more subtle dimension of this kind of behavior is what I call its “forward-looking” face. Put simply, in recreating with me conditions ripe for a reenactment of the very thing he or she most fears, the patient also expresses an unconscious wish that this time things might end differently. That is, the unconscious desire for self-healing at play here is manifested obliquely, peeping out from behind a rather dense wall of words; though, in my view, this motivation for self-repair is as fully present in the interactional dynamic between us as is the former, self-destructive compulsion to repeat. And it is this second facet of the patient’s presentation that I as the therapist must comprehend, so as to woo it out of hiding, so to speak, and make it a clearer, foregrounded figure in the interactional matrix.
The foregoing embodies certain ways of thinking that can be understood in light of Buddhist concepts of reality as “empty”. First off, we may infer the presence of Buddhism’s concept of simple attention to phenomena as the jumping-off point for clearly understanding their nature and meaning(s). As a therapist, this means that I am better able to comprehend the patient’s behavior by starting from what we may call a “contemplative” position. In applying this term I am not referring to any particular cultural spiritual practice, but to something closer to what Heidegger defined as existential “openness”. This is his term for a stance of mental receptivity to the “givens” or “givenness” (my terms, not his) of a particular circumstance, that is, the way in which one mentally takes in the totality of a certain experiential “environment” (to cite an idea in American John Dewey’s thinking, which overlaps somewhat with Heidegger’s).
This “total” environment cannot be understood in any practical way by a self-conscious process of labeling and categorizing its discrete elements. A total environment is vastly more than the sum of its parts: hence, one misses the forest for the trees by obsessively searching one’s memory for a ready-made framework within which to understand what is happening right under one’s nose, as we noted above in our discussion of Buddhist “right action” in athletics. This is why no patient remains long with a therapist who is obsessively wedded to research findings to dictate what they should do with specific diagnostic presentations. They correctly intuit that such a therapist is not “all there”, as it were, but off in some dissociated immaterial realm that is their own private “possession”, and which they may well seek to wield as a tool to “fix” the patient.
In this sense, genuine access to meaning, for which psychotherapy is an experiential platform, is more an art than a “hard” science in the same mold as, say, an arithmetic or chemistry problem…no one ever experienced that indefinable thing called the “beauty” of an artwork by measuring its depth, height, the plane of its counters, year and place of its creation, and classifying its colors. Heidegerrian openness implies that one slows down, mentally “brackets” or even calls a full stop to this habit of mind (though this last option may not actually be possible or, perhaps, necessary). The particular consciousness of Being that emerges from this stance bears similarities to the Buddhist concept of “no-mindedness”, discussed in the last section. As we also explored above, this does not mean that one lapses into the state of a mental non-entity, an inert, unreflective “zero”. Rather, the therapist who first “pays no mind”, so to speak, to the sturm und drang of the innumerable, ceaselessly flitting ideas, fears, and goals filling his or her mind is preparing the ground for unpremeditated “right action”. By temporarily emptying him or herself of the need to efficiently know – in the discriminating, assembly-line manner noted above – what is unfolding in their relation to this person, the practitioner allows themselves the opportunity to take in the total, overarching awareness of the situation before them.
In psychotherapy, this “total” environment is one including the past (both the patient’s history and one’s own, especially as any therapist’s past colors and skews his or her opinions and values), its relationship in the flow of time to what is occurring presently in the consulting room, and the emotional possibilities that a given response to the patient may reveal, and, simultaneously, those that will be obscured by such a choice. Another Buddhist virtue, “right understanding” applies here: it is based in the view that obsessive straining and striving to “know” usually achieves the opposite of its intended effect, ironically. The reason for this is simple to grasp: apart from a foundational stance of existential openness one cannot correctly interpret the full extent of what they are surveying in the first place. This usually results in bad decisions, for the same reason that an athlete misses the mark when they are insensitive to their embeddedness in the larger gestalt of what Heidegger calls their “being-with” (Mitsein) other competitors, as well as with the “the world-at-hand” (which includes inanimate objects: in the case of athletic endeavors, such things as a tennis racket, baseball bat, the physical contours of a field of play, and so forth).
Hence, in treatment this suggests that one best “knows” the patient like a lover “knows” his or her partner, to use the translation of a Hebrew term from the poem The Song of Solomon: that is, by giving oneself over to the spontaneous unfolding of the mutually-defining, co-creative act of “intercourse” as it announces itself in session. Parenthetically, it is only our Western, neo-Protestant squeamishness that causes such an analogy to seem “improper”. Any genuinely human contact is always an act of love, though we may only call it that if we truly understand what love is. To anticipate an argument against this analogy: true love is quite the opposite of simple lust, in that it involves attuned interpersonal responsiveness, accommodation, and empathic, Heideggerian openness to the unpremeditated ebb and flow of the interaction. This is the exact opposite of the narcissistic, mentally self-enclosed stance toward the other characterizing lust, at least when bodily arousal remains split off from awareness of the total environment that foregrounds itself between two people.
Further, genuine love for another, though without the obsessional need to classify and sort out the other’s qualities, paradoxically heightens one’s practical use of discriminating capacities. This is because in the experience of loving described here, one is more, not less sensitive to the nuances of diverse forms of existence and the kinds of responses that they require of us. That is, one becomes keenly aware that certain kinds of love “fit” with certain “total” environments, and not with others. One does not express love for one’s child the way one does with one’s spouse, coworker, parakeet, or supermarket cashier. Hence, in treatment, the genuinely loving therapist directs their spontaneous sense of interpersonal connection with a patient into forms that genuinely and helpfully respond to the total, local environment of their needs, rather than enacting these in split-off forms that address only a dissociated sliver of the patient’s being and of the relationship itself. Here as in any human relationship, pursuing the expression of love simply as lust is another way to “miss the forest for the trees”, and an act that is almost invariably based in the ego-based desire for mastery that Buddhism calls the seat of illusion. All of this seems to be directly implied in the Buddhist notion of “right understanding”, in my view.
Understood from a psychoanalytic perspective, the environment revealed by such an “open” position toward the patient necessarily includes the unconscious, that is, those dimensions of experience that have been split off or otherwise banished from consciousness in the service of managing unbearable need and desire. Let’s recall the foregoing situation of bombardment by a patient’s words. Perhaps the patient’s breathless recounting of their troubles will suddenly cease, as they feel that they have finally exhausted all possible angles of verbal description of their dilemmas. To draw from a common experience of my own, at such a moment the patient, now quiet, may look at me longingly. Typically, this means they are waiting for me to reply in some insightful way. The look says “Well?”. After all, the patient quite naturally assumes that, as French psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan put it, I am “the one who knows”. My training and profound insight into the mind will provide the answer that they finally seek, they imagine; and now, having expressed the depths of their psychic burden in excruciating detail, they await the “pay off”.
Contained within the folds of this seemingly reasonable desire for a curative response from me, an esteemed doctor of things mental, is the same unarticulated wish for a certain, unassailably correct answer that the Zen student seeks in their labors to answer a koan. Put in Buddhist terms, the patient’s problems are their own, private and idiosyncratic koan, the answer to which has eluded them thus far: their best reasoning has continually failed to deliver them from its clutches. So they have come to me, a modern, presumably sophisticated scientific embodiment of an enlightened Zen master of old, whom they are gambling is able to finally solve the puzzle of their suffering through the application of discriminating intelligence.
Though I started this section thinking of Cage’s use of silence to awaken listeners of his music to the total environment of a composition, here I think we need to redefine what we mean by silence as it occurs in psychotherapy. Here silence more properly means, not simply the absence of the sound of speech (though it can mean that, at times). It also suggests the therapist’s silence about what the patient naturally assumes are the essential components of their distress, as contained in their outpouring of words. Hence, in this hypothetical case, I may have something to say to the patient, but they are likely to feel a bit put off by the fact that it does not address what they think is the matter with them, here “matter” meaning its definable substance. After listening to their thoughts about their troubles I often remain silent for a bit, letting the impact of their speech roll through my awareness, and then may simply say something like, “What are you feeling right now?”. Or I may suggest an interpretation, gleaned from those elements of the flow of their lives – its totality – from childhood on. The special meaning of silence in either case has nothing to do with whether or how much I speak. Rather, it has to do with a certain kind of disciplined attention to aspects of the patient’s experience that I sense have been ignored by them, and so have disappeared into the background of their consciousness.
This is an invitation to get beyond the ego-based preoccupation with sorting, classifying, and manipulating their conscious experience, undertaken in the futile quest to get “one up” on themselves. Here the concept of the unconscious becomes especially useful. Most simply if incompletely stated, this construct means those dimensions of experience that have been denied access to awareness because they are perceived as dangerous to ego-identity. Put somewhat differently, the unconscious is the repository of desires and thoughts that are threatening to the illusion of ego-mastery, and so have been refused synthesis with consciousness. These desires and thoughts have been imbued with a dreaded “otherness”. This “othering” process makes each unwelcome wish into a phenomenon experienced as an uncanny “not-me”. This is what Freud means by saying that the unconscious is the seat of “id” impulses, although the word “id” is a horribly bad translation of the original German: the actual word Freud used is not id but “es”, specifically, das es or “ the it”. This best captures the quality of the splitting of consciousness that is the genesis of mental suffering, as aspects of phenomenal experience become refashioned as manipulable things: its. Such “thingifying” of the phenomenal world of awareness is done to make the frightening elements of its structure into palpable, tangible object-like entities which admit of greater control. Part of this gambit includes the process of encasing the newly “thinged” aspects of mind in the illusion that they are phenomena existing “out there”, just like other tangible objects. And this, in turn, leads to the desperate attempt to manipulate these “othered” wishes through an ongoing, exhausting exertion of will, an unending turning of mental somersaults; but this effort always comes to nothing, as one cannot actually practice “oneupmanship” on oneself.
In relational and intersubjective paradigms, the therapist who fails to comprehend that he or she is also an active participant in the interpersonal “field” of the dialogue with a patient is ill-quipped to do better than mindlessly accede to the patient’s demand for a logical explanation of their difficulty. The therapist who surveys the phenomenal ground of their engagement with a patient from this vantage point includes consideration of their own emotional responses to what is occurring, among a host of other things. These contemplations provide essential clues to the actual nature of the “total” environment of the therapeutic dyad, as noted earlier. Not doing so often thrusts the therapist back into the position of the detached observer of events, the prototypical “one who knows”, approaching the interchange from the airy and illusory distance of a fatefully restricted field of awareness. This may quickly become a doorway to the kinds of interventions least helpful to patients: specifically, any response that colludes with or actively encourages the patient’s carefully nurtured desire to constrict their consciousness in such a way as to eliminate or disown anything unfamiliar; in Freudian language, the “it-contents” of the unconscious.
The therapist’s silence about issues that the patient considers significant is of utmost importance in helping them to slowly become acquainted with themselves as a psychic integer, a whole, and not merely as an isolated center of consciousness engaged in ceaseless battle with the disavowed facets of their humanity. This kind of silence should never be practiced in other than good faith: as a sincere expression of belief in the individual’s capacity to transcend their current misery through what is essentially a form of Buddhist right understanding. It cannot be used to good end as some mechanistic mind trick, perhaps issuing forth from a therapist who is unwittingly acting narcissistically, in concert with the patient’s wish to idealize them as the “owner” of the solution to their unhappiness. Shifting the mutual experiential frame of awareness in the midst of a session to embrace another picture of one’s being-in-world can do a lot to calm panicky patients (and their sometimes equally panicky therapists, consumed with what they suppose is helpful, obligatory doing, doing, doing). Such a shift in the experiential frame may foreground previously unrecognized aspects of the patient’s being-in-the-world. As noted earlier, this can include certain of their heretofore hidden strengths and creative capacities, the “forward-looking” dimensions of the unconscious, which are as frequently and cruelly split off from consciousness as are what we think of as our morally bad, shameful qualities.
All of the above lends itself to analysis in terms of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. The patient who finds some liberation from suffering in treatment does so by becoming more curious about the alien, troublesome aspects of their experience that continually elude all the most logical, taken-for-granted methods of resolution available to them. For once they may stop trying to understand and change themselves by the usual method of fretfully focusing awareness, laser-beam fashion, in the service of enhancing the ego’s fantasy of power. They simply look within, observantly noting the ceaseless metamorphosis of the elements of subjectivity, and that can make all the difference. Now, this is not quite what Buddhism would see as an encounter with the emptiness of the mind, as it is likely that such a patient will eventually be able to formulate their new experience of themselves in words. Rather, in such an encounter it is the experience of the structure of the mind, rather than any of its contents, in which the encounter with its emptiness emerges as a figure in consciousness. This gets to the nature of the unconscious, the architecture of which does not admit of definition by even our finest reasoning. This is due, in part, to the fact that the unconscious is not a tangible “thing”, but a process (Mills, 2004). More exactly, described in terms of its structure it is simply pure process, an unending stream of impressions and associations which has no qualities that can be rendered in the static symbolism of language, and hence whose “true” nature is always just beyond ego-based comprehension. It is James’ “something more”, whose fundamental being cannot be formulated in abstract ideas, no matter how long or deeply we penetrate its nature. Such a use of discriminating intelligence fails as surely as it would when trying to hold the wind in one’s hands. Put differently, the unconscious, as the center of our sense of self, is another word for the “innermost of the innermost” core of our experience of existing, as mentioned in a prior section. Peel away at its layers as we might, we always come up with nothing (no-thing) at the end of our investigation.
So psychotherapy, understood in this way, may be seen as a characteristically Western expression of the transcultural and perennial spiritual quest to restore suffering persons to themselves; that is, to a consciousness of their being-in-the-world that includes elements existing beyond what they normally take to define their identities. This is otherwise called “transcendence”: an expanded, deepened phenomenal experience of the self, one that loosens defensive restraints on the limits of the very sense of embeddedness in Being itself that all religions take as the start of an awakened sense of self. Less fearful of allowing the free flow in consciousness of previously disowned or “unconscious” aspects of mind, the patient may also find that they are more open (in Heidegger’s sense of this word) to a world around them that before they classified as a threatening “other”, a “some-thing” to be avoided or craftily mastered. Like the unconscious, the world too is empty of essential qualities, in the Buddhist sense…yet “full” inasmuch as it is the existential platform through which the emanations of an unnamable, ineffable Source of all that is eternally issues forth what Buddhism calls “the ten thousand things” that forward themselves to human consciousness.
I could continue to write further on this topic, though at a certain point it is best for someone taking in these ideas to simply stop, look, and listen to the world around one. Meditation is often a useful system for arriving at the stillness of mind necessary to perceive and experientially encounter the world in this unpremeditated manner; though, as noted above, one doesn’t “arrive” anywhere by diligent effort toward this end, but simply finds oneself just where one started. This is why meditative praxis in the Buddhist tradition is really a matter of doing less, not more. If one stops constantly stirring the waters of one’s mind, then the silt settles of its accord, goes the thinking; and then one may catch an unimpeded glimpse of the depths of one’s subjectivity. As I have tried to convey in this concluding section, this meditative, or what I have called “contemplative” consciousness is also critical for engaging suffering psychotherapy patients fruitfully.
Perhaps it is most appropriate to end this essay with a haiku, a sparse Japanese poetic form that, as we have said of the best of the Japanese aesthetic, is heavily indebted to the Buddhist notion of emptiness. This is exemplified in its style of indirect pointing to that “something more”, to borrow James’ term, in which we are embedded. The author is Matsuo Basho (middle to late seventeenth century), one of whose poems seem like an appropriate farewell to thinking about emptiness in the detail attempted here:
Heidegger, Martin (1927). Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row, 1962
Mills, Jon (2004). Rereading Freud: Psychoanalysis Through Philosophy. Albany: SUNY Press
Tillich, Paul (1958). Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper and Row
Watts, Alan (1972). In My Own Way. New York: Vintage