Emptiness Changes Everything

If you want to understand contemplation, and therefore contemplative ecology, you have to become acquainted with emptiness. You can’t bypass emptiness and understand why contemplation has the potential to address the root causes of the ecological crisis. The encounter with emptiness is a fundamental stick in the spokes of the operations of the human mind and all it wishes for and all it projects onto the world in the myriad forms of exploitative desire, that endless grasping for more. Emptiness negates all of our attempts to affirm our independent existence. Not too many people want to go there, but contemplation cannot be understood without emptiness.

Emptiness is not to be found in its description. The thing that actually reshapes a life cannot be described. My own words do not do it justice. Emptiness unmasks all of our images and replaces them with incomprehensible reality. If it doesn’t turn a life on its ear, it hasn’t been seen, or it has been seen and dismissed. Buddhists speak of emptiness (sunyata) as the flip side of interdependence. That is, because everything is absolutely interdependent, everything is empty of independent existence. In other words, emptiness is the interdependence of absolutely everything. This is good as far as it goes, but if it remains only an intellectual formulation, it barely hints at the “turn your life on its head” effect of actually seeing the truth of emptiness, of discovering that you do not exist in the way that you imagine you do, as a separate, independent self. It is hard to accept that all of one’s life energy has been poured into the maintenance and defense of a fiction. What a waste of life energy.

Emptiness is the key. Emptiness is what makes contemplation inherently ecological. The emptiness (non-existence) of the separate self is the presence and interaction of everything. Without emptiness, contemplation might be understood as stillness or quietude or self-reflection, but not ecology. You might have an idea about wholeness or oneness or interdependence, but you don’t necessarily experience it. You don’t get the whole movement of life rushing in, where before you had a separate self, trying to make its mark on the world and trying to get the world to fulfill its desires and confirm its beliefs. Emptiness is the loss of every belief and every idea and every image of one’s self and the world. Emptiness takes away everything we think we are, and brings us into contact with the whole of everything, exactly as it is, beyond all images, all experiences, all ideas, all stories, all beliefs, all understanding. Emptiness changes everything.

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