There’s a reason “waking up” is the metaphor used for liberation in the Buddhist system. When we wake up from a dream, we understand that although the experiences in the dream very much have an affect on our lives and the states of heart and mind that are the texture of this life, in a basic physical sense, they did not happen to our body in the same way that waking experiences do.
When folks ask what it is that gets reborn if not a self, I think the answer is always a bit unsatisfying. After all, when I wake up from a dream, it’s usually with the sense that I’m leaving a fictional universe and re-entering a nonfiction one. I have a deep intuition that my waking life is closer to what’s “real” than my dreaming life. It is, in a very important sense: there is a solidity, a manifest reality to the life of the body that is different from the ever-flickering life of the mind. But at the heart of our practice is a proposal that much of what shapes our waking life, particularly the internal drama that plays out as emotional energies, desires and fears, identities and cultures, is more dream-like than we think it is.
Let’s define “dream” as “unintentional mental experience.” We know that dreams have emotional and somatic aspects as well, so don’t get hung up on the word “mental.” The point is that the emotions and energies and sensations that arise while dreaming are more connected to memory and fantasy than they are to immediately present external stimuli. Using this definition, sleep dreaming, daydreaming, and the mind wandering are all related phenomena. They are all types of dreaming. What is not a dream? Any moment of experience where mindfulness and clear comprehension (sati-sampajañña) are present. When mindfulness is active, intention and volition are available, so the important defining factor of dream activity as opposed to other thinking is that it’s unintentional.
When the Buddha first uses the term emptiness (suññatā) in the Pāli discourses, he glosses it as the characteristic of a thing being “empty of what’s not there.” Just as a barn after all the horses have left it is “empty of horses,” any object or entity is empty of what is not present in it. It’s initially presented not as a cosmic characteristic, or somehow the nature of the universe, but as a meditation on peacefulness. In this meditation, you notice a thing that is stressful or busy that you are secluded from, and you notice that it’s not here. A meditator goes to the wilderness. It’s peaceful. They notice that the business of the city is absent, and that the peacefulness of the wilderness is what remains. Here’s the text:
“They understand: ‘This field of perception is empty of the perception of the village. It is empty of the perception of people. There is only this that is not emptiness, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of wilderness.’ And so they regard it as empty of what is not there, but as to what remains they understand that it is present. That’s how emptiness is born in them—genuine, undistorted, and pure.” (MN 121)
At first glance, this reads as a straightforward guided meditation on being present, not lost in stress about things that are not happening. Most of the stress in my life is not the immediately-palpable stress of hearing somebody say something uncomfortable to me directly, or being threatened with harm directly. My stress is based in fear of future discomfort based on memory of past discomfort. Apart from those thoughts, even if I’m right up against a deadline or in the middle of a difficult day, the situation might actually be quite peaceful. And of course remember that this is a meditation, not a state of mind to cultivate in the car in rush-hour or while arguing with your partner. Stressors that need an immediate response require a different skill (mostly).
How did emptiness turn into the most central principle in the religion? I think it was unavoidable. If I start from the perception that unintentional mental fabrication, like dreams, is empty of most physicality, I start to wonder about other unintentional cognitive activity. What about that pervasive sense of continuity I call “me?” Or the story of my life that I tell again and again, but always a little differently than the time before? Or the idea that time is linear, or the space is extensive, or that people are frightening? Under the glare of inquiry, most of our psychology shrugs and looks away. Maybe “pure awareness” holds out, insisting that it is an a priori. But there are meditative states called “neither-perception-nor-non-perception” and “the cessation of perception and feeling” that challenge awareness’s claim to being the eternal unchanging substrate of the universe. .
So the fundamental realization about dreams is that although they feel intense, they don’t have to have that much power over the quality of our lives. You can go further than that into tantric territory and realize that just as you can become lucid in your dreams and shape them in whatever direction you choose, lucidity in waking life gives a tremendous amount of power to shape your own experience. And if you can wake up out of a sleep dream, you can wake up out of a daydream, a wandering thought, and the deep unconscious dreams of stable identity, singular narrative, and culture of all kinds. All of these are empty of what is not here: unchanging substance of any kind. There’s no horses in this barn. There never were.
Emptiness is a meditation in which we recognize what’s not here, and enjoy the peacefulness of its absence. Impermanence, which is relatively easy to notice, points to emptiness, which is subtler. Dissatisfaction, which is quite easy to notice, is soothed by meditation on impermanence and ultimately disempowered by realization of emptiness. It’s peaceful to not have an identity to defend—even if our work in the world is to make safe spaces in which people can do that non-defending, and even fight for the physical and economic safety people need in order to experience the peace of not having to defend.
Emptiness is the doorway to the vast compassion mind of bodhicitta, the wish for all beings to know the peace of waking up, and the heart of the Perfection of Wisdom (prajñāpāramitā). It is fully compatible with vigorous action in the world, because it is the natural result of committment to truth. But it turns all our concepts about truth, right action, and justice on their heads because all of these concepts also are empty—perpetually fluctuating cultural conditions, never the same one day to the next, like the world they arise in and are never separate from. Emptiness in its full liberatory flowering was nascent in the original metaphor—the barn is empty of horses—and if we understand how to use that basic reflection in meditation, the path to the unconditioned may become clearer for us.