Part 1 | Part 3
In Why Buddhism Is True, Robert Wright quotes a teacher saying that you shouldn’t try to intellectually understand the Buddhist concept of emptiness, because if you make the attempt, your head would explode.
Recognizing Our Simplicity
We humans have proven ourselves capable of incredible illusions. From believing in god speaking to us and transubstantiation to suffering the delusion that we are living in the end times and the Dunning-Kruger effect, our brains do not see the world clearly. We can’t even comprehend how bad it is. (Doubt that?)
Although we can’t be sure we aren’t living in a simulation, all testable evidence indicates that the universe is simply matter and energy following (a certain set of) the laws of physics. (“A certain set of” because there could be other universes where the laws are different.)
We don’t understand how the chemical interactions of our brain’s ~1.4 x 10^26 atoms give rise to conscious, subjective experience. But we do know that we can manipulate consciousness in specific ways by manipulating the brain’s atoms' interactions. This gives every reason to believe that consciousness is an emergent property of specific arrangements of matter and energy, but still subject to the laws of physics (and the emergent rules of chemistry, biology, physiology).
Everything we think, everything we feel, everything we do – all of it is, at the core, the interactions of atoms. Nothing more.
Recognizing this undermines the illusion of free will. But this insight isn’t (entirely) a loss, just as it isn’t (entirely) a loss to give up religion, or to understand the evolutionary basis of love, sex, and reproduction. Realizing the materialist, reductionist nature of the universe is yet another gain – a clearer understanding of reality. And that better understanding can help us lead a better life.
The First Gain: Freedom (of a sort)
The first insight is into ourselves. Since everything is chemical reactions, we can’t be the driver of our thoughts and feelings. Consciousness is along for the ride. Our bodies feel emotions – hunger, fear, desire – as a way to understand the world and motivate “appropriate” behavior. Many things are going on in our body / brain to keep us alive; consciousness shines the spotlight of attention on one part of our otherwise unconscious thoughts and feelings to allow us to “think” more on that topic. We don’t “choose” what to think about.
This is the great insight from mindfulness meditation – recognizing that our minds don’t actually work the way we assume they do. Thoughts think themselves.
But we don’t have to be the feeling or the thought. Once we realize thoughts think themselves and feelings are messages, we don’t have to identify with them if we don’t want to. That is: these insights and mindfulness can reprogram our brains to recognize thoughts and feelings for what they are. Thoughts and feelings are not who we are.
More concretely: we don’t have to be “angry.” We don’t have to "be" anything.
Anger can arise, we can recognize it, and then “choose” to let it go. "I recognize I am experiencing anger" vs "I am angry."
Conversely, we can recognize good fortune, experience gratitude, and “choose” to embrace the experience of that feeling.
“Losing a belief in free will has not made me a fatalist – in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. … Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can paradoxically allow for greater creative control over one's life. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings.”
The Second Gain: Emptiness toward Enlightenment
The second insight is the first applied to the broader world.
Everything in the universe is simply matter and energy following the laws of physics. There is no “good” or “bad.” Everything is empty of meaning, value, and emotional valence, except what our consciousness assigns to it.
And with enough understanding, training, and reprogramming, we can “choose” not to assign anything to anything, except what makes our lives better.
It goes without saying: this is difficult. But the reality is that the rude cashier is just a collection of atoms constrained by the laws of physics. Ted Cruz is just following his genetic and societal programming. The chicken farmer, the person picking their toes on the train, the driver revving his unmuffled car – at the core, just collections of atoms, empty of any inherent meaning.
So instead of reacting with disdain, hatred, or mockery, we don’t have to react at all. Or we can “choose” to react with joy that we aren’t that person. Or we can “choose” compassion. Or we can “choose” to try to figure out actions that may help change a situation that is causing suffering in others – and we can make this choice without allowing ourselves to suffer.
(And of course, when I say “choose,” I mean “use insights from others and our experiences to reprogram our neural net so we react differently in the future.”)
Simply Another Way of Interacting with the World
We don’t start out knowing how to type, use a cellphone, or speak a language. We don’t simply “decide” to have those and other skills. But if something in our lives leads to the knowledge and training necessary, we can interact with the world in a new way.
Learning a new language is perhaps the best example. People can speak German to me and I am unable to react in any positive, constructive way (unless they get a laugh from my idiotic grin). But because of an external factor (an excellent teacher in college) Anne “chose” to put in the time to learn and practice German, and now she has a new way of interacting with the world.
If you are reading this, it is likely that you have a similar ability – the ability to gain the knowledge and do the training necessary to achieve something closer to “enlightenment.” Put simply:
By recognizing the illusion of free will and pursuing the right training / reprogramming, we can develop something much more like free will than we have now. We can take hold of one of the strings that currently makes our life worse than it needs to be. We can stop simply reacting and instead interact, with more control over our feelings.
In short: giving up free will and embracing emptiness can make life much better.