Meditating on the interdependent nature of reality, or emptiness, breaks down the illusion of independent, partless, and unchanging objects; instead we observe their parts, causes, and our mind that wraps these with a label like phone, home, or our delicious dinner.
Find a quiet and comfortable place where you can sit, either cross-legged on the floor, seated on a cushion; or upright in a chair with your legs uncrossed. Straighten your spine, half-close your eyes, and place your hands palms-up in your lap. We’re going to spend a few minutes probing the deepest nature of reality now, in order to bring about a healthier, more interdependent understanding of ourselves and the things around us.
Begin with a motivation to become a more present and beneficial presence in the world for both my own lasting happiness and for the happiness and well-being of everyone around me.
And we do this now by trying to better understand the interdependent, dynamic nature of reality; the role our mind plays in sometimes distorting reality; and to break down the illusion of unchanging, solid, independent objects and the mistaken view that things outside ourself have the capacity to bring us pleasure or pain from their own side.
Stabilizing on the breath
Now focus on the breath for one minute to stabilize the mind. If thoughts or feelings in your body or memories or plans arise, just let them pass by and bring your mind back to your breath as you feel it coming in and out of your nostrils, or with the rise and fall of your abdomen.
Meditating on the interdependent nature of reality
Now bring to mind some external object that you feel strong attachment to. It might be your phone or your home or a particular type of meal or food; something you crave, that you find pleasure in, and that you might get upset if you don’t get it or if it would be taken away from you. Not a person or any other living thing, but an object that’s part of your world.
Once you have this object of attachment in mind, first acknowledge that it does bring you some conventional pleasure and it’s useful and beneficial in many ways to your life. And I can feel grateful for that.
And then, we dive deeper. We seek to understand some of the ways in which we mistakenly see the object. To come to know reality better, we first examine the parts of our object.
Meditating on the parts of an object
- Gross parts. First, look at the gross parts of the object. With your phone you can mentally disassemble it into its case, screen, battery, electronics, and wires. If it’s your home, you can take it apart into the floor, walls, windows, plumbing, wires and fixtures that it’s made of. With food, think of the ingredients that go into your meal: vegetables, grains, oils, meat and dairy products.
- Subtler parts. Now think about the subtler parts of the object. How our phone or house or meal is made of molecules and atoms and even subatomic particles zipping around at incredible speed, with mostly empty space between them. And how our perception of color and form, sound, taste, smell, and touch, are illusions that our brain imposes upon these colorless soundless particles.
Meditating on the causes that brought the object’s parts together
Now think about the causes that brought these parts together.
- Immediate causes. With your phone, imagine the people that designed it; the people that manufactured all the subcomponents; the people who transported these components by air, ship, truck, or on foot between dozens of different countries. It’s the same with the parts of your home. Imagine where all the raw materials were made and how they came to be in your home: who designed or grew or melted, cut, brought them to the place where they are now? And similarly, with food, bring to mind the people who planted the crops, who watered and fertilized them, who processed or cooked the foods and sold them to you, and how they ended up in your home or belly.
- Deeper causes. Think further back to the evolution of science and technology, agriculture and commerce, and even society itself that made the cultivation and collection of these raw materials possible. Think back to the evolution of intelligent life on earth that led to human beings being able to work together like this; back to the dawn of life on earth 4 billion years ago. And back to the birth of our star, our solar system. Back further to the explosion of earlier stars that led to the formation of the heavy elements like carbon and oxygen that form most of the elements of life on earth. Think even back to the start of the universe, when the simpler elements like hydrogen and helium formed. See how the object before you is connected to the entire history of the universe. And see how it is still connected, at this instant; how each particle in your object feels the gravitational pull of every other particle in the universe, and also interacts electrochemically with others nearby.
Meditating on the mind that labels the caused parts
- Now consider the role of the mind in reality. The collection of parts in front of you, countless trillions of particles and their grouping into molecules, cells, and human-made structures: think about all the causes that brought them together. See how your mind imposes onto the continuity of parts and the causes that brought them here the label of phone or home or meal.
- Try and see this label, and your mind applying that label, as equal participants in the existence of your object.
- When we do this, we can also see that other people and other types of minds might not see our object the same way that we do. They may not feel as strongly about your object as you do; they may not care about it at all, or even see it as a separate, distinct object.
Things do still exist, conventionally
Now that you see the object before you in this much richer, interdependent, changing way; for a moment, recall again how you ordinarily see it as singular, independent, and unchanging. You might even smile or laugh at the illusion you impose on reality: how shallow our ordinary sense of being is, compared to how things exists when we analyze them in this way.
Things do exist, but they exist in this interdependent, changing way: composed of parts that have causes and the mind that labels them, for a time, as your object.
Notice how your strong feeling of attachment might be reduced through seeing reality in this way: the illusion of an independent object that has the power to bring me pleasure or pain giving way to a lighter, more interdependent way of experiencing reality.
Carrying our understanding of ultimate reality into our everyday life
As you come out of this meditation, make an aspiration to continue trying see things this way as you go through your day, especially when strong feelings of attachment or aversion arise to objects.
See if you can see through the illusion of a solid, separate, unchanging object to the richly changing interdependent object that it truly is, objectified only through our mind temporarily imposing a label upon it of phone, home, meal, or anything else.
Understanding reality in order to benefit others
We meditate on the nature of reality like this not just because it is interesting and awe-inspiring, but because doing so softens our mind. It awakens us to our interdependent role in the universe and gives us a sense of responsibility, seeing how our every action—and even thought—has new effects on the world. And wanting to make the world a better place through carefully attending to our every word and deed.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio