Objects around us ordinarily appear as if they are solid, singular, and separate from us. However, both science and the Buddhist understanding of reality show us that as we examine things more closely, things exist far more subtly and richly than they appear. This meditation focuses on an object most of us have strong feelings toward—our smartphone—breaking it apart into its myriad parts, and giving us a meditative glimpse of how it truly exists.
This episode is the second in a series exploring the Buddhist topic of “emptiness,” or how things exist through parts, causes, and the minds that perceive them.
Find a place in your home where you can be quiet and still for the next 20 minutes or so. You can seat yourself on the floor, cross-legged with your seat raised a little on a cushion; or in a regular chair, legs out, straight down, feet flat on the floor. Straighten your spine. And you can let your hands rest on your knees or put your right hand on top of the left with your thumbs touching.
Leave a little space between your arms and your torso to let air circulate, avoid getting too hot. Slightly tilt down your neck so that your eyes look four or five feet ahead of you onto a spot in the floor. And then mostly close your eyes so that a little light comes in to keep you awake. But otherwise you’re inward and your mind is focused on your inner self, the invisible aspects of reality.
We can reflect on our motivation for meditating today. Meditation can be relaxing and de-stressing. And those are nice side effects of meditation. But the purpose for us—an even greater one—is to gradually evolve ourselves toward our best self; to gradually diminish our disturbing states of mind, our disturbing emotions; then to gradually increase all our best qualities.
And to do so for our own happiness, a happiness that each of us deserves; a freedom from suffering that we each deserve; and also for the happiness and freedom from suffering of the people close to us, everyone we know: strangers, and even people we dislike; to be a force for good in the world for everyone without discrimination. And we can feel a confidence in our ability to do this.
Refuge in our capacity for good
One reason this is true is that others have done it. We can find people alive today and who lived historically, who elevated all their best qualities so that they lived their lives to benefit others; brought only joy and goodness to the world. And this view of the mind that we’ve been exploring together is one that asserts that our own minds are fundamentally good like this, too; that we have the ability to gradually diminish and even eliminate our disturbing states of mind. And we can feel a sense of refuge in our capacity to do that.
And also that we can feel a sense of refuge in our capacity to cultivate the good and to steer our mind in that direction of happiness and wholesomeness and virtue. And that we’re going to do that today by looking at reality; that so much of our suffering comes from a mismatch between how we want the world to be—how we see the world—and the way it really is. And so that’s what our meditation today will be today after a short stabilizing meditation on the breath.
A meditation on how things exist in a way that’s wholly consistent with the scientific worldview and also quite intellectually fascinating and awe inspiring. But a journey that has the benefit of aligning our minds more with how things exist and diminishing our delusions, increasing our positive qualities.
Stabilizing the mind on the breath
Bring your mind to you breath: either the breath coming in and out of your nostrils or the rise and fall of your abdomen. If your mind feels particularly active today, then grounding your mind and your chest like that in your abdomen can be helpful.
If other thoughts and feelings arise, just let them pass by. Don’t pull them close. Don’t push them away. Just see how your mind can attach to the breath. Naturally rest there. And gain stability through focusing on that single object.
Try to let go of feelings in your body, memories, plans. Just let them go if they pop into your mind while you’re focusing on your breath for one minute,
(meditate silently on the breath for one minute)
Meditation on How Things Exist through their parts
Now we’re going to delve into the Buddhist view of reality, a view that sees things as composed of three elements: the parts of an object, the causes that brought them together, and the mind that sees those parts and their causes as a singular entity.
Today, we’re taking a look at just this element of parts, a view of reality that’s exactly the way science sees it. In order to do this analysis, you need to choose an object And it can be very helpful to choose some external object that you have strong attachment toward. In last week’s episode, that was a discussion on this topic, we looked at our phone. And you can choose that object today for the meditation. Or you might choose your car or your house or apartment, or even your cozy room, or maybe some type of food that you often crave, your favorite meal.
Take a moment now and choose an object to use for the meditation, something you feel strongly toward.
(reflect silently for a moment)
Now we’ll start to look at the object objectively, the way that science tells us it exists.
We start with the bigger, more obvious parts of the object. And as you consider each of these parts, consider whether the phone or car or house or delicious food can be found in that part.
- If you’re thinking of a phone, consider whether the phone is found in its screen, in its computer chips, in the case, the battery, or the buttons.
- If it’s a car you’re examining, consider how it has wheels, an engine, a chassis, an interior, a steering wheel windows, a dashboard. Is the car found in any of those individual parts or the collection of parts?
- If you’re thinking of your house or room, there’s the foundation, the interior framing, the floors, the walls, the ceiling, the electrical fixtures, plumbing pipes. Is the house any one of these parts? Or is it the collection?
- If you’re thinking of food, say a piece of cake, think of the flour, the sugar, the eggs, the butter. If we had all these separated out on a plate, would we find them as appealing? Or if you eat meat: the skin, the muscle, the bones, the cartilage, the veins and organs of the animal.
Think for a moment specifically about your object, just reflect on the parts and think also if the object is more or less identified with any of those parts,
(meditate silently for a minute)
Then go more deeply.
- With the phone, you could start to examine the manmade materials of glass and plastic and the electronic components, resistors, capacitors, wires, sensors.
- With the car, the rubber, the glass, the plastic, the heavy steel frame, the lighter aluminum sheets.
- With your house or your room, the materials it’s made of: wood, wire, latex, glass, plastic, drywall, brick and mortar, concrete.
- With food, the raw plants and animals that the food came from: wheat, chicken, eggs and chickens, sugar cane, cows and cows milk, fruits hanging from trees, vegetables on the ground connected to the green growing plants in long rows.
As we consider these parts of our object, are we coming closer to finding the essence of the object that attracts us or further away?
(meditate silently for a minute)
And then we go even deeper to the atomic level, to the elements that these objects are made of. It turns out that your phone contains almost every element in the periodic table, 70 of the 80 or so naturally occurring elements:
- Indium, tin, and oxygen coat the touch screen display that you touch with your finger every time you interact with it.
- The processor is mainly made of silicone, but also phosphorus, antimony, arsenic, boron, indium, and gallium.
- The screen is made of a special glass made of silicon dioxide, aluminum, magnesium, sodium, and potassium.
- Gold, silver, and copper are the metals that make all the electrical connections inside.
- Tantalum fills the capacitors that regulate energy flow.
- The rare earth metals yttrium, europium, terbium, and gadolinium form, the glowing red, green, and blue of the screens pixels.
- The battery is made of lithium, cobalt, and nickel.
- Praseodymium and neodymium are used on the phone’s speakers and vibrating motors.
Your car is made of fewer elements, about a dozen:
- Aluminum in the body panels and wheels.
- Iron, bismuth, calcium, and carbon in steel.
- Chlorine, hydrogen, and oxygen to make the polyvinyl chloride plastics in moldings, trims, and the coding under the car.
- Gold and copper in the electrical systems’ circuitry
- Helium used in brazing and leak testing automotive parts.
- Magnesium used in subframes, oil pans, bonnets, and trunks.
- And platinum found in the catalytic converter that reduces the exhaust pollution.
Your house or your room is made mostly of natural materials:
- Wood is mostly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.
- The pipes and wires and nails in the home are made of copper, iron, gold, and aluminum.
- The drywall is composed mostly of gypsum made of calcium, sulfur, oxygen, and hydrogen.
- Paints contain zinc, oxygen, sulfur, titanium, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and other trace elements, depending on the color.
Food is made mostly of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen spiced with little bits of phosphorus, sodium chloride, sulfur, and calcium.
Step back and imagine your object of contemplation broken down into piles and vats of the elements that comprise it:
- Imagine the 70 tiny piles of granulated matter piled on your desk that make up your phone.
- Or imagine much bigger piles of the dozen elements that make up your car stacked in front of your house.
- Imagine the thousands of pounds of elements in huge piles that make up your house or apartment: vats of carbon copper, iron and aluminum, calcium; and containers filled with the gases and liquids: hydrogen oxygen, nitrogen oxygen.
- Or imagine your dinner plate with neat piles of carbon, phosphorus, sodium chloride, sulfur, and calcium paired with little glass containers of oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. How delicious would that seem?
For a minute, try and conjure the same emotional attachment you feel to these piles of elements. Where did the object go when we broke up the parts in our mind? Do these parts themselves have the same allure? Is our love of our phone, home, car, or meal, a love of their parts individually? And if we can’t find the object in any of the individual parts, how does it make sense that it’s in the sum of them?
(meditate silently for a moment)
These different elements still have qualities: colors, textures, tastes, and smells. But when we move our minds below the atomic level to take our analysis, one step further, we arrive at the invisible world of the subatomic, where there’s no longer color or form or taste or touch or sound.
Atoms are almost entirely empty space with their subatomic particles—electrons, protons, and neutrons—zipping around at incredible speed.
Try and picture your phone, your home, your car, or your meal for a moment as this incredibly active alive cloud of energy and particles constantly moving, mostly empty space. Focus on that for a moment, how your object exists at this fundamental level as constantly moving energetic particles.
(meditate silently for a moment)
And now pull back like the famous movie Powers of Ten, zooming back to the conventional level where the illusion of the phone, the car, your home or meal appears to your senses.
For a moment, try to observe the object in both ways. You see its conventional way of appearing with form color, texture, and sound. But you can also, at the same time, with your mind and intellect, see-through to the parts and molecules and elements and subatomic particles.
(meditate silently for a moment)
Do this now for a minute and see what this does to your mind. Does it soften the edges of the strong feelings you have toward your object? Does it give you a deeper sense of awe and wonder?
(meditate silently for a moment)
This analysis into parts—this aspect of reality—is part of the three part analysis of parts, causes, and mind that we’ll complete in the next two episodes. But for now we’ll stop here at this analysis of parts.
And we remind ourselves why we’re doing this meditation: not just out of intellectual curiosity or because it’s cool. It is cool! But because great people who have mastered their minds have taught that this analysis—if we do it in the right way with the right motivation—helps us gain a more peaceful, stable mind, where we see through to the deeper nature of reality all the time.
And this understanding, when we combine all the parts of this meditation, helps us to control our mind, lessening and even eliminating disturbing emotions like anger and craving. And also cultivating a deep sense of interconnectedness and compassion as we realized the impermanence and richness and constantly changing complexity of the world around us.
As you come out of the meditation, make an intention to try and see things this way in the course of your week: when you pass by stores, when you see products, when you sit down to a meal, or using the objects in your everyday life like your phone and car and home. See if you can see through to the parts that make them up, the way they more subtly and vibrantly exist simultaneously as a collection of parts and particles and forces bound together by the universe’s natural laws, and this conventional way, we see them, the more solid, singular, separate.
The conventional way we see things isn’t an illusion, but it’s illusory, in that things are much richer and more complex and interdependent than they seem. So try this as you go through your week, to see things in this way. And may this way of seeing things more subtly in all their complexity and parts, may it help us to escape the illusion and the delusion of seeing objects as intrinsically attractive or repulsive, and steer us toward greater wisdom and compassion as a human being.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio