When I was studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London many years ago, my supervisor once accused me, during discussion of a text by the early Buddhist writer Nagarjuna, of being ‘obsessed with emptiness’. This phrase came back to me decades later sitting in an empty wifi cafe in the heart of the Navajo nation, when I opened an email from a friend wondering if I might be interested in writing a book on a philosophy of emptiness.
I wrote that book, and spent much time exploring ideas of emptiness, from Nagarjuna and even early Taoist sources (which so influenced far eastern Buddhism), through to their appearance in different guises in the work of modern and postmodern western artists, philosophers and musicians. The trail begun on actual trails in Arizona led to paths of mindfulness and attention. Whilst traditional eastern views were founded on and fostered practices of attention, I discovered that those who embraced ideas of emptiness outside these ancient traditions had usually found their way to such understanding through various contemporary forms of attention. Just as the practices of meditation and mindfulness are being gratefully rediscovered by many in the 21st century west, others individually had arrived at similar experiences and outlooks, if not full blown philosophies, through diverse, often untraditional practices of attention – in art, in language, in dance and landscape.
I found that attention like the breath that is the foundation of so many meditative practices is so much a part of our very being that it is rarely the focus of awareness itself. Like breath it is noticed in default; when it is challenged or urgently needed. In the case of attention, when something surprising, unexpected or dangerous occurs: in the case of breath when we need a deep breath, or cannot take one, when we gasp or struggle. We all breathe, we all pay attention, yet these processes are so fundamental to our daily being that we rarely pay attention to their process. It is by paying attention to awareness that we discover the idea and the experience of emptiness.
Paying attention, understanding emptiness, can give us an altered relationship to reality as process, opening up the space around objects, the silence around sound, the awareness surrounding thoughts. Careful attention defamiliarises. It deconstructs product and identity into their component constructive dependencies. Attention exposes the need that substance and form has for emptiness, the paradoxical chiasmus of non-duality. Empty and abundant.
Yet from the western perspective of philosophies founded on the inevitable dualism of presence and absence, ideas of emptiness and not-self are, at least initially, difficult to accept. Something that for me was of the greatest help in anchoring philosophic ideas to embodied experience arose from reading descriptions of Chinese thought. The original Tao is conceived as the supreme emptiness from which the one, which is the primordial breath originates. This gives rise to two, the two vital breaths of yang and yin, the active and receptive forces which animate the phenomena of the world. French Sinologist and philosopher, Francois Jullien, writes of Chinese thought in terms of breath, describing a logic of breath which, he says, runs through Chinese philosophy and aesthetics, supporting both poetry and painting. In such a circular, and indeed experienced logic, the in breath is endlessly followed by the out breath, each being implicated in the other. The yin/yang symbol illustrates this. He contrasts this to a western logic of perception, which divides the seer from the seen, subjective from objective, and sets in motion a chain of oppositions.
Such experiential descriptions led me back to more philosophical thoughts. French academician Francois Cheng describes the Taoist model as ‘a binary system that can be ternary and a ternary system that can be unitary: two equals three; three equals one … the seemingly paradoxical but constant mainspring of Chinese thought.’ The original Tao as supreme emptiness gives rise to the two vital breaths of yin and yang, which along with the breath of the median void comprise the three, this median void being the place where the breath orientates and is regenerated, and which also keeps everything in relationship with supreme emptiness. As Cheng describes it: ‘Linked with the idea of vital breaths and with the principle of the alternation of yin and yang’, emptiness is ‘the place where fullness can attain its whole measure’. Emptiness, as Cheng describes, also introduces discontinuity and reversibility into a given system and ‘thus permits the elements composing the system to transcend rigid opposition and one-sided development’.
In this way, such abundant emptiness may provide a generative term or concept that can offer us escape from the dualisms that trouble western thought; may allow escape from relationships of frozen opposition. Western philosophies, politics, education and discourse have traditionally taken the course of presence, substance and certainty. This has led to the classical laws of identity, non-contradiction and the excluded middle, and the ensuing clutch of stark dualities – absence or presence; truth or falsehood, right or wrong – in a series of rigid oppositions and one-sided developments that emerge from the absolute duality of the excluded middle. The dualities perpetuate: presence/absence, inner/outer, person/environment, nature/nurture, religious/secular, and so on and on.
For example, our experience is penetrated by the dichotomy of inner and outer, between a real world out there and my experience of it inside my head. Thus we are stymied by the so-called ‘hard’ problem of the study of consciousness: how to reconcile outer description at the level of neuronal firings in the brain with the conscious inner feel of experience. Then, on top of the first divisions spring the even more vital disparity between the valuations given to the divided terms, which then perpetuate further divisions. Such separations result in stark either/or categories rather than more helpful and even realistic more and less. I was struck by the use of this phrase rather than the more familiar more or less in Siri Hustvedt’s superb essay, ‘The delusions of certainty’. It made me realise that it was not either/or or even more or less that ideas of emptiness enable, but precisely more and less. Distinction is different from rigid division. Without a mediating middle term distinctions are more likely to become static and inflexible, lacking motion, relation and the idea of a spectrum.
Our usual sharp divisions often, when treated experientially, mindfully, with calm dispassionate attention, dissolve into more blurred, more dynamic, if less certain form. Phenomenologically, is not my experience related to the world? Am I not in relationship with it – not entirely other, a part of me me-ing and world world-ing brought together by my perception.
Taoist and Buddhist understandings of emptiness may help to release us from the iron grip of both duality and clinging to certainty. A logic of breath would seem to make this easier to unite, easier to understand. It might free one of the strict division of seer and seen, is (this) and is not (that), and the unbending logic of the excluded middle. It can underwrite a ground of complementarity rather than exclusion. It allows room for paradox. As I breathe in, I take in the world, as I breathe out, I release air back into the world, in the interim important chemical transformations have occurred, without which I would die and my experienced world would end.
Breath returns one to the body. It mediates between presence and absence, allowing us to see things as process. The very structure of language in English – and most languages – endorses product at the expense of process, emphasising that stark duality of is and is not, presence and absence. Our language is strong on nouns rather than verbs: nouns that reify and parse the teeming world into individual things, obscuring the processes and relationships that animate and link the things. It has the same effect on abstractions, truth, reality, existence. What is in process, is be-coming, in some ways indistinct, dependent, unfinished, paradoxical even mysterious, becomes reified, totalised, finished. Lacking a concept or privileged sign such as emptiness, western thought, supported by language is traditionally caught between the jaws of various dualities, seemingly enforced to seesaw from one end of a spectrum to its opposite, always evading the balance of the middle and the muddier if more pragmatic waters of more and less, rather than either/or.
As William James first pointed out, and the writer, thinker and scientist Iain McGilchrist describes today, how we pay attention creates the world in which we live. Neuroscientists tell us that what we experience can become physically instantiated in the habitual patterns of neuronal firings of our brains. Mindful attention exposes a richer world beyond our usual habits of thought, language and action. It reveals the dependencies linking what habitually appears separate. Objective only has meaning in dependence on subjective. ‘Truth’ as McGilchrist points out, ‘is not fixed and certain. It is a process, a relationship, a becoming. God, infinity and truth are all processes, not things, becomings not beings.’
If a true understanding of emptiness requires attention, so the finest attenders have discovered that radical attention requires a kind of emptiness, a union of attention with openness, an emptying out of expectation, an opening of the shutters of convention and self, that the light may break in. One of those with the keenest attention is the writer Annie Dillard. Noticing that unless she called her attention to what was passing before her eyes, she did not see it, Dillard herself writes of ‘another kind of seeing that entails a letting go’. She compares ordinary seeing to walking with a camera and reading the light on a meter, and heightened seeing to opening one’s own shutter, when ‘the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut … When I see this way I see truly’.
Such seeing cannot be positively willed. ‘All I can do is to try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod.’ This is surely the intention at the very heart of mindfulness practice. Before we can see freshly, allow ourselves to be touched, we must open up, empty out, turn the programmed movement of the training field into the spontaneity that only comes after much practice. We must allow ourselves to touch and be touched, to become open to the relational way of life.
Over the past century, certainties and single truths have been (rightly) deconstructed, but the western way of either/or has produced a corollary to the postmodern theories that problematise certainty, by moving from the notion that no truth is certain to the notion that there is then no truth at all. Rather than an enriched concept of reality that is superabundant, beyond the certain parsing of left hemisphere prominence, without a concept of emptiness and its relation to interdependence, we are left with only an emptiness of privation, a draining away of truth and reality. This is far different from the ‘negative capability’ that John Keats described to his brother: ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.
It is easiest perhaps to see this understanding of emptiness, of Keats’ negative capability, of Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief in the arena of the arts where we meet it in various guises. It is obviously present in Chinese scroll paintings, in the white canvasses of Robert Rauschenberg and the black of Ad Reinhardt and Malevitch, in the silence of John Cage’s 4’33”; less obviously perhaps in the pictures of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, in the empty spaces in a late Cezanne oil painting, paintings, in James Turrell’s light watching spaces. Musically emptiness sings in Morton Feldman’s response to Rothko’s Houston Chapel and the works of John Luther Adams inspired by open landscape and ocean. In the field of the written word, the understanding of the necessity of emptiness as the foundation of the space between words, the foundation of grammar, resonates in poems of Jane Hirshfield, Gary Snyder, David Hinton, Seamus Heaney, T.S. Eliot among others. Ceramicist Edmund de Waal has taken pottery into the field of fine art in installations that echo the centrality of the emptiness at the centre of the pot in the placing of many pots in careful sequence, musical patterns of space and form.
The traces of a necessary emptiness are also to be found in other fields; in the world of qualitative science following Goethe, in philosophic phenomenology, and amongst the neuroscientists and philosophers of mind called 4E, upholding the view that consciousness must be considered as embodied, extended, embedded and enactive. The working of mirror neurons, Merleau-Ponty’s ideas of ‘flesh’ and chiasmus, psychologist J.J. Gibson’s idea of affordances, and the strange world of contemporary physics as beautifully described by Carlo Rovelli, in Reality is not what it seems, all point to different ways, physical and conceptual of trying to connect, to evade dualistic gaps. Neuroscience today is reiterating many of the tropes of the first Buddhist psychology, exposing the unfindability and relationality, the emptiness of the self, in a different language.
All of these point to a different orientation to world, a subtle, or less than subtle, rearrangement in our alignment with world, a dynamic and pluralistic approach that deeply understands the falsity of Cartesian and other dualities. There is a profound shift away from inevitable division to one of engagement. Pierre Janet wrote, ‘In reality definiteness does not exist in natural phenomena; it exists but in our systemic descriptions. It is the men of science who cut separate pieces out of a whole that nature has made continuous.’ I would only add that it is not only the men of science who parse nature this way: we all do it. And it is necessary; otherwise the world would be just as William James described it – a blooming, buzzing confusion. However we do forget that this is what we do, not the way the world is. What is troubling is that methods of science of extreme value in understanding our world have become items of faith in all fields.
Embodied disciplines of attention expose the shiftiness behind the usual parsing of thing and event. Different philosophies, acknowledging uncertainty, impermanence and emptiness, attempt to balance our prejudices toward substance and presence and our psychological bias towards certainty. It is interesting that one of the first books, still much cited, that introduced the idea of then called enactive cognitive science was one that arose from writers deeply founded in Buddhist philosophy and awareness practice. Just as mathematics needed the concept of zero as a value, (introduced by Indian mathematicians, arising from Indian philosophy, and translated by the term sunya, empty) to flourish, so the understanding of sunyata might help western thought and understanding in today’s changing world. The abundance of emptiness – an oxymoron: emptiness is not empty – is a contradiction. Yet such oxymoronic contradictions may point to a pathway out of many of the dualistic dead ends that plague western traditions; abundance indeed. The excluded middle of western logic has excluded more than just a term; it has consequences that a profound look at other traditions may help to heal.
The idea of emptiness and the practices of attention and awareness might provide an ungrounded ground for a world that wants to move from certainty but whose current alternative is often nihilistic.
• Gay Watson is a writer concerned with the dialogue between Buddhist thought, psychotherapy and the mind sciences. Her most recent book is Attention, beyond mindfulness, (Reaktion 2017), an exploration of attention through many disciplines and ways of life. It contains interviews with many scientists and artists skilled in practices of attention. Her website is at gaywatson.com.