An empty vessel is beautiful because it’s empty. Fill it and you can no longer see the vessel, but rather its functionality. Become empty and you’ll see your own beauty, not merely your functionality.
Daniel Levin, The Zen Book
What is emptiness? The dictionary defines it as void, vacant, or a vacuum. We talk of the vast emptiness of space; or we may equate emptiness to a feeling of loneliness – as in “After the Master left I felt a terrible emptiness.”
Usually, we tend to equate emptiness with nothingness. But how can this be true of spiritual emptiness? We are taught that Shabd is everywhere and fills all space with its vibration; therefore emptiness is neither a void nor a vacuum.
When the Masters tell us to empty ourselves they are simply telling us to still the mind, to stop the incessant inner chatter; to drop the emotions, moods, feelings and associations, the constant thought process that is associated with the mind.
Generally we refer to any activity that goes on in our heads as the mind, but all activity – whether movement, sensation or thought – is a function of the brain. The neurons in the brain are chatty little cells that love to talk to one another. They constantly pass messages, in the form of chemical molecules, back and forth to one another across tiny synapses. These molecules are associated with our emotions, such as fear, joy, anxiety, and even with our attention. When these neurons connect they form a strong bond. They pass the same sort of messages back and forth reinforcing this bond, which becomes a habit.
These are the habits Dr Johnson speaks of in The Path of the Masters when he says:
Habit is the chief method of mental action. Habits are likened to grooves in which actions run. The first thing which mind does, after it is agitated and brought into action, is to establish a groove, which we call habit.… After many repetitions, the mind runs on very smoothly in its grooves and enjoys it.
These habits are built up over a lifetime. Through constant repetition we systematically reinforce our emotions, thinking and beliefs in the neuronal pathways in our brains. Every feeling, action, sensation and emotion is a conditioned reaction we have learnt.
Mental repetition is mainly one of two kinds. Either it is something we want to happen, such as when we focus on our wants, or it is something we don’t want to happen. When we constantly repeat the same thoughts of things we are afraid of, we build a connection of fear in our brains. Similarly, the more we tell ourselves we can’t meditate, the stronger we make the connections between those little neurons and the less likely we will be able to meditate – whereas consistent practice builds a constructive habit that not only weakens old neuronal patterns, but builds strong new patterns.
So, where does the mind fit in to all this? The mind is totally elusive and almost impossible to describe. We can’t identify the mind like aspects of our physical body, yet – because we think, we feel and we experience emotions – neither can we deny its existence. The mind creates our sense of self. It is our consciousness, our awareness.
It is the consciousness we call mind that interprets the activity of the brain – our ability to reflect on our own perceptions. Mind is the inner, personal observant self. It is the background on which the activity of the brain is displayed. Just as the night sky provides a canvas for us to appreciate the beauty of the stars, so the mind provides the canvas of consciousness through which we are aware of the brain’s activity.
We generally refer to this combination of brain activity and awareness as ‘mind’. And to take it a step further, Dr Johnson tells us that Shabd is the motive power of the mind. Every activity in the universe is the result of Shabd working through many intermediate substances.
So the brain provides the functions that enable us to exist in this world. It is our thinking and reasoning powerhouse, while our mind is the consciousness that makes us aware of our actions.
In essence, therefore, the mind is empty. It is a vessel we fill with impressions, and ultimately all we see is its functionality, not its beauty. All our efforts on the spiritual path are simply to develop the ability to ignore the passing show of mental activity and to look to the beauty of the emptiness beyond.
We talk of the vast emptiness of space, yet science tells us that space is anything but empty. Rather it is filled with a limitless number of minute particles that are smaller than an atom and in constant motion. This movement creates the opportunity for anything to be created or dissolved. Similarly, a mind resting in meditation, empty of thoughts and activity, is full of possibility, for anything may appear, transform or simply fade away.
When the Masters speak of emptiness they are not speaking of nothingness but rather of the vast emptiness beyond our thinking, forms and ideas – the awareness of a sense of possibility, a sense that anything can arise, anything can happen.
It is the conscious awareness of this emptiness that we want to embrace, and meditation is the technique we practise to achieve this.
So, how does it work? Well, firstly we have to perfect our simran.
Simran is used by all the world in one form or another. It simply means concentrating the attention upon one thing, then going over and over it, until it is made a part of the very fibre and substance of one’s being.
The Path of the Masters
Repetition occupies the thinking process. If we want to reach the door of the house but the guard dog is on patrol, we throw the dog a bone and walk to the door. Similarly, if we want to experience the emptiness within, we throw simran at the mind, and while it gnaws away at the repetition we have the opportunity to open the door, to stand on the threshold of the vast emptiness beyond.
The power behind consciousness is Shabd, vibrating at different levels of consciousness. Each word in the simran is associated with a particular range of conscious vibration, depending on the inner stage with which it is associated. It therefore has the potential, when used correctly, to alter our own vibration – our own level of consciousness. But the main purpose of simran is simply to focus our consciousness at the eye centre. Any other benefits, whether tangible or subtle, that occur during proper repetition are not the reason we do simran.
Dhyan is an aid to hold our attention at the eye centre, because it is very difficult to hold the attention in that emptiness. Maharaj Charan Singh said that dhyan means thinking about the Master, visualizing his form so that we feel we are in his presence. Simran and dhyan are the way we work with our mind rather than have it work against us.
Meditation is actually a very simple exercise. We complicate it because we become fixated with trying to stop the mind from producing thoughts, which is its natural occupation. We may as well try to stop our heart from beating. Meditation is not a war zone in which we fight the mind. Rather it is a process of resting the mind in its natural state, in which we are simply aware of our existence, thoughts, emotions and sensations. When we don’t attach meaning and emotion to our thoughts, when we don’t engage them, it’s easy to let them go, it’s easy to just let them drift across the emptiness beyond -and then get back to our simran. We don’t have to be a slave to whatever the mind produces. Rather, the mind should be our friend along an incredible journey, travelled with peace, harmony and joy.
We are neither body nor mind. We are simply destined to assume a particular form and functionality. As long as there is a body we have form. Without the body – we just are: we are formless. Forms are veils – illusions – separating us from emptiness. Even the Master’s physical form is not his true form, which resides in the emptiness of formlessness. In Legacy of Love Maharaj Charan Singh gives us a beautiful message. He says: “May your love of the form culminate in the love of the formless.”
Shabd is the seeming emptiness that remains when all forms, whether spiritual, mental or material, have been discarded. We stand on the threshold of the experience of emptiness, of entering into nothingness, if we would simply allow ourselves to look beyond the mind to the shining essence of our true nature – the beauty of emptiness.
Rumi says: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I will meet you there.”
The real point of meditation is to wait for the Master in Rumi’s field to rest in bare awareness, whether he comes or not – just simply to be there. Whatever comes up, just be open and present to it, and let it go. The aim is simply to rest in that vast emptiness – waiting for his radiant light to guide us home.
How much simpler could the process of meditation be?