Does understanding anatta or emptiness really relate to stress?

thumbnail
Not Tao, modified 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 12:22 PM
Created 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 12:21 PM

Does understanding anatta or emptiness really relate to stress?

Posts: 995 Join Date: 4/5/14 Recent Posts
I was reading Richard Zen's article he just posted about emptiness, and I was thinking to myself, "yes, this is fine, it all makes sense."  But I can't see how it relates to stress, specifically.  I'll try to be as clear as possible with my question, here, because there's something worthwhile to examine about this, I think:

Do you think the process of enlightenment/awakening is really about the sense of self, or is it about feelings and perceptions related to holding experience together? Are the concepts of emptiness and anatta just easy conventions to explain why this works? Put another way, is awakening about knowledge, or is it about changing habits?

People often stress that their attainments and experiences are unexplainable, and an intellectual understanding of anatta isn't the same as awakening. Perhaps the reason behind this is that it isn't really insight, or knowledge, but rather the fruition of a process, or the stabilization of a set of habits. How these habits are explained is not the same thing as experiencing them.

Maybe an analogy will help. When I was in art school, the teachers (well, the bad teachers, haha) would often just say, "draw what you see." This is, essentially, how you do life drawing, but it doesn't explain anything. It's like the concept of emptiness, understanding it intellectually does nothing for you. Other teachers, who had a better idea how to teach, taught how to measure angles by holding a pencil in the air, and they taught how to compare distances in a relative way in order to place landmarks correctly on the paper. Over time, by practicing these methods and overriding my natural tendancies to flatten things out and shrink foreshortened objects, I was able to reach a point where I could just draw what I was seeing. So while it's fine to say, "draw what you see," it's actually quite meaningless. I never did draw what I was seeing, I changed how I saw in order to draw accurately, and once I had done that I was seeing angles and I was seeing foreshortening and proportion. "Draw what you see," actually meant, "draw angles and proportions," by the end of the process.

So is this process of awakening really about realizing some truth or knowledge or insight, or is it about changing the perceptions in such a way where new habits take over that create less stress? Please realize, that I'm not asking this from a critical stance, but rather a personal one. My whole experience of meditation has been process oriented, and I often take down notes to myself about process and perceptions. I generally have a hard time relating to a lot of the language people use here and other places in relation to meditation because it seems to be quite the opposite - people are describing things as truth, knowledge, and insight, and these make me think of a scientist studying in a lab before having a sudden "Aha!" moment and understanding the cosmos. Meditation has never been like that for me.
thumbnail
Superkatze one, modified 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 2:07 PM
Created 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 2:07 PM

RE: Does understanding anatta or emptiness really relate to stress?

Posts: 33 Join Date: 11/5/11 Recent Posts
Lets say you are afraid of a monster in your closet. So your anxious and that is stress.Lets say you open the closet and realize the closet is empty. So there is no monster, therefore you are not afraid anymore
So that is the end of stress and the end of the story.
thumbnail
Not Tao, modified 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 3:10 PM
Created 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 3:10 PM

RE: Does understanding anatta or emptiness really relate to stress?

Posts: 995 Join Date: 4/5/14 Recent Posts
I'm not really sure how that relates to my question.
Derek, modified 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 3:29 PM
Created 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 3:29 PM

RE: Does understanding anatta or emptiness really relate to stress?

Posts: 326 Join Date: 7/21/10 Recent Posts
Not Tao, I agree with you. The philosophy was just the best way of explaining things that people could come up with in the first millennium B.C. And yes, understanding this philosophy intellectually will do nothing to take you toward what they were pointing to.

I actually think it can be much better explained in terms of developmental psychology. As you say, awakening is not about realizing some sort of proposition but is about changing the way the mind interprets events. specifically, its about deconditioning the mind and in particular removing early repression.

I tried to write this up on my website. I think my explanation isn't perfect, so think of this as a first draft rather than a finished product: http://spiritualawakening.ca/
Mark, modified 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 4:04 PM
Created 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 4:00 PM

RE: Does understanding anatta or emptiness really relate to stress?

Posts: 550 Join Date: 7/24/14 Recent Posts
Not sure what you mean by stress. Maybe you are referring to a global state or particular circumstances. Perhaps stress refers to the suffering in the 4 noble truths ?

I'm finding a similar challenge with a process centric view. It seems obvious there is no physical self. 

Progress by aligning subjective experience with that view is one possibility. I guess a lot of stress is coming from the tension between expectations and experience. A stressful situation is going to bring suffering if the desire/expectation is to not be in a stressful situation. A stressful situation could also be a positive thing within a bigger context e.g. speaking in public might be stressful but also desirable.

For me meditation is primarily about changing subjective experience but mapping insights to behavior is easier with a framework for interpreting both.

I glanced at that article and I liked this idea of watching how one reacts in a situation like walking near a cliff edge. At that moment there is a very strong sense of self! Even if I believe it is an illusion it is impacting my behavior. It may not even be desirable to remove those sorts of reactions but it would be cool to experience a bigger context even in those situations.
thumbnail
Nicky, modified 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 5:45 PM
Created 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 5:35 PM

RE: Does understanding anatta or emptiness really relate to stress?

Posts: 484 Join Date: 8/2/14 Recent Posts
Not Tao:

Do you think the process of enlightenment/awakening is really about the sense of self, or is it about feelings and perceptions related to holding experience together? 


The 1st noble truth summarises all suffering as 'clinging to the five aggregates'. Thus, clinging or 'selfing' is the problem according to Buddhism.

For example, if the mind perceives 'dog' - there is no problem until it becomes: "I love my dog" or "I am scared the dog will bite me". 

Although comprehending the illusion of perception may be handy, the solution to all suffering is ending 'selfing'. 
thumbnail
Sadalsuud Beta Aquarii, modified 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 6:38 PM
Created 7 Years ago at 3/17/15 6:36 PM

RE: Does understanding anatta or emptiness really relate to stress?

Posts: 118 Join Date: 7/21/13 Recent Posts
Not Tao:
I was reading Richard Zen's article he just posted about emptiness, and I was thinking to myself, "yes, this is fine, it all makes sense."  But I can't see how it relates to stress, specifically.  I'll try to be as clear as possible with my question, here, because there's something worthwhile to examine about this, I think:

Do you think the process of enlightenment/awakening is really about the sense of self, or is it about feelings and perceptions related to holding experience together? Are the concepts of emptiness and anatta just easy conventions to explain why this works? Put another way, is awakening about knowledge, or is it about changing habits?

People often stress that their attainments and experiences are unexplainable, and an intellectual understanding of anatta isn't the same as awakening. Perhaps the reason behind this is that it isn't really insight, or knowledge, but rather the fruition of a process, or the stabilization of a set of habits. How these habits are explained is not the same thing as experiencing them.

Maybe an analogy will help. When I was in art school, the teachers (well, the bad teachers, haha) would often just say, "draw what you see." This is, essentially, how you do life drawing, but it doesn't explain anything. It's like the concept of emptiness, understanding it intellectually does nothing for you. Other teachers, who had a better idea how to teach, taught how to measure angles by holding a pencil in the air, and they taught how to compare distances in a relative way in order to place landmarks correctly on the paper. Over time, by practicing these methods and overriding my natural tendancies to flatten things out and shrink foreshortened objects, I was able to reach a point where I could just draw what I was seeing. So while it's fine to say, "draw what you see," it's actually quite meaningless. I never did draw what I was seeing, I changed how I saw in order to draw accurately, and once I had done that I was seeing angles and I was seeing foreshortening and proportion. "Draw what you see," actually meant, "draw angles and proportions," by the end of the process.

So is this process of awakening really about realizing some truth or knowledge or insight, or is it about changing the perceptions in such a way where new habits take over that create less stress? Please realize, that I'm not asking this from a critical stance, but rather a personal one. My whole experience of meditation has been process oriented, and I often take down notes to myself about process and perceptions. I generally have a hard time relating to a lot of the language people use here and other places in relation to meditation because it seems to be quite the opposite - people are describing things as truth, knowledge, and insight, and these make me think of a scientist studying in a lab before having a sudden "Aha!" moment and understanding the cosmos. Meditation has never been like that for me.

Ok, I will have a punt, even tho I think we had this same conversation about 6 months ago emoticon 

You are totally right, it is exactly "about changing the perceptions in such a way where new habits take over that create less stress".  But dropping the belief in self is needed to acheive this. 

A dumb analogy:

Say you are racist and hate green people. You have a belief (untrue) "green people are ALL evil violent thieves". This is a piece of (false) knwoledge that you have. You say it loud and proud.

And also then you have perceptions and habits which are warped. When you see a green person, you feel anger, fear, have negative thoughts etc. You do not trust them near your kids. If a green person asks you anything, your habit is be to unfriendly.

Then you live with a green family for a year, your worst nightmare. But then your habits and perceptions change. Now when you see green people, your reaction is no different than seeing any other colour people. You trust them to babysit your kid. If a green person asks you anything, your habit is be friendly.

So, your perceptions and habits have changed in a way which causes less stress and more accurately reflects reality.


But, your belief, your knowledge of how the world is, has also changed. If someone now asks you  - "are green people are ALL evil violent thieves"? You say no, that is untrue. You have gained insight (or rather, ditched a false belief).

What I am getting at here is that beliefs, knowledge are dependent on habits, behaviours. The habits and behaviours are the visible manifesation of the beliefs, knowledges. They are inseparable.


For example, if someone always acted badly towards green people, we would say for sure he had a racist belief about them, even if he denied it, we would know that thie belief lay in his subconcious.


To carry on this crappy analogy:
what if this racist person (rather than making them live with green people for a year) just suddenly realised how stupid and prejucided sounding his idea was? And realised, "hang on, they must be the same as other humans in nature, it's a wrong belief I have put in me by my racist dad. Ah, yes, I see the process of how my prejudice developed." Then with this belief deconstructed, his whole attitude towards green people changes. The same prejucides might initally arise, but, knowing that his belief was wrong, this causes his prejudices to unwind automatically. He ends up liking green people, without having to burn through every scenario of living with them.

So your question - is it seeing the truth, or is it changing behaviours - is it both.

It works the same in dharma, both methods are valid. Things can happen in a flash "I just realised how stupid my belief about green people is" or over time, or both. But at the end of the day, through both ways, the belief is gone, and the "correct knowledge" is "attained". And in dharma, at the end of the day all fixed beliefs have to go, and your view must be 'correct' or your habits and behaviour will not be free.

For example, if you never drop the belief "all green people are bad" then your interactions with green people will always be tainted slightly.

Likewise, if you never drop the belief that "there is a fixed thing called a self, which is choosing my actions, etc" then your habits and behvaiours will never be 100% stress-free and fluid.
Oochdd, modified 7 Years ago at 3/18/15 4:16 AM
Created 7 Years ago at 3/18/15 4:16 AM

RE: Does understanding anatta or emptiness really relate to stress?

Posts: 101 Join Date: 12/16/14 Recent Posts
Short answer: read Rob Burbea's recent book on emptiness. It's a very detailed, deep yet pragmatic and practice-based approach to emptiness. 

Slightly longer answer:

According to the four noble truths our stress (dukkha) stems from clinging. When we let go of that clinging, that stress falls away. One useful way to go about this is to go at the more gross manifestations of clinging in your experience, and try to let go of them (what you are basically doing when you are doing samadhi practice and letting go of the hindrances). This is why concentration practice helps, as it allows you to practice letting go of clinging whenever it arises. 

There are some forms of clinging however that are difficult to even see as clinging (such as self beliefs, beliefs in the inherent existence of space, time, etc). The claim is that these types of clinging are at the root of all the other more gross types of clinging. When you let go of these root clingings, the rest will fall away like a house of cards. 

Another example: suppose that you work as a banker, and have a lot of clinging to being perceived as rich and succesful. Maybe you get into meditation, read some dharma, let go of this clinging and feel less suffering as you feel less stressed to live up to that banker ideal. But instead now your self-identification may shift to that of being the perfect meditator. Still clinging, still suffering. Seeing through the emptiness of all self-identification allows you then to drop all types of self-identification related clinging, without building it up every time on a new foundation.

So those are, in my limited view and experience, the benefits of doing emptiness based practices:

i) seeing the emptiness of the deeper processes makes all the grosser manifestations fall away more quickly
ii) seeing the emptiness of the deeper processes makes it less likely that the clinging will simply shift to a different object after letting go of a particular clinging-object. 

Best of luck!

Breadcrumb