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Buddhadharma : Summer 2017
50 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 2017 ARI GOLDFIELD: In the past, I have fallen into the dan- ger of thinking that emptiness is a tool—that there’s a specific situation or emotion I’m going to meditate on as empty and that’s somehow going to do some- thing to fix it. But over the years, I’ve opened to a sense of emptiness just being atmospheric, like the air that I breathe. If I can feel my own relationship in that atmosphere, then with my wife, for example, I feel safer being with her as she is; I don’t have to move into defensiveness or a polarity of “I’m this and you’re that.” I try to interact with openness to things as they are, willing to work on any difficul- ties without feeling threatened. Guy ARMSTRONG: As we develop an awareness of emptiness, our sense of self or ego gets thinner, which leads to less obstruction in our relationships. Chuang-Tzu wrote, “If you empty your boat cross- ing the river of life, no one will harm you. No one will oppose you.” In marriage, specifically, what I notice is that once I understand that nothing is fixed in my emotions or thoughts, I also understand nothing is fixed in my wife’s emotions or thoughts, so I can’t categorize or pigeonhole her as being one particular way. In long-term relationships, it can be easy to get a fixed idea about somebody. Seeing the other person’s emptiness helps us not form a fixed view about them. BuDDhADhARMA: What are some of the obstacles to cultivating emptiness? Guy ARMSTRONG: I think the most obvious are the long-conditioned mental habits around construct- ing the sense of self and seeing the world as solid. That’s where we’ve put our hope and faith for many, many years, if not many lifetimes, and those habit energies are not easy to undo. Once we embark on a meditative path and start to commit to seeing into the main obstacle of habit energies, a lot of different obstacles arise. First, there’s the encoun- ter with our difficult emotions and tendencies, which are painful to feel and humbling to see. But if we have enough encouragement, we find they’re all workable—every kind of emotion or thought pat- tern is workable. As we make strides in accepting them, we open into a greater sense of space, which we can call abiding in emptiness or touching the experience of emptiness. That can be a little destabilizing, though, because the ground we’ve built our whole worldview on, the “I,” comes into question. At that point there can be a real sense of insecurity, anxiety, or fear about where we go next. I’m not just talking about an abstract intellectual fear, but a visceral gut sense of the carpet having been pulled out from under our feet. For these two phases of learning—working with difficult emotions and working with the anxi- ety of uncovering the absence of self—it’s very help- ful to talk with a teacher or dharma friend, some- one who’s walked the path before and learned to be content and open in the face of those challenges. At certain points on the journey, having contact with a dharma friend is really essential. DAIJAKu KINST: I think the first obstacle is misunder- standing what the teaching is—we need to clear up any confusion we have. Another real stumbling block is the belief that we have to have some par- ticular experience. It’s easy to get caught up in that belief, but in fact, the practice is alive whether we know it or not. Perhaps the most potent obstacle is fear. I was struck years ago when I read Jeffrey Hopkins’ dis- cussion of the anxiety that comes from encounter- ing teachings of emptiness. He observed that you can get so scared that you just get off your cushion and walk around and turn on the television set. These teachings get at the root of who we think we are. That’s what they’re meant to do: unseat the clinging self. So struggle is normal. For those people who have had experiences of trauma or of great deprivation, or other similar experiences, this can be very difficult. Even attending to the breath can be difficult, and having a kind of heroic pioneer