How Understanding Emptiness Can Help Us in Recovery

Image by Alisson Tato

Image by Alisson Tato

by Paul Garrigan

Find Peace Through Emptiness

“We don’t see things as they are, but as we are”
Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani

Emptiness (sunnata/sunyata) is a way of viewing reality that can profoundly change how we experience life. This Buddhist concept is not just something to be believed in, but it is instead a realization that changes our way of looking at things.


What is Emptiness?

The word ‘emptiness’ can sound bizarre and threatening if we interpret it to mean that nothing exists, but this is not what is meant by emptiness. The point is not that the universe doesn’t exist but that we experience it in a highly personal way – it is our subjective view of reality that is empty.

We don’t experience the outside world directly – i.e. there is no homunculus (little human) sitting in our head and looking out the windows of our eyes. Instead, we experience the world through senses that act like filtering devices to change incoming data into a form we can comprehend.

If we were to consciously experience all of the data our brain encounters, we would be completely overwhelmed by it all. It would become impossible to function.

It is the job of the brain to make incoming data fit for human consumption – it does this by assigning the data to different senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste), changing it into a form we understand (e.g. there is not really colour green outside of our brain), and by limiting the data to what seems most relevant.

Our brains do a marvellous job of making reality comprehensible, but it is certainly not a flawless system. Part of the problem is we filter the world in highly individualised way. In other words, the way our brain interprets data can differ significantly from the way other brains interpret the same data – e.g. if you have developed a negative bias in your thinking through past experiences, this will alter the type of incoming data you prioritize and the way it is interpreted. Of course, all of these interpretations are empty because nobody is actually experiencing the unfiltered data

How Understanding Emptiness Can Help You Recover from Addiction

Most of our struggles are due to the way we are interpret reality rather than what is actually happening. To see this is to understand emptiness. When we accept that our brain is explaining reality to us in flawed and biased way, we can loosen our attachment to our opinions, concerns, expectations, beliefs, and our ideas about ourselves.

The practical value of understanding emptiness may be better understood if we use an example. Imagine you are walking along and you notice your boss on the other side of the road. You wave, but your employer completely ignores you, so you spend the rest of the day worrying that you are about to lose your job.

The problem in the above example is your brain has latched onto one possible interpretation of what happened when the reality is there could be a million possible reasons for why your boss didn’t wave to you – maybe she didn’t even see you! You have to ask yourself is it reasonable to suffer due to an assumption your career is over just on the evidence of a slight breach in etiquette.

You are suffering because of a story your mind has created, but once you see the emptiness of this story, you can let it go. An interesting question might be why did your brain choose this particular interpretation?

Posted in Blog.