In line with the three trainings principle, two important foundation practices for intuiting emptiness are (i) compassionate and ethical conduct, and (ii) meditative focus. Compassion helps prepare the mind for experiencing emptiness because it redirects focus away from the self and toward others. The less caught up in ourselves we are, the closer we get to understanding that the self does not exist independently or inherently. However, rather than relating to compassion as a “technique,” it needs to be something that pervades our being and defines our outlook on life. Authentic compassion comes from the heart, and it should come from it all of the time.
Within this framework of compassionate and ethical living, regular daily sessions of focused meditation are also important. The mind tends to continuously churn out mental noise in the form of thoughts, feelings, concepts, worries, plans, ideas, and regrets. It’s not possible to completely arrest mental activity, but focused and settled meditation can slow such processes down to the point that it becomes possible to start seeing through or beyond them.
In this manner, thoughts, feelings, and all other forms of psychological activity can be related to simply as observable phenomena that come and go. They should be perceived as being no more or less important than material objects or phenomena. We perceive material and psychological phenomena, we engage with them and enjoy them, but we let them go. All things manifest within, and are part of, the dance of impermanence; the continuous rising and falling of the multitude of transient phenomena that make up the present moment.
The very instant we experience something, that experience becomes history as it gives way to a new experience—a process that continues ad infinitum. Therefore, an effective way to cultivate meditative focus is to observe and accept everything that unfolds within the mind, but without holding on to it. Mindfulness should then be applied between meditation sessions as a means of maintaining continuity of contemplative awareness throughout the day.
Having developed a suitable level of proficiency in these foundation practices, the next step is to introduce a further stage at the end of a session of focused meditation. There are different techniques that can be applied for accessing emptiness in this respect, ranging from advanced forms of visualization to observing the entirety of experience as mind-made. However, perhaps the most accessible approach is to engage a more penetrative form of meditation once the foregoing phase of settled and focused meditation reaches a stage where each and every thought calmly glides through the mind without being held on to.
Penetrative meditation in this context involves directing meditative focus toward calmly searching for something that amounts to the self, me, or I. It’s important to note that this isn’t an intellectual form of analysis involving, for example, critical reasoning skills. It’s much more subtle than that because the investigative search needs to unfold without interrupting meditative focus and serenity. The question of “exactly where is the self?” becomes the object of contemplative focus, but there should not be any expectations or urgency associated with trying to find the answer.
This intentional yet calmly executed search process should lead one to see that as part of the self, everything else exists—trees, oceans, rivers, animals, food, parents, other people, stars, planets, the universe, etc. However, it should also lead to the conclusion that an independently and inherently existing self can never be found (i.e., because it does not exist). If the aforementioned foundation stages have been undertaken correctly, this process of meditative investigation can gradually trigger a form of contemplative intuition, whereby an experience of emptiness begins to arise of its own accord.
When the experience of emptiness starts to arise and one’s view begins to expand exponentially, there can be a tendency for excitement or attachment (i.e., to former or ordinary ways of perceiving) to arise. But if the mind is suitably calm and focused to begin with, any such excitement or attachment can be subsumed within the experience of emptiness itself, thus preventing it from disturbing the continuity of insight and awareness.
As indicated by the following quotes collected as part of research we conducted with advanced Buddhist meditators, at the point of experiencing emptiness, all notions of space, time, self, and other are transcended:
Existence is happening. It's unfolding in front of you and you’re watching it. But you’re also part of it. You are it. You're dancing with it. Oh, it’s so beautiful. All things and life forms are included in your view. And the sense of love and compassion is overwhelming. It comes naturally. You touch every mind and atom with your heart and mind.
It’s a bit like returning home to the source. You bathe in emptiness. It’s where everything begins and everything ends. You reconnect with the universe.
As much as possible, efforts should be made to maintain the experience of emptiness following meditation. Honed mindfulness skills, including practicing mindfulness of emptiness (Shonin et al. 2015), play an important role here. However, it’s important not to force trying to summon or maintain an experience of emptiness. If you try to force it, it means you are holding on to me, mine, and I. You will never experience emptiness like this. Therefore, allow things to happen naturally and spontaneously. Fully enjoy and engage with whatever moment you find yourself in. But keep your mind supple, open, and free from attachment. By doing this, you weaken the habitual ways of dualistic and egoistic perceiving that inhibit contact with the truth of emptiness, which has always been right in front of you and all around you.