Saturday, September 14, 2013

First Chapter Preview: Emptiness and Joyful Freedom, by Greg Goode and Tomas Sander

Hello, everybody!  Welcome back.
I'll return with a regular post in about a week, but I really wanted to stop the presses and highlight this important new book by Greg Goode and Tomas Sander.  I don't know Tomas personally, but from the book's introduction I see that he's a teacher in New York City and a  long-term friend of Greg's.  That's all I need to know.

I say this with such confidence, because there's no one who's been more influential on my spiritual journey than Dr. Greg Goode, who's been regularly featured in these pages.  I don't know anyone who's clearer.  I don't know anyone who's more kind, or more generous--or who looks better in a tux! I could sing praises from now until sundown, but we'll let these suffice.  

What I'm saying is, you can take what these guys say to the bank.  I just got my copy from Amazon in the last few days, and have thus far only been able to read the introduction (which is what's reprinted here) and go over the table of contents to Emptiness and Joyful Freedom--it's on top of the reading table in my living room.  But if my eye and my gut are any indicator, then this is a major new contribution to our community's library of literature.  I'll steal no more of their time.

Thanks to Julian and Catherine Noyce of Non-Duality Press for their help with this piece.  Everyone wins when we do these. 

One note: here's a link to the announcement to my meeting in Asheville NC, coming up on September 21. 

~Fred Davis 



Greg Goode and Tomas Sander

Greg Goode

Tomas Sander


“Wow, I’m an illusion!” The Tibetan lama was laughing as he walked down Fifth Avenue addressing a student’s earnest question about the emptiness of self.

We – Greg and Tomas – were part of the small group that guided the lama around Manhattan during a break in his teaching schedule. He had been giving a class on the emptiness teachings. Out on the street, he was feeling animated. As he walked, his arms were moving with an energy all their own. “Not having a self is not depressing at all,” he continued. “That’s the way to walk down the avenue!”

A radiant smile played across his face. “Knowing you’re an illusion is actually a source of great joy,” he went on. We were smiling too, feeling this same animating wonder. As we walked, our little party passed the Cartier boutique and, a few blocks downtown, Saks Fifth Avenue. The sidewalk was crowded. All around us were New Yorkers in designer apparel, and tourists wearing sport Rolexes. But many of these A-list pedestrians seemed to exude a somber heaviness that formed an obvious contrast to the joyful lightness that we were experiencing.

We wondered, could this have something to do with emptiness, the very thing we were talking about? Could these solemn vibes around us come from the strong beliefs people have about the existence of their own self? Can you actually have a better time as an empty person in an empty world? Or is it preferable to live as the solid self we usually think we are?

Of course the thought may leap to mind, “If I am empty, and the world is empty, isn’t this just a dreadful big meaningless abyss? How can it be a source of obvious delight?”

Buddhism has an ingenious insight here. It makes an important distinction. Phenomena are not real enough to be experienced as serious trouble, but nevertheless they are real enough so that you can still enjoy a rich, beautiful life full of meaning, while deeply caring for others, animals and the earth we live on. 

Let’s make this concrete! Have you ever had an experience where something happened to you that made you highly resentful? Let’s imagine being overlooked for a promotion. It may feel like you personally had been wronged? You brood for hours. And then a friend comes in and provides a bit of perspective, “Don’t take it personally. It has nothing to do with you.” In that moment you see the world differently. Your anger dissolves and you suddenly realize that you weren’t targeted at all – it was just some unrelated back-office politics.

We all know the felt difference between how we respond emotionally when we take things personally, as really about us, compared to how we respond when we don’t take them personally. According to the emptiness teachings, nothing is personal in this way. This is one of the central claims of Buddhism – that being free from an exaggerated sense of self can reduce suffering.

[T]his emptiness is not like the emptiness of an unfilled cup, a vacant room, or worse, an empty pocket. It’s not like that. When we have a genuine experience of emptiness, it actually feels good. Rather than being depressed or anxious, we suddenly feel utterly carefree.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (2011)

This Book in a Nutshell
The goal of this book is to introduce the reader to “emptiness,” which is the pinnacle of Buddhist understanding of reality. To realize something as empty means to realize that it does not exist in the solid, self-contained way that we attribute to it. This insight about how things exist often seems abstract or inconsequential at first, but it is surprisingly profound. It can entirely transform how we experience ourselves and our place in the world. In fact, realizing emptiness is closely linked to achieving “enlightenment,” which for Buddhism is the ideal outcome of human development.

The benefits of understanding emptiness, even partially, include a deep sense of freedom and connectedness with the world. This deep sense overcomes the alienation that many of us (post-)moderns feel. When we understand emptiness, we experience an unshakable ease and lightness in life. For thousands of years, these benefits have inspired people to take up the study of emptiness.

The most significant challenge to understanding emptiness is practical. The emptiness teachings can be hard. They proceed by taking a very precise look at our experience. They identify and correct the errors we make about things. This process is a subtle, often demanding undertaking. The main reason we have written the present book is to make the emptiness teachings and their benefits more accessible. We approach this by creating meditations based on modern Western culture, that is, on ideas with which you may already be familiar. Some of these meditations might also be called experiments, investigations or analyses. Using Western material to teach emptiness is the major innovation of this book. By presenting emptiness outside of its traditional cultural packaging, we hope to make its profound benefits also relevant to people who may not consider themselves to be Buddhists.

We hope that through reading this book you will:
understand what the emptiness teachings are about,
taste experientially what emptiness is like,
discover how these teachings can help you live a more
satisfying life,
learn how to use some powerful Western meditation tools         to deepen your insight.

A Quick Taste

We all have tastes of emptiness, even if we don’t study this teaching. A taste of emptiness is an experience in which we realize that something doesn’t exist in the exaggerated way we had thought. As a result, the thing seems much lighter. It seems sweeter, more flexible, more alive and richer with possibilities.

The University

Let’s take the example of a university, borrowed from the writing of the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle. He wasn’t actually trying to talk about emptiness, but we find it to be a wonderful example, and it can give us a quick taste.

Imagine that you are a foreign student visiting Oxford University for the first time. You are taken on a taxi tour around all the buildings and colleges of Oxford University. After a while you ask your guide, “OK, now can you show me the university itself?” Of course, there is nothing to Oxford University other than its buildings, quads, fields and other structures.

Let’s take a closer look and try to find the university:

Imagine the physical structures. Can you point to any building, office, field or other physical object that is the university?

Imagine the people teaching, attending classes, and doing administrative, housekeeping and security work. Can you identify any particular person or group that is the university?

Imagine the activities related to the university. For example, the faculty teaches classes and publishes research. The administration charges tuition and grants degrees. Is there any activity that is the university?

No matter how closely you look, you cannot find the university in any object, person or activity. When looked for in this detailed way, a solidly existing university is not found to exist. In other words whatever the university is, it is “empty” of that solidness.

And yet, it makes no sense to treat the university as utterly non-existent. In an everyday sense, we can designate various structures, people and activities as a university. Thus designated, the university can serve the purpose of education. Professors can teach; students can learn. We can do all this in the full knowledge that the university as a concrete, solid entity is not actually there to be found.

This is the emptiness of the university. Seeing such a solid and substantial institution in this way can bring freshness and lightheartedness to experiencing it because it is now a more open and fluid entity. Seeing it in this way could even give rise to new creative, perhaps even enthusiastic ways of interacting with it. And you now have a tool for a new way of seeing a familiar object…

Of course Oxford University might not be very relevant to your concerns. But you can try a similar inquiry on other things, such as a corporation or a country. You can try it on your own “self” as well. Is there anything physical or psychological that you can point to that is exactly the self? No. But at the same time, we can still designate a group of phenomena as the self as a kind of shorthand or convenience. We can enjoy the expansive sense of ease that comes from this way of seeing ourselves. (Chapter 10 will cover this in more detail.) Seeing your self in this empty way lightens the whole experience of your life.

This is the beautiful, freeing razor’s edge of emptiness. Emptiness does not fall to extremes. It allows us to avoid the extreme of affirming things as solid, self-defined or objective. This opens a sense of spaciousness to engage with things in new ways. At the same time, emptiness allows us to avoid the extreme of denying things altogether. We are thereby still able to enjoy things and what can be done with them, while avoiding the angst, despair and frustration that come from seeing them as utterly nothing. Because emptiness avoids both extremes, it is often called the middle way. All of this will become, of course, clearer as you work through the present book.

Benefits From Understanding the Emptiness of the Self

There are several benefits from understanding the emptiness of the self, even if you don’t do the many meditations we suggest. But as you can imagine, any benefit from a theoretical understanding is much more powerful if you take time to do the meditations. Understanding can turn into realization.

First, you’ll receive several intuitive, no-nonsense ways to think about yourself and life that can help reduce suffering. The reduction of suffering applies to everything − from everyday office politics all the way to the existential anxieties surrounding our certain death. Experiencing your own self in a less exaggerated, distorted way will help you feel a joy that can’t be found in the luxury stores on 5th Avenue. This joy is a precious jewel that can’t be purchased at Tiffany’s. You’ll be able to learn something genuinely new from these teachings which can dramatically enrich your life experience.

Another benefit from understanding the emptiness of the self is freedom. When you understand yourself as empty, you don’t feel as though you have a fixed nature. You are freed up for the infinite possibilities of personal exploration, growth and transformation. This may sound paradoxical. “So, how can I grow if I am an illusion?” What is an illusion is the self as we usually conceive it. The illusion is the self as a unique, solid, substantive entity. This self does not exist. By doing the meditations in this book you will experience this with the same clarity you see now that the sun doesn’t truly “rise.”

Whatever remains of your sense of self is light and flexible. It is freed from the many rigid beliefs that we tend to construct around ourselves. This light sense of self can’t take seriously beliefs such as “I am not good with people,” or, “My place in life is to be an accountant.” When you are unburdened by these beliefs, you are open to take a whole new look at your life. You can follow your heart.

For me (Tomas), writing this book was a form of deep meditation and a surprisingly profound experience. As I immersed myself in its meditations for several months, I was breathing this material and exploring its ramifications in new ways. The writing time felt like a retreat, in which the perspective of emptiness swept through my life with full force. That brought great ease, as well as connecting
me more deeply with other people and the world.

This interconnection ties in with another benefit of the emptiness teachings: they help liberate you from alienation and isolation. Normally, when you feel as though you exist in a fixed, rigid, independent or inherent way, you feel separate and disconnected from everything else. The liberating insight is that you don’t exist in this rigid way, and neither does anything else. The result is a lived sense of lightness, freedom, openheartedness and enthusiasm that opens you to other people. There is also an intimate relationship between this insight into emptiness and a sense of love and compassion, in which you sincerely care about others and wish that all beings be free from suffering.

There is a further interpersonal benefit as well. When we begin to understand the emptiness of the self, we begin to intuit the many ways we all depend on each other. Not only do we work and live together, but we share elements, resources, concerns, thoughts, language, histories, and much more. We become more attuned to each other, perceiving less and less of a wall between self and others. We get out of the way and become more motivated to act for the benefit of others, seeing less and less essential difference between them and ourselves.

Seeing into the emptiness of the self transforms things in such wonderful and mysterious ways that we even come to think of abstract notions like “truth” and “realization” as having close connection with the benefit of others.

Non-Dualism with a Difference

In many Eastern and some Western traditions, non-dualism is the high-point of insight into the nature of reality. Usually, non-
dualism is associated with an experiential realization of the oneness of the universe. That is often considered a transformational experience.

This book presents non-dualism with a difference. It’s about a flourishing, open-hearted liberation that doesn’t land on a position of one or many, existence or non-existence. There is no clinging to dualistic extremes such as good or bad, natural or unnatural, etc. This liberation is non-dual by dissolving dualistic extreme positions.

These dualistic extremes are responsible for how we carve up the world into inherently separate entities (Earth versus Sun, good people who think like me versus bad people who don’t). And so when we dissolve these extremes through emptiness meditations, we are open to a more holistic experience of the world, in which things are interrelated in the most amazing ways. Things are not reduced to “one”; nor are they separated into “many.” Not landing in extremes is a kind of non-dualism most commonly based on the Buddhist shunyata (emptiness) insight, in which the self and the world are empty. This book is a Western, modernized contribution coming out of that tradition.

It Began as a Class

The central contribution of this book is a practical exploration of how powerful Western resources can be used to perform Buddhist-style emptiness meditations. These resources come from Western philosophy, science, therapy and popular culture. It is an everyday exploratory guide, not a scholarly examination. Our motivation is practical. That is, we are presenting these tools for the purpose of helping you experience things in new and liberating ways. Many of the insights and arguments come from academic, philosophical or scientific sources. But the know-how involved (using arguments as meditations to relieve suffering) comes from Buddhism and Hinduism.

We – Tomas and Greg – met for the first time in January 2006 in Greg’s philosophical consulting office in Manhattan. Greg had been studying Western philosophy and various Eastern spiritual traditions for decades. He had a name as a teacher in non-dual
circles. Greg had been running a monthly Nondual Dinner as a gathering of friends in Manhattan for a number of years. Tomas had been a student of Buddhism for about five years, and had a number of burning questions about non-duality, oneness, emptiness, and enlightenment that Greg patiently answered. We decided to work together and have been doing so now for a number of years. That meant thousands of emails and scores of long Friday night discussions at New York diners over sandwiches, salads, and endless coffee as the nights went on.

Eventually Tomas, who is a working scientist with a Ph.D. in mathematics, found some of the traditional Eastern examples too arcane and irrelevant for his contemporary tastes. They were hard to read. And perhaps due to a hefty dose of my (Tomas’) Western intellectual arrogance, they seemed unconvincing.

And then came a turning point. One day, Tomas asked Greg whether one could study emptiness with Western philosophical sources. He hoped that they would be easier to grasp. Greg, who had been trained as a Western-style philosopher, answered: “It sure can be done!” Greg was actually delighted that someone would consider using Western material for this purpose.

With immense personal delight, curiosity and passion, we read broadly across the Western tradition discussing our respective favorites with each other. For example, among others, Greg likes Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, the ancient Greek skeptics, and the literary and rhetorical tradition. Tomas is a fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, positive psychology and science. The upshot was that Tomas found the Western material to work quite well as a tool for gaining spiritual insight into emptiness.

We even encountered academic East-West comparisons between Nagarjuna, who is generally credited as being the leading Buddhist philosopher, and various Western thinkers. Most frequently, the comparisons mentioned Derrida, Wittgenstein, and Sextus Empiricus.  In spite of these cross-cultural similarities, we had never found anyone using Western material in emptiness meditations. Could this work? We wanted to try!

And that is how this book began – as a class on the emptiness teachings at a Tibetan dharma  center in Manhattan. We were
surprised to find that many people in the class, including Buddhists and non-Buddhists, were also very enthusiastic about the Western approach. We have subsequently given more of these classes. The topics included “Experiencing Emptiness in Everyday Life” and a seminar on emptiness in science, art and sexuality. The Western approach seemed relevant to today’s concerns and maladies. It seemed to address these issues with a focused, laser-like directness. This directness is similar to cognitive therapy. If I feel unlovable or incompetent, I can dissolve the strength of these self-assigned attributes by seeing how they are empty of any inherent truth. The emptiness teachings use the same techniques towards a slightly different end − unconditional freedom.

We noticed that the copious class notes and handouts came to as many pages as a short book. After receiving more and more requests for these notes and posting them on the internet, we decided to reformulate them as a real book.

Emptiness Teachings, Buddhism and This Book

Studying emptiness the traditional way can be tough sailing. Working your way up from the early Buddhist philosophical schools to Madhyamika (where full-fledged emptiness is explained) usually takes years. It is like mastering a new language. The traditional path is undoubtedly beautiful and rewarding. It will teach you much more about Buddhism than just emptiness. We highly recommend it to those who feel drawn to it.
This book, however, takes a different approach and teaches emptiness directly. This becomes possible through leveraging the intuitions, logical training, cultural background and common personal experiences that contemporary Western people already bring to the table. In short, by using Western resources we hope to make the liberating insights of emptiness easily accessible and available to a much wider audience.

A Note About Our References

This book contains references to a great deal of external source material. Our sources fall into two categories. One category is called “Readings from Buddhist and Western Sources.” This includes books, articles and other sources that we feel might be helpful if you decide to continue learning about the emptiness teachings. These sources are gathered together at the end of the book, and are divided into Buddhist and Western sub-categories.

The other category of source material includes works with particular quotes or insights that we’ve found useful in our presentation, even if the works in their entirety might not be so helpful as to be included at the end of the book. These sources are listed in the References section at the end of the appropriate chapter.

So when you encounter a reference or citation in the text, it will look like “Huntington (2007)” or “Nagarjuna (1995) 24:14.” To find the work thus referred to, look at the end of the chapter containing that reference. If the work is not listed there, it will appear at the end of the book.

You Don’t Have To Be a Buddhist

Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its inter-
related quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize the basic fact of the inter-
related structure of all reality.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (quoted in: Nichtern 2007)

In this multicultural world emptiness is in the air. Physics tells us that matter isn’t as solid as we thought. We see widely diverging views from different cultures on TV news programs. The Sunday newspapers inform us that, according to neuroscience, no such thing as a self can be found in the brain.

We think that studying emptiness will come naturally to most readers. It doesn’t require that you subscribe to any particular religious or spiritual viewpoint. You don’t have to become a Buddhist. You don’t even have to be particularly “spiritual” to benefit from these teachings. Many of the Western thinkers whose material we use certainly haven’t considered themselves to be spiritual.

If you can meditate in an unreligious way for 20 minutes to calm your mind, you can probably study the emptiness teachings and benefit from them. You may have your own framework to which the teachings can be added. For example, if you are an environmentalist, the realization of the interdependence of things at a very deep level may provide new directions in your work. You don’t need to have the official Buddhist ideal of perfect enlightenment or the ending of suffering for all beings. Smaller, local motives are fine too. Actually, if we were to state a set of prerequisites for studying emptiness, it would probably be sincere curiosity about the world and life, an open mind and the willingness to think for yourself.

This book takes a first step by presenting emptiness dis-
entangled from many of its religious origins and commitments.

You are free to explore the emptiness teachings in your own way. You are free to write, create websites, portals and online communities. We ourselves have a website ( and a Facebook group that discusses these teachings. We teach at local dharma centers. And we try to encourage those who are better qualified to do the same.

The Fruition – Joyful Irony

“Joyful irony” is how we describe in non-Buddhist terms the result of having done many of these emptiness meditations. Joyful irony is the lightheartedness you feel when realizing that your self, your views and the world are not as solid as they seem. As a joyful ironist, you realize that none of the things you say point to any objective truth. Although it seems counterintuitive, this is actually a great delight. It’s the basis for wonderful freedom.

Irony in this sense is not meant as sarcasm or the occasionally negative verbal trope in which you say something nice (“our most wonderful worker”) but actually mean the opposite (“laziest guy in the office”). Rather, irony is life lived with no landing, no foundations. As in poetry, your thoughts, words and language take on a new meaning, which is different from the literal and habitual interpretation.

Held in emptiness, even common human predicaments, such as current suffering, worries about the future and death, are not the same anymore. The openness and non-solidity of phenomena give rise to hope, because you know deeply that bad things are never intrinsically so, and they don’t have to stay the way they currently are. They can change, and very often you can make things better.

Joyful irony is thus an antidote to helplessness, hopelessness and the victim mentality. Joyful irony is certainly not non-dual quietism, passivity or escape. An empty world is neither dull nor bleak. On the contrary, it is experientially rich, full of meaning(s) and a source of continuous wonder and beneficial activity.

Love and Compassion

Studying emptiness is never just about you. It radiates outwards, to others. Actively cultivating an attitude of love and compassion is an important part of any successful emptiness study project, whether you are using a traditional approach or looking at the way we present it here. The more love and compassion you develop, the easier and more joyful will be your emptiness realizations. It’s as simple as that.
And when the illusory walls that kept you trapped inside your skin dissolve, then your heart will naturally open towards other living beings with a greater sense of caring, benevolence, love and compassion. In a significant way they are you, and you are them. For most people, the times when they are deeply filled with love are high points. Similarly, a major source for the joy of the joyful ironist is the love and care you feel. Realizing emptiness multiplies this. You realize that a better life is not just a possibility for you, but, at least in principle, for all other people. And it is often a highly practical, achievable possibility. In many cases, you will not just contemplate positive change, but also be sincerely motivated to act on it. Joyful irony is thus open, loving and engaged.
Joyful Irony Starts at Home

One the most important insights along this Western path is to realize the emptiness and ultimate unfoundedness of your own most cherished beliefs. The hallmark of a joyful ironist doesn’t consist of seeing that other people’s views are not ultimately grounded in the nature of things. Rather, it is a global insight about emptiness that sees through the structures that make inherent, objective truth and falsity seem possible in the first place. The most radical and meaningful effect of this realization comes about when you see that even your own beliefs are not objectively grounded. They function, but they are empty of inherent existence and truth.
This realization is another way that love and compassion are fostered by the emptiness teachings. You realize that you do not occupy a position any closer to the absolute truth of the universe than anyone else. There is a great tenderness and humility that comes with realizing how similar we all are in this respect. Being an ironist about your own views tends to work wonders as a self-correcting device.
We will have a lot more to say about joyful ironism throughout the book, especially in the final chapter.
This Book – and How To Read It

We have organized this book into several parts. In Part 1,
present the emptiness teachings in some detail.

In Chapter 1, “Discovering the Joy of Emptiness,” we tell a few stories about how various kinds of emptiness teachings have shown up in our lives.

Chapter 2 presents a prominent Buddhist approach to the emptiness teachings, which we find to be a helpful organizing principle.

Chapter 3, “Emptiness in Western Philosophy,” discusses various Western philosophies and teachings and explains why you can see them as emptiness teachings.

In Chapter 4, “How Do I Go About Studying Emptiness?” we suggest a few ways that you can study the emptiness teachings in further detail.

In Chapter 5, “The Interplay Between Emptiness, Compassion And Happiness,” we discuss how adopting a compassionate, caring attitude can help you realize emptiness, and also how realizing emptiness fosters an open-hearted caring attitude.

In Chapter 6, “How Not to Misunderstand Emptiness,” discusses how to avoid nihilism, which is the most probable and most dangerous way to misunderstand the teachings.

Chapter 7 lists some important questions that have come up when we have taught emptiness in dharma centers and other venues.

Part 2 is experiential. We suggest a variety of meditations based on Western science, philosophy and psychology. Unlike the classic Buddhist emptiness meditations, the exercises in Part 2 utilize Western ways to isolate and deconstruct the conception of inherent existence.

“Readings from Buddhist and Western Sources” is a two-part bibliography of the works we have found most helpful in our own study.

It is probably best to read the Introduction first. After that, you can skip right to the meditations that interest you, or read through the section that sets forth the source material.

More on the Meditations

Joyful irony arises from a global insight into emptiness. To cultivate this insight, you usually have to analyze and deconstruct the self and many other targets. Our prior beliefs are too entrenched to be shaken loose with a few meditations only. In this book we have covered many kinds of targets, including the self and labels we apply to it. We also cover other targets, such as perception, truth, fixed beliefs and spiritual teachings.

The chapters may be thought of as falling into four different groups, which cover what we often take to be the pillars of our life world. The groups are:


Investigating targets in all of these groups is important in realizing emptiness. Taken together, these meditations provide an excellent basis for a global realization of emptiness. Let’s look at them in detail.

“Freeing Yourself From Negative Personal Labels” starts out with those things we tell ourselves as though they were truly us. They aren’t always friendly, yet nevertheless can be staunchly believed. The good news is that they can be seen as empty quite easily, by adapting techniques from cognitive therapy. By examining these labels and stories, we lessen their hold on us. A breath of fresh air pervades. Our self-conceptualizations become lighter.

“Seeing Through the Illusion of the Self” goes deeper. It takes a close-up look at modern scientific accounts of how the experience of our self happens, along with the unnecessary problems that it creates. Arguments from philosophy of mind, history of evolution, social psychology and neuroscience are mixed into a potent cocktail of meditations that are timely, relevant and intuitive.

Lastly, “Deconstructing Presence” tackles a subtle, yet resilient holdout for “selfing” that affects some spiritual practitioners, namely “presence.” The insights we use for this come from the influential continental philosopher, Jacques Derrida. They give you a taste for the classic deconstructive approach that he pioneered. The meditations allow you to see that what seems to be the closest and most intimate aspect of your self is actually dependent on something quite different and other. This realization helps the self open up to freedom, flexibility and the love of others.

The first chapter that deals with cultural phenomena, “Lightening Up your Social World,” introduces the powerful tools of social construction to the emptiness investigator. Targets such as fairness, gender, sexual identity, emotion and science are argued to be socially constructed rather than ordained by nature. Seeing a phenomenon as constructed is one way of seeing it as empty, because a construction lacks a pre-existing, inherent nature of its own.

“Refuting Moral Objectivity” targets the intuition that there are objective moral facts out there which truly determine what is good or bad, right or wrong. It targets the idea that there are objective norms that dictate what all humans ought to do. A joyful ironist is not against ethics per se (certainly we aren’t), but against absolutized, non-empty accounts of ethics. These sort of non-empty, absolutist notions of ethics produce individual and societal rigidity, suffering and intolerance.

In “Loosening up Fixed Meaning in Language,” the target is inherent atomistic meaning. This is the idea that the meaning of something can be fixed in isolation from other meanings. What does this have to do with emptiness? The stoic philosopher, Epictetus, observed that, “People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.” Thus when emptiness meditations open up the rigid notions of fixed meaning, everything else in your life and world experience opens up with it! Our approach is inspired by an essay by W.V.O. Quine entitled “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” which is viewed by many as the most famous paper in analytic philosophy.

The next chapter, “Recognizing the Myth of the Given,” targets the idea that sense data are objectively present and given in a pre-existent way, which then grounds our knowledge of the world. Normally, sense data, such as a red patch or a hard texture, are taken to be an instance of basic, uninterpreted and irrefutable knowledge of the world. This givenness is taken as something objective about the world, and something that exists as non-empty, that is, independently of human concepts and minds. This chapter contains insights and meditations that make clear that what we consider a foundation for knowledge actually depends on other knowledge already! This has been considered a revolutionary insight in twentieth century philosophy.

In “Challenging a Common Notion of Truth,” the target of our emptiness investigation is the idea that language and thinking provide an accurate picture of an independently existing real world “out there.” We usually think that words correspond to objects, and sentences correspond to states of affairs. It can be a beautifully unsettling experience for you as an emptiness meditator to realize that this way of picturing an external world doesn’t make any sense. This chapter is perhaps a little more challenging than the others, but it can be extremely rewarding. The world will never look and feel the same again.

“Liberating Yourself from Rigid Beliefs” targets beliefs – those attitudes and statements that we cling to, defend or staunchly refute. The insights apply to any belief whatsoever, but we have chosen to focus on beliefs about spiritual teachings, for instance: “The highest teaching is emptiness,” or “I am (am not) enlightened”. These beliefs are often unnoticed, and yet at the same time, they carry a strong charge for people. Clinging to statements like these prevents a global realization of emptiness. The meditations in this chapter propose an alternative to this clinging, and show you how to withhold assent and live peacefully in not-knowing. The method is inspired by the Ancient Greek school of Pyrrhonism, also known as skepticism. Pyrrhonism is one of the greatest Western examples of philosophy used for human freedom.

In “Living a Joyfully Empty Life,” the last chapter of the book, we discuss what life is like after you have done many emptiness meditations. Where does the emptiness journey go? What are the results and benefits? How does it affect your ordinary life? What new possibilities open up? We discuss these and other questions. We say more about joyful ironism, the fruition of these teachings, and present a range of examples for empty lives, such as being a regular person, or an artist, a mystic, a Buddhist, a social activist, or spiritual teacher. Such vignettes are meant to inspire, rather than to privilege any one particular way to be. The emptiness teachings, at least as we are construing them, do depend on a compassionate frame of mind. But beyond that, they do not require a commitment to Buddhism or to any other particular notion of the good life. To grasp this is one way of realizing that the good life is itself empty, open-textured and not universally agreed-upon. This last chapter has many sources, among them the writings of the astonishing anti-essentialists Martin Heidegger and Richard Rorty, as well as the English mystical poet Thomas Traherne.

Do All Our Sources Agree with Each Other?

We are using a wide variety of approaches to what we’re calling emptiness. Although they have something important in common – 
a challenge to certain notions of inherent existence – we don’t mean to imply that they agree on everything else. If you look more deeply into the approaches presented here, you’ll find differences as well as similarities. You’ll find that social construction, neurophilosophy, deconstruction, modern Western analytic philosophy or ancient Pyrrhonism don’t all talk about the same things, and where they do, they might disagree. And you’ll find some of these approaches resonate with you more than others. This is true for our part as well.

This is perfectly fine. In fact, diversity and variety are part of the openness that one finds in any facet of human inquiry. We are not suggesting that you settle on a view presented here. Rather, we are offering an open-ended toolkit that may be helpful in dispelling certain fixed and rigid views. You may already have an approach to inquiry that these sources can help with. Or you may grow fond of the sources presented here. In fact, we think that this exploratory aspect is part of the fun. 

Jumping to the Meditations Right Away

After reading the Introduction and perhaps “Discovering the Joy of Emptiness,” you may wish to move directly to Part 2. This is because there are two chapters, “Emptiness Teachings in Buddhism” and “Emptiness in Western Philosophy,” that require a steep learning curve. The Buddhist chapter introduces quite a bit of classic Buddhist terminology and machinery. We include it not because one must be Buddhist to benefit from the teachings, but merely so that we can draw out the similarities between the Buddhist and Western approaches.

These chapters are not required in order to follow the rest of the book. So, in case you find them challenging or boring, please feel free to skip them.

In fact, you may wish to jump directly to the meditations even now. This is fine. You can always circle back later to the explanatory material.

As for the meditation chapters, we have tried to organize them in an intuitive order. But what is more important is that you resonate with the targets to be refuted. So feel free to skip around as you please.
Enjoy Yourself!

We have greatly enjoyed engaging these life-changing teachings. We have found the process fascinating and freeing. It has also been inspiring to explore what some of the greatest minds on this planet have come up with. Some of the arguments you’re going to read about will surprise you. As in a good thriller, there are reversals, where the good guy goes bad and then good again, or where seemingly innocuous details suddenly gain huge significance. You will find all of this and more in the following pages. We sincerely hope you’ll have as much fun with these wonderful teachings as we do.


Part 1

Acknowledgments    vii
Introduction    1
Chapter 1    Discovering the Joy of Emptiness    22
Chapter 2    Emptiness Teachings in Buddhism    36
Chapter 3    Emptiness in Western Philosophy    74
Chapter 4    How Do I Go About Studying Emptiness?    90
Chapter 5    The Interplay Between Emptiness, Compassion and Happiness    92
Chapter 6     How Not to Misunderstand Emptiness    102
Chapter 7     Some Questions From our Students    112


Chapter 8    How To Meditate on Emptiness    124
Chapter 9    Freeing Yourself From Negative Personal Labels    130
Chapter 10    Seeing Through the Illusion of the Self    140
Chapter 11    Deconstructing Presence    189
Chapter 12     Lightening up Your Social World    196
Chapter 13    Refuting Moral Objectivity    205
Chapter 14    Loosening up Fixed Meaning in Language    218
Chapter 15     Recognizing the Myth of the Given    254
Chapter 16     Challenging a Common Notion of Truth    262
Chapter 17     Liberating Yourself from Rigid Beliefs    291
Chapter 18    Living a Joyfully Empty Life    317

List of Meditations    360
Readings from Buddhist and Western Sources    363
Index of Persons    388

©2013 Greg Goode, Tomas Sander
©2013 Non-Duality Press


To buy Emptiness and Joyful Freedom  

Greg & Tomas' site on emptiness,

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One site note:  If you've not seen the new page, Letters from Ground Zero, do check it out.  It's a series of letters addressed to me, all of them raw, gutsy, and honest, from people who've woken up with me.  It's a fascinating, up-close view of the freshly awakened mind.  The authors have of course given their permission for me to use them, and I'll be posting more as fate and time permit.

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