I was just about to give up on my life when I was introduced to Eastern spiritual practices. I had studied everything that our Western world had to say about suffering and what to do about it. And the more I learned, the worse I felt. Out of desperation for a better way of life, I began a daily meditation practice. I studied and practiced a mindfulness practice called shamatha in which the attention is placed on the breath in a restful yet alert manner. This practice showed me very clearly what the problem was: ME! There was so much chaos and distraction taking place in my mind on a momentary basis that it made sense as to why I never felt right. The 'me' that I had come to know was indeed full of conflict, speed, and ambivalence. My thoughts constantly raced and pulled me in a million different directions. It was frankly appalling to see how frenzied my mind was. All of this mental chaos created a state of emotional inertia that kept me confined to a very narrow range of the the human emotional spectrum. Basically, I was so stuck in my head that I had lost contact with reality.
From a meditative perspective, everything in the universe is inherently empty. Our concepts and opinions are devoid of any inherent reality. We are convinced that we are real only because of the deluded nature of our own minds. We simply don't see things as they are. We see through the filters of our concepts and thoughts, which seem to be very convincing. If we buy into our mental projections of reality, we will suffer. Meditation is the practice of developing space around these constant projections. With regular practice, we become less and less convinced that we or anything else is inherently real and solid.
The irony here is that recognizing our own non-existence is the very basis of freedom, joy, and love. Our clunky, solid sense of self is what gets us in trouble. So, when I say that everything is empty, it may be tempting to see this as a negative statement. But even that is empty. When we flash on non-existence or emptiness, we see the ultimate potential in all things. Instead of being pinned down by our dualistic perceptions of good/bad, happy/sad, like/dislike, etc., we see that the universe is free from any kind of limitation whatsoever. This is the nature of genius and mysticism.
Have you ever lost yourself for a moment? Perhaps in your work, or playing with your kids, or watching an intense movie? That is like flashing on emptiness. You are free of your normal sense of who you are. There is no boundary between you and everything outside of you. In Buddhism, this is seen as the experience of Big Mind. It is a momentary flash on the infinite nature of reality from which we are inseparable. In mindfulness practice, this flash of awakening is deliberately maintained; everything that arises in the mind is simply a manifestation of universal energy. There is no 'I' in any thought or feeling. It is impersonal energy that arises and passes. When we taste this freedom from personalizing the constant arising of thought, it is like we can finally breathe and surrender to the beauty of life.
Regular meditation practice enables us to rest our awareness in this state of undistracted, empty stillness. Interestingly, this does not necessarily mean that the mind is quiet and obedient. We can still be thinking and have a recognition of this peace and openness. Over time, the mind does stop for periods of time. There is just absolute stillness. But as a beginner, the main point is to keep your awareness one-pointed on the present moment whether you are thinking or not. Don't try to stop your thoughts. Just stay focused on the moment and be still.
As your mind begins to become more expansive and present, your life will begin to open up in unforeseen ways. Old habits, fears, and harmful relationships will fade away. You will become genuinely invested in the ways that you can be of service to others. Why? Because the inside and the outside are no longer seen as separate. Instead of being preoccupied with this contracted version of 'I', the enormous energies of the universe call you out to offer your best to alleviate the suffering of others. This is the beginning of freedom. It is the beginning of living in spirit. Mindfulness practice is one the the vehicles that can take you there.