I have noticed in my meditation / mindfulness practice the following: as the idea of self dissolves, the ideas of compassion, happiness, sorrow, and basically everything that a "person" might experience also dissolve.

This is disconcerting for a few reasons:

  1. I stop caring about the suffering of others. After all, "no one" is really suffering, so there is no "person" to receive compassion. The "person" that I direct compassion to right now, is simply a volatile "soup of phenomenon" that won't even exist a few moments later.
  2. I lose motivation to do things because I don't feel fear the way I used to. Because of my upbringing, fear of consequences was the primary motivation for doing anything. Example: in relationships, fear of letting people down would motivate me to pursue resolution to problems, resolve conflicts, etc.
  3. I don't enjoy things in life the way I used to. As negative emotions have dissipated, so have positive ones. I no longer enjoy eating a meal with good friends, or a sunset or a dozen other things I used to. No moment is particularly better or worse than any other moment. When I live life one moment at a time, there is nothing to "look forward to" because I am not doing anything I dislike that I am trying to "get done as quickly as possible."

Bottom line: the more I meditate and live moment by moment, the more dull and uninteresting the world becomes. Consequently, I don't know how to get from here to having compassion or even interest towards other living beings.

Can anyone offer some guidance?

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    Hello Stanley and welcome to Buddhism SE. We also have a Help Center with useful resources that you might like. Enjoy your time here. – Lanka Sep 10 at 14:50
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    Hi @Lanka, thank you so much for the link. I will check it out and let you know if I have questions. – Stanley Sep 10 at 14:55
  • Why do you care? Why does it matter if the world becomes more dull and uninteresting? You don't have to tell me the answers, you don't even have to name them. But since you do seem to care, that suggests that somewhere in that caring is something interesting worth letting grow. Maybe, just maybe, it may be something you find worth encouraging and nurturing. Personally I find that approach to be useful. – Cort Ammon Sep 10 at 22:02
  • Hi @CortAmmon. I care because the point of enlightenment is supposed to be developing compassion and empathy and my practice seems to be leading me in the opposite direction. I have reasonable doubts because the results are not what I expected. – Stanley Sep 13 at 4:06

Very good and relevant question. Based on hearsay and my own experience, I suspect this problem is rather common with serious, sincere practitioners.

On one hand, it is totally normal to keep getting dispassionate and detached as you grow your "eye of no-self". After all, the Buddhist realization was described by the Buddha himself as "dispassionment, disillusionment, disenchantment, nibbana" (or something like that).

On the other hand, putting too much faith in this idea of no-self (and its concomitants of "no future to strive for", "no sentient beings to save" etc.) as some kind of Final Truth indicates incomplete understanding of Dharma, at best.

In fact, my teacher strongly insisted that "3D vision occurs when you look with both eyes". Meaning, the anatta view and the "atta" view - are the two eyes. In one, there is no sentient beings and no suffering, no Path, no Attainment etc (quote the rest of the Heart Sutra) - and in the other there are countless sentient beings who suffer and need help. Enlightenment is called "the knowledge of all modes" exactly because it involves going beyond a single perspective, and seeing all perspectives (all "worlds") at once. Enlightenment is the pinnacle of empathy because it involves appreciating all perspectives out there, including perspectives of the most unfortunate, confused, and suffering sentient beings.

As your realization of Emptiness matures, the idea of single correct point of view, or the idea of absolute truth should start making less and less sense to you. At the same time, being able to see things from other perspectives - and empathize their pain, which for them is certainly real! - is the foundation of enlightened compassion.

The dispassion that comes from liberation from any single point of view (atta, anatta, and all the others) and the compassion that comes from a realization that most of the sentient life is locked into a single point of view are the two signs of correct realization.

The above is about the View. As for the Action, this sense of apathy probably comes from an established habit of living a spiritually sterile life. The same exact principle is at work here. While you cling to a single point of view (that of spirituality), you try to be as honest to that as possible and this leads to this sterile lifestyle. Once you realize that Emptiness means no absolute reference point and this realization sinks in to the level of daily life, you will no longer be restricted by one model of behavior. Then your life can start getting back the colors -- without the passions that came from taking it all too seriously.

  • Hi @AndrelVolkov. Thank you for the affirmation and feedback. I have read and re-read what you have written many times. Two things struck me: 1) "Enlightenment is the pinnacle of empathy because it involves appreciating all perspectives out there" and 2) "this sense of apathy probably comes from an established habit of living a spiritually sterile life." So hard to wrap my head around these ideas for some reason. – Stanley Sep 13 at 3:51

I have noticed in my meditation / mindfulness practice the following: as the idea of self dissolves, the ideas of compassion, happiness, sorrow, and basically everything that a "person" might experience also dissolve.

There might be some misunderstanding and a lack of clearly seeing in your practice, because the 'emptier' you are (for lack of better words) the more compassion should arise towards other beings.

Somehow you seem to attach ideas of compassion, happiness and so on to a person. Why? Compassion and happiness exist naturally. Anatta means that they have their own causes and conditions. They are not bound to a 'you'.

With a correct way of understanding you should be able to see that compassion, happiness and sorrow don't dissolve but what changes is your attitude towards and the way you relate to nature and others. Freedom will lead naturally to more compassion and happiness.

In short: please examine your ideas about how things should be, let go of any of those and just be with experience itself.

I suspect that you suppress emotions, maybe because you (wrongly) think they shouldn't be there since there is no self. But I can't know for sure of course, only you can figure that out.

  • +1 In Mahayana we think bodhicitta (the mind of enlightenment) has two aspects: the relative and the ultimate. Relative bodhicitta is the mind determined to reach Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. Ultimate bodhicitta is the wisdom realizing the emptiness of all things. We say that the two are conjoined and different aspects of the same thing. It is impossible for a Buddha to realize one without the other. We say that these are the two wings that allow the mind of enlightenment to fly. – Yeshe Tenley Sep 11 at 16:26
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    Hi @Medhiṇī. Thank you for your thoughts! You stated, "Anatta means that they have their own causes and conditions. They are not bound to a 'you'." If they are not, then who is feeling happiness? Unless I misunderstand, you are saying that happiness exists independent of the mind. My understanding is that without the mind, there are no feelings, including happiness. Please let me know if I have mis-understood. – Stanley Sep 13 at 4:02
  • @Stanley Sorry for late reply. Was at a retreat. :) Happiness is not independent of a mind. It's independent of a 'you'. Happiness simply arises due to its own conditions. The question 'If they are not, then who...' is put wrongly. There is no who, there just is. There is a knowing and what is known. Mind arising together with it's object. One state following the next. The question of who is only asked, a who is only observed or felt by a mind that identifies and doesn't see reality clearly. Hope this helps. :) – Medhiṇī Sep 22 at 13:46

It is quite clear you have fallen to the extreme of nihilism in your conception of anatta and I would advise you to back away with all due haste. The doctrine of anatta and shunyata do not mean what you think they mean. The self does exist, karma does exist and suffering beings exist and compassion is necessary and the Buddha never said otherwise.

The doctrine of anatta and shunyata, when correctly understood does not contradict the need for compassion ... it is precisely the opposite. Based on this I would suggest you take seriously that you’ve misunderstood something and let go what you think you understand about anatta. Only by happily letting go of your current misunderstanding will you have the freedom necessary to achieve the correct understanding.

  • Hi @YesheTenley. I agree. Can you provide a link (or something else) that explains how nihilism is not the logical conclusion of the doctrine of anatta and shunyata? In the meantime, I am changing my daily meditation practice to follow this methodology: zenhabits.net/…. Thanks for your response as always. – Stanley Sep 10 at 15:02
  • Hi @Stanley, just having doubt that your current ideas might be wrong is very, very, very good. Without that doubt, it'd be hard to let them go. In the short term, I'd avise to just concentrate on loving kindness or meta meditation and maybe have a look here on how to do that: buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/29134/13375 In order to diagnose how you arrived at nihilism we'd need to go through the logical steps you used to arrive at this to pinpoint the error. In general, you've negated too much. Thinking the self does not exist is silly. How it exists is what matters. – Yeshe Tenley Sep 10 at 15:09
  • Put to rest the idea that the self does not exist or that karma does not exist or that suffering does not exist. All of these exist just as surely as a chariot exists. Think of the difference between those and something that utterly does not exist... like the son of a barren woman. That will hopefully help to steer you clear of thinking these things don't exist. They do. – Yeshe Tenley Sep 10 at 15:10
  • Hi @YesheTenley. Once again, thank you for the feedback and I will follow your recommendations. A thought... perhaps the label "non discrimination mind" might explain what I am feeling: "I no longer see an 'I' who translates the sheets to help each child, I no longer see a child who received love and help. The child and I are one: no one pities; no one asks for help; no one helps. There is no task, no social work to be done, no compassion, no special wisdom. These are moments of non-discrimination mind." - The Miracle of Mindfulness, p. 57. But if I remain here, I lose the way. – Stanley Sep 10 at 15:56
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    No, I think what you are experiencing and what Venerable describes in that book are very different. Consider: if you injure your left hand does your right hand immediately render assistance? Or does it stop and think first that it is different from your left hand and therefore need not render assistance? Does it make a choice to render assistance? It does not make a decision. It does not "think" of "itself" as "different" from your left hand. That is what I think Venerable is getting at... What you are describing is more like the right hand thinking, "Hmm... the left hand does not exist so..." – Yeshe Tenley Sep 10 at 17:02

I think that classical doctrine says that having (holding) a view of self (i.e. "me") is a cause of suffering; and so is attachment to impermanent things (i.e. "mine"); and therefore we're advised to view things as "not me" and "not mine".

BUT a view like "nothing exists, nothing matters", or something like that, is "wrong view":

And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong view as wrong view, and right view as right view. This is one's right view. And what is wrong view? 'There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no brahmans or contemplatives who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.' This is wrong view...

I suppose the non-self doctrine is a form of detachment; but saying, "I don't have a fixed view of 'self'", is not the same as saying, "you don't exist" or "you're unable to suffer" -- I suppose that the former is "right" but that the latter is wrong.

Also Buddhism (perhaps especially Mahayana) has the concept of "sentient beings" -- feelings including pain and/or suffering.

At the risk of adding a side-track to the main topic (the question in the OP) I think that classical doctrine warns against having a self-view that one is a "being" (Vajira Sutta); and, that "becoming" is something to avoid ("bhava", i.e. the 10th of the 12 nidanas, see e.g. The Paradox of Becoming).

The point is though that, regardless of how you view or don't view your own "self", there are people in the world, sentient beings, who are able to suffer, able to not suffer, and so on.

ALSO you ought to remember sila (i.e. virtue, ethics). It's foundational. It includes the 5 (or more) precepts, which involve being harmless or acting harmlessly, in various ways: not causing harm. And it's arguably more complicated than that for lay-people (see e.g. Sigalovada Sutta or something this book), though of course it's also quite involved for monks or nuns (i.e. see the Vinaya).

Also relevant to the question are the Brahmaviharas (described here as "the answer to all situations arising from social contact", see also here).

I guess this answer isn't practical, I'm just hoping to share a view of what the doctrine says about views. I think the classic view is that it's unwise to have any view of self at all -- and that "I exist" and "I don't exist" are both examples of self-views (see also How is it wrong to believe that a self exists, or that it doesn't? for more).

As for "nothing exists" or "no-one is really suffering" there's quite a short Zen story on that subject which may be apposite:

Nothing Exists

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”

I think that this topic is important too -- How are 'conceit' and 'identity-view' not the same?

  • I'm going to have to start smoking a bamboo pipe. :D – OyaMist Sep 12 at 19:14
  • Thanks @ChrisW. I am reading through all of the links that you posted. Much appreciated. – Stanley Sep 13 at 3:39
  • @Stanley My answer may be based more on the Pali canon, where other answers (except Medhini's and VeiculoLongo's) are more Mahayana. Even so I think that the Pali canon denounces "there are no other people etc." as a wrong view, and promotes sila and the brahmaviharas. – ChrisW Sep 14 at 21:30
  • @ChrisW - Perhaps it would clarify things to mention the 'Two Truths' doctrine. This would say 'nothing really exists' and 'There is not really anybody who is suffering', where the 'really' would hint at the fact that to all intents and purposes in ordinary life these things do exist. – PeterJ Sep 18 at 14:44
  • @PeterJ Perhaps, however I don't think I understand "the 'two truths' doctrine" or see it as a clarification. I'm not sure it's a big feature of the Pali suttas. Further to that Wikipedia sentence I once asked this question -- What are 'suttas of indirect meaning' in the Pali canon? -- but I didn't find that a very fruitful line of inquiry either. Perhaps you could use it as a clarification, in an answer of your own? – ChrisW Sep 18 at 14:58

Entangling vines: Case 154

There was an old woman who supported a hermit. For twenty years she always had a girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, take the hermit his food and wait on him.

One day she told the girl to give the monk a close hug and ask, “What do you feel just now?”

The hermit responded,

An old tree on a cold cliff; Midwinter – no warmth.

The girl went back and told this to the old woman. The woman said, “For twenty years I’ve supported this vulgar good-for-nothing!” So saying, she threw the monk out and burned down the hermitage.

To truly experience what the Buddha meant by emptiness is to come face to face with limitless compassion and joy. Practice isn't the chill of dispassion. It isn't dead wood of nihilism. Practice is summer and the trees are in bloom.

The great way is true intimacy with all experience...and all of the highs and lows that come with any intimate relationship. Anything that takes you away from that isn't any kind of practice you would want to pursue.

So my advice? Put down your thoughts and put down your current practice. Get off the cushion, go for a walk, and hug your loved ones. Come back when you're warm and happy.

  • I especially like your first paragraph :) Welcome! – Yeshe Tenley Sep 13 at 18:30

This has been familiar territory for me. Having a deep sense of meaninglessness has been a part of the growth process in me. I've come to see it as the falling away of the whole conceptual framework of life. I've learned to just be with it but not make too much of a story out it. It can be considered a form of purgation. Some refer to it as the dark night of the soul. It's quite close to being depressed. It's a dying and a very welcome one because if you allow it, an emergence out of it will pay spiritual dividends. In Buddhism, an unpleasant experience is not necessarily bad, and a blissful one is not necessarily good.

  • Hi @Nuance. This is very re-assuring and encouraging. Thanks for sharing. – Stanley Sep 13 at 3:41

My own opinions on meditation are heavily shaped by the work of Alan Watts, a philosopher from the mid 1900's. You can follow a guided meditation he recorded in 1954 for your own enjoyment. Or you can use it to judge his approach. It matters not. I do believe he avoided the three pitfalls you describe in his walk through life, and made it his passion to try to help others with that. Personally, I love the chuckle in his voice, which all but screams out "This is it! This is life! You've found it! Be it!"

In the comments on your post you say:

I care because the point of enlightenment is supposed to be developing compassion and empathy and my practice seems to be leading me in the opposite direction. I have reasonable doubts because the results are not what I expected.

One might say, as Alan Watts does in that recorded meditation, that meditation doesn't have a reason or a purpose and that, in that respect, it is completely unlike almost everything else we do. But I do believe there's no reason one can't start from a purpose, as you have. So we can start from there.

You clearly have two anchors in your mind. One is what your meditation/mindfullness practice is. It is a thing, and you can analyze it, and critique it. It is the thing that it is; its a thing you do. The other is what you believe it should be. You state that you believe it should be developing compassion and empathy. And so you strain these anchors. You use the purpose of your practice to pull on what it is, saying "Come on. Here's what you should be. Become more like that in the future." And you use your sense of what your practice is to restrain your idea of what it should be. It must be the thing that is acquired through the practice, else it is not a "good ideal."

I would say this is highly normal. I think everyone does it. I find myself doing it right now, as I scan the text of what this answer is, and desperately try to tug on it with my mental image of what it should be when I hit "post."

One approach I find successful is to extend the concept of compassion not just to sentient beings, but to ideas themselves. You have two ideas in your head, and they are under tension. Practice having compassion to them. Help them be happy together. I find happiness to be a positive thing, in the sense of making positive statements about the world. So show compassion to what your purpose of your practice is. Find out what it wants things to be like. Obviously right now there's a negatively phrased concern of "the current practice is not going in the right way," but focus on the positive phrasings. What does it mean to be compassionate? Why compassion? You clearly have a part of your mind that is well aware of this idea. Let it run free. Or meditate on it. Or do both!

Then you can show compassion to your current practice. The fact that you find yourself on a path that projects towards nihilism suggests that your current practice has some negatively focused ideas on what meditation is not and what mindfulness is not. They are "not attachment." "Not clinging." These negative statements are choking your path and you acknowledge that (or else you would not have come here with the question in the first place).

Compassionately encourage your current practice to shake it up a bit. Lose some of its shackles and see where it leads you. I know many who say that you can meditate at any point in your life, whether you are walking or driving to work or listening to your boss talk. Focus more on what the practice is, and not what the practice isn't.

If you do this, you will find that you start naturally seeing ways to adjust your practice to go more in the direction of compassion, and your purpose for the practice will become more compassionate itself, decreasing the tension you feel right now.

And at some point, your practice and its purpose may find that they no longer need the negative statements to describe themselves. They may be focused entirely on positive statements. We can cast those negative statements away, and be left with something which is simply a being.

And we won't give it a name.

You claim you '' live moment by moment,'' but the point is precisely that by not dreaming about the future nor the past, you avoid much craving and you reduce greatly your misery. There is nothing wrong with losing interest with the 6 senses. In fact, the more you lose interest, the easier it gets for the jhanas. All the apathy that you fantasize is just a lack of energy and joy which are typically brought by the jhanas. If you want pleasures and energy, you train for the jhanas.

For caring about others, since you already train for sense restrain and your goal seems to be nirvana, you can generate metta (=friendliness, which has nothing to do with love or even the passive com-passion that jews, christians and other liberals crave so much), do karuna (karuna is always an action like the ''ka'' of ''karuna'' indicates, so it is still not the com-passion that the jews and christians and other humanists love to plaster in their discourse, it is never passive, it is never a feeling) and have mudita (=joy that you see other humans craving less and less, therefore less and less miserable) and Upekkha towards other humans. But of course, since you currently long for sense pleasures, you believe that caring about other is wishing for other humans to enjoy themselves through honors, acknowledgement, expressing themselves, their opinions, their feelings, and enjoying material objects and services. This is exactly what continues their misery. When you follow the dhamma and you are friendly with people and wish for some humans to stop being miserable, you wish for them to stop craving something (typically whatever stems from the 6 senses).

of course, metta, karuna, mudita and Upekkha do not help anybody through the cessation of afflictions once and for all, especially yours, if you do not exercise for sense restrain in the first place https://suttacentral.net/an4.126/en/thanissaro

You can mix metta, karuna, mudita and Upekkha with minduflness and you get ''the jhanas'' to phrase it badly http://obo.genaud.net/dhamma-vinaya/wp/sn/05_mv/sn05.46.054.bodh.wp.htm#p1

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