Consciousness is empty, and so is love

Susan Kahn
Susan Kahn

From the perspective of emptiness teachings, to say that something is empty means that it is empty of inherent existence. Instead, everything exists interdependently like fire and fuel. Deconstructing consciousness and seeing its emptiness takes examination, but is profoundly liberating. For the idea of consciousness as its own thing perpetuates the sense of an inherently separate self.

Consciousness is commonly viewed within non-duality, as pure consciousness and as the foundational reality of everything. This perspective does not recognize consciousness as dependent upon other phenomena to appear, but is seen as self-created.
However, this argument runs into a problem. In order to create or produce itself, consciousness would need to have already existed!

Consciousness is also said to be conscious of itself. But for consciousness to indivisibly know itself is a muddled notion. Consciousness must be conscious of something to be considered conscious. If there is no content to be conscious of, how could consciousness be recognized as being conscious? When it is seen that consciousness depends upon other things, then consciousness can also be seen as empty.

Furthermore, for consciousness to be conscious of itself, would require it to have an interior, making the claim that consciousness is an indivisible unity, impossible. It would take time and space for consciousness to be conscious of itself.

Furthermore, when consciousness is viewed as inherently existent, it must be changeless. However, whatever is unchanging must be inherently dead, isolated from the flow of interrelational continuation.

Alternatively, consciousness can be viewed as existing interdependently, as non-dual inter-reflections, all empty of their own essence. This interdependence can manifest very subtly, as in non-conceptual meditative states.

Buddhist teachings make the additional argument that consciousness is dependent upon what is not considered conscious. We are conscious of something, we recognize something that we would call non-conscious elements. And because consciousness does not exist solely as itself, it can function throughout the world.

Furthermore, consciousness is dependent upon a body, including the senses. So what sort of pure consciousness can this really be? What intrinsic property can consciousness truly hold?

How can anything be both fundamentally separate and connected? Instead of existing separately, it can be observed that consciousness is a mutually dependent phenomenon, just as fire does not burn itself and is utterly dependent upon fuel.

Consciousness appears to exist in a self-created, self-powered way. It is assumed that consciousness operates itself, but this is no more so than trees that are blowing, themselves intend to blow. Consciousness is an interrelated movement of form, but is treated as if it is altogether privileged.

In emptiness teachings, it is said that there is an equality among all phenomena because nothing can be truly separated out. This expands the meaning of love and compassion. Yet, this is not to say that there exists an autonomous, undifferentiated loving unity either.

Love and compassion depend upon a relative otherness to be loving and compassionate toward. For love does not love itself. We don’t consider an act of love to be self-referring, just as consciousness must be conscious of what is not considered consciousness.

And as consciousness involves diversity, love is also of the world. As everything exists without their own essence, things are neither the same nor different from each other, as nothing exists separately.

And too, as there is no inherently existent consciousness, there is no inherently existent “me.” This implies that there is no ultimate identity to defend, or need to desperately grasp and cling to the “mine.”

This lightens suffering. For as everything interrelates, there is no place to fall. Such understanding opens the heart to seeing unity within diversity, while embracing the diversity within unity. Fear, intolerance and other afflictions, cannot securely withstand such a great embrace.

Susan Kahn is a licensed psychotherapist who unites both tradition and nondual emptiness teachings.

Susan Kahn

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