We know from neuroscience that the brain contains literally trillions of bits of information in a sort of mass storage that is infinitely connectable. In other words, any given bit of information has the potential to connect with any other bit. Not everything does connect, of course. If it did, our lives would be a riot of color, sensations and thoughts with no continuity or governor. This, in fact, may be what happens with certain types of mental illness- the connections get cross-wired to yield associations, feelings and images that are violent and frightening, creating the illusion of threat where none exists.

From birth, we begin to associate these bits and pieces with certain experiences, and we conduct a narrative of our life based on those associations. We begin to build direct neuronal connections between the various bits and pieces in order to make sense of the bits of information. We may, for instance, begin to associate a certain set of sensations, sounds and visual clues with being fed. The narrative becomes, “Mom is coming to feed me.” At some point, I may add another connection that says, “If I cry, Mom will come to feed me,” and I have just learned that I can control this sequence of sensations. But what happens if I cry and Mom doesn’t show up? I continue to experience the unpleasant experience of hunger, and if it happens often enough I may begin to associate and sense of betrayal with my mother. In the same way, when Dad comes home, I know if he smells a certain way, he will be mean to me. Or perhaps I have parents who cater to my every need, and then my narrative might say that I can control my surroundings by simply letting my needs be known. If my parents are very wise, they will help me construct a narrative that makes me feel important and loved without having to expect that I will always get what I want from them.

Whatever narrative we develop, as it solidifies into a repeatable pattern, those associations tend to develop hard-wires connections inside of the brain. The information bit for “mom” develops a direct connection to “food”, “dad” may connect to “baseball”, and so forth. But these associations can develop form a single incident as well. For instance, in your early years you may have had a particularly unfortunate incident with a pile of elephant dung. You may have packed it away into your memory, avoiding conscious contact with it for many years. Then, years later as you are in the middle of an eco-tour in South Africa, you run across a pile of elephant dung and that association come rushing back to you. The association was hard-wired into your brain through direct neural connections established years before.

But these connections can be complex. Bubble exercises and stream-of-consciousness writing can help you to understand the particular connections you have developed, even if you have not unearthed them for many years. For instance, the color blue may take you to the seashore, then wave, then huge waves, then tropical storms, and all of a sudden you are reliving a near-drowning incident. In fact, you might simply experience terror when you see a particular shade of blue. Your subconscious associations may take over to cause a reaction of terror, even if the drowning incident never rises to the attention of your conscious mind. Suppression of unpleasant associations can be very difficult to reverse, which is one reason psychologists are in such demand.

But though it is difficult, unearthing neural connections and creating new ones is not impossible. The brain is neuroplastic, meaning that, unlike a computer, these connections and associations can actually change.  Our conscious mind can change our subconscious mind. If you can unearth these connections, bring them to conscious awareness, then by deliberate conscious effort over time, your brain can actually be rewired to sever unwanted associations and create more positive associations. This is the reason psychotherapy works. It is also the reason that meditation and mindfulness practice, sustained over time, can create significant changes in the way the brain functions. And by changing the associations in the brain, perception and behavior can change as well.

In the case of perception, the example of Daniel Kish is particularly instructive. This is a man who was born blind, and who lives a very active life that includes hiking and mountain biking. He “sees” through echolocation by making clicking sounds with his tongue and using the echoes he hear to determine the location and types of objects around him. And he has taught this technique to blind children around the world. But it is not a technique restricted to the blind. Some sighted people have learned a form of this technique as well. This is an example of actually rewiring the brain through conscious effort, so that the visual cortex of the brain can process auditory signals from the ears to form an image of surrounding objects. Another form of conscious rewiring is through sports training. Through a combination of physical repetition and positive association, it is possible to train your body and mind in order to allow you to excel in your chosen sport.

You can also transform the way you react to situations by consciously changing your unconscious associations. Let’s say that you have a relatively nerve-jangling commute to work. Every day, cars fight for position and cut each other off in a mad rush to get to where they are going. We tend to think of these vehicles as machines controlled by faceless beings that are simply out to get in our way. But if you can put a face on them and develop some sort of compassion for them, your commute will actually become more enjoyable. You can think of them as your friends and neighbors- the fellow you play baseball with, the couple you shared drinks and friendly conversation with last night. They are not out to get you, they are simply trying to get to work. This woman has a sick husband or child, this one is harried from trying to juggle two jobs to make end meet, this one is worried about finishing the report that needs to go out today, and so is paying less attention to his driving that he should.

You can choose to build your own consciousness. Although it is not easy, and not instantaneous, consistent and continued effort will not only release some of the stress and dissatisfaction you feel today, it will actually change the structural connections within your brain to make you more conscious of your surroundings. You cannot change you past, but you can change your relationship to it, and to the future you want to have.



In his book, The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about individuals as being like waves on the ocean of reality, made of the stuff of reality. Waves emerge from and disappear back into the water, but the water itself never dies. It seems to me that this analogy is like a rubber band – it can be stretched quite a bit. Since I hate to miss opportunities to take things to ridiculous extremes, I thought I’d explore the idea in a bit more detail, because the comparison becomes richer the deeper you look at it.

To begin with, although everyone who watches a wave knows that they are watching something that seems to have shape and substance, no one thinks of a particular wave as a permanent thing. In fact, I don’t think many people would be surprised to hear me say that a wave is a process, not a thing. If you take a picture of the wave, it freezes a certain image in time, but if you look at the “same” wave after you have taken the picture, it has a different shape and location. The idea of wave is just the concept of a process that occurs in the ocean.

In fact, the water in a wave is never the same, either. You might imagine that a wave is a particular mound of water that moves along on the ocean, but this is incorrect. In fact, the molecules of water in a wave move in circular paths. The water does not move forward with the wave, but each column of water imparts energy to the next column as the wave moves along.  So the actual water in the wave is constantly changing. When the wave moves closer to shore, the bottom of the ocean begins to drag on this circular motion and the wave begins to break over the top of itself, similar to your motion when you are running along and you trip on something. Suddenly, your top half is going faster than your bottom half and you tip forward. The curl of waves so sought after by surfers is a result of the water moving in this circular motion and falling forward over itself.

So part of the energy that gets transferred is within the water itself, but that’s not the only place it comes from. It can also come from the wind. Most ocean waves would die down to nearly nothing if the wind didn’t keep pushing against the water and thereby adding energy into the system. The wave train continues because of this energy. Another type of ocean wave depends on the massive energy released by underwater earthquakes, resulting in the devastating tsunamis that we see in the news. Either way, waves are dependent on the water itself, the configuration of the ocean bottom, and a source of energy. The energy source, of course, is dependent on other forces such as the earth’s rotational energy, the thermodynamic energy that drives climate patterns, the dynamic forces in the earth’s mantle that can drive earthquakes, and so forth. In other words, waves exist as a concept, but they do not exist as an entity separate from the world around them. And they are not a thing, but a dynamic pattern of shifting molecules and energy transfer mechanisms that come together to create a shape in the ocean that exists for a split second and then is gone as the energy passes along to create another pattern.

So what does that have to do with us? Well, let’s start with our bodies. In the first place, every atom in your body is from somewhere else. Not only did that material itself come from stars and galaxies billions of miles away, but it has been reshaped many times as well. You may have atoms in your body from a bit of celery that your mother ate, or molecules made of that chocolate ice cream she craved while she carried you in her body. Bits of genetic material that you carry today could have come from algae, fish, or primates that existed millions of years ago. Even today, the material that makes up your body is constantly shifting. Cells are born and die within your body every moment. Most of the cells inside your body are replaced over a seven-year period. Most of the cells in your pancreas are replaced every day, and the cells that make up the lining of your stomach are replaced every three days. But then there are the bacteria in your gut that allow you to digest food. You would die without them. And what about that molecule of air that once occupied the lungs of Julias Caesar, the Buddha, or Jesus of Nazarath? Or the water that once flowed in the Nile, fell as rain during hurricane Sandy or was belched up from the depths of the earth by Mount Pinatubo? The fact is that 90% of your body consists of elements that don’t even contain your genetic material. Your body is not a thing, but a dynamic pattern of shifting molecules and energy transfer mechanisms that come together to create a shape in the universe that exists for a few years and then is gone as the energy passes along to create another pattern. You might have noticed that this is virtually the same sentence that I used to describe an ocean wave.

But that is simply your physical body. What about your thoughts and ideas? What about your consciousness itself? Do your ideas and thoughts stay the same, or do they shift and change moment by moment? Where does your consciousness come from, and where does it go when you body no longer exists? Are you made of consciousness the way a wave in the ocean is made of water, and when the particular physical pattern that is your body ceases to exist, does that consciousness return to become another form of the thing it was always made of? Science tells us that energy can never be created or destroyed, but is merely converted to another form. If consciousness is a form of energy, once it is no longer trapped in your body, does it flow through reality the same way the water molecules in a wave flow through the ocean once again?

If so, when your body no longer exists, you have not died, you are simply waiting to catch the next wave.



I suppose it is inevitable that when you retire a certain amount of retrospection will set in. I haven’t done much of it, and I don’t plan to write a book about my life any time soon. In the first place, my life isn’t all that interesting. In the second place, my mother is dead, and she’s probably the only one who would buy the book. I just don’t need the humiliation. But in a brief look back, I discovered the principle represented by the above formula, which is that Quakerism = Christian Buddhism. I don’t really consider myself either of these. Yes, I practice meditation and I sit in silent reflection with some Quaker friends once in awhile, but I don’t run around in robes or wide brimmed hats. But when I began to actually learn something about Buddhism some years back, a lot of it resonated with me and the more I learn, the more I realize that it resonates because there are so many similarities to the Quaker tradition of my youth.

To begin with, George Fox is considered the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, which is the most formal name for Quakers. If you want to know how they got the name Quakers, check out my podcast at But George Fox was persecuted because his ideas were considered blasphemy in 17th century England. He introduced the principle that each of us has an inner light, which is a piece of God within ourselves, and we only have to follow that inner light to live the life that God intended for us. This concept is very much in keeping with the idea that we are all Buddhas, and all we have to do is clear our mind of the extraneous details to discover the Buddha inside of ourselves. I can’t help but add to this the scientific concept of entanglement, which says that a single particle can exist in more than one place, and that before the Big Bang, there was only one thing (the singularity). In a recent online discussion, a friend suggested that perhaps God injected himself into the “molecules” used for creation before they multiplied. So putting these ideas together, if God (however you conceive of him, her, or it), injected a little piece of himself into his/her/its creation, then through entanglement he(etc) could exist in everything there is. So along comes homo sapiens sapiens, a creature that is aware that it is aware, and it is able to detect that little piece of God inside itself. Hence, the inner light, the inner Buddha, or whatever you want to call that spark of divinity within ourselves that gives us hope that there is actually a purpose to our existence.

A second similarity is the power of silence as the primary method for discovering that inner light. Many Quaker worship services consist simply of a group of people sitting in silence. If anyone in the group feels compelled to share something at any point, they should feel free to do so because, by tradition, this is the inner light – the still small voice of God – speaking through them. At its best, this can yield some insights for the entire group, but it can also become an unburdening of very personal issues – a sort of one-sided therapy session. There are times when no one speaks at these sessions, and other times when the group becomes downright chatty. To my knowledge, it is all considered legitimate expression of the inner light. My personal side note is that when you are eleven years old in one of the chattier sessions, it can seem as if everyone has spoken except you, and everyone is waiting for you to say something. This intense pressure to come up with something profound can cause the inner voice to be saying, “What should I say? I don’t have anything to say. I can’t tell them about biting my fingernails, can I? They’re all staring at me, I know they are. When will this be over?” Poor kid.

You can argue whether the Quaker sessions are contemplation or meditation, but the practice in a Buddhist Sangha is a bit more structured. The meditation part of the session and the dharma talk and discussion are kept separate. In Buddhism, during meditation, the silence is unbroken. The intent is noble silence which is not only designed to help the individual practitioner to delve as deeply as possible into their own inner explorations, but to avoid disturbing any of the other participants in their practice. There is a silent sharing in the presence of the other individuals, but the inner focus remains unbroken.

The result of these two distinct contemplative forms is similar as well. Quakers are known as pacifists. They oppose all wars and all violence because of their reverence for life. Buddhists, of course, have the same deep reverence for life. Some Buddhist sects are so radically careful not to destroy life that they restrict their movement in order to avoid unintentionally squishing tiny bugs or even microbes. A second result is the idea of humans as stewards of the environment, which results in the push for sustainable practices. Buddhists and Quakers alike have strong reverence for the natural world and mankind as a part of that natural world, rather than as an opponent whose purpose is to subdue and use the world for selfish purpose.

Many of these principles are not limited to Quakerism or Buddhism, of course, but these are two traditions that I have become quite familiar with. And this post only begins to describe the similarities between these two traditions. I hope this introduction to the subject demonstrates that in the example of Quakerism, Western religion is much more similar to the wisdom of the East than you might have imagined.



People like to think there are certain magical places where universal energies abound. There are many examples. For instance, many people believe that there is a grid of ley-lines that concentrate earth energies in specific areas, connecting these energies to sacred sites such as Stonehenge and the pyramids. Alfred Watkins conceived of the idea of ley-lines, noting that people often noticed these areas of energy convergence by marking them with cairns, stone circles, and sacred buildings such as churches. A similar concept is that of vortexes that consist of swirling earth energy which imparts spiritual and health benefits to those who are sensitive enough to experience it. There are said to be a number of such vortexes in and around Sedona, Arizona. Even without invoking earth energies, outdoor places such as quiet woodlands, majestic mountains and energetic seashores can somehow connect to inner energies to impart a calming and renewing effect. I remember a week-long visit to Alaska years ago during the winter, when there were only a few hours of sunlight each day, and the temperatures were well below zero. During the entire time, I felt a vast looming presence coming from the mountains for the entire time I was there. This presence was both beautiful and terrifying, and I felt as if it were beckoning me to seek it out, despite the cold and the darkness. Toward the end of the trip I ran across a shop that had an Eskimo icon called The Bad Spirit of the Mountain, a tiny mask made of wood, paint and feathers designed to warn children away from the allure of the mountains – the same allure that I experienced. I purchased that icon as a reminder of the presence I felt during that trip, and it still gives me the chills.

Some interior spaces seem to have an aura that can impart an inner sense of calm. Many churches and cathedrals can seem to contain a quiet energy that envelops you are you enter them. If you have ever been on a cave tour when the tour guide turns out the lights and has you stand for awhile in absolute silence, you can experience a sense of oppressive presence in that few moments. They say that people trapped in caves can go insane from the silence, but I wonder if this profound silence can also become a vehicle for deep understanding for those who seek out such places.

There are also places that seem to buzz with creative energy. There are some theatres, artist studios and maker spaces that people describe as magical. Nightclubs can have a vibe in which the entire space seems to crackle with frenetic energy. Whole cities can seem to have a liveliness that is unique to that particular place.

But does this energy really come from the places or does it come from our reaction to those places? When we walk into a room and sense a hum of activity, do we then add our memories and sensations and history to it and assign it to a category in our mind? Two people can walk into the same night club and one will feel energized and excited and the other can find it to be highly threatening. Each may sense an energy, but they interpret it quite differently. And someone who works at that nightclub may actually feel calmed by the environment, because it has become a place he thinks of as his home – a comfortable environment that he knows well and where he feels accepted.

So is the energy we sense in these places actually only a reflection of our own internal energy? Do these places somehow tap into something within, or is the energy we sense – whether a frenetic energy that stimulates us or a calming energy that soothes us – something that actually exists in the environment and is imparted to us be our presence in that place? Or is it some of both?


We Are Them

We all like to think we are good people. If we do something that we know is wrong (And I think we all do to some degree), then it’s because of a moment of weakness, some special situation, a mistake. Yes, I did a bad thing, but that’s not the real me. The Devil made me do it. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time. And if a known and trusted friend does it, we tend to give them the same benefit of the doubt. But if someone we don’t know does that same thing, we tend to be less charitable. Or if someone we don’t like and don’t agree with does it, we jump to condemn them. See, I told you he was a jerk.

When I do this, I do a very subtle thing to myself. I disown a part of myself. And when I disown part of myself, I disconnect that part of myself from the rest of the universe. I make myself, and my world, that much smaller. When I fully understand non-duality, I have to realize that any time I divide, I shrink myself. It is easy for us to do. Neurobiology shows us that our brains are compartmentalized. We can think one thing one minute, the opposite the next, and never see the inconsistency. The more open your view becomes, the easier it is to see this. This closing off can happen even to the most well meaning of us.

In a meditation group I used to belong to, we studied the book Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh.  In this book Thay tells the story of the boat people who tried to escape from Viet Nam to Southeast Asia in tiny boats. Between leaky boats and raids by sea pirates, only half of those who began the journey actually reached the other shore. He tells of receiving a letter about a young girl of twelve who was raped by a pirate, then jumped into the ocean and drowned. He says the first reaction is to get angry at the pirate. But if you look at this and meditate on it, you see that if you were born in the same village and raised under the same conditions as the pirate, there is a very good probability that you would have become the pirate. If you condemn the pirate, you condemn all of us because to some extent we are all responsible for this state of affairs that led to the piracy.

Years ago, I watched a movie called The Penthouse. It was rather brutal for the time, filmed in 1967 and directed by Peter Collison. It was about a group of thugs who broke into the penthouse where a couple were engaged in an adulterous affair, and proceeded to terrorize them in very brutal ways. At one point, to explain their action, one of the thugs told a story about alligators being brought into the country for children’s pets. These pets were a novelty for awhile, but after they began to grow, kids would get tired of them, or their jaws got stronger and their cute little nibbles became serious bites. Eventually, they became a problem for literally thousands of families. So what do you do with an alligator you can no longer handle? You flush it down the toilet. And in New York City, the legend goes that many of these alligators survived the ordeal and grew up in the sewers. When the occasional sewer inspector encountered the occasional alligator, the reptile had the upper hand. Eventually, the sewer inspectors became the snack of choice for the biggest and strongest of the alligators. The thug tells this story from the alligator’s point of view, and concludes that, “You can’t blame the alligator”. It was only doing what it needed to do to survive.

And that’s the point. Don’t we all blame our alligators? Don’t we all drive our cars to town meetings to protest fracking, when there would be no need for fracking if we didn’t own car in the first place? Don’t we protest paying taxes when the roads we drive on, the mail delivery we expect, and the Social Security we rely on come from a tax system set up by the very government we claim to hate? We sweep child abuse under the covers by making lists and saying we don’t want those people in our neighborhood. But the farther we isolate them, the more desperate they become. You don’t see neighborhoods forming support groups to help these people find a positive outlet for their compulsions. And because we don’t reach out to help solve the problem, we are all the pirates, the alligators, and, yes, the child abusers. Whenever we divide the world into “us” and “them”, be assured, we are not only “us”. We are “them” as well.


Science, Buddhism, and Reality

You may be familiar with the story of the blind men and the elephant. This is a story that originated in India and has been told in many forms in various traditions, including Jain, Buddhist, Sufi and Hindu. These blind men were trying to describe an elephant by touching it. The man who touched its trunk said the elephant was like a hose, and so forth. The ears like a fan, the legs like a tree, the tail like a hose. Then the elephant ran away and escaped into the jungle. Each of the men argued that they knew what the elephant was like because they had experienced it directly, so they argued, each one convinced that he was right so all of the others were wrong. In the end, their arguments became so contentious that they became bitter enemies and the elephant remained a mystery.

Since we are outside of this story and we can view the elephant from the outside, we know that each of the men was absolutely correct in his observation, but absolutely incorrect in two conclusions: first that the entire elephant was like the part he had experienced, and second that because he was right the others must all be wrong. That’s us, isn’t it? We see and experience Reality in a certain way and we conclude that we know what it’s like for everyone. I know my wife and I often have a completely different view of, uh, certain conversations. At any rate, we see the world through the lens of our religion, our philosophy, our metaphysics, our science, our spirituality. If your God doesn’t look like my God, then you’ve got the wrong God. Since the world is logical and scientific, your God doesn’t exist. To defend our narrow points of view, we argue, we limit ourselves, we even kill each other. But none of us can step outside of Reality and see the whole shape of it. None of us knows the whole truth.

How can we ever hope to see that whole truth? We may not be able to, but the only hope we have at all is to take a lesson from the elephant men and listen. Try to respect the truth of others even if we can go there with them. Let go of our fixed ideas about the truth of our little perspective on Reality. Open up to the possibility that everyone might be right even though we can’t fathom how the pieces of this puzzle fit together. Much as it might surprise you, Reality isn’t limited by your view of it. Or mine. Or my wife’s.

So how do we begin to try and understand more than we do today? How do we expand our understanding in a way that doesn’t overwhelm us or drive us insane? OK, that may not be a long trip for me, but I try to minimize the chance of getting in too far by trying to see the places that overlap, the places where I can see agreements. In this case, the agreements between Buddhism or Eastern knowledge and Western science.

So let’s begin by looking at how Buddhism and science try to develop an understanding of Reality. Both start from empirical observation. According to Buddhist principles, empirical observations include direct perception and inference rooted in empirical perception. Science also begins from empirical observations, as made by direct perception, from reliable and repeatable observations, or from logical inference based on direct observation. In fact, metaphysician Jeffery Grupp has said the “Buddhism is an empirical study . . . and therefore, Buddhism is a scientific pursuit.”

The difference lies in what they do with that initial observation.   In the Buddhist view, we exist within an undivided Reality, so we are intrinsically subjective in our observations.  No bit of Reality can be understood in isolation because nothing exists in isolation, including us. And concepts always divide Reality into the object of that concepts and its negation. There is no light without dark, no time without timelessness, no me without not-me. Any time we form a concept, we are dividing a Reality that cannot be divided. So therefore, the only way to gain an understanding of Reality is by clearing the mind of all concepts and ideas and subjectively experiencing Reality as a test against the empirical observations we have made.

In the scientific view, Reality as a whole is far too complex to develop any kind of rigorous understanding of it, but is we divide it into bits that we can measure and understand, we can eventually put those pieces back together and develop a reasonable approximation of Reality itself. In this way, scientists form concepts to test their empirical observations, then test those concepts, building a hierarchy of theories and laws which will eventually combine to yield a universal theory of everything. Two principles drive this process. The first is the principle that the scientist can separate herself (or himself) from the object of study, so can accurately test and observe it without affecting the outcome. The second is that inductive reasoning is valid. In other words, you can measure a limited number of events, and if the outcome is consistent you can assume it will happen every time the same conditions apply. So if I’m one earth under and apple tree and apples keep falling on my head, I can assume that there is some condition that causes the apples to fall and that all of the apple will fall eventually. If one apple floats up into the air, then I’ll have to rethink my assumption.

Science, therefore, uses concepts to try and make sense of empirical observations, then tests those concepts and revises those concepts based on new evidence that is considered valid. The test of validity depends on a number of factors and varies for the branch of science involved. This is well beyond the scope of the current discussion. Buddhism, on the other hand say concepts get in the way of true understanding, and the only way to make sense of our observations is the clear the mind of all concepts and experience Reality as it is unfolding without the distorting influence of our mental constructs. As a side note, this emptying of the mind works when you follow up with the mindful observation of unfolding Reality, not the mindless of binge watching all the episodes of Breaking Bad for the fifth time.



According to Goodreads, Lao Tzu said:

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

The same can be said for many utilitarian items. Any vessel, bag or case would be useless without the space inside that is designed to hold or carry something. And science tells us that even the seemingly solid part of the pot or case is also full of emptiness. Everything is made of atoms, and atoms are simply massive amounts of empty space held together by force fields. Atomic fields also repel other things, which is what makes them seem solid. For instance, when you hit a golf ball and hear that solid and satisfying “thwack” that indicates you have hit a good shot, you actually didn’t hit the ball at all. Instead, the atoms in the club face approached the atoms in the ball and when they almost touched it, the repulsive forces in each group of atoms pushed against each other and since the club is heavier and also subject to the inertia imparted by your body, the golf ball is the one that flies away (OK not always, but it generally goes farther than the club, or the divot, or the air molecules that you disturb when you miss the ball entirely). Then, as the ball makes that perfect arc, disappears into the oak tree and bounces straight back at you, once again it hasn’t actually hit anything. In golf, they say that trees are 90% air, but it’s actually more like 99.999999999999% air, because of the distance between particles in the atoms that make up the tree.

In fact, the subatomic particles themselves aren’t really particles. We just call them that because it’s easier to think of them that way than as buzzing probabilities. Frankly, I doubt that they actually “buzz” either, but that’s another story. The point is that if you define emptiness as lack of stuff, then we are surrounded by a lot more emptiness than stuff. And of course, then there’s the universe. If you look at the energy density of the universe, only about 4% of it actually consists of stuff that we can detect and measure. The rest of it consists of something called dark matter, which scientists can’t see through and seems to be in clumps, and dark energy, which can’t be detected in any way except through energy calculations, and seems to be uniformly spread throughout the universe. We all have some of this not-stuff inside our bodes right now. We all are full of emptiness.

Yet the pot that Lao Tzu talks about is full of red herrings. The concept of emptiness in Eastern thought has less to do with empty space than it does with the essence of a thing. We try to assign meaning and permanence to things. We see a mountain and think of it as permanent, but if we had the time and patience (and lifespan, of course), we would see that the mountain changes and eventually disappears. The same would be true of any physical thing. The way first century Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna would explain this is that things have no essence, which in his terminology means there is no underlying, unchangeable quality of permanence to them. In the original tradition that arose after the Buddha died, practitioners would say that humans suffer because they cling to five aspects that constitute sentient beings: matter, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. The tradition that Nagarjuna helped usher in went beyond that to declare that these aspects have no independent essence, in other words they are empty.

We can say that ego is the idea that there is some kind of essential self. But we know, not only from these early traditions but also from the findings of neuroscience, that an essential, permanent and unchanging self, is an illusion. So if you think someone with a large ego is full of hot air, he (or she) is actually much emptier than that. He is full of emptiness. But then, of course, we all are.