Another way to approach emptiness and mind-only is as attribution-only, or situation-only.
Social psychologist penned the term, “Fundamental attribution error,” to describe a phenomenon in which we project attributes onto a person’s character without taking the situation into account. On the other hand, if we do the same thing they did, we tend to write off our behavior as caused by the situation we’re in.
If Bob’s five minutes late for work, we might say, “Jeeze, Bob’s so freaking lazy.” The next morning, a bunch of chaos goes down at home, so we get to work five minutes late. Instead of calling ourselves lazy, we attribute our tardiness to the situation without thinking, “Well, maybe Bob had his reasons too.”
Inspired by that, I’d like to unveil the Essential Attribution Error (EAE). Here, we’re projecting attributes onto something that don’t essentially belong to it—they’re situational.
I can’t stand mint chocolate chip ice cream, it makes me feel like I’m eating really cold tooth paste. I could say, “Mint chocolate chip is terrible, it’s an abomination, and anyone who eats it is deranged.” That’d be an essential attribution error, because mint chocolate chip isn’t essentially horrible. I know it isn’t because a lot of people like it. It isn’t essentially great either, because I don’t like it.
For the ice cream to be essentially good or bad, we’d all have to agree on it. Our judgment of it would be absolute and objective. It’d also have to be consistently reliable. If it wasn’t, then that means those attributes don’t belong to it.
For something to be an objective fact—an essential attribute—it has to be universally valid and reliable. It doesn’t change from person to person, and it doesn’t change over time.
So, really, mint chocolate chip ice cream isn’t good or bad; it’s just mint chocolate chip ice cream. Its good or bad attributes are situational, not essential. The situation being our perception and taste buds. That means there’s no point in fighting about it.
Let’s look a Buddhist teaching, say the first Noble Truth: life is dissatisfying.
Is it really, Siddhartha? For most of us, the first Truth is fairly accurate because—when mired in clinging and craving—even pleasant things eventually cause unhappiness when they disappear.
But let’s look at it from an Arhtat’s perspective: life isn’t dissatisfying for an Arhat, because pleasantness isn’t bound up with clinging and craving. So, when the storm clouds gather, there’s no lingering pining for sunlight.
Since life isn’t dissatisfying for an Arhat, but it is for us, that means the first Noble Truth is committing an EAE, but Siddhartha knew that; he was just using it as a Band-Aid.
If life was essentially dissatisfying, it’d be impossible for anyone to become an Arhat, or a Buddha. The whole practice would be ineffective and irrelevant. That means that life isn’t essentially satisfying or dissatisfying; satisfaction and dissatisfaction are situational, not essential. Life is just life, it’s neither nor.
Let’s look at anxiety and depression.
Most of us would probably say those are terrible experiences, that they’re universally—thus essentially—bad. But I wouldn’t, so that means they’re not. See that? One person can change the world. As long just one being says, “No,” then the answer is no. And I say no to everything—including no.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s said that if you Wake Up, then everyone Wakes Up.
I don’t think that anxiety and depression are “bad,” they’re just anxiety and depression. Yes, they can be devastating; yes, they can ruin lives and seem to strip everything of meaning. But, throughout all of that, I don’t take myself seriously. Because who the fuck am I?
If I step outside of my thoughts and feelings, I can see that not everyone is anxious when I am, or depressed when I am. If the mind’s untrained, this can actually deepen our sorrows because then we feel alone. With some training, however, it can open up a little space, it can help us see that what we’re feeling isn’t essential because it isn’t universal.
Since depression and anxiety aren’t essential attributes, that means they don’t define who we are. They’re situational. As the situation changes, they will too.
Buddhism and meditation are all about understanding and then changing the situation. This direct, visceral understanding is itself what changes the situation. If we can stop viewing pleasantness as good and unpleasantness as bad, then the first Noble Truth is no longer valid to us, and we see that, essentially, it’s invalid for anyone. Eventually, all Four of them are seen to be invalid.
That’s not a hall pass, though. If we haven’t genuinely arrived at that insight ourselves, then the first Truth is valid for us at the moment. As Pink Floyd said, “You can’t have pudding if you don’t eat your meat.”
How often do you think we commit EAEs? All the time, really. If you know what to look for, you can spot them everywhere. This phenomenon goes a lot deeper than what we’ve discussed here, but this is a decent point of entry.
One of the points of practice is uncovering something that is essential, that is universally valid and reliable, not bound by situations. “Who am I?” points directly at it. “What remains from situation to situation?” Hint: the answer isn’t, “Nothing,” and it isn’t, “God,” or, “Spirit.”
But that’s the cure, being mindful of EAE treats the symptoms.