What I invariably notice is that very precise, close observation of almost any subject always has the effect of eliminating the subject's solidity. Study a piece of marble and you begin to see the veins of ocean sediments, even the individual grains of sand—not a big solid chunk stone. Meditation, like any form of observation, introduces space into any object. And in the case of mind-study, it introduces space into thoughts, emotions, concepts——all the stuff that we sometimes treat as though they have material concreteness.
Some years ago, after I'd already studied meditation for a few years, there came a quiet little breakthrough. On the cushion one day, I was looking at some very old, very ingrained hostility toward a family member that had arisen in me. It was a very common thing for me in those days. I was looking at this hostility very closely, studying all its nuances—when the thought suddenly came to me:
"This is only a feeling. It has no weight, no physical body, no substance of any kind. This feeling is present only in this moment, and only in my mind. It can't be photographed or recorded in any way. It is not real, but only an odd mental activity."
The "solid thing" was a story I had been telling myself. Over and over.
And instantly, the decades-old resentment I'd been nursing was seen as a rather bad plot in a soap opera. It wasn't real in any truly identifiable way, other than as a weird little constellation of enzymes and hormones and brain chemicals that had strangely come together for a moment. And I felt, for perhaps the first time, that my emotions didn't own me, nor I them, but that they were just phenomena with their own cycle of life.
That day didn't mark an absolute turning point. I still have times when I'm gripped by worries and irritations and fears—times when I treat them as though they're my possessions. But with increasing regularity, as I get more astute at studying these mind activities, I see them as little more than stories that my mind habitually tells itself. Deep seeing reveals this to be true about virtually everything —everything—that troubles me: it always turns out to be nothing more than a temporary construction of mind. Not real in any kind of demonstrable way, less concrete than water vapour.
This, I've come to realize, is one way of looking at the Buddhist concept of emptiness. When you look at anything closely, you realize that it has no permanent, concrete substance at all, but is merely a snapshot of energy in time. All things arise, all things pass away, and the illusion of stability and permanent realness is just a story we tell ourselves.
Even a chunk of marble is really just a collection of recently bonded sand particles on its way to becoming sand again sometime in the future.
Initially, I found myself a little saddened by this recognition, because something in me really wanted some things to be permanent. Gradually, though, I'm recognizing that it's the clinging to permanence that causes much of the sadness and pain. Turn loose, go with the emptiness, and illusion begins to fall away and a pretty delicious freedom begins to cook.