Talks by Rob Burbea Concepts: Emptiness | Emptiness of self | What is the Self |Imaginal practice |

Talk 1

  • Mindfulness is not the ultimate point of the dharma

    • Realizing the emptiness of all things is
    • This brings the most radical level of freedom
  • Mindfulness, metta, and other practices are ways of looking that help us realize how things appear differently dependent on the ways of looking

  • beliefs are immensely powerful

    the concepts that we have, consciously or unconsciously, are immensely powerful, they become the lenses through which we look at ourselves and the world. Concepts become views, whether we are aware of it or not. Concepts become views, and those views have the power to block or limit our experience. Or they have the power to open and deepen our experience. And especially concepts about the path, and especially concepts about images

Anatta (Emptiness of Self)

7 Ways of Realizing

Quick summary of possible approaches

  1. Recognizing what definitions we have of ourselves
    • I’m a contracted, shy, distracted person
    • Holding mindfulness we see that these definitions aren’t always true
      • They are not the solid reality that they seem to be
  2. Quieting the mind in meditation may make personality quiet as well
    • You can move in/out of the state where there is personality
  3. Seeing that everything constantly changes (impermanence)
    • Sense of self may seem steady, but everything else is constantly changing, how can it be?
  4. Asking “Who Am I?” over and over
    • Not looking to arrive at an answer, but dissolving all limited answers
  5. Asking “Is that me?” when looking at emotions, thoughts, consciousness
    • You realize you are not any of those
    • You don’t have to cling to that as “you”
  6. In meditation picking up on feelings of craving and aversion
    • It gradually gets subtler and subtler
    • Over time you learn to release them, clinging less and less, fabricating less and less
      • You see how clinging fabricates, even the self
  7. Deliberately seeing things as “not me, not mine”
    • Unhook the usual “self appropriation”

Other (Less Helpful) Approaches

  • Emptiness of self won’t just reveal itself to us

  • Simply seeing the self as the culprit (and trying to erase it) over and over might be almost useless, even counterproductive

  • Self is not real, but the 5 aggregates (body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness) are real

    • The real nature of the self is that process unfolding in time
    • Actually everything is empty, including the aggregates
    • What happens if I start seeing these as empty as well?
  • This view sometimes can be helpful to simplify overwhelming, complex situations, but it is also limited and limiting

    • It is an over-simplification that won’t be helpful in other situations (romance, eros, sexuality)
    • Modern life is psychologically complex in a way that it wasn’t at the time of the Buddha

Imaginal Practice

  • Imaginal practice is another way to realize Anatta
    • This approach doesn’t oversimplify
  • We already use imagination in some of our practices, but don’t pay too much attention to it
    • In metta, imagination helps cultivating loving kindness
    • In samadhi, imagining a body of light can help
  • Images can be visual or kinestetic (body of light vs. body of pleasure)
  • We can deliberately bring up images, or they can come up spontaneously
  • Mindfulness with images and seeing images as images creates a safety net
    • Images become dangerous when we’re not conscious of them or when we take them literally

Working with the Inner Critic

  • The Inner Critic may feel like “someone inside of us” judging us etc…
    • An approach is to deconstruct it, see that it’s just thoughts, aversion, views
    • Another approach is to let it take shape in imagination, and turn towards it, dialogue with it
    • Neither approach is ultimately true, both can be helpful
  • Different Imaginal Ways to Deal with it
    • We could challenge its statements and assumptions and see that they are often wrong
    • Or we could bring kindness, softness and try to deeply understand it
  • We should be careful about the assumptions we project on to the inner critic
    • It is possible that it is only a clumsy protector who wants the best for us?
    • Maybe it is just trying to push us to express our full potential
    • Maybe it is our conscience or some inner angel that perhaps wants more from us
      • More authenticity, connection, kindness, energy etc…
    • We sometimes dismiss our aspirations as “ego trips”, desire for appreciation and approval etc…
      • It may be true, but is it?
      • Is it possible that some part of our being we have a longing to serve, to be heroic?

Opening to Other Parts of Us

  • Am I really just one self? Are there others? Do I have responsibility towards others?
    • There’s a danger in feeling a sense of duty towards an image or part of us, but all paths and practices come with dangers
  • ”They’re all me and none of them is me, but I’m much more than I thought”
    • Some hidden parts of us might be empowered
    • We enter in dialogue with other perspectives
      • Transvaluation (from Nietzche) → Looking at our typical values from the vantage point of others’ values
      • Practice different ways of seeing
  • When we see the self as a unitary entity, we make the ground fertile for the inner critic
    • A plurality of selves decreases the power of the IC
    • I am a Lover, a Revolutionary, a theoretical physicist etc…

Talk 2


  • Warrior Archetype in the Buddhist Thai Forest Tradition

    • We’re at “war” with greed, hatred, delusion
    • We don’t have any of that in Western Buddhism
  • Which ways of looking lead to what?

    • Which ones open another level of beauty, sacredness etc…
  • The more images, the less the Inner Critic

    • Images can dissolve the IC

Opening the Self to Others

  • We can know the self as impersonal
    • ”I am Love, I am emptiness, consciousness etc…”
  • Something different opens up when we know the Self as a constellation of persons
  • Not only about saying “I am not just one self” (like in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Call me by my true name)
    • There we’re saying I am that person too, and that other etc…
    • There it’s about letting go of self and not to judge others
  • We actually want to enliven these persons
    • Enter them and have them enter us
    • While still knowing image as image

Ways to Practice

  • We can be deliberate or let images come spontaneously
  • You can pick up previous images, dream images, gods or godesses
    • hold them in meditation
    • Can you enter their perspective? See the world through their eyes?
      • Feel their body in your body
      • Gaze into their eyes
      • Focus on their back, at the base of the spine (Rob says he has no idea why this works)
    • How do they see you?
  • The presence of mindfulness (energy body) differentiates papancha from imaginal practice
    • Using the body to discern if one is on the right track
      • The body will feel more open and calm

Images as Relationships

  • Imagination can open us to things outside the usual range
  • The relationship with images shapes it (like in dreams or waking life)
    • Images are not separate from the way we are looking at it
  • Narrative images like in shamanic journeys tend to reinforce the self, the ego, going on this journey
    • I slay the dragon, free the princess etc…
  • Iconic, poetic images are not temporal (eternal) or leading to a resolution
    • Wanderer is always wandering, not trying to reach a final arrival place
  • Not reducing images to a symbol representing something (my true self, my psychological wounded child)
    • Not just a symbol
    • No need to always explain images as something coming from our personal history, our wounds etc…
  • Images as infinitely deep, not reduceable to a meaning or symbol
  • Starting to see life as images
    • How am I fantasizing the present?
      • Self, surrounding, events, struggles, seeing them as not representing something, but there’s infinitely deep resonance
    • Meditation is just an entry point to images

Then the question is, “How am I fantasizing the present? What fantasy of the present, of this situation, of my life, is happening?” Someone on retreat here, when the wind blows, she talks about, “The wind of enlightenment is blowing. The wind of enlightenment is blowing around Gaia House.” Beautiful. So self and surroundings as images. Knowing image as image, sensing life imaginally. The events, the situations, the predicaments, the struggles, not representing something. This butterfly fluttering in the sunlightfilled garden in its overabundance in summer, it doesn’t represent anything. But there are resonances, infinitely deep resonances of image there. Life as theatre. Something gets animated. And this, more than an object in meditation – that’s just an entry point for some other whole different sense of existence, and that’s most important

Meaningfulness, Love, Imagining Ourselves

  • We should be careful about assigning a specific meaning to an image
    • Rob talks about meaningfulness
  • The image is the message
    • ”Angel” means messenger
  • Many different relationships with the angel
    • You may identify with the image, “the angel is you”
    • You may see the angel as “other”
    • You might feel seen by the angel
  • Different kinds of love may be involved
    • Erotic, soft and kind love, the stern love of a master etc…
  • We might be tempted to imagine ourselves how we’d like to be
    • With qualities we lack, more successful, more balanced etc…
    • That’s a more ego-driven approach, but it can still be beneficial
    • but images of ourselves may also arise spontaneously
      • The spirit in oneself calling us to where it wants to bring us

Talk 3 - Dangerous Ideas


  • You cannot live “staying at contact”, with “bare attention” all the time
    • You can lean into it in meditation and come out of it
    • It might even be foolish to try to live always in bare attention
  • Images fantasy can never go away, they pervade our life
  • Dharma as a play between Emptinessand ways of looking
    • Mindfulness is a part of it (a way of looking), but not the whole thing

Concepts and Assumptions Are Always There

  • We have always assumptions and concept operating in the background (logoi)
    • About images or anything else
    • Whenever there is perception, we have assumptions and concepts
    • They affect our path and our life tremendously (beliefs are immensely powerful)
      • The concept of catharsis brings more experience of catharsis (simplistic explanation of more complex thing)
  • To assume we don’t hold assumptions and concepts is not only wrong but dangerous

Concepts on Images

  • Images are often regarded as parts of us, coming from our past

    • They represent a part of us, need to be healed, or integrated
    • We are encouraged to change “dark” images
  • We tend to see these experiences from the perspective of “me and my personal growth”

  • There is no one right way of seeing images

    • What arises depends on the way we look at them (Emptiness)
  • Humans tend to prefer the security of dogma to approaches that don’t claim to be the one reality (Embrace Uncertainty)

Alternative Imaginal Concepts

  • What if we don’t assume that the images that come up represent an unmet childhood need, trauma or other event
    • What if we drop the idea of integration into one whole Self?
  • What if we assume it to be ok for the Self to be fragmented, multiple?
  • What if instead of wanting to “tame” these dark characters we want to enliven, animate them?
  • What if we don’t reduce them to a meaning, or quality of mind, an archetype etc…
    • Self and image can become equal
    • If we think of them as figures there’s the possibility of love and dialogue
  • Art reduceable to a meaning is kind of flat
    • Here we want to make things more rich, complex, like good art

Icon vs. Idol

  • Idol as reaching a finality
  • With an Icon we can always go deeper and deeper
  • Scientific materialism has become the idol of our society
  • Dharma can also become an idol that we consider as the ultimate truth
    • Tools and frameworks are reductive, designed to simplify
    • Immensely helpful at time, but less so at other times (love and romantic in case of Dharma)

Images as Causal and Autonomous?

  • What if we play with the idea that images can be causal, they cause something
  • What if we see images as having their own autonomy?
    • Not pursuing “my individuation” but the angel’s individuation

the question becomes not “What can you give me? How can I integrate you?”, but “What do you want? What is it that you want?”

Part of a Poem by Rainer Maria Rilke

“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great! (the Angel) If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.”

  • Images as demanding something from us
    • They understand us and mean well for us
    • Neoplatonic sense of images as daemons and angels having messages for us
  • Not viewing them as me or part of me
    • It is bigger than us, we are in it
    • It wants something from me
    • It has its own ideas and own styles of values
  • What would it feel to entertain the idea that we’re here to serve

our essentially differing human individuality is really not human at all, but more the gift of an inhuman daemon who demands human service. It is not my individuation, but the daemon’s; not my fate that matters to the Gods, but how I care for the psychic persons entrusted to my stewardship during my life. It is not life that matters, but soul and how life is used to care for the soul. James Hillman

  • Could we say that sometimes some of our desires come from the daemon?
    • e.g. example of Dyonisus pulling a yogi to have fun

Emptiness and Fantasy

  • We are not talking about reality, they are not literal
    • The deeper the insight into Emptiness the more we can play with these “wild ideas”
    • At the same time Imaginal practice can help us gain insight into Emptiness and Emptiness of self

We can talk of self knowing that self is empty. And anyone who practises a lot still talks about self, knowing it’s empty. Same is true of angels. We can talk of the angel in an image, or in an object, or in a behaviour, and know we’re not talking about something concrete and real in that sense. Same with conceptual frameworks and concepts. We can talk of them, entertain them, use them, go for a ride with them, and know that they’re not real, they’re not reality. And same with this strange word, ‘soul.’ It’s not a thing. We can talk about it as an entity and think of it that way. We can also talk about it more as a way of looking. It’s a way that opens up, to look with soul, to enter into a relationship with soul, with this resonance, with these depths.

  • There’s a mythology, fantasy in Buddhism as well
  • There’s also the myth of no myth in existential dharma

we cannot live in an unfabricated state. You can’t even live staying at contact. And it would be a silly thing to try and do. We need meaningfulness in our lives. We need that.

Case Against Realism

  • Some people argue that they’re not into myth, they’re realists
    • If we poke deep enough, the word reality crumbles
  • From a scientific perspective, quantum physics puts into question what we consider reality
  • From a Dharma perspective we see that even perception is not “real”
    • What I perceive depends on the way of looking

Knowing Image as Image

  • This perspective makes the practice safer, especially when images make demands

Papancha and Angels

  • Ego, papancha tends to go in loops, with a petty, revengeful attitude
    • There is no feeling of relief, alignment, expansion
  • Sensitivity is needed to differentiate

Pitfalls and Dangers

Imaginal Practice

  • Danger of identifying with the deity
    • Present also in tantric practice
    • That’s why it needs to rest on understanding of emptiness
  • Danger of escapism
    • Before starting to practice this, ask yourself if you are able to be with difficult emotions
    • We’re not talking about daydreaming

Mindfulness Approach

  • Danger of realism
    • We assume we’re dealing with reality
    • We don’t see emptiness deeply
    • The Buddha never intended it
  • Danger of flattening something vital within us
  • Escapism from the imaginal