They are very confused. They take as the essence of practice
A feebleness in which words lead them astray
And a dullness that suppresses thoughts and feelings.
In 2001, I moved into a new office. My assistant pointed to a small painting and asked, “Where do you want to put that?”
“Right above your desk. It will be perfect there. It’s a meditation test and people will or won’t see it.”
This particular painting was a minimalist piece consisting of a uniform green-tinged black with a small bit of bare canvas at the bottom left edge. I explained that students would look at the painting but not see it, because they were not able to look at nothing and see. When they actually saw the painting, it was a sign that they could now look at nothing and actually see nothing.
“That’s crazy,” she said.
Four years later, a student who came to see me quite regularly stopped at her desk and asked, “When did you get that painting?”
“I don’t believe it!” she said, leaning back and laughing. The student was utterly confused. I smiled, and let her explain that the painting had been there for four years.
“I don’t believe it,” he said. “I never saw it there.”
That much was true. He hadn’t seen it until that day.
It is one thing to look at nothing. It is another to see nothing. To do so, one has to be open in a certain way.
I remember my teacher pointing out the nature of mind in interviews when I was translating. At first, I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. He would ask certain questions that seemed to have little to do with what the student wanted to talk about. I would just translate the questions and answers as best I could. Gradually, I came to appreciate that he was giving pointing out instructions to virtually everyone who came to see him. Most of the time his efforts went nowhere, but sometimes the conversation became alive in a strange way. Though I was translating, I wasn’t really part of the conversation. My teacher and the person present were communicating at another level and, even thought I was translating, I was the one who was “very confused”.
We need to be ready for pointing out instructions. If not, we end up looking at nothing but do not see nothing. We don’t see anything and we think that this weak blank state is meditation. We can’t describe our experience. There's no vitality, no power, no light in it. Thoughts and feelings are dulled, more or less as if they were experienced in a fog but because they don’t disturb us, we think our practice is in good shape. People who are prone to depression easily fall into this state, a dull stasis that goes nowhere except to spiral down into a gradually increasing torpor and immobility. It’s a form of “marmot meditation” and every text on mind nature includes warnings about it.
Long periods of dullness in meditation are to be avoided as they reinforce patterns of depression and suppression. It is, generally speaking, better to have an overly active mind than a dull mind. The former, at least, has a degree of energy and possibly wakefulness in it. If you are prone to the latter, practice intensely for short periods (5-10 minutes) and then move around a bit to throw off any dullness. Include walking meditation, if not running meditation. Get regular exercise so that your heart has to pump vigorously everyday. Avoid television and activities that induce stasis. Go for a walk, instead, or go to a movie on a big, big screen. Regularly stimulate your mind, body and emotions so that you aren’t slipping into that dull state. As your body becomes more alive, your mind becomes clearer. You will be able to rest and look without falling into dullness.
When you look at nothing, but have no sense of seeing, then look at what experiences nothing. As Mipham writes in A Light in the Dark:
Now, as you experience this vague knowing in which there is no thought or movement, look at what knows that this is happening, look at what is mentally or emotionally inert, and rest there.
This is tricky, particularly if you are prone to depression. But if you can do this, there comes a day when you actually see nothing, and everything changes.