Those with a misunderstanding of selflessness tend to overvalue the idea of the “empty mind” free of thoughts….Contrary to this way of thinking, conceptual thought does not disappear as a result of meditative insight. Only the belief in the ego’s solidity is lost. Yet this insight does not come easily. It is far more tempting–and easier–to use meditation to withdraw from our confusion about ourselves, to dwell in the tranquil stabilization that meditation offers, and to think of this as approximating the teaching of egolessness. But this is not what the Buddha meant by Right View.
To counter such tendencies, Nargarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism, taught the doctrine of emptiness, orsunyata. Emptiness, he understood, is not a thing in itself, but is always predicated on a belief in something. Referring to the absence of self-sufficiency or substantiality in persons, emotions, or things, emptiness describes the lack of just those qualitites of independence and individual identity that we so instinctually impute. Like the reflection in a rearview mirror, emptiness is not a thing in itself, yet it is nonetheless the vehicle for maintaining a proper view of the road in front of us.
The tendency of the human psyche, taught Nagarjuna, is either to reify or deny, to impute absolute meaning or to impute none. Emptiness was his way of doing neither, of suspending judgment while still maintaining contact with the stuff of experience. It is as necessary for navigating our emotional terrain as a rearview mirror is for our travels on the highway, because when we attempt to drive without using the mirror, we get anxious, never knowing if it is safe to move to the left or fight, or if someone is on our tail. When we operate with an appreciation of emptiness, teach the Buddhists, we are protected from the extremes of left and right (of grandiosity and despair) and when we are in danger of being overtaken by our own reaction of things, we can suddenly catch ourselves.
According to the Buddhist scholar Herbert Guenther, emptiness is the experience that “serves to destroy the idea of a persisting individual nature,” but it is not an end in itself. It is especially useful in dealing with the thorny problem of the emotions, because a correct understanding of emptiness permits an alternative to the two extremes of emotional indulgence or emotional repression. As we practice meditation, we are forced to examine these coping strategies and to learn an alternative view.
From Thoughts Without a Thinker, by Mark Epstein