“All phenomena orginate in the mind.”
You often find this in Buddhist teachings. For the longest time, I wasn't sure how to approach it. Like that tree in my yard. I'm pretty sure I'm not projecting it with my mind. Other people see it, and can touch it. So how does it originate in my mind?
Sometimes it's easy to get bogged down in syntax where the teachings are concerned. We can tend to apply very literal interpretations, which is what I believe I'm doing here. I had a moment of insight as I ran at North Ponds yesterday, with an icy wind blowing off the lake to spur me on. I noticed a fallen leaf on the asphalt path as I came up to the front of the park. It was multi-colored, with brown and orange and some green mixed in. The edges of the leaf were curled over, so that it appeared to be a pile of something, rather than a dead leaf. From the odd assortment of colors, I assumed it was a pile of dog shit. At first glance, my brain registered this, and I almost immediately felt a slight wave of nausea. A few seconds later though, I realized it was a leaf, and the nausea instantly disappeared.
This proves that our senses aren't very reliable, or “deceivers”, as the Buddha called them. But it also effectively demonstrates the point above. Other matter does exist around us, and we're not beaming it into existence with mind rays. What originates in the mind is our tendency to label, to ascribe characteristics, to jump to conclusions and place objects and experiences into categories. All of this conceptual thinking leads us very far away from an open and natural way of living. We use our brains to build boxes...and endlessly compartmentalize. As the sages teach, it's not long before we're stuck in attachment and aversion (for example, “what a beautiful leaf!” and “ugh, dog crap”). My example is rather trivial. We engage in this type of behavior every day on much weightier issues.
It isn't a great leap to apply this to trees or other simple physical objects. We see a tree, but the building blocks of this tree and everything else are atoms. If we could see at that level, we'd notice that atoms are mostly space. Mostly...emptiness. What we call a “tree” is really our conception of a huge number of atoms arranged in a specific fashion. We sense only through a thin slice of the possible spectrum.
Off to get groceries, where I'll once again try to convince myself that those cookies are mostly made of space.