Nothingness, the Nest of Being
James R. Willems
At the center of our dreams is the fear of the Void. Sooner or later, all of us have the dream in which we imagine ourselves moving into some mysterious region in which everything, every distinction, disappears, and nothing is left. We are gone utterly and completely forever.
A famous French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, believed that this fear of Nothingness was the core of human existence. Only human beings experienced such a fear, he thought. All other creatures are blessed with Lethé, the blessed waters of forgetfulness.
The very center of the Buddhist experience of Enlightenment is the realization that such a state of Nothingness, such a Void, is the ultimate condition of the Universe. Everything is transitory, taught the Buddha. To hold on to anything in this Universe is to experience suffering, because sooner or later it will pass away, and the fear of Nothingness will return—reinforced and strengthened by our avoidance of it.
What is the secret of this Void, this Nothingness? Is there a posture or a relationship to it that will reveal a great wisdom at the heart of the Universe? I believe so. Recently, the editor of Ariadne’s Web, wrote to me:
From my perspective anything that exists IS conscious – and not just conscious, but “self-conscious” – simply because it participates in the existence of Universal Being. Put more bluntly, it could be argued – and quite successfully, I might add – that anything that exists IS self-conscious, if for no other reason than that anything that exists does, in fact respond to its environment, or to changes therein. Furthermore, anything that exists insists upon maintaining its “being-ness” and, in this regard from a purely physical point of view, the physicists label this inherent “stubbornness” in maintaining being-ness, “inertia”. When applied to self-consciousness as expressed in human beings, we call this human inertia “will”. But when the “will” is dominated by, or has been hijacked by the exigencies of physical existence, then one could say that the “will” is not free because consciousness, instead of being rooted in being, is rooted in existence. …
The secret of the mystery of the Void lies in Dr. Wilson’s paragraph above. The paragraph has precisely the same wisdom, if in a different metaphor, as Buddhist descriptions of the ultimate state of things.
It should be remembered that in Buddhism, the goal is for consciousness to be liberated, to free oneself from suffering forever. (“Happiness is not a Fatal Disease.” is the motto of Ariadne’s Web and appears on every issue.) In Buddhist meditation, the primary tool of investigation is consciousness. This is slightly different from Natural Science’s use of Reason to examine empirical phenomena in order to discover reality. In Science the assumption is that reality will be objectively discovered, that it will be an objective of knowledge. In Buddhism and in esoteric investigation, meditation is used to discover, from the actual experience of consciousness, a true understanding of subjectivity.
The key is that consciousness’ exploring consciousness will never discover an object, which is consciousness. Consciousness is not an object. Anything that is an object of consciousness can be said to exist. Existence is that which can be discovered to manifest objectively within a system of attributes and to display a temporal horizon, i.e. it appears and disappears over time.
The Void is that which is without attributes. There is no-thing-ness in the Void. Distinctions disappear in the void. The Void is the unifying principle of all Existence. It is that, in which everything appears and also disappears. The Void never changes. It never fills. It neither originates nor decimates all that is. Its nature is qualitatively different from all appearance, from all thing-ness.
What could such a Void be? Of course, the answer is the Void is consciousness. It is universal consciousness, or universal awareness. Everything that is must, in order to exist, be the object of consciousness. Of course, the natural scientist will deny this—this despite the fact that increasingly every aspect of nature being discovered, even subatomic reality, now begins to display volition, choice, intentionality. Scientists, who are not mystics, are having to use terms that indicate intentionality in such tiny subatomic quarks. Of course, they are uncomfortable with this verbal practice, yet they still do it.
The esotericist knows that, in the Way of Things, consciousness precedes existence. If what I am saying is true, the Buddhist Void is consciousness with no attachments, no limitation, no clinging, and no identification. As Dr. Wilson said, when the Will is rooted in existence (the world of things), it is not free. When the Will is rooted in Being (The world of Consciousness), it is free. There is no mystical school of meditation that does not know this.
Thus, the Void is a goal within the spiritual quest. It is not a punishment. It is not a fear. It is not Hell. Sartre was wrong. He was so used to thing-ness, that he lost the ability to see No-thingness for what it was, i.e. Being or Consciousness.
The philosophers among you will say, “Wait a minute! Willems has conflated Being with Consciousness with Nothingness.” In one sense, this is almost true. Without a willingness to explore consciousness through meditation, none of my metaphor will work.
Being has always been a metaphysical category. In most philosophical systems, it has been the ultimate referent, the foundational ground of all that is. In other systems, Being is made equivalent to existence. Let me be clear in what I am saying here. Wherever there is an object of perception, or of reflection, or of knowledge, that is “Existence”. That from which existence issues, is what I am calling “Being”. I am making “Being”, a Western concept, which transcends specific existence, equivalent to the Eastern Concept of the Void or Nothingness.
However, I am also saying that Being can only be explored through consciousness’ reflection upon itself, i.e. self-consciousness. This is the true purpose of meditation, in its highest form, the realization of Nothingness, of Being. Such a realization frees awareness from all attachment to that which is transitory and impermanent. The true secret of Happiness is to be attached only to that which is without qualities, without limitation, without exhaustion, without craving. Such a “that-ness” is Consciousness itself. But it is a consciousness that is utterly beyond Existence and, yet, is ubiquitous. There is no place in which consciousness is not the ground for existence.
So, Dear Reader, the Void is nothing of which to be afraid, nothing from which to shy away. In fact, both Eastern and Western teachings are that the Void is the source of an infinite, compassionate wisdom that sustains all Life. In the end, and in the beginning, the name of the game is Love—conscious, unconditional Love. The only Love, which is unconditional, is the love that proceeds from Being, from Nothingness. But that is another article. May peace be with you till next time.