What is nothing?

//What is nothing?

What is nothing?

When we talk about nothing, non-sense is our friend; let me tell you why:

There are two nothings: One is graspable, the other is not. One is relative, the other absolute. Lets begin with the relative, graspable one.

You can think of nothing as one notion nothing in which case it is something: the absence of things, the absence of existence, or simply absence. In meditation practice the subjective experience of absence is very interesting, because it can reveal itself to be multi-layered. The sense of absence can be the consequence of numbing, repressing or dissociating, in which case a new presence emerges the moment those dissociative mechanisms are undone. It can also arise because our senses cannot reach what exists; presence here can only be known indirectly through cognition. As one notion then, nothing is something manifest as absence, a something that exists with an apparent essence. This manner in which nothing manifests is relative and belongs to the everything-oriented meditative approach discussed in About Everything.

You can also think of nothing as two notions no-thing. Here it gets a bit more complex, because thinking about it is futile. Every thought is something, and something cannot think about anything that is not a thing. Existence is about things, so that every-thing exists; all things exist and have an essence. There are no things that dont exist. In contrast, no-thing transcends the inevitable conceptual duality of existence and non-existence. It transcends concepts, period! No-thing is unthinkable, not an experience, not a thing, not an absence, not an existence, and not a non-existence. It has no essence. It is an absolute. Dont try to understand it. It cannot meaningfully be talked about, named or conceptualized. It is the nameless non-existing existence. When I say it is., and then add such paradoxical gobbledygook as non-existing existence, dont feel stupid and dont think I am that smart either (if I were, I would rather invite you to a cup of tea than sit here writing myself into knots)! I say it is, knowing very well that I cannot say what it is but I can know it (‘knowing’ in a whole-organism integrated sense, not an intellectual sense); and with this paradox (non-existing existence) I am not trying to sound particularly smart, but in fact am desperately trying not to come across as too inconsistent by wanting to put into words what is wordless. How can I convey to you this knowable unspeakable in a text? It is a losing battle, unless..I become a poet, in which case you might not even recognize that what I put into a poem is about what I want to express..would it ultimately matter?

Richard Feynman, a famous physicist, came to work one day and caught his colleagues attention by telling them You have no idea what happened to me this morning! Everybody looked at him with suspense, and he said: Absolutely nothing! When a Zen master was in his last hours of physical existence, obviously in pain, all his friends and family gathered around him. They were surprised at how engaged and interested he was with everybody and how little attention he drew to himself. They asked him, how do you do that, being in so much pain, about to die and yet completely immersed in us without what seems to be a shred of concern for yourself? His answer: But nothing is happening!

Feynman and the Zen master came from very different traditions and may have meant quite different things. To me they touch each other across disciplines like the touching hands in Michelangelos Creation of Adam. When you look closely into the nature of all phenomena we explore in About Everything, you quickly realize how ephemeral everything is. Nothing in the world of everything is stable, permanent, certain, predictable, eternal, immortal or fixed. Everything is movement coming and going. Nothing is graspable or should I say, no-thing is ungraspable? When with awareness we deeply penetrate everything and try to find the essence of everything, we find no essence. All essence is moving, changing and dissolving into timelessness and spacelessness.

Conversely, no-thing is unstable, too! From it varieties of form and a trajectory of each form’s unfolding always emerge.Physicists like to talk about an unstable nothingness full of creative potential giving birth to space and energy (dark energy?), space and energy giving birth to things (galaxies and dark matter) and time. They come to these insights through mathematics and physical observations. Here I come from the point of view of subjective experience. Without your consent you have come into being as the human form that you are with the attributes that you have – that is the form; and you come and go along a trajectory of unfolding that is specifically yours – that is the river. Where do you arise from and where do you unfold to – if not the mystery of no-thing?

So this is the great discovery that all ways lead to Rome. Follow everything, and you will discover nothing; follow no-thing, and you will discover everything. Buddhism came up with a notion for this paradox emptiness. That notion does not clarify anything, of course, but at least, we can understand each other and know what we mean. We know that nothingness is not emptiness that nothingness is something, while emptiness is beyond words, unnameable. The coin of emptiness simply has two sides, nothingness and everything. The coin of emptiness teaches us that nothing has an essence, and that the absence of an essence is everything. As Ramana Maharshi said: ‘The world is illusory; Brahman alone is real; Brahman is the world’.

Ramana Maharshi used to invite: Let what comes come, let what goes go, and see what remains! What remains is timeless, spaceless and wordless. Timelessness feels eternal, spacelessness feels infinite and wordlessness feels wise. The only human force capable of eternity, infinity and wisdom is love but what is love, if not the nameless unnameable …?

I am writing here about what is not graspable, unnameable and nameless. Why would I do that? Because inevitably this is the primordial reality we discover on the journey of mindfulness meditation. This is not a matter of choice or opinion, nor a matter of argument. It is an existential matter with the ring of truth. You cant help finding the Alps when you drive south from Basel to Milan so you also cant help waking up to the nameless when you begin to pay close attention to your life. At first blush, when novices read about this, they often find it heavy and abstract nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing more direct and real than the nameless. Practice attending with diligence, precision and dedication, and you will discover the nameless in your flesh and blood.

Together we can deal with the paradox of writing about the nameless in two ways: Likely the best way is for me to shut up and for you to close the browser, leave with nothing and not come back to my writing until about a week (or a year, ten years?) from now. In the meantime, have tea with me, settle into nothing, become comfortable (or uncomfortable, if you so will) with it, surrender to its disconcerting influence and see where it takes you first when you follow nothing, then when you follow no-thing. When you come back this writing (if ever!), or if you cheated and continued to read because your compulsive curiosity took you over, we must together agree that writing about the nameless can only be pure foolishness. I must admit my impotence in such an absurd task, and you must relinquish the compulsion to know. Since for the sake of my students I obviously insist on making a fool of myself, I will humbly try to do it in as least conspicuous and distorted way as possible. In short, I will try to make as harmless a fool of myself as possible. Can you take it?

Dr. Stphane Treyvaud


By |2012-07-02T19:48:23+00:00July 2nd, 2012|Mindfulness|