November 16, 2012

The Freedom of Nothingness.

In the evening, light filters down through the trees onto the ground and rests on the side of mountains, bridges and buildings.

If it’s summer and clear, then the sky is usually orange and the hues tend to bleed for a time into the solemnity of dusk.

And if it’s winter, the afterglow has an airy quality to it, light and tinged with a brisk cold before a blanket of stars swallows an already truncated day.

No matter the form, it’s something we can rely on—that the sun interacts with the earth in some capacity. We can also rely on what is here, too. No matter what form the present-moment experience takes, it is happening. Even as I sit here and write these words, inhaling the particles and chemical compounds of earth’s troposphere through my nose and exhaling carbon dioxide through my mouth, life continues to unfold.

In Buddhism there’s a love for nothingness or emptiness. While some branches and traditions exalt a deeper infinite Self, others uphold the notion of a true no-Self. I enjoy the process of digesting the whole spectrum—or both notions in one go—because it squashes the logical mind.

The practice reminds me of a famous Zen koan, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” The Master replied, “No.” On another occasion the Master responded, “Yes.” Sitting with this koan means squeezing the mind between yes and no to find that there isn’t a squeeze at all, just infinity as expressed in the moment, and that we have had things upside down all along. The space that ensues is vibrant and alive:

It’s fun and liberating to entertain something that blows the constructions of your mind apart.

Nothingness means reverence. If my present experience is a flash out of the inconceivable unknown, then this means two things, at least for me:

I am fundamentally connected to every flash—every existence.

All I can really rely upon in this life is the only thing I have now, which happens to be just that—the now.

I remember bumping into this when I first began practicing mindfulness. I felt fearful because nothingness meant no stories—no identity, no comforting after-life, no forever, and then a slow diminishing sense of self-centeredness. On top of it, nothingness seemed diametrically opposed to the culture I found myself in. But steadfastly sitting with nothingness changes you in a way you cannot predict, and over time that unpredictability is a wonderful thing.

There’s a natural compassion in nothingness: that I might not be breathing in six seconds calls out a sense of love and respect for the life that is here. You might prioritize in a different way or speak your mind. You might also see reality differently, question your ego, or touch a leaf delicately and feel something strong and vast. And, you might take a leap into something fresh and new.

To touch on the questioning part, I remember reading a section in Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind about existence where two quotes stood out:

“In our everyday life our thinking is 99 percent self-centered. ‘Why do I have suffering?’ ‘Why do I have trouble?’”

And then on nothingness,

“There is something, but that something is always ready to take on some particular form…”

His words seemed intriguing though I wasn’t sure what he meant. I could see how everything I did or thought revolved around this notion of me, but the second quote was still hazy and vague. And then I started meditating. Deep meditation is nothingness experiencing nothingness—pure awareness, being, tranquil and alert. It is the human consciousness aligning itself with its vast creator, the universe and the unknown potentiality that comes with it (the infinite potentiality currently nestled between yes and no).

In meditation there isn’t anybody home to take the thoughts’ phone calls, emails, projections and worries. I was still here, occasionally wondering what was for lunch or why I received a B+ on the midterm, but there was an insubstantiality to it in comparison to the depth of the present moment.

When I started losing who I was, there was more room for being and through having less of an identity, (in not knowing) things became clearer and my relationship with life, more intimate. In short, there was a broadness that enveloped the world. And this faded too, an interplay that comes with practice—back into the confines of my thoughts to begin a new mindful process: “Well, that’s okay. Keep practicing.”

Nothingness, emptiness, space, our home beyond the foregrounds of our lives… tapping into it from time to time could be a warm, life-giving experience. And this is the other fascinating thing about nothingness—you know, the one that produced the Big Bang, the natural process of evolution on earth, and the sudden appearance of a creative idea—the notion of manifestation and cessation. If the vastness of the universe produces you and I, that galaxy over there, and everything else, it also swallows them back into potentiality.

In Western religious thought, there’s a man who must be doing this premeditatedly because it’s comforting to think that a kind of human logic sits behind our victories and defeats. But emptiness—pure potentiality—is just that and so the idea of life and death, a big man (or woman?), victory and defeat disappears.

To be attached to a moment in time is to create suffering because it negates the flow of pure potentiality—the fluctuations of energy.

This is especially difficult to practice when things are “bad.” And yet, that “‘bad” isn’t encoded into an event as our mind would have it, it just is. Because you don’t know, you just are—where’s there room for discrimination? The same way infinity rests between “yes” and “no,” there isn’t a place in which a conclusion can root.

Messing around with nothingness—pure potentiality—emptiness and breaking yourself against it opens an avenue to freedom, to living the life that’s here and respecting what is. To not close off when things are “bad” because what is “bad” is life and reality, this is fascinating. On the surface or the x-axis, you might gain 50 percent of your life back and in depth, the y-axis, you could gain the inconceivable.

A few things to digest this weekend:

(To paraphrase) Shunryu Suzuki mentions in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“If you know one thing through and through, then you understand everything. If you try and understand everything, this is impossible, you will understand nothing.”

On his deathbed, the old Chinese master, Zen Master Hung-chi, wrote:

“Illusory dreams, phantom flowers—
Sixty-seven years.
A white bird vanishes in the mist,
Autumn waters merge with the sky.”


Ed: Lynn H.

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