The final step on the path of Enlightenment, according to those who seem to know, is to recognize that our True Self is the Nothingness which is the background of All-That-Is. That Nothingness isn’t possible for us to understand by thinking because it doesn’t have a form or any qualities, which means we can’t form a concept of it. But we can connect with it and experience its beneficial effects in our everyday lives. In doing this, we lay the groundwork for our ultimate transition into a state of permanent Enlightenment.
Many of the world’s creation myths involve creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), in which a supreme deity existing alone in a pre-creation void creates the world on his own. Such tales are found in all parts of the world including ancient Egypt, India and present-day animistic cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania and North America. Greek mythology tells us the world began from “khainein,” a word that meant “wide open mouth yawning and revealing an endless, bottomless and empty space of darkness.”
Jewish, Christian and Islamic doctrines all teach that that creation didn’t only happen once a long time ago, but is always going on. The material world is constantly emerging from the void. Third century Greek Philosopher and Spiritual Master Plotinus described the source of everything in creation as a “One” existing beyond space and time, who neither engages in action nor inaction, does not think, and does not create anything, yet “constantly and spontaneously emanates world systems beginning with the inner worlds of conscious creative energy.”
That is the Nothingness we’re talking about. Although that Nothingness isn’t the same as the emptiness of the sky in this NASA photo of an eagle and tree against a background of blue sky, we can use the photo as a way to get a sense of it. Try focusing on the background of sky, telling yourself that it’s the sky that’s important and you don’t need to pay attention to the eagle or the tree. Then imagine that you are the sky surrounding and embracing the eagle and tree. Imagine that the eagle and tree have arisen within the sky-like emptiness of your mind like thoughts arising in your mind.
This is a form of sky gazing, a Tibetan meditation practice, said to have been kept secret until, out of compassion for the conflict and suffering of our chaotic modern era, the lamas decided to reveal it. It involves gazing into a blue sky, and letting go of your thoughts by allowing them to pass by or evaporate into the sky of your mind like clouds. Before long you come to recognize this open, expansive state of being as fundamental to your existence.
Australian Aborigines call this state of deep inner listening and quiet, still awareness “dadirri.” They have a number of traditional ways to cultivate it. “Dadirri recognizes the deep spring that is inside us,” explains Aboriginal teacher and writer Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann. “We call on it and it calls to us … When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again.” It’s a state cultivated by hunters out in the bush waiting for game, a way to connect with nature by appreciating and watching the sky and the rivers and fields. Importantly, it’s also a way of appreciating and relating to each other. The essence of dadirri is being still and feeling how things naturally want to go — instead of labeling, judging, or trying to control them.
In our culture we have a similar technique called “holding space.” It means bringing your entire presence to another without judgment, letting go of control, and offering unconditional support. A preschool teacher holds space for all the children, aware of what’s going on in the room as a whole and letting them play as they will, intervening only to prevent anyone from getting hurt. A healer listens and observes a patient, absorbing the natural flow of their tones, postures, facial expressions, and the content of their speech without judgment, giving them plenty of “space” to feel safe enough to drop their defenses and be who they are. By making himself receptive and open, the therapist can understand his patient at a deep level, and gauge exactly when and how to intervene with healing suggestions.
When we engage in these practices, we begin to connect with the deep, mysterious and fundamental background of Nothingness that lies at the Source of our both our individual being and the manifest Universe of All-That-Is.
Keep in mind that Enlightenment doesn’t mean we don’t still have to live in the material world. Japanese philosopher Nishida explains that “As in Zen, in the experience of Nothingness, everything is as it is: the rice-roots are as ever, and the rice-ears stand high.” Think also of the famous Buddhist adage, “Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” After Enlightenment life goes on as always. What changes is our sense of who we are. Our sense of identity transfers from our body-mind to All-That-Is, then to the Nothingness at the Source of manifestation, and finally to both.
The Nothingness manifests in us as a state of passive, alert receptiveness. When I teach my students the shamanic journey, I explain that we need to use our active imagination to take us to the nonordinary realms where we meet spirits, but once we encounter a spirit and initiate an interaction by asking it for information or help, it’s time to stop the active imagining and become receptive, take a step back and watch carefully to see what the spirit says or does — just as when we have a conversation with another person, after we ask a question we usually stop talking and wait for the answer. We don’t wrack our brains trying to imagine what the answer is going to be.
There is amazing power in this state of stillness. American scientist and cytogeneticist, Barbara McClintock, winner of a Nobel Prize for her discovery of mobile genetic elements, had a special sympathetic understanding of the organisms she studied, meeting them as subjects rather than objects, recognizing the oneness of the life she shared with them. Tapping into that deep source of oneness, she was able to meet them in their own frame of reference to understand how they functioned. Einstein also understood the importance of this Nothingness, characterizing this state of feeling, which makes one capable of such achievements, as “akin to that of the religious worshipper or someone who is in love.”
A particularly striking example of the power of Nothingness was recounted by visionary author and social scientist Duane Elgin in a lecture at the 2019 Gathering of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. While working on NASA investigations into psychokinesis at Stanford Research Institute, Elgin was given the task of trying to cause a clock mechanism to respond to psychic stimulation he would direct to it from across the room.
He tried for half a year without success before he got the idea that trying to dominate the mechanism with his mind wasn’t going to work. “If I push, it pushes back,” he realized, “so instead of connection I get existential separation.” Recalling Physicist David Bohm’s insight that the Universe is “an undivided whole in flowing movement,” he understood that he was already connected to the mechanism he was trying to influence and that it was already moving.
So he simply sat and meditated without trying to manipulate the result, instead just being with the mechanism from across the room and relaxing into the situation until he felt that the presence of the clock, its structures, had begun to show up in his field of direct experience “as if it were a person.” After an hour and a half he had to leave, so he “took all the energy from that period of meditation and coalesced it into the system,” he reported, and “not only did it turn, it started shaking violently.” He had clearly engaged with the clock mechanism through the fundamental Nothingness we’re talking about, that powers all manifestation.
Space isn’t the same as Nothingness, although we sometimes use the words interchangeably. Space is what lies between and around stuff (material objects). There has to be space to keep the stuff separate. Otherwise the stuff would all be glommed on top of itself into a single point. And there has to be stuff or there would be no way to measure or understand space. So we can say that space is the absence of stuff, and stuff is the absence of space, or that space is whatever is not stuff and stuff is whatever is not space.
The Nothingness we’re talking about transcends both space and stuff. It is not the absence of stuff or the opposite of stuff. Nor is it the opposite of the whole material Universe made of both space and stuff. It is the eternal background from which ordinary space and stuff arise. Out of this Nothingness, all creation manifests.
The space and the stuff that make up the Universe only exist relative to each other. They define each other because you can’t have one without the other. To the extent space is present, stuff is absent and vice versa. If there’s more stuff, there’s less space. If there’s more space there’s less stuff. But Nothingness is different. It’s not relative to anything else. That’s why it’s often called “Absolute Nothingness.” It is the eternal and unchanging background of All-That-Is, untouched by anything that happens in the material world.
We call it “Nothingness” not because it has no existence or power, but because we are unable to form an accurate concept of it. When we form a concept we create a symbol which is an object of our awareness, maybe a picture or word that represents the concept. But Absolute Nothingness can’t be an object of any kind, not even an object of thought.
Absolute Nothingness is beyond any concept we can form. It simply exists, not in relation to anything else as space and stuff exist relative to each other, but as the necessary condition for everything else to exist.
If our goal is to become enlightened by recognizing Nothingness, the ultimate background, as our True Self, why did we ask you to focus on the sky in the NASA photo instead of the eagle or tree? After all, the ultimate background of everything is obviously deeper and more mysterious than a sky full of air, but the sky can serve as a metaphor for Absolute Nothingness to help us get an intuitive sense about it. This Nothingness exists within us as our deepest Source. We may not be able to grasp it with our minds, but we can still experience it. It is there, always, within us and we are aware that this is so at the deepest level of our being. We can experience it even if we can’t think it. Approaching it through metaphor is a skillful means for leading us to the direct experience of it.
Experiencing Nothingness may sound complicated and impossible because it’s so hard to describe — but it isn’t hard to do. We can approach it by practicing Tibetan skygazing or Australian dadirri, or making ourselves passive and receptive and “holding space” to bring up the basic certainty already here in the core of our being that what we are, though indefinable, is clearly present and eternal.
We can be it when we “take a step back” and surrender our desire for control, allowing ourselves to experience whatever is happening in the moment without judgment or emotion or describing it to ourself in words. We can be it when we meditate on the spaces between and beyond our thoughts. We can be it when we sink into our bodies and focus on the spaces between the molecules and atoms, and between and beyond the smallest particles popping in and out of the quantum field.
Contemporary spiritual teacher Frank Kinslow suggests a simple two-to-three-minute exercise involving closing your eyes and watching your thoughts as if you were watching a movie. After doing this for a while, you can easily look past the thoughts to notice that there’s nothing there. Be aware of this nothingness for “as long as is comfortable,” and when thoughts start back up, watch them for a while and again look beyond them. This gives you an experience of the Nothingness beyond the thoughts. Kinslow calls this awareness of Nothingness “Pure Awareness,” describing it as “the lifeblood of creation.”
In our quest for Enlightenment, we seek ways to merge with the Consciousness of All-That-Is, the Awareness of the entire Universe. If we are unable to merge with this Awareness of the Universe, spiritual teacher Nisargadatta (1897-1981) says it’s because we still identify only with our bodies. Once we’re able to give up thinking that we are our bodies, he teaches, we will automatically become one with the Awareness of All-That-Is.
This takes skillful means. We’re very attached to our bodies. They house our brains. What motivates most of us to search for Enlightenment is fear of death. We want to be convinced that we will still exist even if we lose our bodies and egos. Enlightenment gives us this assurance by proving that our little personal consciousness, which we think of as our identity, is part (or probably more accurately, a hologram) of the pre-existing Greater Consciousness that extends far beyond our separate physical bodies and egos.
In order for All-That-Is to exist there must be a Source, a background, a “place” for it to exist within according to Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida. “There must be something that transcends even . . . [the material world of All-That-Is]. That which serves as ‘place’ for the one true Self, may be called the ‘place’ of Absolute Nothingness.” Since we’re unable to form a concept of Absolute Nothingness, we can work our way toward it by imagining that it can be found in a “place,” but in reality “place” is meaningless when it comes to Nothingness for it is invisibly present at all times and places.
Experiencing the Oneness of Being is, for Nishida, a step on the path to ultimate Enlightenment. The final stage, Absolute Nothingness, transcends even the Oneness of things. “The Universe has become nothing,” he teaches, “and the Ego has become nothing. But in the same spark of Nothingness, you regain the world and yourself in wonderful self-identity.”
Our culture teaches us to think our personal consciousness is our identity, and that it needs a material brain to exist: “After your body dies, there will be Nothing,” the prevailing wisdom says, “but that’s all right because without a brain you won’t have a consciousness to realize your Nothingness. So there’s no point in worrying about it.”
We want to protect and preserve whatever we identify with, and it feels solid and real, but our sense of identity can change. It’s not solid and fixed. (Actually nothing in this world is. It’s all a dance of energy. A body with a brain is a dance of energy with a habit of repeating its patterns of movement, so your face continues to look like your face over time, your brain continues to think your habitual thoughts, and your heart continues to beat the way it’s accustomed to.
A sense of identity happens when we notice a phenomenon and want to say, “That’s me.” That’s why, when we identify with our separate body, we feel that the body is “me” and if it dies, we’ll no longer be conscious. It’s also why a martyr, trained to identify with his group, feels that if the group survives, it doesn’t matter what happens to his individual body.
Normally we identify with our body as an individual, separate organism, but our body is also a collection of separate cells that work together for the well-being of their collective system. We identify with the collective system of cells that is our body. Like the cells in our bodies, bees and ants also form collective systems in the form of hives and anthills, which are social organisms. The insects work together to preserve their collective system rather than any separate individuals. Their decisions are made for the good of the collective. Similarly, we humans have the ability to bestow our sense of identity on collective systems of people. Some will identify so strongly with their football team that they start fights in bars when their team loses. Soldiers identify so strongly with their platoons that sacrifice themselves for fellow soldiers. Religious martyrs sacrifice their lives for their religion.
The point is that we can expand our sense of identity to embrace not only our tribe, our friends and family, and our city and religion, but even the entire Cosmos. If your sense of who you are is the whole Cosmos you don’t have to worry about protecting yourself. It’s all you no matter who wins or loses, and anyway, there’s nobody “out there” to hurt you because there’s no longer any “out there.”
When we can say “I am” and mean “I am the entire Universe of All-That-Is,” we have made a major breakthrough. This is bliss. Hindu spiritual teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981) calls this the “‘I am’ Consciousness” and teaches that once we stop identifying exclusively as our personal bodies and thoughts and realize that what we had taken for our own separate brain-body Consciousness is really inseparable from the Consciousness of All-That-Is, we no longer fear death. At the moment of death our individual consciousness simply expands to know itself as the Universal Consciousness.
In his excellent book, A Brief History of Everything, contemporary philosopher Ken Wilbur describes a way this can happen: You bring your awareness into the “now” and rest in that state as an expansive witnessing awareness, and then look at a physical object, such as a mountain, he explains. Then you may begin to notice that the sensation of being the “witness” of the mountain and the sensation of the mountain are the same sensation. He calls this “One Taste.” Instead of the separate being of the mountain outside triggering your brain to perceive an image of the mountain inside your being, as our analytical brains would have it, there’s really only one sensation, one taste, to the experience. This is how we drop our identification with our body-mind — by noticing that what we’re actually experiencing is not two separate things, but rather only a single sensation. Our body-mind that perceives is inseparable from what we perceive. There is only one Awareness, and the mountain shares it with me.
As we feel we really are one with All-That-Is, the idea that we have a separate body-mind simply drops away. Fully identified with the “I am Consciousness” of All-That-Is, we notice that have become aware of ourselves as this “I am Consciousness.” But what or who has developed this Awareness? There’s no way to describe or think about this Awareness of our own Awareness. Yet it exists. I am experiencing it, I experience myself as this Awareness.
I am not two. The I who sees the mountain is not separate from the mountain that is seen because the seer and the mountain are not two. The mountain also has awareness and since there is only one Awareness, the mountain and the I who sees it are one. If the seer tries to make the mountain into an object (which by definition does not have awareness), he is not seeing it as it really is. It may seem that there is an I who has awareness of being the “I am Consciousness of All-That-Is” and another I who is aware of being aware of myself being that “I am Consciousness.” But I am not two. Awareness is not two. We participate in the same Awareness, the mountain and I. And the final I, who is aware of the I who is aware of being that “I am Consciousness,” and the I who is aware of being that I am Consciousness are the same.
I am this Awareness. Everything I perceive participates in this awareness. We are all aware subjects. Which means we all participate in the same awareness. We only fantasize that other things and people are without awareness.
This means we don’t have to give up the awareness of the body to reach the I am consciousness of All-That-Is. It means we are free to toggle between being aware of our bodies and being the I am consciousness of All-That-Is.
It should be clear that we don’t need to wait until the body dies to experience the I am Consciousness of being one with the whole Universe. In fact lots of us have had brief glimpses of this state (which probably activated their search for Enlightenment in the first place).
In Blog #1 we learned a method for feeling ourselves to be the “I am” Consciousness, the Awareness of All-That-Is, by expanding our awareness out beyond all the matter in the Universe. Seeing the material Universe from outside as one single whole, even if only in imagination, helped us realize the unity of All-That-Is. The more we practice, the more often we have these glimpses, and eventually the “I am” Consciousness becomes our normal state.
We can experience Nothingness as stillness, as in “Be still and know that I am God,” and as “emptiness.” As contemporary spiritual teacher Ram Dass is purported to have tweeted, “Emptiness is not really empty; Emptiness is full of everything. The ‘Emptiness’ just isn’t manifest.”
Most of us, as we grow up, learn to identify with our ego. Teachers of Enlightenment say our ego is the problem. Our ego is basically our definition of what we are, all the adjectives we use to define ourselves, like good-looking, smart, kind, worthy . . . or mean, or stupid, or ugly or unworthy, etc. At some point, however, we take an objective look at our ego and realize how ridiculous it is, because whatever we say we are doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story. We know we’re more than our bodies, we know we’re more than the sum of all our behaviors, we know there’s more to us than the thoughts, obsessions, emotions, etc. that occupy our minds. We should know that we’d still exist even if we didn’t have all these thoughts running through our minds. That’s what meditation is all about: to teach us that we’re more than our thoughts.
Enlightened Master Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) recommended as the way to realize Enlightenment a practice of constantly asking ourselves, “Who am I?” realizing that we are not any thing or concept we can think of. We are much more than that. Any answer we come up feels wrong and incomplete. Ultimately there’s nothing left to say about ourselves except that we are aware of existing. We become aware that whatever we are, we exist. Since we know we didn’t create ourselves or the material world around us, we know the awareness we’re experiencing must be more than the personal Awareness confined to our body. We know that others who are asking “Who am I?” are coming to the same conclusion, that there’s a “we” and that we all participate in it. We are Awareness itself.
Another way to answer Ramana’s question, “Who am I?” is called “neti-neti” in Hindi, which translates as “not this, not that.” For example, we can assert, “I am not my body,” “I am not the bird on the wing,” “I am not my mind,” “I am not my thoughts,” etc. When we clear our sense of identity of all these “things” what do we have left? Nothing.
But we are still here, aren’t we? Something is here asking, “who am I?” It’s our Consciousness. That’s all that’s left, so it must be that. Consciousness is present. Always. No matter what. You can experience this for yourself. Whatever it is that’s still here when everything you can think of is seen as “not me” has to be who you are. That’s your identity, the “I am Consciousness.” And behind this, the Nothingness that spontaneously gives rise to that Consciousness.
To practice neti-neti, you’ll need to use your imagination to try to get a sense of what it would feel like if you were really Nothingness. Sit with another person and take turns naming all the things you may fully or partially identify with, and assert that you are not those things, for example: “I am not my body,” “I am not my thoughts,” “I am not my country,” “I am not my possessions,” “I am not my money,” “I am not my children,” “I am not the wind,” “I am not the boss of everyone,” “I am not a star,” etc. As things occur to you, assert that you are not those things and try to feel the truth of it.
Another way to get a taste of what it feels like to be Nothingness is to imagine being the space between and behind things in the material universe, to imagine being the background of everything, out of which everything arises, and which accepts and allows it to be as it is.
Even though you can’t form a concept of Nothingness, you can get a sense of it. Every material thing changes or disappears. No thing is permanent, but the background Nothingness is always there. That in itself is a good reason to want to experience being Nothingness.
One good way to experience it is to imagine that you’re the amazing shrinking man going inside his body and shrinking down until gravity hardly works on him and he’s floating in the vast spaces between the atoms, and shrinking even further, he becomes aware of the quantum field that’s mostly space with energy waves and little particles popping in and out.
Turn your attention inside your body and scan your inner sensations and kinesthetic feelings from head to toe, keeping your breathing natural and even. Run your attention from the top of your head, down the back of your head, down your neck and across your shoulders, then up to your ears and back to the top of your head again, then down through your forehead, your eyes, your sinuses, your cheekbones, and the sides of your face, your nose and upper lip, lower lip and chin, the inside of your mouth, the back of your throat, your neck and your esophagus, or food tube, upper and lower stomach, abdomen and pelvic area, your chest, windpipe, lungs, and heart, your ribcage, your upper back, lower back, and kidney area, your arms, your legs, your ankles and your feet, including the soles of your feet and your toes.
Notice places in your body where you feel tension or pain. Choose one area where there is tension or pain to work with in this meditation, and put your attention on it. If you don’t feel any tension or pain, pick an area in your chest.
It may help to imagine that this area of your body is like a landscape, with hills and valleys, mountains, meadows and rocks, rivers and lakes. Whatever you imagine is perfect. Perceive yourself flying over this landscape in a small plane, descending lower and lower, aiming for the part of the landscape where the tension or pain seems strongest. You don’t have to see it. It may be easier to feel it, or use other senses to be aware of its presence, or just know that it is there. If you have trouble detecting it, ask yourself, “What would it be like if I could see it?” and notice what arises in your mind.
Imagine this area continuing to grow and expand, and become aware that an opening is appearing in it, like the mouth of a cave, or a pool of water, or a deep crack that invites you to come in. Imagine yourself landing the plane, getting out, and entering into this opening. You may have to shrink yourself smaller to go inside.
It’s your imagination. You can bring in anything you want in order to meet your goal of experiencing the empty spaces inside your body. An easy way to imagine shrinking down is to imagine your surroundings getting bigger. Once you’re inside, surrounded on all sides by the substance of your body, keep shrinking down until you’re the size of a single cell.
Focus on the outer membrane of a nearby cell, and watch the cell grow larger until the pores in the cell wall become evident. These little holes in the cell wall appear to get bigger and bigger until they’re big enough for you to enter. Allow yourself to float into the interior of the cell.
Keep on shrinking and see an atom nearby growing larger and larger, while the other atoms recede away, appearing to become smaller and smaller as space expands. You float, lost in space with nothing but one large atom nearby and other atoms so far away they look no larger than the sun or moon looks from the earth.
Propel yourself next to the large atom nearby and keep shrinking down to the size of an elementary particle inside the atom. Navigate through the force fields inside the atom, and shrink yourself down to the size of a quark.
Notice that the spaces between solid particles are growing larger. The empty spaces interconnect with each other, so that you feel as though you’re inside a sponge-like structure in which there are no barriers. All is in motion and you can see large areas of space opening in front of you. Send your awareness into these areas as they open, moving toward wider and wider open spaces.
At the smallest level it’s mostly empty space, with short-lived particles popping in and out of existence. You’re surrounded by space that’s almost completely empty, but you’re still within the realm of material manifestation.
Relax into the surrounding Nothingness, dark, peaceful, and still. There’s nothing you have to do, nothing you have to be. Just rest, sinking ever deeper into the welcoming dark, safe and comforted, cradled and cared for. You feel at home, for you know this place of old. You might fall asleep here while centuries pass, and start life over when you wake.
Now, allow your awareness to expand, so that your surroundings seem to shrink, but allow your awareness to inhabit only the dark spaces between the matter until you feel you’ve expanded back to human scale.
Notice the feeling of aliveness and possibility in these spaces you’re inhabiting. From here you may form an intention that the aliveness you feel in these spaces shall enliven all of manifestation, every single particle of matter and all the spaces between. And let the aliveness flow easily and harmoniously, around and through each cell and organ in your body, and outward into the bodies of every other human and animal, insect, plant, microorganism, every stone and speck of dust, on each and every planet, star, and heavenly body in the Universe.
Let your Pure Awareness, this Nothingness, encompass, surround, and harmonize each and every material form. Feel the love this involves, the sense of freedom and ease, acceptance and appreciation, as it spreads throughout the cosmos, spacing everything out in harmony and beauty.
And now, gently, bring your awareness back to your body and the room. Take a moment before opening your eyes to feel the presence of your physical body and the energy around it. Then, still holding your expanded sense of being, open your eyes and look around. Notice an object in the room and feel your Pure Awareness also there, inside and around the object. Feel the presence of awareness shared with all the objects in the room.
Foreman, Chad, "The Incredible Mind Altering Meditation of Sky Gazing and How To Do It,” https://www.thewayofmeditation.com.au/the-incredible-mind-altering-meditation-of-sky-gazing/, accessed March 13, 2019.
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Nishida, Kitaro, Last Writings, Nothingness and the Religious Worldview, University of Hawaii Press, 1987; Nishida, Kitaro, Fundamental Problems of Philosophy: The World of Action and the Dialectical World. Trans. by David A. Dilworth, Sophia University, 1970.
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Harvard University, “The Inner Life of a Cell”
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