What's To Like About Being Nothing?
by Gary Rosenthal
In the last chapter Nisargadatta Maharaj made a brief appearance, and said something lovely. He said: “Wisdom is knowing I am nothing. Love is knowing I am everything. And between the two my life moves.”
At first glance, the reader might wonder, what’s so great about being nothing? Let me count the ways…First off, being a someone is so much work. And perhaps why our lives seem so unnecessarily complex. Yet as we recede into being nothing, all else seems to come forward-- the walls, trees, the space between things, and everywhere we look, has its own luminous aliveness.
It’s like when our eyes are disrobed of preference, aversion, and the ego’s near constant strategizing, all things become the secret agents of such-ness, and this very moment seems amply enough.
And sometimes, unbidden, I just fall into it… this sufficient and enlivened stillness, and the such-ness stuns and is stunning, and out of the stillness stunning insights, guidance, or epiphanies may come too.
This is the “unconfined cognizance” aspect of rigpa arising out of the “unconfined spaciousness,” like the alchemical snake swallowing its own tail. For as the “pointing out instructions” in Vajrayana Buddhism tell us, the spaciousness and the knowing are not separate, but an indivisible unity…
And at other times I deliberately align, say by looking out the window as I drop all thoughts and merge my now thoughtlessly spacious mind with the spaciousness of the sky.
And sometimes I try it with my eyes shut. And I notice that even the dark is alive, and less solid than I’d thought. For even with eyes shut in a darkened room, there is this spacious dimensionality. (Try it yourself, and see if it’s not so). And this spacious dimensionality is only perceptible because even in the dark, there is a subtle light.
So it seems “the light of awareness” is not merely an over-used metaphor. For the light and the darkness peacefully exist beneath our own eyelids, as much as each share the same ever-present sky.
I’m telling you, I’m reminding myself… the world is magical. But it is also so simple and unadorned, that we have to become simple and unadorned ourselves in order to recognize it, and to be blessed by its inspiring spells.
Only then will we recognize the Beloved we’ve been waiting for (with such bereft-ness) is appearing constantly in its unexpected and countless disguises. For S/He/It is a shape-shifter. And, like any beloved, it loves to be courted. Which is a good way to think about spiritual practice--and how we make ourselves more available.
For, as far as I can surmise, the Beloved is always here--we’re the ones who are less faithful, less constant. And this greater, omnipresent Beloved is constantly mirroring us, the macrocosm reflecting the microcosm. We’re the small part of that equation. And “being nothing” is as small and humble as it gets.
The Beloved seems to really love it when get humble like that. Which is how we disrobe from the ways we’ve been disguising ourselves to ourselves. And then the Beloved responds in kind. S/He/It becomes more immanent, more palpable. So like Nisargaddata says, “Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. And between them, my life moves.”
We just have to stop the idiot’s momentum of being a someone, being an ego. We just have to get out of the way.
In this chapter I’m attempting to amplify Nisargaddata’s phrase “Wisdom is knowing that I am nothing.” And I’m doing so because most people don’t see much value in being nothing. Nor have we understood its relationship to wisdom. To the average Joe or Jill, being nothing seems worthless, like a valueless blah—with nothing to recommend it.
Like if you wanted something to make you happy, say ordering a cheeseburger, and if the waiter brought you nothing you’d be pretty disappointed. And life is actually serving us nothing all the time. But we want something better than nothing. And we want to be something better than nothing. While the wisdom of Nisargadatta knows there’s really nothing better to be.
And because we understand it differently than Nisargadatta, our lives themselves often don’t seem nourishing enough. We wind up disappointed, because without a better understanding of being nothing, all the “somethings” we try to get to fill us, seem in the end, not quite up to the task. Yet Nisargadatta has “recognizing we are nothing” right up there with Love, as between the two, his life flows.
He’s not saying his life flows between Love… and a worthless, valueless blah. (That would be the perspective of someone needing to attend Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous!).
Nisargadatta is speaking from a radical humility, and views “nothing” as something elemental, that Wisdom tells him he actually is. In truth, Nisagadatta is a big fan of being nothing. And I am too. When we realize we are nothing, there’s nowhere further we could possibly fall—except in love. And so, between the two--our lives-- might move as well.
Unless we’ve become nothing we can’t fit through the eye of the needle in Jesus’s parable. Because he’d recognized he was a divine nothing, the Sufi saint Hallaj walked to his execution dancing to the rhythm of the chains attached to his feet. Because of nothing great Zen masters have faced their deaths with a smile on their lips. Because of nothing is the best reason for happiness! They can’t take your nothing-ness away from you, you can only fail to recognize its more ample nature.
And by ample I mean: Nothingness is elemental, primordial. Was here first, and gives rise to all things. In a consumer culture though, we’ve needed a better introduction to being nothing—a seeming poverty that actually contains riches. And I’ll keep trying my best to provide one here.
But first, I can’t resist a joke…
So a rabbi walks into a synagogue… and begins to talk out loud to God. “O Lord, I am nothing!” A few minutes later the cantor walks in, and chimes in too: “O Lord, before you, I am nothing!” And next the synagogue’s sexton, the janitor, comes in and repeats the refrain: “O Lord my God, you have given life to this world, and before you I am nothing!”
At this, the cantor nudges the rabbi, and whispers, “Look who thinks he’s nothing…”
If being nothing seems paradoxically confusing, the confusion, in part, stems from this: We’ve been using the same word to describe two radically different encounters. There is a “nothing” that’s experienced as lack, as if something is not here that really ought to be. This is what I’ve come to term “deficient emptiness.” And it actually has many forms, which we carry as laments for the parts of life that seem to have passed us by.
And there’s another “nothing” that points to something akin to “the pearl beyond price.” If the first form of “being nothing” seems empty of value, the latter form seems so valuable you can’t put a price on it. Only unlike some extraordinarily rare jewel, the really marvelous nothing can be found in any moment, in any Motel Six, or any Safeway parking lot.
Though omnipresent and always open to us, this marvelous nothing-ness has remained an open secret. And open secrets can’t usually be told—though I’m trying to do so here… and so this whole chapter could read as some abstract, meaningless jive.
Often we need a lot of training, a lot of emptying out, before we’re ready to receive an open secret--or what is sometimes called “a pointing out instruction.” And in most real inner schools, they’re not passed out before we are ready to receive them. (That would be what my favorite rabbi referred to as “casting your pearls before swine”).
If a fettered mind could receive an open secret it wouldn’t remain a secret—or be worth very much. And so, though the marvelous nothing-ness can be found anywhere, in any moment, and behind every door and gateway of time, we have to empty ourselves in order to recognize its more ample nature.
But empty ourselves of what? What needs to be thrown to the frogs in order to be so empty that we can fit through that needle’s eye, and by so doing, gain entrance into something akin to a primordial, metaphoric heaven, a heaven on earth?
Nearly all of the world’s great contemplative traditions tell us we need to empty ourselves of our thoughts…our judgments…our opinions—which is why they all offer various forms of meditation.
Yet throwing our thoughts to the frogs is quite a radically different perspective than has prevailed in the Western tradition, as exemplified by Descartes famous, if ill-conceived maxim “I think—therefore I am.”
If you went into an interview with a spiritual master to present your understanding, and told him “I think, therefore I am,” he might begin to laugh or weep, or maybe a mixture of both. And if he were a Zen master, he might hit you with a stick.
In order to discover the more ample nothing-ness, we also have to throw our self-importance to the frogs. It’s really quite cumbersome, if not omnipresent, and is definitely not going to fit through the needle’s eye.
Our emptying project has to include hopes for gain, and our fears of loss. That doesn’t mean we don’t try our best, or eschew excellence. It’s more knowing that our deepest well-being and sense of self-worth doesn’t depend upon on outcomes, say like winning the popular vote. Our true nature doesn’t need augmentation; it’s already whole and complete. And like all that’s most deeply true, it can’t really be lost, merely undiscovered and unlived.
And don’t forget to throw your self-image to the frogs. What we most deeply are is not an image in the first place, but a presence, a human form of being. And narcissism is a case of the fundamental identity confusion that fails to recognize this.
For by becoming overly identified with, if not in love with its own image, narcissism winds up dissociated from being. This leaves us with a fundamental hole in the soul, that “narcissistic supplies” can never fill.
Donald Trump, in a sense, has been doing us all an unintended favor. He’s been showing us how distorted we humans can become when we reify divisive thoughts, opinions, and agendas--while needing constant validation for a fake and “winning” self-image. But as the Sufis remind us: “Learn to behave, from one who does not.”
And there’s really nothing more impervious to truth or wisdom than a narcissist who has gained a measure of success. Being inflated and puffed up like that is definitely not going to fit through that needle’s eye. Believe me, I’ve tried it. And if your halo keeps going on the fritz and won’t stay lit, you might need to bleed the reservoir of self-importance a bit.
For no matter how much validation or fame we might gain—even becoming president of the United States--it’s never enough if we’ve grown to be dissociated from an essential nature that alone can truly light us up--and keep us lit.
And when we’re hooked up to that deeper nature, it doesn’t seem to take so much to be happy or content. “Just this”—whatever is happening-- can seem quite enough. It doesn’t need to be Maui under a full moon, with some special somebody in tow. Nor do we need all our duckies lined up in a row….
And as far as I can tell, the attempt to master ducky wrangling seems a mission impossible. There’s always something falling through the cracks, so be generous toward failure, and what falls, or gets lost—you may be feeding something you can’t quite see.
In the Buddhist tradition, this “no-thing-ness” is termed shunyata. Yet the fact that shunyata has often been translated into English as “emptiness,” doesn’t quite do it justice. So a better way to understand shunyata might involve re-cognizing it as fundamental, unpolluted, spaciousness. It’s really the primordial open-ness through which our deepest intelligence arises. In fact, the open-ness and the intelligence are not really separate. So there’s nothing “deficient” about shunyata at all.
And thus, the encounter with this non deficient “emptiness”—and the ability to recognize and abide in it-- is also thought to demark a significant turning point in inner development, that of having become a “stream enterer.”
Imagine a mythic house with no clutter in it, no conceptual furniture at all. In fact, not even any walls or divisions. Or you might conceive of it in terms of a completely undivided mind. Or a mind that’s vast and spacious, like a clear blue sky completely empty of clouds. So the concept, and even more the experience, isn’t an abject nihilistic blankness, but actually something quite vivifying. If not our “normal” kind of consciousness.
For “normally” our minds are stuffed with “furniture,” much of it dated and of dubious quality. Normally, our inner sky has a lot of “clouds.” So our awareness itself becomes kind of cloudy, or lacking in brilliance.
Normally, like Descartes, we tend to think that what’s really valuable in our minds is our clouds, or thinking. And in cartoons, a character’s thoughts are usually portrayed in a cloud-like balloon above the character’s head. Though when we’re especially obsessive—or frightened-- our minds are less lofty than clouds, and more like a claustrophobic parade of ponderous thought elephants, with each elephant’s trunk holding onto the tail of the elephant in front of it, so there’s no space, no gap between them at all. And so our innate wisdom can’t possibly break through.
And actually, our sense of what’s “normal” may be more comic--or crazy-- than we know. And our sense of what’s ordinary--so ordinary we don’t even value it-- may be quietly extraordinary. For wisdom tells us that what’s really more valuable than the objects in our minds is the “no-thing” nature of the space itself, the space in between the thoughts. That’s what our more rational approach has tended to devalue and misunderstand.
In this light, meditation is simply extending the amount of time that we manage to rest in this non-conceptual spaciousness. And its true value is that this spaciousness is actually the portal to wisdom. I’ve already alluded to this earlier in this chapter. But it’s so central that it bears discussing again…
For this intimate relationship of space to wisdom is quite central in the deepest teaching of Vajrayana Buddhism, where rigpa—the mind’s essential nature—is elegantly defined as consisting of three things. The first is an “unconfined spaciousness,” the second is “an unconfined capacity for cognizance.” And the third is “the indivisible union of the first two.”
This is saying that though our most original and primordial awareness is spacious, it is not “spaced out,” for such a spacious mind is unconfined in its capacity to know. In its ultimate manifestation, such a spaciousness that is unconfined in cognizance—as with a Buddha—is said to result not only in enlightenment, but in omniscience.
For here, the lack of encapsulating cognitive structures may enable us to know things as intimately as if they were the back of our own hand; a condition of non-separation reflected in Hinduism by the phrase “Thou art That.”
But even lacking such a rare level of development, the cultivation of a more spacious mode of awareness can certainly make us more intuitive—which is that heightened capacity for “cognizance” starting to kick in. These two facets—an empty, spacious mind, and a mind that is unconfined in its capacity to know—are thus co-emergent, two parts of the same phenomenon, like the two wings of a bird.
Though almost entirely lacking in the Western psychological tradition, such a “pointing out” of the mind’s essential nature—one which emphasizes the feature of space--is echoed as well in the Zen tradition.
For when Zen’s first Chinese patriarch, Bodhidharma—the man who brought Buddhism from India to China-- was asked in an interview by the emperor of China, “what is the true nature of the mind?” Bodhidharma’s famous answer was,“vast space, yet nothing called ‘holy.’ ”
Yet the spacious aspect of essential nature isn’t something that only reveals itself in meditation—though the meditative traditions have been more apt to recognize it for what it truly is.
For psychotherapists more familiar with it, the mind’s innate and non-conceptual spaciousness can also be observed in the course of many therapy or body-work sessions--whenever a prevailing psychological or energetic obscuration suddenly releases, dissolves, becomes deconstructed.
For then, what commonly seems to arise is this formless spaciousness. And often, the client’s felt-sense of spacious presence is then reported as seeming to extend well beyond the contours of their physical body.
Here, as the ego’s encapsulating “psychic shell” dissolves, the expansiveness of non-conceptual space reveals itself. And though this spaciousness seems to arise, it’s actually always available; like the vast blue sky that is always present, though it may temporarily appear obscured by clouds.
Since this spacious view is actually always available, we can learn how to cultivate it, and contact it more directly, rather than just reflect what tends to obscure it—which has been more the emphasis of mainstream psychology. And there will be numerous passages in this book where we learn how to do just that.