Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 23: Advanced Contemplation > Chapter 8: The Void As Contemplative Experience
The Void As Contemplative Experience
Entering the Void
All that he knows and experiences are things in this world of the five senses. The Overself is not within their sphere of operation and therefore not to be known and experienced in the same way. This is why the first real entry into it must necessarily be an entry into no-thing-ness. The mystical phenomena and mystical raptures happen merely on the journey to this void.
At this advanced stage, Philosophy allows no idea born of the intellect or picture born of the imagination to come between the aspirant and the pure formless Divinity it would have him worship. All thoughts are to be absorbed into the Void, all mental images to be merged into Mind.
The highest and the last of the inward-bound stages is still to be reached, and this is the self-knowing Void of Being which can repeat the phrase "I am that I am" of Exodus 3:14, but which is without any other predicate.
The dividing frontier between the Void and Being, between utter emptiness and inner reality, is hard to find.
During self-absorption in the void, the ordinary functions of intellect are altogether suspended. This means that thinking comes to a standstill.
If he has succeeded in holding his mind somewhat still and empty, his next step is to find his centre.
The inner movement is like no other which he has experienced for it must guide itself, must move forward searchingly into darkness without knowing where it will arrive. He must take some chances here, yet he need not be afraid. They will be reasonable and safe chances if he abides by the advice given in these pages.
We must move from consciousness to its hidden reality, the mind-essence which is alone true consciousness because it shines by its own and not by a borrowed light. When we cease to consider Mind as this or that particular mind but as all-Mind; when we cease to consider Thought as this thought or that but as the common power which makes thinking possible; and when we cease to consider this or that idea as such but as pure Idea, we apprehend the absolute existence through profound insight. Insight, at this stage, has no particular object to be conscious of. In this sense it is a Void. When the personal mind is stripped of its memories and anticipations, when all sense-impressions and thoughts entirely drop away from it, then it enters the realm of empty unnameable Nothingness. It is really a kind of self-contemplation. But this self is not finite and individual, it is cosmic and infinite.
When he attains the state of void, all thoughts cease for then pure Thought thinks itself alone.
God as MIND fills that void. In being deprived first of his ego and then of his ecstatic emotional union with the Overself, the mystic who is thereby inwardly reduced to a state of nothingness comes as near to God's state as he can. However this does not mean that he comes to God's consciousness.
We may now perceive a further reason why all great teachers have enjoined self-denial. For at this crucial point of perfected concentration, when the senses are still and the world without remote, the mystic must renounce his thoughts in favour of Thought. He can do this only by a final act of surrender whereby his whole sense of personality--all that makes up what he believed to be "I"--is let go as the last of his thoughts to vanish into a Void. He must make the abrupt leap into self-identification with the wide pure impersonal thought-less Thought. He must give up the last of all thoughts--which is the "I" thought--and accept in return whatever may come to him out of the great Unknown. A fear rises up and overcomes him for a time that with this leap he may so endanger his own existence as to plunge into utter annihilation. This naturally makes him cling all the more to his sense of personality. Shall we wonder then, that every student shrinks at this order?
In the deepest state of meditation, the Void, there is utter calm. Joy cannot be felt there for it presumes the existence of someone equipped with an active emotional nature. The religio-mystical devotee who frequently enters ecstasies of bliss will lose it if and when he seeks to go deeper and succeeds in entering the Void instead. He will then feel perfect peace only.
He must convert himself mentally into nothingness, merge his being into emptiness, and put aside all other thoughts.
Attention is kept at the highest pitch, yet the whole direction of it is toward nothing--the Void.
"Well hidden and reached solely by arduous endeavour, is that subtle Void which is the principal root of Freedom. . . . Here is the Supreme Reality," says the Shat Chakra Nirupana, a Sanskrit medieval text.
"The state of emptiness should be brought to the utmost degree, and that of stillness guarded with unwearying vigour," says Lao Tzu.
He must wait in the stillness until there is a sudden catch at his heart, an abrupt intake of breath.
Lost within himself in utter self-absorption, numb to everything that traces back to the world of action, no longer held by the power and limit of the senses, he becomes pure mind, disembodied spirit.
All that consciousness holds must be reduced to nothing.
Courage to face and accept the unknown is needed at this deep level of meditation. But if there is insufficient information and insufficient purification, it might be well to pause at this point and make oneself better ready for this momentous step.
At this point he should turn all his inner attention on the "emptiness" and firmly hold it there.
It is only in the Stillness of the Void that he will find what he is looking for. But the Stillness is due to the shutting off of his own clamorous voices, his thoughts and feelings. It is his personal condition. He must look deep within it, lose himself in it, and come out on the other side as something else--real Being, not a being.
To sit silently in the Void is clearly the sequence of an act of meditation, the opened flower which bloomed after it.
Referring to nondual experience, Mahadevan said in a letter: "All that one can do is to prepare oneself to be ready to receive when the time comes."
Since no one can peer into the mind of God, finite-minded as we all are, the best we can do is to try to shift the idea of "I" over to the Stillness itself, where to lose itself as far as it can in our innermost being.
He himself, the experiencer of the meditation experience, must go, must lose himself, deny himself, if that which is beyond is to take over, that is, the true Reality.
Though he is without thoughts, he may still not have attained the highest level. For he may be conscious of their absence itself. This consciousness must be transcended next.
We cannot enter the Void if we carry any possessions--material or intellectual, emotional or social--with us. This is surely what Jesus meant when he said that the rich man could not enter the kingdom of heaven. It is not the bank book that can prevent anyone's entry, but rather the heart that is unable to leave the bank book.
At this crucial moment the mind must be utterly submissive, the self-will wholly relinquished.
He may enter, not into Nirvana, but at least next door to it, which is the "Void."
In the earlier stages of the Short Path he necessarily uses words to suggest something about the nature of his goal and to represent it by concepts. But in the advanced stages they lose their value and he rests calmly and patiently in the Void, identified with Mind, even though not yet realized as such.
Repose in this condition of vast emptiness is accompanied by intense and vivid happiness. He knows that he is with the living God. He understands that he has come as close to God as it is possible for a human being on earth to do and yet remain human and alive. But he knows and understands all this not by the movement of ideas--for there are none here--but by a feeling which captures his whole being. But it is during this final experience of the Void, when he passes beyond all relativity, that he experiences Mind to be the only reality, the only enduring existence, and that all else is but a shadow. Entry into this stage is therefore a critical point for every aspirant.
Those who can pass in to the Void with eager anticipation and glad acceptance of it are few. Those who hover at its brink, terrified, refusing to make the plunge, are inevitably more.
Men who are strongly attached by the cords of desire to the things of this world naturally find the very idea of the void repulsive. But even mystics who have loosed themselves from such things still hesitate when on the threshold of the void and often withdraw without taking the plunge. For with them it is the clinging to personal self-consciousness which holds them captive.
The first contact of the student with the Void will probably frighten him. The sense of being alone--a disembodied spirit--in an immense abyss of limitless space gives a kind of shock to him unless he comes well prepared by metaphysical understanding and well fortified by a resolve to reach the supreme reality. His terror is, however, unjustified. In the act of projecting the personal ego the Overself has necessarily to veil itself from the ego at the same time. Thus ignorance is born.
In the nihilistic experience of void, the mystic finds memory sense and thought utterly closed, he knows no separate thing and no particular person; he is blank to all lower phenomena but it is a conscious living rich blissful sublime blankness; it is simply consciousness freed from both the pleasant and the unpleasant burdens of earthly existence.
At some point his mind slips from its accustomed anchorage; an impersonal consciousness that is not his own and knows nothing of himself takes over, and all memories of experience in the world lapse as if they never were. He is isolated from everything and everyone. Only a knowingness remains. At first the loss of personality induces fear as he feels its onset but if he holds his ground and lies still, unresisting, quiet, trusting the beneficence of the process, the fear of it ebbs and vanishes. Then a calm, before unknown and now unutterable, replaces it. Such an experience will be remembered long after all others are forgotten.
Those who succeed in reaching this point in their meditation often withdraw just there, overcome by terror or gripped by panic. For the prospect of utter annihilation seems to yawn, like an abyss, beneath their feet. It is indeed the crucial point. The ego, which has lurked behind all their spiritual aspirations and hidden in disguise within all their spiritual thinking, must now emerge and show itself as it really is. For where, in this utter void, can it now conceal itself?
When he lets the last active thoughts go, the great Void may replace them. And if he is fortunate, the great Light will come and flash across the Void, as point, ray, shaft, or space, as pulsating dynamic energy or as focused stillness.
The womb of mysterious nothingness out of which the soul emerged is God, the World-Mind. When, in deep meditation, the ego faces the soul and is then led by it to that nothingness, the first reaction is, at worst, terrifying fear of annihilation, or, at best, an almost equally terrifying fear of utter aloneness.
In these first moments when he feels the Void opening up in the centre of his being, an intense expectancy thrills him.
He is to look for no support elsewhere and no light. Evidently the passage to such a unique position may frighten some aspirants to such a degree that they refuse to traverse it. This is not an ordinary kind of courage which is required here. All that ties him to his nature as a human being, to his very existence, must be let go. Nothing less than annihilation seems to confront him. Indeed, afterwards, when the experience is over, he thinks to himself that it was really "a kind of dying." He had been swallowed by death but disgorged again later. He had slipped into it so imperceptibly, so unconsciously, and so suddenly, that all this became known only after it was over.
Students draw back affrighted at the concept of a great void which leaves them nothing, human or divine, to which they may cling. How much the more will they draw back, not from a mere concept, but from an actual experience through which they must personally pass! Yet this is an event, albeit not the final one on the ultimate ultramystic path, which they can neither avoid nor evade. It is a trial which must be endured, although to the student who has resigned himself to acceptance of the truth whatever face it bears--who has consequently comprehended already the intellectual emptiness of both Matter and Personality--this experience will not assume the form of a trial but rather of an adventure. After such a rare realization, he will emerge a different man. Henceforth he will know that nothing that has shape, nobody who bears a form, no voice save that which is soundless can ever help him again. He will know that his whole trust, his whole hope, and his whole heart are now and forevermore to be surrendered unconditionally to this Void which mysteriously will no longer be a Void for him. For it is God.
If the glimpse goes as far as an experience of the Void, it may leave him frightened or elated: the first, if he is utterly unfamiliar with everything esoteric and completely indoctrinated by conventional religious dogmas; the second, if he surrenders fear, trusts the Higher Power.
When all mental ideation is thus little by little brought to an end; when all mental forms are gradually eradicated by the suppressive power of Yoga, the container of those forms--Space--being itself an idea, is then also suppressed along with the ideas of ego, time, and matter. In the apparent emptiness which results, the Real is experienced in all its mysterious fullness. Man comes as close to God as he may. But few mystics have the courage to take this final step. Most falter on its very edge, stricken by fear of the Unknown or by unfamiliarity with this mental territory. They stop and withdraw. The chance to venture beyond is lost and often does not recur for many years.
Not only does the mind become utterly blank and lose all its thoughts, but it loses at last the oldest, the most familiar, and the strongest thought of all--the idea of the personal ego.
We have become so habituated to our bodily gaols that even in the deepest meditation, when we stand on the verge of the soul's infinitude, we draw back affrighted and would rather cling to our captivity than be liberated from it. These timidities and fears will arise but they must be overcome. Bhagavad Gita VI:25 teaches the meditation on the Void: "Let him not think of anything."
This is the Void wherein, as in deep sleep, the thought of world-experience is temporarily stilled. But here consciousness is kept, whereas in sleep it is lost.
The threshold of this inner being cannot be crossed without overcoming the fear that arises on reaching it. This is a fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the fantastic, and the illusory. The ego shrinks back from what is so strange to its past experience. It is afraid of losing itself in this emptiness that confronts it, and with that losing hold of the solid ground of physical life. Only by calling up all its inner courage and inner strength can these enemies be conquered.
But because the capacity to remain in the void for more than a moment imposes an intolerable strain upon a man's faculties and an almost impossible task upon his consciousness, his intellect or imagination will, in the very next moment, people this void with an idea or an image and thus end the tension. Thereafter a whole series of other ideas or images will naturally follow the primal one.
He stands on the very verge of non-existence. Shall he take the plunge? The courageous aspirant must not waver at this crucial moment. He must gather up all his force and draw the veil which conceals the face of Isis. A moment more--and he stands in the presence of the Unknown God!
What happens is not a passing-out of consciousness but a passing-into a vast consciousness, an all-space without any objects or any creatures, a Void.
If he is willing to accept this emptiness with all the annihilation of self that goes with it, he will succeed in passing the hardest of ordeals and the most rigorous of tests.
Without dramatic happening or sensational incident, the mind slips at long last into the Great Silence.
In this deep stillness there occurs the event which will hold his remembrance for long afterwards--the passage from his mere existence to his glorious essence. It is brief but transforming.
Out of his own large experience of meditation, "Fear not the stillness," wrote A.E. in a poem.
So many mystics are quite unnecessarily frightened by this concept of the Void that it is necessary to reassure them. They halt on the very threshold of their high attainment and go no farther, because they fear they will be extinguished, annihilated. The truth is that this will happen only to their lower nature. They themselves will remain very much alive. Thus it is not the best part of their nature which really dreads the experience of the Void, but the worst part.
The fear of losing individuality and dissolving in a mass consciousness, or of losing identity and disappearing as a personal self, comes up as an obstacle in a certain deep stage of meditation--but not the deepest. It has to be overcome, transcended.
Those who find that beyond the Light they must pass through the Void, the unbounded emptiness, often draw back affrighted and refuse to venture farther. For here they have naught to gain or get, no glorious spiritual rapture to add to their memories, no great power to increase their sense of being a co-worker with God. Here their very life-blood is to be squeezed out as the price of entry; here they must become the feeblest of creatures.
It is an experience which comes of itself, not constructed by the ego and not following the intake of a hallucinogenic drug. It leads into a consciousness where there are no objects, no activities, and no others. It is a zero, a nothing, yet simultaneously an utter intensity, clarity, and purity of consciousness.
The forms of meditation vary, but all in the end must lead the meditator beyond them. This is the crucial point when he must be willing to let them go: they have served their purpose. This is the crossing-over into contemplation (in Christian mystical terms) or Nirvikalpa (in Hindu yoga terms).
There is no need to yield to the fear of the void, which comes in the deepest meditation. That is merely the personal ego offering its resistance to the higher self. That same fear of never being able to come back has to be faced by all advanced mystics when they reach this stage of meditation, but it is utterly groundless and is really a test of faith in God to protect them in a most laudable endeavour: to come closer to him and to advance farther from their lower self. Having once yielded to the fear and failed to make the necessary advance, the aspirant has failed in the test and it may be a long time before a similar opportunity will present itself again, if at all. Nevertheless, the memory of that great experience should always be an inspiration toward a more impersonal life.
In that moment of utter emptiness the mind becomes a blank but the person becomes united with the unspotted and untainted Overself.
When the state of void is first attained, a trance-like stillness falls on the soul. The constant operation of thinking comes to an end for a time. The resultant freedom from this activity is marked and prized. The resultant feeling is memorable and pleasant.
A point will be reached in contemplation when the self makes immediate contact with, and is taken up into, the holy Void.
The ego finds itself chilled by the conception of nothingness, as if it had climbed to a Himalayan height.
Most men who are confronted with this concept for the first time shudder at the thought of annihilation, are terrified at the possibility of vanishing from existence altogether, and may even regard the quest of such self-destruction as madness.
He feels that to advance a single step farther is to place himself at the mercy of unpredictable forces and unfamiliar powers.
He feels himself to be on the very edge of existence, with a dark annihilating void just in front and the lighted, safe solidity of familiar ground just behind him.
In the deep waters of meditation, where self is absent and thoughts negated, he sinks into the Void. It is an indescribable condition and, to others, an incomprehensible one.
When he travels the course of meditation into the deep places of his being, and if he plumbs them to their utmost reach, at the end he crosses the threshold of the Void and enters a state which is nonbeing to the ego. For no memory and no activity of his personal self can exist there. Yet it is not annihilation, for one thing remains--Consciousness. In this way, and regarding what happens from the standpoint of his ordinary state at a later time, he learns that this residue is his real being, his very Spirit, his enduring life. He learns too why every movement which takes him out of the Void stillness into a personal mental activity is a return to an inferior state and a descent to a lower plane. He sees that among such movements there must necessarily be classed even the answering of such thoughts as "I am a Master. He is my disciple," or "I am being used to heal the disease of this man." In his own mind he is neither a teacher nor a healer. If other men choose to consider him as such and gain help toward sinlessness or get cured of sickness, he takes no credit to himself for the result but looks at it as if the "miracle" were done by a stranger.
For us--human beings--the Void is not so much a factual thing as a state of contemplation. Its deepest level is where the contemplator himself is so completely immersed, so utterly absorbed, as to vanish entirely--and the whole world with him. Selfhood has gone--where and into what? These things that were here, this world to which they belonged, suspended in space, unknown in time--were they hallucinations of consciousness, and is this Void a non-experience too?
Whoever succeeds in going down deeply enough into his own consciousness can find a phase where it passes away as person, as the limited little self, but is transformed into the Universal being and then, still farther, into the Void. This Void is not the annihilation of Consciousness but the fullness of it, not blankness but true awareness, unhindered by subsiding activities, not the adulteration of it by thoughts or imaginations but the purity of it. In this way he experiences his own personal self-nothingness. From this he can understand two things: why so many prophets have taught that self blocks our way and why the Mahayana Buddhists have taught the reality of the Void.
It is consciousness severed from all its objects, awareness with nothing other than itself.
Much of the writing of Plotinus is descriptive of the state Hindus call Nirvikalpa Samadhi. It is the total dispersal of the world from the field of awareness, a complete flight from sensations, thoughts, mental images, the physical body, and, above all, from any and every kind of activity. To an outside observer, it may seem to be a trance state, but he would not be correct in his observation, nor altogether wrong. It is as deep as contemplation can possibly go. It is Consciousness freed from any kind of personal admixture, staying only with itself. All these other things being removed, what is left is then true self-knowledge, even if it is unconscious to the ego.
When he experiences the deepest possible state, all mental acts are suspended, all mental activities ended. This includes the act of identifying oneself with the ego. There is then nothing more to prevent the coming of enlightenment.
Because the Real is also the One, and because thinking implies the existence of a thinker and his thought--that is, a duality--rapt absorption in the Real brings about cessation of thoughts.
In the deepest trance state we enter by introversion into the pure Void. There are then no forms to witness, no visions to behold, no emotions to thrill, no duality of knower and known. The experiencer of the world and the world itself vanish because the first as ego is idea and the second is also idea; both merge into their Source, the Mind.
In this awesome experience where the diverse world is annulled, even the experiencing self has its individuality annulled too. Yet, because both world and self reappear later, annulment is here not the same as annihilation.
This is the experience whose mystery as well as peace passeth understanding. It is incommunicable by or to the intellect. For with it we attain unity but lose personality yet preserve identity.
The culmination of these efforts is a thought-free state wherein no impressions arise either externally from the senses or internally from the reason. The consequence is that the felt contrast between the "I" and the "not-I" melts away like sugar in water and only the sense of Being remains--Being which stretches out wide and still like the infinitude of space. This is the Void.
This can be done only by entering the void of empty thought and being merged into its stillness. Because the Mind transcends the objective world, it transcends the manyness of this world. In it there is "no-thing." The dream-world is really a projection of the dreamer's mind. He is the subject and it is the object. But when he awakes the world vanishes. Where has it gone? It could only have gone back into his mind, for it is there that it originally arose. But this is something intangible, a veritable void. In the same way the external world as an object of thought is during this first stage deliberately retracted into the Mind-Void.
What we call here the Void, following the Mongolian-Tibetan tradition, is not dissimilar from what Spanish Saint John of the Cross called "complete detachment and emptiness of spirit." It is a casting-out of all impressions from the mind, an elimination of every remembered or imagined experience from it, a turning-away from every idea even psychically referable to the five senses and the ego; finally, even a loss of personal identity.
In this experience he finds himself in sheer nothingness. There is not even the comfort of having a personal identity. Yet it is a paradoxical experience, for despite the total nothingness, he is neither asleep nor dead nor unconscious. Something is, but what it is, or how, or anything else about it, stays an unravelled mystery.
In that sacred moment when an awed silence grips the soul, we are undone. The small and narrow bricks with which we have built our house of personal life collapse and tumble to the ground. The things we worked and hungered for slip into the limbo of undesired and undesirable relics. The world of achievement, flickering with the activities of ambition, pales away into the pettiness of a third-rate play.
When metaphysics speaks of the antithesis between subject and object, it means that between the ego and the world. When philosophy speaks of transcending them, it means entry into the Source of both in that still Void where they no longer appear.
Matter, form, and place collapse and vanish when you experience this endless emptiness; hence there is no world at all in the Void, no consciousness of persons, things, landscapes, or skies.
This mysterious experience seems also to have been known to Dionysius the Areopagite. It is definitely an experience terminating the process of meditation, for the mystic can then go no higher and no deeper. It is variously called the Nought in the West and Nirvikalpa Samadhi in the East. Everything in the world vanishes and along with the world goes the personal ego; nothing indeed is left except Consciousness-in-itself. If anything can burrow under the foundation of the ego and unsettle its present and future stability, it is this awesome event.
The world suddenly vanished from view like a morning mist. I was left alone with Reality.
This is the transcendental sight--that under all the multifarious phenomena of the cosmos, the inner eye sees its root and source, the great Void.
The old ego suppresses itself. There is only a liberated awareness of pure Mind, of something which he cannot speak of without feeling that it is the root of his own existence.
Nirvana--by Sri Aurobindo:
All is abolished but the mute Alone,
The Mind from thought released, the heart from grief
Grow inexistent now beyond belief;
There is no I, no Nature, known-unknown.
The city, a shadow picture without tone,
Floats, quivers unreal; forms without relief
Flow, a cinema's vacant shapes; like a reef
Foundering in shoreless gulfs the world is done.
Only the illimitable Permanent
Is here. A Peace stupendous, featureless, still
Replaces all, what once was I, in It
A silent unnamed emptiness content
Either to fade in the Unknowable
Or thrill with the luminous seas of the Infinite.
In this state he is no longer a thinking centre of existence, an individual human entity. For the intellect ceases to be active, the emotions cease to move.
The world abruptly vanishes from his ken. He is poised for a few minutes in No-thing, the same great Void in which God is eternally poised. His contemplation has succeeded and, succeeding, has led him from self to Overself.
When the finite life surrenders to the infinite life, when it gives up self-will and earthly attachment for the sake of finding what is beyond self and earth, this unique experience comes to it. Everything is asked from it but everything is then given to it.
It is not that personal identity was wholly lost but rather that it was immersed in the vast ocean of universal being.
The world, being for each of us a mental activity, vanishes as soon as that activity is wholly suppressed by yoga. It is only an appearance in time, space, matter, and form. The essence behind it is revealed when the idea of it is suppressed without consciousness itself being suppressed.
This condition, this entry into the Void, is a kind of death. Everything is taken away from him; he is nothing and has nothing; yet he still feels one thing which utterly compensates for this loss. He feels the presence of the Overself.
It is as if the world had never entered his experience and never even existed.
At this point he gets so lost in the Void that he forgets who it is who is meditating. Then and thus he receives a further answer to the question "Who am I?"
In the practice of Indian Yoga, Nirvikalpa Samadhi is considered to be the farthest point to which the practitioner can travel. Nirvikalpa Samadhi is the condition of the emptied mind, without any trace of thought, whether of the world or of the person himself; yet fully aware.
So many conversations on the words of Jesus have taken his sentence "I and my Father are one" to mean a kind of union like marriage. But they overlook the fact that married couples still remain couples, still express the number two. Jesus did not say, "I and my father are two." The number one is definitely not two. For Jesus found, as every other man who attains that stage of consciousness finds, that when contemplating the Infinite Life-Power (which he named the Father) he himself vanished. There was then no other consciousness except that of the Infinite itself. For That was the substratum of his own "I." But what happened in his contemplation two thousand years ago still happens today; the same discovery is made when the illusion of egoity vanishes.
His own being mingles with the Great Being and vanishes for a while.
It is consciousness almost without content, what there is of the latter being perhaps the point from which all this began and rippled out.
No one can enter into the Absolute state as an individual entity and with an individual relation to it. It could not be what it is if the two could exist side by side on the same level. If a man is to approach it he can do so only by becoming as nothing, by casting out his personal ego.
If anyone says he has experienced the Void or if he says he has merged into the Absolute Spirit, then he must have been present to note that it is a Void or to know that it is Absolute Spirit. But clearly he was not present in his ordinary self, or he would not dare to deny its presence nor claim its complete merger.
Both self and universe vanish together. There is nothing and no one left during such temporary enlightenments.
Allama Prabhu, gnani of Northern Mysore State, probably fourteenth century, author of the book Sunyasampadane (Attaining of the Void), only half of which has (in the 1960s) been translated into English and published in Dharwar, thus describes the loftiest condition reached in mystical meditation:
The motion of the will is still!
All words are dedicated to Him.
Nay, language has no trace of sound;
Nor is there in all space a bound--"
To enter this strange state, a primeval yet delightful void, where the ego, the intellect, the emotional desires, and the body do not intrude, is to be born again.
Meditation upon the Void
The Surangama Sutra chooses, as the best meditation method for the present historic cycle, the one used by Avalokitesvara. It disengages bodily hearing from outward sound, then penetrates still deeper into the void beyond this duality, then beyond ego and its object, until all opposites and dualities vanish, leaving absoluteness. Nirvana follows as a natural consequence. In other words, disengage consciousness from the senses and return to pure Consciousness itself.
Guhyasamajatantra: "The steady way of attaining enlightenment is to avoid any conception about the highest knowledge or its realization."
All other thoughts are banished by the single thought of the Void but this in turn cannot be got rid of by his own effort. The descent of grace is necessary for that.
When we contemplate World-Mind as existing in and for itself, not for its universe, not for the All, we have to contemplate it as the formless Void. And this can be achieved only by becoming for the time being indistinguishable from the ineffable Void, identified with it. There is then only the single and simple insight of Being into its own wonder. The circle has closed in with itself.
Through repeated contemplation of the void, the mind rids itself of the illusions of matter time space and personality and eventually the truth is reached.
A further result of this contemplation of the world as the great Void is that the work done by mentalistic study is advanced still further, for not only are the things experienced by the five senses seen to be only thoughts but the thoughts themselves are now seen to be the transient spume and spray flung out of seeming Emptiness. Thus there is a complete reorientation from thoughts to Thought. Instead of holding a single thought or scenes of ideas in perfect concentration, the practiser must now move away from all ideas altogether to that seeming emptiness in which they arise. And the latter, of course, is the pure, passive, undifferentiated mind-stuff out of which the separate ideas are produced. Here there is no knowing and discriminating between one idea and another, no stirring into consciousness of this and that, but rather a sublime vacancy. For the Mind-essence is not something which we can picture to ourselves; it is utterly formless. It is as empty and as ungraspable as space.
Lao Tzu: "Having once arrived at a state of absolute emptiness, keep yourself perfectly still. This stillness is going home to the First, the Origin."
The adverse force present in his ego will continually try to draw him away from positive concentration on pure being into negative consideration of lower topics. Each time he must become aware of what is happening, of the change in trend, and resist it at once. Out of this wearying conflict will eventually be born fresh inner strength if he succeeds, but only more mental weakness if he fails. For meditation is potently creative.
We must withdraw every thing and thought from the mind except this single thought of trying to achieve the absence of what is not the Absolute. This is called Gnana Yoga: "Neti, Neti" (It is not this), as Shankara called it. And he must go on with this negative elimination until he reaches the stage where a great Void envelops him. If he can succeed in holding resolutely to this Void in sustained concentration--and he will discover it is one of the hardest things in the world to do so--he will abruptly find that it is not a mere mental abstraction but something real, not a dream but the most concrete thing in his experience. Then and then only can he declare positively, "It is This." For he has found the Overself.
Mystic experience has its limitation. It still remains within the realm of duality. This is because the subject-object relationship still remains. How is this limitation to be removed? The answer is only by being Being, only by transcending this relation.
The meditations on All-is-Matterless, Empty-of-Form, and Nothing-but-Pure-Mind are so subtle that they will cause confusion to those persons who are quite unsubtle.
1. Do all meditation work with open eyes, with the Buddhic smile. 2. Keep attention inside on the No-thought state and refrain from unnecessary talk. 3. When residual impressions from the last incarnation come in, ignore them. 4. Kill out the mind. Be free from its activity. Stay in the Void.
Give four exercises of a highly advanced metaphysical character: (a) Meditation on the Void; (b) Meditation on Nonduality; (c) Meditation on Space; (d) Meditation on Ego's non-existence.
Knowledge of and deep meditation upon understanding the Void lead in the end, and more quickly than by wearisome yoga methods, to the dissolution of the thinking process.
The best meditation in forgetting our personal miseries is the meditation on the Void. For if we succeed in it to only a partial degree, we succeed to that extent in forgetting the ego, who also is the sufferer, and his miseries vanish with it.
Mind manifests itself in the most astonishing variety of forms and the most antagonistic array of oppositions. Its masked presence is the unity which binds them all together. Each man may prove this truth for himself, for each man may penetrate in contemplation to its void within himself.
If we make this discrimination between the Mind-essence and its products, between the Seer and the Seen--and we must make it at this ultimate stage--then we must follow it to the logical end. Not by adding more information, or more learning, or more study, can we now enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but rather by letting go, by ceasing this continual mental movement, and finding out what lies behind the movement.
One ordinary opposition between the experiencer and the experienced suddenly leaves him as they are both perceived to be one and the same "stuff"--Mind.
At one stage of meditation the student realizes that everything in the universe is the result of the activity of imagination and has no more if no less reality than an imagination itself has. At this stage the student realizes the nothingness of everything so that the incomprehensibility of this concept to the finite intellect vanishes.
It is not the objects of conscious attention which are to be allowed to trap the mind forever and divert the man from his higher duty. It is the consciousness itself which ought to engage his interest and hold his deepest concentration.
When we comprehend that the pure essence of mind is reality, then we can also comprehend the rationale of the higher yoga which would settle attention in pure thought itself rather than in finite thoughts. When this is done the mind becomes vacant, still, and utterly undisturbed. This grand calm of nonduality comes to the philosophic yogi alone and is not to be confused with the lower-mystical experience of emotional ecstasy, clairvoyant vision, and inner voice. For in the latter the ego is present as its enjoyer, whereas in the former it is absent because the philosophic discipline has led to its denial. The lower type of mystic must make a special effort to gain his ecstatic experience, but the higher type finds it arises spontaneously without personal effort at all. The first is in the realm of duality, whilst the second has realized nonduality.
This exercise requires us to imagine the Divine as, first, all pervasive and everywhere present, unbounded and limitless, and second, the hidden origin of everything in the cosmos.
In this exercise he first tries to comprehend that there is an immaterial and infinite Mind back of himself and, second, tries to identify himself with it. This he can successfully do only by an inner withdrawal in the one case and by a forgetting of personality in the other.
He may use the ocean or sky as a starting point for concentrating, its character being one of unlimited stretch, but he should think of it as being within himself.
He feels that he has touched something that always was even before his own body appeared on earth, something primeval and boundless.
He passes into all-engulfing space.
In itself, Thought is beyond thoughts. In himself, the Thinker is on a level different from all the activity of thinking.
He has to reject the form of the thought but seek out and keep what remains as its essence or being, Thought, which could never be rejected even if he tried a lifetime. He must fix--and he will need the utmost power of concentration to do so--his attention on this essence exclusively and steadily.
The mind thus turned inward upon itself can then discover what its own stuff is. It can comprehend how persons can be put forth and retracted through the incarnations while their basis remains ever the same.
For when awareness is retracted into its source, all thoughts fall away and no second thing other than Mind itself is known to us.
He must begin by ceasing to think of the Divine Being as if it were one object put among others, but preferred to them.
After one has meditated on the nature of Mind in itself, he must carry the same meditation into the thought of Mind's presence within himself. Thus he moves from its cosmic to its individualized character.
The aim here is to get at the very source of thinking itself, to penetrate to that deep ground whence it rises, it falls.
We have to seek Consciousness-in-itself, not those shadowy fragmentary and very limited expressions of it which are ideas. No collection of thoughts or combination of words can do other than misrepresent it.
How can we win this freedom of timelessness? There is one way and that is to step into the Void and to stay there. We must find, in short, the eternal Now.
The exercise of trying to break through the mystery of time, which is a mental state, into timelessness, which is not, belongs to the Short Path and is important, valuable, but admittedly difficult for beginners. It is practised by confining the thoughts again and again during spare moments and brief leisurely periods to the meaning of timelessness, of the eternal now, and of the everlasting Presence.
Suzuki: "Have your mind like unto space."
In this ultramystic state a man may verify the teaching that the Real World is a timeless one. For the sense of time can only exist when the succession of thoughts exists. But in this condition thoughts may be suggested at will and with them time itself.
He has to seek not merely another standpoint but that which is beyond all possible standpoints. He has to enter not just a different space-time level but that which is the base of all existing space-time levels.
The best form of meditation is that which lifts us above time and into the Eternal Now.
The longer you remain in this particular meditation the closer you will understand what the eternal Now means.
The student achieves the end of ordinary exercises when during the practice period his attention is able to rest introverted effortlessly naturally steadily and unswervingly. This by itself is an unusual achievement and brings with it an unusual sense of inner peace, an indifference to worldly attractions and moods of rapt ecstasy. We need not be surprised therefore that most students are content to stop here. But the philosophic student must proceed farther. He must use this interval of inward silence to attack the ego.
When all thoughts are extinguished; when even the thought of the quest itself vanishes; when even the final thought of seeking to control thoughts also subsides, then the great battle with the ego can take place. But the last scene of this invisible drama is always played by the Overself. For only when its Grace shoots forth and strikes down this final thought, does success come.
Everything that intrudes upon the mental stillness in this highly critical stage must be rejected, no matter how virtuous or how "spiritual" a face it puts on. Only by the lapse of all thought, by the loss of all thinking capacity can he maintain this rigid stillness as it should be maintained. It is here alone that the last great battle will be fought and that the first great fulfilment will be achieved. That battle will be the one which will give the final deathblow to the ego; that fulfilment will be the union with his Overself after the ego's death. Both the battle and the fulfilment must take place within the stillness; they must not be a merely intellectual matter of thought alone nor a merely emotional matter of feeling alone. Here in the stillness both thought and emotion must die and the ego will then lose their powerful support. Therefore here alone is it possible to tackle the ego with any possibility of victory.
He separates the thought of his own existence from all other thoughts, then attacks and annuls it by the most penetrating insight he has ever shown.
Self is a tree with many branches--body, intellect, feeling, will, and intuition--but only one root. Aim at finding this root and you may control the growth of the whole tree. Hold your will (thoughts) within the leash.
The root-thought which underlies the ego that has to be slain is not that it is separate from all other creatures but that it is separate from the one infinite life-power.
If meditation is ever to escape from the finite objects on which it is centered to union with the infinite subject which is its ultimate aim, it must find the meditator's real jailer and kill him; it must bring the ego out of its hiding place and face it boldly in mortal combat. If it is ever to transcend itself and become contemplation, by transcending all thinking whatsoever, it must catch the last thought, the "I" thought, and slay it.
Meditation on the void has, as one of its chief aims, the overcoming of egoism. It not only destroys the narrow view of self but sublimates the very thought of self into the thought of pure unbounded existence. Employed at the proper time and not prematurely, it burns up the delusion of separateness.
Hidden behind every particular thought there exists the divine element which makes possible our consciousness of that thought. If therefore we seek that element, we must seek it first by widening the gap between them and then dissolving all thoughts, and second by contemplating that out of which they have arisen.
This ultramystic exercise which enables us to slip into the gap between one moment and another, one thought and another, is the practical means of attaining enlightenment as to the true nature of Mind.
When thought is transcended, that moment--it may be one millionth of a second--he can comprehend the truth about Brahman's transcending thought. For then the idea becomes the mind. At that moment the mind negates all thoughts. This is called the lightning flash in the Upanishads. You must watch vigilantly for it. When between two thoughts you catch this brief flash you have to understand that the thoughts were still in your mind whether they had appeared or vanished. The thought-gap is hidden. That gap is the see-er of the thoughts, that is, Drik, Mind, Brahman.
During the gap--infinitesimal though it be--between two thoughts, the ego vanishes. Hence it may truly be said that with each thought it reincarnates anew. There is no real need to wait for the series of long-lived births to be passed through before liberation can be achieved. The series of momentary births also offers this opportunity, provided a man knows how to use it.
The succession of thoughts appears in time, but the gap between two of them is outside time. The gap itself is normally unobserved. The chance of enlightenment is missed.
While the dualistic division of subject/object (self and non-self) is practised, there is ordinary physical sense-experience. But when consciousness is detached from this division, the real nondualist world as it is, and not as it is received by ordinary minds, reveals itself. (This can be done by entering the gap between two thoughts.)
The space of time between a man's two thoughts is quite infinitesimal so that he is not conscious of it at all. Yet it is real.
This is the indefinable middle point between consciousness and unconsciousness.
Time is for consciousness a succession of moments. It is at the end of the interval between the first two that we become aware of its passage and can call the measurement one second. If thinking stops but consciousness remains and we manage to stay with it without introducing the ego--which restarts the process, the movement--we are caught and held in the gap. This is pure consciousness.
The exercise of watching a thought arise and vanish and then intently holding on to the interval before the next thought arises, is a hard one. It needs months and years of patient practice. But the reward, when it comes, is immense.
When I wrote down the exercise in The Wisdom of the Overself of concentrating on the gap between two thoughts, I did not know that the Buddha had stated that Nirvana exists "between two mind moments." I take this statement to confirm the usefulness of that exercise--admittedly a very difficult one.
In The Wisdom of the Overself I gave an exercise for entering the gap in consciousness between two thoughts, as a means of entering the egoless state. Those who succeeded in mastering it at times went through this tremendous experience which follows, but admittedly few were able to find their way into this gap.
Emerging from the Void
The moment he emerges from the void, he regains his individuality. For with this he has to live and move in this lower world. But it is not the personal ego which is regained. That is already dead. It is his soul.
The "great void" mentioned in my book is not synonymous with death. Death conveys the idea of the loss of consciousness. There is no loss of consciousness in this state, but the consciousness is transformed indescribably. The state is so blissful, moreover, that there is no worrying about the loss of the ego. However, it is a temporary state because so long as we are living in the flesh we are unable to sustain it and are drawn back by the forces of nature--first to the ego and then to the body. But anyone who has been through that experience even once cannot possibly regard the ego and the body ever again in the same way, because their limitations are clearly felt.
In any case, one need not worry about this absolute condition but rather should await its arrival--then judge whether it is worthwhile or not.
If he has once passed through the experience of the Sacred Nothingness, the Eternal Emptiness, and understood its correct meaning, he will be ready to pass discerningly tranquilly and securely through every experience that the world of activity and movement may offer him.
Could an individual succeed in stopping these thoughts of the manifested universe from overpowering him, he would attain to a knowledge of the Void. This can be done by yoga, and the consequent state is technically termed "the vacuum mind." Naturally there is nothing in the void to suffer the pains of illness, the decay of old age, the transition of death, and the miseries of ill-fortune. Therefore it is said that he who succeeds in attaining mentally to it, succeeds also in attaining the blessed life of exalted peace.
Paradoxically enough, tremendous forces lie latent here. Indeed the law is that the deeper a man penetrates into the void and the longer he sustains this penetration, the greater will be the power with which he will emerge from it.
When these powers come into his possession, there also comes a deep sense of responsibility for their right use.
Paradoxically, it is in the trancelike state of self-absorption that the degree of passing away from the personal self is completely achieved. But when nature reasserts herself and brings the mystic back to his normal condition, she brings him back to the personality too. For without some kind of self-identification with his body, his thoughts, and his feelings, he could not attend to personal duties and necessities at all.
We are meditating on something which will not arise and disappear, as ideas do and as material forms do, on something which is not ephemeral. Because that which vanishes contradicts its own arisal, we seek for that which does not contradict itself. Hence this kind of meditation which brings contemplation into action, sleep into wakefulness, has been called by the ancients "The Yoga of the Uncontradictable."
It comes as a state of intense bliss, and then you are your personal self no longer. The world is blotted out; Being alone exists. That Being has neither shape nor form. It is, shall we say, coexistent with space . . . in it you seem to fulfil the highest purpose of our Being. It is not the Ultimate, but for the sake of your meditation practice you nevertheless may regard it as the Ultimate. You will come back after a while. You cannot stay in it for long. You will come back and when you come back you will come back to the intellect; then you will begin to think very, very slowly at first, and each thought will be full of tremendous meaning, tremendous vitality, tremendous beauty and reality. You will be alive and inspired and you will know that you have had a transcendent experience. You will feel a great joy, and then for some time you may have to live on the memory of this glorious experience. Such experiences do not come often, but they will provide a memory that will act as a positive inspiration to you from time to time.
He who passes through these deeper phases of the Void can never again call anything or anyone his own. He becomes secretly and spiritually deprived of all personal possessions. This is because he has thoroughly realized the complete immateriality, spacelessness, timelessness, and formlessness of the Real--a realization which consequently leaves him nothing to take hold of, either within the world or within his personality. Not only does the possessive sense fall away from his attitude towards physical things but also towards intellectual ones.
All desires are naturally quenched in the void because nothing that is relative can coexist with it. This ever-renewed contemplation of our infinite Root will in time dissolve our lower tendencies and give the quietus to our animal passions. Thus it is not merely a theoretical exercise but a practical one yielding valuable fruit.
He must learn not only to identify himself with the Void but to remain immovably fixed in such nihilistic identity. He must not only learn to regard everything as Mind but to remain unshakeably certain that it is so. When no doubt can penetrate this insight and no experience can dislodge him from this inner vacuum . . .
There are two ultimate experiences open to the meditator. Both share in common a contentment and calmness that is supernormal in quality and an absorption in superphysical states. The mystic attains this by religious devotion and the concentration practice alone. But where the latter is accompanied by philosophical discrimination and knowledge, the consciousness is carried almost twice as far into still subtler states and values until it reaches the second ultimate experience. This is near to indescribable, so it has been called "the plane of neither perception nor non-perception." This is because the ego, the conscious observer, is no longer functioning; the experience, the object observed, is no longer there; the residue is a Void. Yet it is not total annihilation; consciousness of some kind must have been held there: for on returning to the normal state, it is picked up again. This raises the interesting question: what, then, is the Void? Ordinarily the term is used for that state where personal, physical, and mental experiences come to a stop but with a rarefied consciousness still remaining. There is no-thing to be known and no-one to know it, certainly no personal memory. This, in the understanding of most students, is the end of the matter: after all, it is too abstract a conception to have any bearing on the lives of those, most of us, who are not monks or hermits with the time and opportunity for prolonged meditations in depth or for intensive analysis of such subtleties. But to complete the record before it is too late, let it be said that there is another kind of Void, seldom studied by the monks and less known among them. In the first kind, there is what might be called "the awareness of awareness." In the second kind, even that ceases. It might be called "death in life." Once experienced, it need not be gone through again, for it leaves its mark permanently on the man. But in the ordinary circumstances of worldly life, especially today, there is little chance for a safe approach to it. Nor is it necessary. For us non-monastic Westerners, the practice of philosophy is the best way.
The Void which he finds within frees him for a while from all attachments without. The more deeply and more often he penetrates it, the freer will he become on the surface of his life.
One may be fortunate enough to have a most uncommon mystical experience. His desire to experience it again may be fulfilled if he attempts the exercise in the fourteenth chapter of The Wisdom of the Overself in which this experience is given as one of the results. It is inevitable that such a high, advanced experience usually occurs at rare intervals. Had he been able to sustain and prolong it for as much as five hours, he would permanently and unbrokenly have entered into the consciousness of his divine soul.
The Void must not be misunderstood. Although it is the deepest state of meditation and one where he is deprived of all possessions, including his own personal self, it has a parallel state in the ordinary active non-meditative condition, which can best be called detachment.
After all, even the Void, grand and awesome as it is, is nothing but a temporary experience, a period of meditation.
The awareness of what is Real must be found not only in deep meditation, in its trance, but when fully awake.
Why Buddha smiled
I have often been asked what I thought was the secret of Buddha's smile. It is--it can only be--that he smiled at himself for searching all those years for what he already possessed.
Gautama's face, set in a half-smile indicative of being transported in consciousness to a transcendental world, is unforgettable.
Two-and-a-half thousand years ago Gautama attained peace more completely than our sense-bound, intellect-confined contemporaries can imagine. On the statues which have come down to us from near his time, there appears the flicker of a smile. Yet this was the man who formulated the tragedy of human existence, the everlasting frustration of human desire.
The bland secret smile of a Buddha, cobra-canopied and legs curled under him . . .
The Buddha's face is passionless but not expressionless. If its skin is taut like a mask, that is due to achieved serenity and not to hard cold stoniness. The lips are just beginning to break into the smile of Nirvana's joy and compassion's feeling.
What does Gautama's quiet smile mean? It means that here is a man who has found a benign relation with all other people and an assured one with himself.
The contemplative inner work of a Buddha, as exemplified by his seated statues, is a gentle one, not like the austere determined self-combative yogi's. It is also a patient one, as if he had all the time in the world.
Those little figures and large statues of the Buddha which are to be found in some Western homes, museums, and art galleries of quality, show us perfect examples not only of the power of concentration, but also of the meaning of contemplation. For in them we behold the sage utterly absorbed in the Void's stillness, ego merged in the universal being, consciousness empty of all moving thoughts.
Why did Gautama smile? Nothing outward had happened to him; all remained as it had been! Yet his lips and mouth formed the tenderest, gentlest, happiest shape.
What does the faint, half-hidden smile of Buddha tell us? That he came from Nirvana, assured of peace and hope for mankind's inner future.
The small, slowly beginning, and delicately mysterious smile of Buddha is full of meaning. But the happiness which it points to does not belong to the simple carnal pleasures or the egoistic intellectual ones.
The Buddha's delicate half-smile, pathetically self-deceptive to the cynic, beautifully compassionate to the devotee, is not impenetrable to the man who can let his ego go, however briefly. For then there is utter relaxation, freedom from tension, the disavowal of negativity, and the clear perception of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
The knowledge that all things are moving toward all-good keeps a quiet smile around the corner of his lips.
When the West was first confronted by these pictures and statuaries of the Buddha, it could make nothing of his inward smile. Today it knows better.
The traditional Buddhist belief that all happiness must in the end change into unhappiness is not a cheerful one. It need never be taken too literally as being universally true, nor by itself alone, for there are counterweighting truths. When Buddha brought to an end the meditation which culminated in final enlightenment, dawn was just breaking. The last star which vanished with the night and the first one which he saw as he raised his head was Venus. What was his inner state, then? Did it synchronize with the reputed planetary influence of Venus--joyous and happy felicity--or with the gloomy view of life which tradition later associated with Buddhism? Who that has had a glimpse of those higher states, felt their serenity, can doubt it was the first? The Overself is not subjected to suffering. But this is not to say that it is bubbling with happiness. It is rather like an immensely deep ocean, perfectly tranquil below the surface. That tranquillity is its ever-present condition and is a true joyousness which ordinary people rarely know. This is what Buddha felt. This is what he called NIRVANA.
As I gaze upon the rigid rapt figure of the Buddha upon my desk, I realize anew how much of Gautama's power is drawn from the practice of contemplation. It ties wings to the mind and sends the soul soaring up to its primal home. Gautama found his peace during that wonderful night when he came, weary of long search, dejected with six years of fruitless effort, to the Bo-tree near Gaya and sat in motionless meditation beneath its friendly branches, sinking the plummet of mind into the sacred well within. The true nature of human existence is obscured by the ceaseless changes of human thought. Whilst we remain embroiled in the multitude of thoughts which pass and re-pass, we cannot discover the pure unit of consciousness which exists beneath them all. These thoughts must first be steadied, next stilled. Every man has a fount within him. He has but to arise and go unto it. There he may find what he really needs.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.