Lee: I remember your friends at the James retreat last summer talking about wanting to be “in the void.” What does that mean?
Ted: It is a common misconception in the “spiritual world” that the “void” is the ultimate state of being. Some people even think that the “void” is the ultimate goal, which according to Vedanta is freedom. Because the “void” seems to have no limitation, they equate it with limitless, non-dual awareness. But this is simply a wrong notion.
First of all, there is no such thing as the “void.” What people call the “void” is simply another object in awareness. It is different from other objects in that it seems to have no shape, color, smell, taste, or feeling and in many cases no emotional or ideational content. If such were truly the case, however, how could it be recognized and experienced as a discrete state of being? And if it can be recognized and experienced, then really how “void” is it?
Truly speaking, the content or “substance” of the void is actually nothing other than pure, limitless, non-dual awareness, which is referred to in Sanskrit as purno’ham, or perfect fullness. This fullness is what is symbolized by Ganesha’s great big belly as well as that of the “laughing Buddha.”
Awareness is all that is. Nothing can be added to it; nothing subtracted from it. Appearances – even the appearance of “void” or “nothingness” arise, abide, and subside within its being, but it remains ever the same and is never sullied or in any way changed by the presence or absence of any such phenomena.
Even if we were to grant that the “void” is not an object, this would not negate its fullness. Rather the “void” would simply be a reflection in the mind of awareness in its unmanifest state of pure potentiality.
Note that I said the “reflection in the mind of awareness.” Pure awareness itself is attributeless and therefore cannot be objectified. Since the mind can only know objects, the experience of pure awareness is beyond the scope or capability of the mind. The reflection of the self, or pure awareness, however, can be seen in a purified mind – i.e. one that is not unduly compelled by extroverting desires and fears and is, therefore, quiet and contemplative. It is similar to the way that a reflection of the sun seen on the surface of a still pond accurately reflects its still nature, whereas the flashing and twinkling seen in roiled water makes it seem as if the sun is an active “dancing” phenomenon.
The essential point is that whatever can be perceived or conceived and, thus, experienced – even that which is perceived as “void” – is nothing more than an object appearing in and comprised of awareness. There is, therefore, no such thing as nothing. And wanting to experience or “be in” the “void” is no different than wanting to acquire, attain, or enjoy any other object. Some may find it peaceful, some scary, some simply boring, but contrary to one of the most popular views in the “spiritual world” it is by no means “enlightenment” nor does such an experience constitute the knowledge that permanently sets one free. In short, those that seek the “void” thinking such an experience constitutes self-realization are barking up the wrong tree.
Lee: For the better part of two months, I have felt this complete emptiness. Not forward, no backward, no future, no sense of the past. It’s like the allegory of the cave, I can’t tell what is shadow or what is real, what’s an echo or what is an original sound. Nothing’s real and everything’s fake. I have no sense of how to function anymore in this world. Is this the “void” you friends talk about? And if so, why is it so desirable?
Ted: To reiterate, I have no idea what the “void” is that these other people were talking about. I’ve given you my conjecture concerning their most probable concept and interpretation of it and the most likely reason that they erroneously assigned it any worth in terms of “spiritual” growth and/or self-realization, but the “void” is not something that is given any significance in Vedanta.
Vedanta is concerned with revealing the true nature of reality and is founded upon the discrimination between the real and the “not-real,” or only apparently real. Vedanta defines “real” as “that which never changes” or “that which cannot be negated.” While it is true that since reality is non-dual everything is real in the sense that it is fundamentally the self, it is also true that all objects are impermanent. Only the witnessing awareness in which these objects appear and out of which these objects are “made” remains constant despite the incessant transformation of all the objects.
In order to understand the true nature of reality and one’s true identity as limitless, all-pervasive, non-dual awareness, it is important that one be able to distinguish between pure awareness, that which is changeless and ever- present, and reflected awareness, all the transitory objects appearing or “reflected” in the mind due to the deluding power of maya, or ignorance.
Unlike the Neo-Advaitans and many other misguided “spiritual” seekers, Vedanta does not deny the existence of objects or this world/universe. Quite obviously, these things do exist. How otherwise would we experience them? But, according to Vedanta, these things are not real. In other words, they enjoy no independent existence of their own. If awareness were not illumining them, they would cease to be. All objects, therefore, are only apparently real or dependently real. The traditional analogies that are used to illustrate this point are those of the clay and the pot, the gold and the ornaments, and the ocean and the wave. Just as the pot enjoys no existence apart from the clay, the ornaments none apart from the gold, and the wave none apart from the ocean, so no object enjoys any existence apart from awareness. Hence, Vedanta’s assertion that while all objects depend upon awareness for their existence, awareness (the self) is ever free of all objects. You know this directly from your own experience of deep sleep each night. Despite the fact that all objects – including the mind-body-sense complex that comprises the person you take yourself to be – disappear, you (awareness) don’t cease to exist.
Because we as apparent individuals are so deeply ingrained with the erroneous belief that lasting joy can be found in the procurement of objects – i.e. certain experiences, situations, circumstances, actions, accomplishments, relationships, status, possessions, etc. – it is important that we be able see that these are only temporary phenomena that are fundamentally incapable of producing permanent security, pleasure, happiness, and peace.
The ability to make this distinction allows one to quit the fruitless quest for lasting fulfillment through these ephemeral phenomena, and identify one’s own self – i.e. awareness, not the apparent person – as the true source of joy. This is the knowledge that ends suffering and sets one free.
But this freedom does not take the form of the “void” or any other experience, for that matter. You, pure awareness, are altogether beyond experience. Experience depends on you, while you are ever free of it. Moreover, since you as pure awareness are attributeless – think about it, does the knowing principle “in” you have any form? – you cannot be the object of experience. Despite the most prevalent and powerful delusion rampant in the “spiritual world,” therefore, self-realization is not a matter of experience, but of knowledge. While any and all experience – no matter how mind-blowing or “spiritual” it is – inevitably ends, knowledge, once gained, always remains.
This is not to say that self-knowledge ends all experience. But while karma continues, suffering ceases. When one realizes the essential emptiness of experience, one no longer seeks from it what it is incapable of offering. Moreover, one’s object-oriented desires gradually reduce and eventually fade away, for one can cut out the “middle man,” so to speak, once one has gained direct access – through knowledge, mind you, not having attained or achieved a special experiential state, merged with or dissolved into some celestial entity, or ascended to or transcended any particular realm or place – to the eternal source of bliss that is one’s own being.
This realization of the essential emptiness of objects, however, does not catapult one into the “void” nor does it produce apathy. While it may be initially a rather disheartening or at least discombobulating epiphany, it is also one that once fully assimilated gives one the maturity to undertake effective self-inquiry and ultimately gain liberation.
Lee: Nothing matters. Everything is pointless. Emotions are just sensations that move through me, but they are all painful. Nothing feels pleasant. Everything in my life that I ever cared about is gone. I’ve been forced to drop all attachment.
So right now it would seem that you are at the point where you are experiencing the bankruptcy of object-joy. From what I know of you I’m guessing that this is causing suffering because you are – at least according to what you have told me over the years – wholeheartedly captivated by experience.
If it’s true that you’ve been forced to drop all attachment, then that is actually a good thing since nothing one can get attached to will ever provide the fulfillment they hope it will. It will be even better when the detachment and dispassion isn’t the result of force but of free will based on discrimination and knowledge.
So, to more succinctly answer your question concerning the desirability of the “void,” it is actually discriminative dispassion, which many seekers misunderstand or mistakenly interpret to by some kind of “void” state, that is desirable due to the fact that it purifies the mind and thereby facilitates the assimilation of self-knowledge that ultimately and truly ends one’s suffering.
There are basically two alternatives at this point. You can either slog through the pain with the assurance that it will inevitably change as all objects/experiences do. Or you can use it as a catalyst for self-inquiry, and perhaps expose yourself to the teachings of Vedanta through which your true identity as whole and complete, limitless, actionless, unborn, ever- present, all-pervasive, non-dual awareness will be clearly and irrefutably revealed and through the repeated application of which you will eventually stand with unshakable conviction in your true nature.
Though you might say, “Yeah, yeah, I already get that,” I would urge you to contemplate that assumption, for if you did really get it you wouldn’t have asked the question you put to me.
I’m certainly not telling you what to do, I’m just saying…
I hope these comments help.