Chapter 2

Empty consciousness

But first, let us talk about the type of consciousness that involves no reasoning, and in fact no concepts: what is called "mysticism," of which there are several types. I think I would like to include here things like hypnotism and the possibility of possession by spirits, and mention other "altered states of consciousness", because many of these forms of consciousness seem to be a special kind of knowing, but I think that in most cases, any apparent increase in knowledge is a deception. I have mentioned these subjects in passing earlier; but I think a somewhat more extended treatment is in order.

The first kind of mystical experience is actually intellectual, but it has no content, and is analogous to the blackness one sees when looking into perfect darkness--which, as I mentioned under sight in dealing with the sense faculty in Chapter 5 of Section 2 of the third part 3.2.5, is a special form of the self-transparency of the conscious act which is aware of itself but is reacting to nothing.

There is a normal experience similar to this blackness in the intellectual realm, as I hinted when dealing with abstraction in Chapter 4 of Section 3 of the third part 3.3.4: the experience of puzzlement. In that experience, a sensation of some kind has turned on the spirit in its function of understanding, and it is examining the sensation to find a relationship to understand--but it doesn't understand one as yet. The experience is that of expectation; one knows that one doesn't understand, and at the same time one knows (or hopes) that one will understand. The spirit, of course, when it is active, is immediately aware of its own activity, as I said as early as Chapter 11 of Section 1 of the first part 1.1.11, and discussed more at length in Sections 2 and 3 of the third part. 3.2.1 3.3.1

But in this experience, understanding thinks it does not know and has an expectation of knowing a concept; and in this its knowing-unknowing is different from the mystical experience I am now speaking of.

Empty consciousness is understanding's awareness of itself when it has deliberately refused to know any relationship.

Puzzlement involves an attempt to go beyond the state understanding is now in; empty consciousness rests in it, and deliberately tries to preserve it. It is understanding, therefore, since it is an act of the spirit and not a sensation, and it understands itself as knowing; but it precisely knows nothing. However, if this is a kind of terminal phase for the spirit, it understands this "nothingness" it knows in a positive sense, and not as the equivalent of the statement, "I do not know anything." It is as if the nothingness is some kind of object for it, a kind of "non-object" object where all distinctions disappear (because a distinction is a relationship), and the mind is transported into another realm entirely, to which conceptual consciousness is completely foreign.

Achieving this state is actually very difficult, because understanding is extremely ingenious in finding relationships, because that is its nature. As we saw in Section 3 of the third part, but more especially in Section 5 of the first part, the function of understanding is to enable material spirits, who are affected by outside energy in such a way that some of these energies have a conscious (and subjective) "dimension" to them, to achieve the only kind of objective knowledge possible for such beings. Hence, in one sense, understanding, in knowing only itself, is aware that this is not its natural condition, nor is it a condition in which it knows something objective; and so it normally tries to get itself out of this condition in any way it can.

And it is for this reason that the non-Confucian Eastern philosophies, which have this experience as their goal, involve years and years of training--and training, not in studying anything, but in achieving "purity of spirit." The breakthrough into this consciousness cannot even be achieved for a very long time; and it takes many more years before it can be sustained for more than a few seconds or minutes.

The object of this training, if you look at what is going on in yoga and the various types of Buddhism like Zen, is to do something so that the student will concentrate on some individual object to such an extent that he "thinks away" all relationships, and just has it before his spirit--or rather, since having it "before" his spirit implies a dichotomy between the two, that his spirit becomes totally absorbed in this one individual thing (and does not even think of it as "an individual thing," because that too is a relationship) and this thing becomes absorbed in the spirit's attention.

Yoga achieves this by first doing many physical exercises; but although those who play with it use it for the benefit to the body, this is by no means the purpose of the exercises. They have as their function to get the body under complete mental control and relax it absolutely so that it and its needs do not get in the way of spiritual activity. This is why one of the characteristics of all the contortions of the body is that they are to be done slowly and calmly, regulating the breathing while they are being performed. They produce flexibility and pliability also, so that no position of the body results in pain, or the mind will be distracted in its contemplation. Further, each of the positions of the body is given a symbolism, which helps the early learner realize what Yoga thinks its reality is: a shadow of the mind, and an insertion into the world of illusion.

Hence, the purpose of the yoga exercises is not to develop the body, but to free the mind from any dependence on the body. This is why the most important yoga exercises are not those of stretching, but the breathing exercises and the control of things like heartbeat. The idea is that if a person can put himself into a state analogous to a hibernating bear, but keep his mind active, then he can engage in mystical contemplation most successfully.

Zen is an attempt to shortcut such procedures and go directly to the contemplation of empty consciousness. What seems to be behind this is that the exercises of disciplines like yoga involve too much concentration on the body for too long, and too much symbolic knowledge, which ultimately has to be thrown aside. Why not aim directly for the goal and simply do the mental work of thinking away all relationships?

But Zen has its own difficulties. First of all, you obviously can't learn it from books, because they present you with facts; you have to be led toward contemplation by someone who has achieved it. And since it involves understanding nothing at all, and naturally the student wants to know what he is supposed to be thinking about, the master's training has to be very devious: he must somehow show the student that the attitude of mind of asking questions is the attitude that leads away from the goal he wishes to achieve; and so questions are sometimes answered in an absurd way, even to being slapped and so on.

The student, of course (since the master tells him nothing), is puzzled, and thinks for a long time that he is asking the wrong kind of question; and it is only after a very long time that it dawns on him that his job is not to ask questions or seek answers, but simply to think without thinking about anything at all. Since this seems to the uninitiated a total waste of time and something involving the very opposite of wisdom, the student's mind naturally resists it, and he must somehow be led to overcome this recalcitrance and actually to try thinking but not thinking about anything.

And of course, until you actually do this act of totally emptying your consciousness of everything but the act of consciousness itself, you do not get into this completely different type of consciousness which will appear, once it is achieved, as absolute wisdom. If the slightest concept is there in consciousness, then of course, understanding knows some abstract fact, and is not confronted with understanding in its absolute nakedness--in the same way as seeing any light at all destroys the volume of blackness in seeing nothing. Hence, no matter how far along the student is in his practice of Zen, he is absolutely nowhere until he has--at least for a brief moment--actually reached the goal.

Of course, once he has reached it for even an instant, then the world disappears and simple, contentless knowledge is known, but not even known as knowledge, since this too would be a concept; and it is then that he realizes what the master has been trying to teach him, and knows more or less how to achieve it; and from then on the problem is how to get it again and sustain it for longer and longer periods.

Let us look at this consciousness for a moment.

Since it has no concepts in it at all, but only the contentless understanding-of-understanding, then it is not surprising that those who try to describe it to others do so in very mysterious terms. One who has it understands that all is one, and that he is one with everything, that everything is nothing, that nothing is being and that being is nothing, that I am the whole universe, that there is no "I" over against everything, and that all conceptual experience with its abstractions is laughably insignificant as "knowledge" in comparison to this absolute, all-encompassing wisdom.

It is understanding, as I have pointed out, and can't be called false, because it understands its own act, and all the phrases above are recognized as false and totally inadequate expressions of the act. And since it deals with nothing at all (but not as such), then it is very hard to convince a person who has had it that it doesn't simultaneously deal with the "real truth" about absolutely everything (because everything and nothing have the common characteristic of being undifferentiated--and in this experience they merge into unity, because you are precisely refusing to make distinctions).

But if my analysis is correct, this Buddhist nirvana is not only not absolute wisdom, it is absolute unwisdom; it is not only not the knowledge of everything, it is the absolute minimum below which there would only be unconsciousness; far from being the expansion of consciousness to encompass infinity, it is the contraction of consciousness to the least it can possibly be and still know.

And that this consciousness is regarded as the real truth is the explanation of why the Indian philosophies hold that the world in which we live is a world of "illusion," and that the really real world is the world "behind" it which we can discover through this mystical experience. It also explains why acting (karma) is a dirty word in these philosophies. When you act, as opposed to contemplate, you tie yourself down to the world of objects and make yourself simultaneously a subject over against them and an object in this world; and since all of this is a dream, not reality, then you have to get rid of this way of behaving if you are ever to escape from the wheel to its center.

Clearly, this view of life is the exact antithesis of what I hold in this book; instead of formulating finite goals for yourself and seeking them in this life, you are to give up all goals and make your goal the goal of not seeking anything finite, but contemplating the All that is Nothing. You are not to be concerned about anything that happens in this world, though you have infinite compassion for it (in that you look down on it as illusion); but you realize that none of it is any more real than a nightmare--and so you are uninvolved in everything.

Now it is true that, from God's point of view, nothing that happens in this world matters, in the sense that nothing that happens in this world can affect him in any way. But there is a vast difference between the uninvolvement that the Eastern philosophies hold up as the ideal and the Creator who isn't in fact dreaming but is causing finite beings to exist and actually interact and affect each other, and is causing finite free beings to create themselves unto their own image and likeness, and is helping them achieve the goals they set for themselves--even to the extent, if Christianity is true, of becoming one of them himself, and actually choosing to suffer in this world if the world chooses to inflict it on him. But even if the God reasoned to in this book is not the Christian one who became man, he is still anything but the "undifferentiated ground of being" that is dreaming the whole world of objects that we live in.

It is anything but surprising that a part of the world which inculcates this attitude has immense social problems; and I would think that they are insoluble to the precise extent that they are believed to be unreal and that to escape from suffering is not to try to develop out of it, but essentially to forget it by retreating into empty consciousness.

If what I have said indicates my bias and antipathy toward this philosophy, so be it. I recognize that I stand for the exact opposite of what it stands for. But I also recognize that my analysis shows (a) how such a consciousness could occur, (b) why it should appear as described by the people who have it, (c) why learning it is not learning more and more, but how to learn less and less--how to empty your mind--and (d) why it should carry the absolute and unshakeable conviction along with it that it is the only thing worth knowing and that it contains within it all truth and wisdom.

As it happens, I think there is at least a possible mystical experience which is the opposite of this one, and which is in fact absolute fullness of knowledge, and a foretaste of the Beatific Vision; but the characteristic of this latter mystical experience is that it does not lead one to inaction but leaves involvement in the world intact. And it may very well be that there are many mystics in Eastern religions who in fact have this type of mystical experience. But I will discuss this more at length in its place at the end of this section.

I do not want to leave the impression that the mysticism of empty consciousness is confined to those who practice Eastern philosophies or religions. There is a version of it in Christianity, in fact, called "acquired contemplation," a type of prayer that occurs usually after years of the kind of discursive meditation that monks commonly practice.

Meditation as practiced up until recently in Christian churches (nowadays many have gone over into the Eastern version) has been an actual thinking about some religious text or some event in the life of Jesus, or some truth of the faith. For instance, one might say over to himself the Lord's Prayer and stop at every word, trying to discover all the meaning he can in it, thus: "Our"--not just mine but everyone's, which means that I am not special, that I am a brother of everyone else who can say this--etc., etc.; and then "Father"--not Master, as in the Old Testament, and not Creator, but because of Jesus an actual parent, and a Father because the mother of Jesus was Mary a human--etc., etc. Or one might picture the Resurrection, and try to think of what it meant for Jesus, what it meant for the Apostles and Mary, what it means for me today, and so on; or one might consider death and what its implications are for a believer.

Of course, this sort of thing is conceptual and also imaginative, since one pictures what is going on when thinking of an event of the past; and the idea is to understand more about one's faith and what is behind it. I personally have found it very profitable. It also helps you to think and to notice details.

But after years of this, of course, a person tends to run out of ideas. After looking up at the cross and thinking about it and finding immense riches of things to understand about it, the meditation becomes analogous to listening to a symphony for the hundredth or thousandth time; it is all completely familiar, and, like the symphony, one lets the ideas wash over him, recognizing them, but not paying a great deal of attention.

Eventually, this becomes "the prayer of quiet." The meditator doesn't try to think about the cross any more; he just sits there in church and looks at it. As one elderly man once replied when asked what he did for hours sitting in the church, "I look at him, and he looks at me." There are no longer any contents to the act, and one is simply there, totally absorbed in the contemplation.

Now this may be the absolutely full mystical experience called "infused contemplation" that I spoke of earlier; but it can also be the kind of emptying of the mind by concentrating on just the one object and not attending to any relationships. In Christianity, this type of contemplation is not regarded as the be-all and end-all of existence, though it is considered a very good state to be in; but spiritual writers have always warned that it can lead to arrogance and that it is not necessary for holiness; it is by the "fruits" of virtue that you know whether someone is holy, not by the exalted state of his prayer life.

I might point out that there is a kind of contemplative tendency in Christianity which emphasizes "conformity to the will of God" and a kind of fatalism about things and withdrawal from involvement in the world. This, however, has generally been held to be a false view of things (not surprisingly, because the leader of Christianity was obviously much involved in the world); and even the so-called "contemplative" monks like the Trappists have usually had to work at something like farming, and have held that their duty was to be "the world at prayer." They look on their withdrawal from the world as anything but uninvolvement and indifference to the world; they do consider themselves lucky to be spared the temptations of the active life in the world, but they have a task for the world which only those who devote themselves to prayer can perform: they are praying for those who are either too busy or too blind to pray for themselves; and they act as spokesmen for the world in its loving relationship to God. After all, Thérèse of Lisieux was one of these contemplatives, and she considered herself a missionary, since she chose certain missionaries and prayed for their success; and the Catholic Church has made her the patron of missionaries, in spite of the fact that she never left her convent. This is evidence that the contemplatives think of what they are doing as a kind of work in the world.

And of course, if my view of things is correct, then withdrawal and "conformity to the will of God" in this passive sense is an abuse of human freedom; because it is choosing, as I said, to self-determine oneself in such a way that circumstances determine oneself. It is also true that, since God has no goals of his own for the world, then the world will be only what we choose it to be; and so if we remain uninvolved, we accept the world as it is, and not as the improved world it could be if we chose to do something about it.

That is, the two attitudes about the world could be expressed as the attitudes you can have about your house depending on whether you are renting it or whether you own it but the bank has a lien on it. If you are merely renting a house, you are like the person who is withdrawn from the world; if something goes wrong you call up the landlord and ask him to fix it, and put up with it until he does. If you own the house, however, you don't call up the banker when the roof leaks--or if you do, the banker might even say, "You had better get that fixed, or we may be forced to call in the loan."

Our world, just like ourselves, is ours. We can't sit back and do nothing (showing that we have no goal for it) and then ask God to fix up what's wrong with it. God, remember, has no ideals; and so the world is perfectly all right as it is as far as he is concerned, as long as we don't want it different enough to choose to do something about it. If we just keep our ideals and complain and pray in that "complaining to God" sense, then he's not going to do anything, because we obviously don't want anything done or we'd be doing it--or at least trying.

So again, the contemplation of God is not something that takes one away from this world, if my view of things is true.

In any case, there are two alternatives when you try to have a philosophical world view which includes mysticism. You can take the mystical experience at its face value and interpret ordinary experience in the light of it--in which case, what happens here in this world is illusory in one way or another--or you can fit mystical experience in as one type of human experience, and only part of it, and try to account for it in the light of the rest of experience--in which case, its claim to absolute wisdom is called into question. Obviously, I take the latter tack.

But doesn't my view suffer the same defect as that of the determinist who is trying to explain away the immediate datum of experience which is the conviction that our choices are free? Everything in the mystical experience is an "immediate datum of experience," and so its conviction of being true cannot be erroneous. But of course I am not saying that the experience itself is a false experience, only that it does not in fact report the truth about anything but itself in its nakedness. That is, just as the seeing of a black expanse is certainly the experience which it is, it does not follow that what you are looking at is an undifferentiated void (it just may be that the lights are not on); so the understanding of bare understanding is understanding, as I have stressed so often; but it does not follow that it is understanding of anything, even of itself; it is simply the experience of what it is like for understanding to be "on" without understanding anything.

This empty consciousness is not confined to mystics who have spent years practicing it; in fact, we have all had it. The very first moment of consciousness must, for a human being, be the mystical experience of empty consciousness, for the simple reason that there is as yet nothing to compare and no relation to understand, no matter how complex the sense experience might in fact be.

That is, if we suppose that the first sensation you ever had was a pain in your left foot, you couldn't have recognized it as such, because you didn't know at the time that you had a foot, let alone a left one, and you didn't know what pain was, because you had nothing to compare it with. The sensation would necessarily appear as a single whole.

But because understanding "turns on" when sensation is active, this experience would also involve understanding; and yet since there is nothing as yet to compare, then no concept can be abstracted from the sensation; and so the intellectual "dimension" of this experience is like what the cartoonist depicts when he draws an exclamation point and nothing else in the speech "balloon" above some character's head.

Actually, this is not the same type of mystical experience as the empty consciousness I was describing earlier, because that other one was the experience of nothing at all (since all relationships were deliberately ignored, to leave understanding naked), while this one potentially has a content. Hence, this experience is more the undifferentiated awareness of "being," or perhaps "existence" or "activity," and in that sense is the exact opposite of the other kind of empty consciousness.

Hegel in his Wissenschaft der Logik starts out with something like this absolutely empty awareness of being, which is identical, he says, with nothing at all; and the logic he derives from this realization is that of going out of being and coming into being, with the result that the first "in and for itself" in logic is dasein, which might be called a being--that is, not nothing. But I think he is mistaken here. There is all the difference in the world between being and nothingness; but you can't describe the difference, because the experience of being and the experience of nothing are both non-conceptual, and any attempt to point out the difference would involve using concepts. Still, this does not mean that a person who has had both wouldn't recognize the difference between the two, in spite of not being able to put it into words. Seeing undifferentiated blackness is different from seeing undifferentiated whiteness, in spite of the fact that you couldn't describe the difference if these were the only two color experiences you had.

In any case, the first moment of consciousness and this "exclamatory" awareness of being persists until some new sensation is recognized, at which point the person has his first conceptual experience, that of "different." That is, if the pain in your left foot was followed by the sensation of moving your left foot, but you didn't notice that this was not the same sensation as the previous one, then obviously you would still be in the first experience of undifferentiated being. Only when some different sensation occurred and you noticed it as different would you know (a) that you had had a new experience and (b) that it was different from the previous one--except that "new" and "previous" would not have any meaning for you as yet, because they depend on the complex concept of time or sequence. And since in order to specify how they were different, you would have to recognize in what respect they were the same and in what other respect they were different, then in this second experience, the sensations are understood as undifferentiated wholes, and all you know is that one is different from the other.

The first few intellectual experiences of everyone must, therefore, be the same; and it all begins with a mystical experience which develops into conceptual consciousness.(1)

There is another part of a normal experience that is closer to the mystic's empty consciousness than this very first experience we all have had; and this is one "dimension" of the experience of falling in love.

When you fall in love, your experience has several "dimensions" to it: first of all, of course, there is the complex emotion which is the conscious "dimension" of the sex drive; and there is also the abstract knowledge of who the person you love is. Added to this, there is the esthetic understanding of the beloved, based on similarities of the emotional impact she has on you with the emotional impact of other objects; and this gives rise to such comparisons as "My love is like a red, red rose/ That's newly sprung in June," and so on.

But there is another "dimension" that is not describable because it is mystical; it is basically the contemplative attempt to answer the question, "Why is she the one?" What is it about this person that is so special? After trying to find the characteristics that make her so attractive--and failing, because no one of them is adequate, and not even the sum of them is adequate, you rest in the "mystery" of it all, and of her, and you simply contemplate her as a marvelous individual and accept her as "being made in heaven" for you and all the rest of it. For anyone going through this experience it is all glorious, and somehow full of truth; but when you try to talk about it to others, you find that what you say bores them to sickness--especially if they have been through it themselves and the scales have fallen from their eyes.

This mystical aspect of the experience is like what I described above when talking about "the prayer of quiet," where a single object is looked at, but no attempt is made to find aspects of it which can be understood; you are simply "with" your beloved, thinking of her, but not thinking about her; and often it is enough just to be there in her presence, marveling and wondering. Again, the knowledge is intellectual knowledge, and so you "understand her"--and you seem to understand her in a deeper sense than you understood anything in your whole life, and you are convinced that you know more about her than she knows about herself, because you don't understand facts about her, but you understand "the depths" of her.

I'm sorry; but just as with other forms of empty consciousness, all you understand is the act of understanding, not anything about her. You have not "seen her very essence," you have simply turned your understanding on and been so taken with her in her uniqueness that you left it with nothing to understand. And this is why those who have been in love and got over it (it happens, in spite of the fact that this mystical "dimension" as spiritual says "forever and ever") realize that the knowledge you have is sham and delusion, however incapable they are of convincing you of this--or themselves, for that matter, if they fall in love again.



1. Note that intellectual consciousness starts out as abstract and only gradually works its way to concretion, not the other way round. In this, I think that child psychologists like Piaget are completely wrong. We first learn abstract difference, then abstract sameness (when one sensation is recognized as repeated); once these two are in hand, then understanding searches sensations for samenesses and differences, and eventually notices partial sameness (i.e. sameness within difference), and this is the beginning of observing beings like Mother moving within the visual field. Then similarities and differences among these "objects" are noted, while the baby is also discovering his own body by touching himself and watching and feeling. Once this happens, the baby is interested in classifying these "objects," and it is for this reason that children's thinking is concerned with the individual, not that they can't think abstractly. They are not at this stage interested in abstractions. Incidentally, the recognition of the self as a subject and of the objects as true objects comes rather late, and is connected with the recognition of a difference between dreaming (or imagining) and perceiving.