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Emptiness’s Great Trick

Empty space (or emptiness) has a very neat trick that it can play and that is to appear solid, or substantial. It does this even though there is nothing solid about emptiness, nothing substantial in it. Emptiness manages to look like something solid or fixed even though the one fundamental principle behind the phenomenal universe is that nothing can ever stay still, or be ‘fixed’, or ‘remain the same’. ‘You cannot step into the same river twice’, as Heraclitus tells us…

The ‘fundamental principle’ behind this phenomenal world that we see every day is that everything is always in motion, and also that there is no unmoving thing in it that is ‘in motion’. ‘Something unknown is doing we don’t know what‘, as Arthur Eddington says. And it’s not just ‘something unknown’, it’s something that never can be known. It never can be known because it never stays on the same page and our thinking works, and actually gets to be ‘thinking’, by not only ‘staying on the same page’, but by pretending that this one static page is the only reality that there is or ever could be.

This ‘fundamental principle’ that we’re talking about can be related to the ‘Transcendental Mercury’, personified in alchemy as the spirit Mercurius. One image or metaphor for Mercurius, Jung says, is the fugitive stag – we may chase the fugitive stag for all we’re worth but we’ll never catch it. Chasing is permitted, catching isn’t. How are we to catch a transcendental principle, after all? To catch it would be to make it ‘non-transcendental’; to catch it would be to make it what it isn’t, and in this case the truth is that we haven’t caught it at all!

The emptiness that we are talking about is therefore a function of the fact that we can never lay our hands upon the elusive Mercurius; it’s not ‘emptiness’ in the sense of hollowness or sterility, but emptiness in the sense of it being empty of anything that can be described or defined, or empty of any self-existing form, as the Dalai Lama says. Reality is immune to our grasping, it is resistant to our attempts to organise it and in this sense it is the ultimate rebel. The spirit Mercurius effortlessly resists any attempts that might be made to impose any authority on him. Reality can never be confined to any one ‘page’ and when we ‘succeed’ in doing so it immediately becomes unreal. We may not see that reality has become unreal, but that’s our problem not reality’s.

Emptiness’s Great Trick is to appear to be not empty therefore; its trick is to appear as if it were something concrete, something that is capable of being literally understood. Instead of ‘something unknown is doing we don’t know what’, we have the (apparent) situation of ‘something known is doing something predictable’, or ‘something known is doing something that we know about and understand perfectly well.’ Instead of mystery we have ‘matter-of-fact mechanics’. We have tamed reality so much that we can even get bored of it – it’s an old story and we’re weary of it. We’re weary of it because we feel that we know it all already….

There is no such thing as ‘the final authoritative version of reality’ and yet as far as we’re concerned there is. There’s no such thing as ‘a final configuration’ and yet we spend our lives acting on the presumption that there is. There’s no such thing as a final ‘material reality’ when it comes down to it – how can there be? How can there be such a thing as ‘a final material reality’ (or such a thing as ‘matter’) within the context of Emptiness? We can of course have such thing as ‘matter as it exists within the Greater Context of Endless Emptiness’ but this ‘contextualisation’ does away with the whole notion of matter, which is that it has to seem genuinely substantial (or real in its own right), just as we seem to be. Bringing in Emptiness ‘relativizes the absolute’ and the absolute can’t stand being relativized!

Matter is only matter when we don’t put it in any Greater Context; it’s only matter when we see it as a final reality, something that we can never move beyond. Matter as it (provisionally) exists within the context of Emptiness is ‘matter in a dream’ and what is ‘matter in a dream?’ Do we still call it ‘matter’? We live our lives in strict obedience or conformity to what we take to be ‘the final reality,’ never going beyond it (or even thinking all of going beyond it) and yet this is a ‘final reality in a dream’ and so what type of thing is this? A ‘final reality within a dream’ doesn’t sound so final at all, needless to say, so what does it mean calling something ‘final’ when it isn’t? What exactly is it that we are holding onto so tightly?

Emptiness then has this incredible trick that it plays – it plays the trick of pretending to be solid, or substantial. Another way of putting this is to say that Emptiness has this trick up its sleeve, this trick of pretending that ‘there’s no such thing as emptiness’, and not only is there that there is ‘no such thing as Emptiness’ but of arranging things so that the very thought ‘there is no such thing as Emptiness’ never arises in the first place! The thought never arises because we have no way of comprehending what it is that we are (implicitly) denying. If we can’t for the life of us comprehend that there is such a thing, or that there could be such a thing, then we don’t need to put ourselves out by deliberately denying it.

When Emptiness performs this trick of removing itself from the picture then something very strange is produced by its absence. The ‘illusion of substantiality’ (or ‘the illusion of solidity’) is produced. This notion of there really being such a thing as ‘substance’ or ‘finality’ or ‘unquestionable certainty’ is what provides us with our sense of security in the world, and this sense of security is very important to us. Saying that it is very important to us is a wholly inadequate way of putting it of course – to carry on believing in this sense of security is the only thing that matters to us, generally speaking. Were we to be suddenly deprived of this comforting illusion that would result in naked existential terror and ‘naked existential terror’ is at the top of our list of ‘things to avoid’…

What a peculiar situation this is therefore! We are wholly governed by our attachment to a Sense Of Security that doesn’t actually exist. We are ‘addicted to an illusion’. There’s more to this addiction then we might think however – we are addicted to believing that the illusion of solidity (or ‘finality’) that Emptiness’s trick provides us with isn’t an illusion (and so we certainly aren’t going to be encouraging any curiosity on this particular subject) but further to this we can also point out that the one who is addicted to the ontological security provided by the illusion is at root nothing more than that very same illusion which is being clung to. The one who utilises the sense of security provided by the illusion in order to feel real is themselves an illusion. So the illusion which is the Concrete Identity utilises the apparent security provided by the illusion of the material or solid universe that it believes in in order that it might not feel that it is an illusion. The illusion is addicted to the illusion, therefore.

The Defined Self (or Concrete Identity) is of course ‘a final reality’ in its own right, just as it understands the world it believes in to be. It’s a ‘final reality within a final reality’ therefore, a ‘final reality within a closed context or game’. It’s ‘finality’ is a function of the apparent finality of the material world – it is an adaptation to this (apparent) authority. So Emptiness performs its trick of causing itself (apparently) not to be there and this trick gives rise to the illusion of the material universe (which is like God creating the world and then disappearing). ‘Nature loves to hide’, says Heraclitus. There is more to it than this however because at the same time that the theatre of the phenomenal universe is created, so too is ‘the theatre of the phenomenal self’. Just as the apparent solidity or substantiality of the world is ‘solidity within a dream’, so too is the very great apparent substantiality of the empirical self or ego ‘substantiality within a dream’…

Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.
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