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Rollo May : Meditation and the Holy Void

Extract from :

Rollo May

Freedom and destiny

Meditation and the Holy Void

Most of us are so preoccupied with the noise, the uproar, the cacophony of the modern world that we have no energy left for constructive living. We long to pause, to absorb into our day-today existence, some calmness, some inner order in which we can call our soul our own, in which we take time to experience some beauty, to know and enjoy our friends, and to let whatever creative impulses or visions we have be heard, listened to, have their moment. This pressing need coincides with the influx of Oriental influence, especially among the young people in this country, shown by the wide sale of books on Oriental religion, the endless listening to gurus, the renunciation of all worldly possessions to join an ashram. There can be no doubt of the depth and urgency of the hunger for some psychoreligious center of life.

Meditation is a way, available for most of us without a radical changing of our vocation, by which we can put meaningful content into the pause. No matter what form or stripe this meditation may take — yoga of the physical or mental variety, Zen Buddhism, Tao, Transcendental Meditation, Christian Contemplation, Concentration — they all have in common the aim of providing channels to deeper levels of experience by means of the pause.

When I, for one example, am overburdened with fatigue or gloom or the distress of problems and the sleeplessness that goes with these things, I may pause temporarily to withdraw myself from the ego-self. I cannot do this by the head-on force of thinking. But it can be done, sometimes with the help of a mantra, or through relaxation, or pausing and “letting be.” I seek to move into the psyche-self, in which I see things sub specie aeternitatis, in which I no longer feel the pains described above — the ego-self that feels them is temporarily transcended. The fatigue, the distress, the gloom all seem to vanish. The psyche-self, freed from the groveling kind of pain, freed from the narcissism, freed from ego-centered misery, can be a channel to awareness of infinite possibilities. This state is what the Zen Buddhists mean when they advise withdrawal and compassion.

Meditation is, par excellence, a concentration of the void, the pause, the “no thing.” It is a freeing of the self from the clutter of life, giving one a pleasantly dizzy and mildly ecstatic experience. This dizziness is an attractive state that one likes to come back to, at least in memory, in moments throughout the day. In this sense meditation is a relief and a freedom from our buying and selling, our technological culture. Meditation seems “magical” and curative because it opens one’s vision and being to a new world, a brightly colored world, conducive to calmness and peacefulness. In general it seems to be a less intense form of the world than the mystics describe, but in quality the same, a world which has within it sweetness, overflowing love, beauty now all about.

This is the common denominator of the many diverse methods of meditation. They seem to have in common :

(1) stopping the machinery, the noise, the pressure, the haste, the compulsive driveness

(2) a higher level of consciousness, what was called “oceanic” by Freud and Einstein.

One experiences being absorbed into the universe and the universe being temporarily absorbed into one’s self. These aims are summed up in the words of the Taoist Chuang-tzu, as translated by the Trappist Thomas Merton,

No drives, no compulsions

No needs, no attractions:

Then your affairs are under control.

You are a free man.

There is always the danger that descriptions of such events will be too flowery, too separate from the reality of most people’s experience. Let us keep in mind that meditation occurs in all gradations, from a chance insight on a crowded elevator to the conscious cultivation of the sense of peace to the regular discipline of meditating for short periods several times a day. There are also dangers in becoming isolated from the world of social action by meditating too much, which, as I have pointed out in The Courage to Create, can be a detriment to one’s own creativity. We never wholly leave the ego-self behind, and we still live in the real world with its rationality and irrationality, and with our responsibility toward this world. But it is precisely in this ever-present world that meditation can give meaning to our pauses.

All forms of meditation seek to change the character of the self, a change that involves a new relationship with the void. Many people will be familiar with at least the beginning stages of the void by their practice of meditation.

I speak of the “holy” void because holy, coming from the root whole, refers to the mystical experience of grasping the wholeness of the universe in one’s meditation. “The feeling of the world as a bounded whole,” writes Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is the mystical.” The holy void is the pause appearing in imaginary spatial form. This is one reason the mystics are so often shepherds since they look out continuously on the endless desert. One has this experience of the void in looking steadily out over the sea, an experience rightly termed “oceanic” since it gives one the feeling of infinity. Being in the desert or at the ocean where our vision can seemingly go on for ever can give us acute anxiety, since the eye has no boundaries with which to orient us; or it can give us a sense of profundity, of eternity, or of infinity, all of which are pleasurable. This is why floating in a stimulus-free tank, where we are insulated from every sound and every glimmer of light, can bring either intense anxiety or a transcendent, holy experience.

In the void the experience of nothingness occurs, and in this one’s spiritual inspirations are called forth and one’s deepest thoughts are made manifest. Wittgenstein helps us here again,

There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

In the experience of nothingness, we find ourselves cleansed of the chatter and the clatter of a “world which is too much with us,” to borrow Wordsworth’s words. Wordsworth goes on in that peom to say,

Great God!

I’d rather be a Pagan, suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn,

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

It is not by accident that Wordsworth goes back to the Greek myths in searching for ways these things can be said, for mythic language is one of the ways such truths can be made manifest.

In the holy void the nothingness that we experience gives our deeper thoughts room to make themselves manifest, and the otherwise silent inner voice can be heard. This is the equivalent of the listening to the silence we referred to earlier. One method of meditation, that of Aurobindo, consists of continuously clearing the mind of all content until God — or being, as I would prefer — can speak to us out of the void. The nothingness then becomes a something; a something that comes, the mystics would say, from the depths of our soul.

The void is the dimension of eternity. “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present,” writes Wittgenstein. Our human hope in these experiences of timelessness — such as when we see something breathtakingly beautiful or hear a piece of music that seems to raise us into eternity — is to hang on to the experience forever.

Edna St. Vincent Millay shows this in the sonnet “On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven”:

Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!

Reject me not into the world again.

And again in “God’s world”:

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!

… Lord, I do fear

Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;

My soul is all but out of me, — let fall

No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

The void may seem to be contact with pure being, but I prefer a more modest judgment, that one gets glimpses of being, awareness that there is a beckoning path to pure being even though none of us gets very far on it. The concentration on the spaces between words, the intervals, the pauses in life — these yield the touch of ecstasy. But the moment formulation in words occurs, the “no thing” becomes a something. Obviously, one listens with care to any message that may be formulated in moments like these, and one need not worry too much about its origin. It may be interpreted as coming from one’s deeper self, or from the various autosuggestions that occur, or from contact with the being of the universe.

The last may be experienced as a glimpse of God — assuming that God is conceived as the ground of being and meaning in the universe. At this point I feel, as I often have in this section, the caution of Wittgenstein:

“What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.”

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