Anyone who has delved even superficially into the great philosophical traditions of the East is familiar with the apparently paradoxical encouragement to “embrace the void.” Indeed, the famous aphorism “Emptiness is form, form is emptiness” vexes and taunts the Western mind. In the TAOTECHING (as masterfully translated by Red Pine) Lao Tzu ruminates in verse 14 on the virtue of the dark emptiness that guides the true sage:
“We look and don’t see it / … / we listen but don’t hear it / … / we reach but don’t grasp it / … / returning to nothing / this is the formless form / … / we meet without seeing its face / we follow without seeing its back / whoever upholds this very Way / can rule this very realm / and discover the ancient maiden / this is the thread of the Way”
Referring to this verse as “In Praise of the Dark,” Ho-Shang Kung says “What has no color, sound or form, mouths can’t speak and books can’t teach. We can only discover it in stillness and search for it with our spirit. We cannot find it through investigation.” Regarding this quest for mental stillness, Chuang-Tzu says “The sage’s mind is so still, it can mirror Heaven and Earth and reflect the ten thousand things.”
The Western mind is inclined to balk at the idea of finding value in nothingness, and tends to instinctively assign negative reactions to concepts such as “the void.” Darkness has, traditionally, symbolized the threatening unknown, an ominous abyss. On the contrary, throughout the various Eastern traditions we find “the void” or “emptiness” as something to be sought after, to be embraced, in fact we are encouraged to lose our “selves” in it in order to find enlightenment. To the Eastern mind, it is precisely from the empty void that the infinite possible manifestations of reality occur. It is the only source, a fountain – as opposed to a threatening abyss.
Recent advances in Quantum Physics (the study of the subatomic world) provide fascinating insights into these age-old perspectives on the true nature of the reality of “the void.” As Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey explains in the BBC Documentary “The Illusion of Reality,” science has shown that what we consider to be totally empty – a vacuum – is actually not empty at all. The “void” is constantly seething with energy and activity, “borrowing” energy from the future to create matter and anti-matter particles that immediately annihilate each other upon their creation, in essence returning the “borrowed” energy back to the future. The mere residue of this never-ending atomic upheaval is the “stuff” which we perceive to be our physical reality. Sound crazy? It gets weirder.
Let’s look at this “residue” – the atoms that make up our physical reality. The study of subatomic structure has revealed undeniably that the physical world around us is almost completely empty – atoms are not dense particles of indivisible matter but rather consist almost entirely empty space. Because the atoms that make up “stuff” are almost entirely empty themselves, the “things” we see are by consequence literally almost entirely empty as well.
Looking even closer at atoms, consider for a moment the discovery of Quantum Superposition. Quantum Superposition means that an atom exists as a wave in all places at once (superposition) until an observer decides to measure (“see”) it – then it immediately snaps into (becomes) a particle at a single point in space. The implications of this understanding are profound: the act that creates the physical universe that we perceive as reality is literally our own conscious decision to observe it. Quantum Mechanics states very clearly that when we are not observing them, the “things” of reality exist in all states and possibilities simultaneously. Or, if looked at from another angle, physical reality only exists when we – the observers – look at it. When we are not looking, it isn’t there. And it’s also everywhere in all possible manifestations at once.
According to Physicist Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, “We like to think of space as empty and matter as solid. But in fact, there is essentially nothing to matter whatsoever – it’s completely insubstantial. The most solid thing you can say about all this insubstantial matter is that it is more of a thought, it’s like a concentrated bit of information.”
UCLA Physicist Dr. Fred Alan Wolf adds that “What makes up things are not more things, but what makes up things are ideas, concepts, information.”
So atoms – quarks and electrons existing as waves in all places at once until we decide to look at them – are really ideas and concepts. What then is reality, and what, perhaps more importantly, is our personal role in “creating” it?
We now return full circle to Eastern philosophical tradition. From the Vedic tradition the Aitareya Upanishad states unequivocally: prajñam brahma – “All reality is consciousness.” As the great Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj makes very clear throughout his masterwork I AM THAT, what we perceive as reality is merely a projection of consciousness. With the creation of a single differentiation, the entire Universe arises.
So emptiness is indeed form. Form is indeed emptiness.
Check out the BBC Documentary “The Illusion of Reality” and a short piece on Quantum Superposition below. What are the implications of this understanding? What are your thoughts and reactions? Please leave a comment and let’s continue the discussion!
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