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The divine absence

Reflections on the ecstasy of nothingness 

Words & images © Paul Ransom

“Imagine a realm which is not really a realm, one that lies beyond the here and now. Beyond form. Imagine that it sits outside time and space and, importantly, beyond the bounded state of The I.

This is a realm that many have alluded to but which the spiritual mainstream continues to either deny or relegate to the sidelines of esoteric abstraction. Considered in strictly human terms it is analogous to death; a realm devoid of self.

I prefer to call it The Nothing. The void. The form of the formless. The universal nihilation. The oneness of zero. The Absolute. In more poetic moods I refer to it as The Divine Absence. However, in the end, it does not matter what you call it.

Yet, to approach it through fearless reflection is to unleash a wave of genuine awe; a shivering, cleansing ecstasy that washes away mortal dread and renders musts and meant-to-be’s irrelevant. As excess baggage. Mere clutter.

The Nothing invites us to bask in the absolute freedom of the realisation that there are no cosmically or spiritually legislated meanings or purposes and that, ultimately, nothing is compulsory. We do not have to do or be or figure out anything. There is no ‘higher.’ And we will not be judged.

Now, in place of meaning mandates and moral meritocracies, and the fear of failure so often attached to them, we are free to just be.”

– Yours truly, from: Notes For An As Yet Non-Existent Book About Nothing

Zhangye, Gansu Province, China, June 2016. I am in the back of a mini bus. I am supposed to be directing a documentary. Instead, I keep thinking about the young man whose life I had helped to save a few days earlier, and the life I had previously determined to take in the churn and swirl of the Huangpu River in Shanghai. I have no idea that years of habitual and self-destructive angst are about to end, not in a dark river but in a moment of ecstasy.

Around me, cast and crew are having a D&M. They speak earnestly of destiny. Of karma and enlightenment. They do not seek my input.

Sensing that I will not be consulted, I ponder what I would say if I was. It comes to me in a flash.   

I would say that I was an Ecstatic Nihilist.

Time slows. My breath is caught mid cycle. A mentholated wave, a soft electric buzz, like a drug rush, surges through my veins. All my heaviness evaporates. Ecstasy. Awe. (My body remembers it to this day. I am back there now. Floating in her embrace.)

A voice that seems female – and not mine – speaks calmly as I dissolve. “From the unity of Nothing you came, and to it you shall return.”

Against a backdrop of bus chatter, I surrender, as a slow ocean lifts me up. It feels like compassion. I exhale a sigh that nobody hears.

The voice is urging me to remove the ring from my right hand. I weigh it in my palm and she asks me what it reminds me of. “Zero,” I breathe. At which she says, “Place it on your left hand.”

I do so, and I see at once what she means. “Now you know you have nothing to fear,” she whispers.

A few minutes later I am waiting in a carpark with my filming companions. The driver is re-fuelling, the others are still talking spiritual. No one notices that I am wearing a wedding ring.

*

I would be lying if I said that I discovered the ecstasy of nothingness as the result of a strictly rational process of disciplined metaphysics or as the reward of a rigorous spiritual practise. I have barely skimmed the great texts, and if I have walked in the footsteps of philosophers and mystics it is not by conscious design. My journey to the back of that bus was organic, emotional, dysfunctional. The compass…aesthetic, melancholic, instinctive. Only in retrospect does that Saturday afternoon in northern China seem like culmination. On the day, it appeared to come from nowhere. (Pardon the pun.)

Like most of us, I have experienced my share of sporadic epiphany – those brilliant, light bulb moments that reshape our perception of self and other – but the Zhangye penny-drop was of a different order. It was physical. A feeling of lightness. Of being porous, vaporous. As though I could sense the space between the atoms of my body. Like a melting of form. (Again, typing, I feel it. A low hum. It is oceanic.)

As for the female voice, she is familiar. I have known her as a ‘muse’ for years, sometimes by name. Liberty. At others I imagine her as a goddess of beauty, or as an inner girlfriend or sister alter. Either way, I realise she is a projection, one of the many channels in my head; but she is also a key player in the actor/watcher paradox of self-shaping that I recognise as me. As my life. (Just as your inner voices are for you.)

I mention this now because I wish to disavow any supernatural agency. The ecstasy of nothingness is not the presence of God, but rather a ‘divine’ absence. On that cloudy afternoon in Gansu Province – for whatever confluence of reasons – I made an unexpected and asymptotic approach to zero. To self-transcendence. Ego-death. No spirit guides required.

Now, on a bright, cold morning six years later, in a patch of forest in southern Australia, I go back there at will. I say this not to court envy or amazement, nor to suggest that I possess any form of special insight, but to hint at the unusual power of the experience and to give thanks that it remains available to me. Because The Nothing requires nothing of me in return.

Though I speak of and experience nothingness as ecstatic – euphoric, liberating, absolving, etc – there are far more sober traditions of conjecture on the topic.1 From mathematical concepts like zero and the empty set to the notion of the void in both metaphysics and physics, many have pondered the idea of the ‘no-thing’ or the emptiness. Likewise, speculation about how/if the universe emerged from a prior state of nothingness has occupied many brilliant minds.

The salient question here is: can/does Nothing exist? Is there a fully undifferentiated, changeless state that occupies no space or time and has no form or location?

Despite the inherent paradoxes and counter-intuitive nature of it – not to mention the problems associated with the language we use to talk about it – the ‘existence’ of Nothing (or, a condition of fundamental non-existence) remains a focus of deep fascination and serious intellectual enquiry.

For me, it is a similarly intriguing conundrum – but solving it is not essential. My back-of-bus moment was not contingent on the ‘fact of The Nothing.’ Indeed, I am less concerned with the truth or otherwise of nothingness and more interested in the way that contemplating the void maps out in my ordinary experience.

The term ‘life changing’ maybe overused but in this case it is apt. Of all the fine ideas, and all of my great loves, I have yet to encounter anything as beautiful as Nothing. (Sorry, ladies.) Moreover, in tandem with the life-saving incident from earlier that week, the Zhangye epiphany put the brakes on my suicidal momentum. If ever a mystical minute had a lasting real-world outcome, this was it.

*

So, what do I mean by nothingness? Let’s begin by examining its opposite. Everything. In this I include all cosmic phenomenon, from sub-atomic particles to private thoughts and sensations, from star systems to sexual fantasies, and double slit data to DMT experiences. All of it can be said to exist, if only because ‘the existence complex’ includes everything that happens.

Yes, happens. Because existence is restless, always in motion. Everything is impermanent, including abstract objects like numbers and Platonic forms. Though many would argue, (reasonably so), that such objects are fixed by definition, what truly exists is not the objects themselves but rather the thinking about and utilisation of them; and thinking and using conceptual tools are actions. Even ideas are events. We have thoughts.

  • When we say that we recognise the tea cup by reference to the ‘form of the tea cup,’ or that we are downloading a cosmically available meme, the crucial part of this equation is the recognising, the referring, the downloading. In other words, the process. The verb.

Drilling down, at the core of all this action is a foundational and existential relationship. (Exchange, triangulation, X being understood by reference to Y.) Thus, the fixed abstract cup and the ones we drink tea from are in a relationship of mutual emergence, or differentiation. This is sometimes called co-entailment. Day entailed by night. Up by down. Yin by yang. And so it goes.

Everything is known relative to something else.

If this seems a tad dry and arcane, think of nature. In the biosphere all plants, animals, gases, fungi, etcetera – even the atoms that make up the compounds that make up these things – are engaged in a constantly unfolding network of relationship, exchange and transformation. Becoming/unbecoming. A whole comprised of its continuously reorganising parts.

We can say the same of solar systems and spiral arms. In fact, existence is a process of relational rearrangement. A cosmic scale reno-show. What it means to exist is to be in an evolving relationship, even if we reduce that relationship to an information transaction.

  • How does information imply relationship? Imagine a ‘bit of info’ in total isolation. In other words, unrecorded data. It would not be information, because no informing would have occurred. Information must be both sent and received. Transacted. Just as energy must flow – must do work – in order to be energetic. Even if we understand the entire universe as being information (or indeed energy) it is fundamentally a process of networked interchange.

Returning to our absolute tea cup, we can say that ‘the form’ informs our understanding of the specific. Likewise, the abstract notion of the number 15 guides our use of 15ness in everyday calculation. In this light, even pure and unaltering abstracts are somehow dynamic. They act in the world as ideas and tools and have knock-on effects – even if that effect is as basic as recognition. Therefore, in this sense, abstract objects exist.2                          

And what does this have to do with nothingness? As a fixed, timeless, spaceless state, The Nothing is the ultimate abstract object. The form of the formless. (Or the form of the un-form.) It is not simply an empty arena, or the calm before a big banging storm, but a complete absence of…everything.     

Now imagine zooming out to the point where you could theoretically observe Everything – the entire existence complex. In order to recognise this Everything you would need to differentiate it from ‘something’ that was not Everything. And that would be Nothing.

Here, we not only recall the Everything and Nothing musing of mystics and others but arrive at the base level co-entailment. Being/unbeing. A universe emerging, not from, but in tandem with its own nihilation. One and zero.

*

What does all this amateur philosophising have to do with ecstatic spiritual experience? Partly, the above is an attempt to rationalise it and find a sane-sounding explanatory mechanism to make it fit with what I think I know and who I tell myself I am. To some degree it is also a way of justifying it to myself.3

Importantly though, it is a means of de-mystifying it and making it seem it seem less ‘holy.’ Indeed, much of the motivation for writing this piece is to present a highly spiritual/metaphysical concept in a way that is approachable, or at least comprehensible.

And why would I want to do that? After all, nothing really matters, right? Furthermore, I am not normally the proselytising type and I no longer have such a great need for either external approval or the righteous buzz of self-declared wisdom. Yet, what I can say is that The Nothing ‘does it’ for me – profoundly so – and I suspect that it may do the same for some of you. As in, release you. De-stress you. Potentially connect you with something beyond the self.

It is in this vein that I share the following.

We love to render things in our own image; hence our habit of anthropomorphising everything from our pets to the entire universe. As children we ‘animate’ the world by naming toys and imagining that things like cushions and kettles have feelings. As adults we graduate our penchant for humanisation from household objects to all of existence. By doing so we tame and frame the great unknown and, tellingly, make ourselves seem more important.

God is the ultimate vanity project.

In pursuit of this great ‘de-othering’ we have invented omniscient super-beings and sundry demons, concocted creation stories and destiny narratives, and posited a vast array of meaning-of-life and higher purpose theories. Through this transformative prism of self we have evolved spiritual and religious traditions that confer the balm of coherent and believable worldviews, thereby addressing our deepest dread and helping us locate ourselves in the grander scheme. Yet, by these very same mechanisms we continue to nail ourselves to a treadmill of command and control – for now that we have reconfigured the universe to fit with our cognitive and psycho-emotional biases, we can more easily run another of our trusty filters over it. Rules.

  • Policing, judgement, punishment
  • Observance, orthodoxy, ideology
  • Good/bad, in/out, pass/fail

+

  • Life as exam, as God (parent) pleasing worthiness test
  • Life as marionette in cosmic puppet show   
  • Life, universe and everything as part of linear/ascendant hero drama

By convincing ourselves that reality unfolds to a pre-approved plan – as it should – and that there is a baked-in meaning and essential end-game to existence, we lurch too often into the folly of hubris. In our commonplace spiritual and theological models, we arrogantly impose on the rest of the universe a schema rooted in our Earthly experience as a social species with pattern-loving brains that privilege coherence, and who experience self and life in sequential time, crave status and inclusion, and remain addicted to an either/or view of the world. 

Contemplating the void helps dissolve all this – because emptiness contains none of these things.

The Nothing requires neither your obedience nor understanding. It does not weld you to a set purpose. You are not part of its plan. The Absolute brooks no distinction. It is blind to all, including you.

Exist like no one is watching!

But there is more to The Nothing than a simple lack of supervision. Deeply considered, the void is the most profound challenge, for in its formless, agenda free absence of guide ropes it leaves us to make our own way and to find, within ourselves, the reasons why and the meanings of. On one level this is ho-hum, on another life-altering. Now that we are no longer candidates seeking to tick off the karmic KPIs or existential sleuths tasked with nutting out the answer to everything, we are at once free and responsible; for just as the void gives no orders, it accepts no blame.  

Moreover, nothingness invites us to look beyond form and identity, and to contemplate the bedrock of being. Indeed, when we turn our gaze towards The Nothing, we may regard Everything. The form of the formless suggests all form. In the mirror of silence, all sound.

The beauty of this is majestic. More than simply a beguiling paradox or trinket of nihilist fantasy, the Everything/Nothing relationship is sublime. Let’s call it divine – for what better KPI for a deity than to be the very fulcrum of existence. The Oneness that is a Twoness. The united/divided, mirror/opposite. The thing that both is and isn’t.  

I can think of no better focus for awe than The Nothing. Its absoluteness is obliterating. An infinite stillness. At times I am moved to characterise it as The Divine Absence. (NB: It is not that the divine is absent, rather that the absence is divine.)4       

Perhaps this is why – a couple of years after the bus epiphany, and following yet another ecstasy of nothingness moment – it occurred to me:

Nihilation is apotheosis.

Imagine the Oneness. It can only be empty, for the truly singular state is undifferentiated. Featureless. Timeless. Boundless. Without change. Data free. The One cannot even know itself. The One is dead. The One is The Zero. The One is not itself.

To contemplate this void of un-self is to glimpse the unseeable. To see the eye that sees. To hear the silence that hears. To transcend the feedback loop of self and – even if only by mystical approximation – become the sea that contains you.   

For me, these are moments of ecstasy. My whole body buzzes, thrums, resonates. I do not feel solid. Rather, like vapour. Like water. I experience awe and immensity. The infinite vastness of nothing. And in this electric embrace, an astonishing compassion. A love of such beauty that I am cleansed by my own tears, which fall as exultation. As gratitude. As grace.

When you have nothing, you don’t need anything else – because emptiness reveals the fullness of existence. If there is a miracle, it is Being.

So often we ponder the essential point or purpose of existence. We tell ourselves that the universe wants to know itself, or that it is an unfolding drama of conscious evolution. But I can imagine no more magnificent purpose or meaning than to exist. To just be. Is there anything more ‘cosmic’ or amazing than what you are already doing? It does not need to be explained. Just noticed.

Typing this…a cool, calm euphoria washes through me, and in its wake a thought:

The ecstasy of nothingness is the unobstructed view of self.

What do I mean by this? More than a simple regress – self watching self watching self – the astounding and elegant Eureka moment of void contemplation is that, in its deepest core, the self itself is a void.5 The mirror regress doesn’t go on forever. There is an existential event horizon. Finite, ever-fluid Being rests upon a foundation of infinite and immutable non-Being. Or, if you prefer your metaphors astronomical: at the centre of self is a black hole. A singularity.  

We are all made of nothing.

That said, I accept that you may dismiss this as metaphysical masturbation. In addition, those of you of a more pedantic persuasion will likely pick holes in the wording.

In my defence, it is difficult, if not impossible, to speak of The Nothing in common human language – or indeed to think of it in a way that is not similarly rooted in self-centric experience. I could also crudely paraphrase the classic Taoist line: to think of The Nothing is not The Nothing. Just as to ponder The Now is not The Now.

Doubtless I could continue to pile up the poetic phrases and amuse you with my erudite profundity pose. But this is not about wisdom. It’s about liberty. Lightness. Living.

“When we consider with calm acceptance our greatest fear – our mortality – and when we truly embrace it and what it represents, without fudging explanations or denial, or recourse to the opium of common spiritual narratives, we understand that we are truly and completely free.”

Yours truly (again)

Back in 2016, after seven years of relentless, daily suicidal ideation, I had finally decided to do it. I would make it look like misadventure. Aussie filmmaker missing in China. Last seen near The Bund in Shanghai.

Perhaps I would have held off. Gone for a drink instead. I will never know for sure. But what I do know is that on a balmy Monday night I was in the right place at the right time to help rescue a young man from almost certain death, and five days later in the back of a mini bus a voice that was mine – but which seemed like someone else’s – whispered in my ear. I would say that I was an Ecstatic Nihilist. And thereafter everything dissolved…and I was an ocean…with a wave passing through it.

You may scoff at, minimise or dismiss this. You may wish to re-brand it; even pathologise it. With respect, I do not care. Because I am here. Not merely writing these words or toying with abstract objects, but with an open channel to an experience that I can best describe as ecstasy.

It is available to me now. On tap. All I need do is behold The Divine Absence.  

1: A lifelong long friend of mine, Dr Arthur Witherall, has spent decades teasing apart questions like why there is something rather than nothing. He is currently in the process of writing a book on the topic of Nothing, and has a previous publication, The Problem of Existence, a copy of which you can access here. (Suffice it to say that Arthur’s approach is quite different and much more rigorous than my flighty and emotional nonsense.)    

2: There is a school of thought that flips this, such that only abstract objects can be said to truly exist, because all physical objects and subjective experience – including our experience of self – are in flux, and thus can never be said to be one thing or another thing. Therefore, because the universe is never still long enough to be pinned down, and is permanently unbecoming itself, we can never say exactly what is. But we can say for sure that 1 is 1. Or that goodness is goodness – even if we cannot properly recognise or agree what a good deed is.   

3: In the years since my first ‘ecstasy of nothingness’ moment in 2016 I have not only had repeat doses but have pondered the what and the why at length. This article is part of that process, as was my 2019 book The Pointless Revolution, which seeks to unpack and render practical the import of my void-contemplating tendencies. Btw, the book is available through Everytime Press on the other side of this click prompt.                        

4: I use the word ‘divine’ advisedly and, I confess, with some hesitation. As indicated above, it is hard to find language for a discussion of nothingness. Human language is understandably rooted in a world of objects, actions, relations, and feelings. Its meanings are bounded by our experience as a social/hierarchical species living on a particular planet. Regarding the D word, I hope that readers have understood my ‘unholy’ intention here. I trust too that none of you will think that I worship, or in any way personify or ascribe intentions to this absent divinity. The Nothing means nothing, although it maybe said to imply everything.

5: We can say the same of The Now. Rather than understanding it as a regress – infinite or otherwise – we can regard it as a void. An eternal stillness. In other words, The Now is The Nothing. The Nothing is Now.

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