“All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being.” Tao Te Ching (5th Cent. B.C.)
“Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.” – Miles Davis
There are objects and there is the empty space around objects, that which separates the objects. This is the conventional way to sum up the physical universe.
Another perspective is that there is a great energy field that is the Universe, and within it, all connected, are patterns of energy of varying density giving the appearance of objects and space. Objects emerge out of the space. The space can be experienced as what connects the objects, spacious energy connecting denser energy, so there are no completely separate objects at all.
The Universe as connected energy is quite new to Western conceptualization, but it is what the Taoist, Hindu and Buddhist traditions (along with nature-based cultures like the Native American) have believed for millennia and is now what Western science is confirming through advanced physics. Everything is energy and it is all connected. What we experience as physical objects are actually energy patterns of a certain level of density that give the illusion of solidity (or liquidity, gaseousness, or energy waves like sound).
While this may be being taught in advanced physics, it remains a very foreign concept to people living their everyday lives (including, for the most part, scientists). Human perceptual capability using linear conceptual thought, and without the aid of electron microscopes, particle accelerators and advanced mathematical models, simply cannot conceive this connectedness; yet, it is the truth of existence.
As we consider this, what becomes clearly evident is that to operate in the world affecting everything from our individual lives to the world on a global scale without a true model of the Universe, has to be a recipe for disaster, and as evidenced by the dysfunctionality of our individual lives, human society and humanity’s relationship to the natural world, it certainly is. The lesson has to be that when we limit our experience to the realm of the senses and thought, we are missing the reality of existence; we are missing the true capacities of the human mind and our potential for harmonious lives.
A world of separate objects is a clumsy and devalued world. There is no genius in it. All there can be are awkward attempts to manipulate and control these separate objects. But as the modern jazz genius Miles Davis said, to make great music, you have to play not only what is there, you have to “play what’s not there.” Sound emerges from silence. The music is in the relationship of the sound and the silence; otherwise there is just noise. This principle can be applied to everything we do, which is why to Taoists and Buddhists, non-doing is the secret to skillful doing. It is what Taoists called the Fertile Void, the emptiness that gives birth to all things. The genius of any doing must come from skill in non-doing. This requires refining the realms of emotion and intuition as well as the senses and thought.
What is truly radical, and what ancient meditation cultures have known for thousands of years, is that the mind operates by the same rules as the physical universe. As the Universe is all interconnected energy at differing levels of density (and this is fairly readily understandable when it comes to physical matter) what is equally true is that thoughts are objects in the mind – also energy at differing levels of density – emerging from the more spacious, unformed energy of pure consciousness.
Ancient cultures were able to realize what modern science is just beginning to grasp because at the level of consciousness no advanced mathematics or scientific instrumentation is needed. Human awareness is capable of experiencing this cosmological truth unaided when focused skillfully on the Universe within, but just as a scientist must skillfully focus a telescope or microscope to the Universe without or all that is perceived is a blur, so too, we must learn to skillfully focus inwardly-directed awareness. This focusing is meditation, and through meditation, the ancients came to understand the quantum physics of the manifested universe as a reflection of the quantum physics of the unmanifested universe of the mind.
The Universe is energy. Some of the energy appears as objects. The rest of the energy is space. Objects exist within and because of space. Space exists because of objects. They are in relationship to each other. The quality and aesthetics of life, whether it is the external world of objects or the internal world of mind, is found in that relationship. We must intuit the unformed mystery out of which the forms emerge, and we must likewise experience the resonances (emotions) these forms create in their interactions.
Musical genius, as is found in a Miles Davis or a Beethoven, is in knowing how to play not only what’s there, the notes, time signature, etc. (any relatively skilled musician can do that), but in playing what’s not there: to play brilliantly the space the notes emerge from and their interactive resonances. Beethoven, after all, fell deaf half way through his career, yet the genius of his music increased. He got better at playing the space of the music in his mind. He mastered the meditation of music.
What Beethoven and Miles Davis didn’t realize was that their great talent in music could be applied to every aspect of their lives. Without this realization, while they were geniuses in the musical realm, they were deeply flawed, clumsy, even self-destructive and emotionally dangerous in their everyday lives. Many artists, of all media, musical, visual and language, suffer in this manner, and certainly, those of us without even the meditation of an art-form, so live our lives, clumsy in our manipulations of a world we only experience as made up of separate objects, with the frightened separate object of ourself at the center.
Eckhart Tolle refers to awareness of the space out of which the objects in the physical and mental world arise as “space consciousness.” At the heart of Zen is this realization, and with it, the mastery of the relationship of objects with space in every aspect of life. Many teachings and koans instruct the entry point for Zen to be found in refining consciousness into a subtle spaciousness capable of holding more and more elements of what’s there and not there in the field of perception. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “Listen, listen. This is the sound of my true self.” “Do you hear that distant mountain stream? Enter Zen from there.”
Gestalt psychology expresses this concept well when it talks about the “figure-ground relationship” of perception. Out of the “ground” (the equivalent of objects and space) of the totality of what is possible, the human mind creates a limited “figure” or object. The quality of the “gestalt” of the figure is determined by how much of the ground is still experienced in relationship to the figure. Are you playing all of what is there, and, are you also playing what’s not (but is) there? This is Zen. It is also a very good guide to sanity and effective living.
The practice of mindfulness is to live in as high quality of gestalt and space consciousness as one is capable. Zen is not found in chopping wood and carrying water with intensely focused (or certainly as is often the case, haphazard) attention on the action. Zen is found in chopping wood and carrying water, or walking down a path, or gazing at a tree, or speaking with a person, with simultaneous focused attention on the action and with consciousness of the space from which the action arises as well as the energy that connects us with the action and the object. All with easy non-self-conscious, spacious energy.
Zen is practiced in meditation not only with concentration on the breath, the mantra, or the arising of thoughts and emotions (what Buddhism refers to as mental objects) – as important as this may be – it is also in holding in awareness the energetic space in which breath, mantra, thoughts, emotions, sense perceptions and wordless insights arise. It is in experiencing how we create the figures in our minds out of the ground of potentiality, and allowing the quality of the gestalt to grow and grow. It is in hearing the music of the Universe in all that is there and is not there. It is more than just awareness of your breathing, but awareness also of the space between and around the breaths. Grow your awareness to realize that beneath all sound is the silence out of which the sound emerges, and beneath all action is the stillness out of which the action arises. Sound and silence, action and stillness, form and space. As the old Zen master would say – “Enter Zen from there.”