I think it was perhaps 1967 or 1968 when I first became seriously interested in esoterica. My friend Joe shared a few of his Rosicrucian books with me because he wanted to discuss the ideas with someone other than exclusively within his own mind. Joe explained that he never trusted his own opinions about observations as absolute truth, if there is such a thing.
His statement struck me as particularly profound, because I had been taught to believe in absolutes and unshakeable facts. This epiphany triggered the first of several explorations about “being” we took together. I realized that we were entering some socially forbidden territory because, at that time, Joe was a no holds barred kind of guy. It just so happened that America’s psychedelic era was happening at the same time Joe and I were blowing our minds without drugs.
The Rosicrucian books were more or less stepping stones away from conventional thinking. Although I reviewed them in the early 1970s, the Rosicrucian path was not one I felt drawn to. However the Rosicrucians offered one intriguing question that has been asked by other wisdom traditions, “Are you the observer or the observed?”
One August night, Joe and I pitched his dad’s tent in the backyard as a 1960s sort of sleep-over. Of course, there was little sleep that night because we spent most of the time sitting in reclining lawn chairs staring at the sky. One of us probably asked, “Who or what are we? Are we really nothing?” The questions signaled our first departure from Rosicrucian thought.
If some visitor from another star system asked us to describe ourselves and we weren’t allowed to tell our names, our nationalities, our species, our social or personal identities, our occupations, or any of the usual socially defined categories we usually place ourselves into. Who or what are we? Are we really nothing?
We struggle to think beyond our property and personal possessions. We think of our bank accounts, who we have as friends and adversaries, whether we’re famous, notorious, or somewhere in-between, the personal beliefs and belief systems we have adopted, and our political points of view. These are all socially defined categories to place aside for the sake of this exercise.
Now, what is left; who are we? Are we something or nothing? Whether we are awake or asleep, there is something there. What is that something? We sense there is some sort of relationship between our thoughts and these entities or whatever we are. Without observing and analysis would we be anything? By definition, alone, then we are nothing. We might recoil from this observation and return to our comfortable beliefs about ourselves. However, there will always remain the question, “Are we something or nothing?”
We may postpone this question until our final days, but it is worth pondering. To observe our response is to determine how deeply we are attached to opinions, beliefs, and points of view. Can we make an ally of nothingness? Is there a difference between the observer and the observed?
When we view the sky, the landscape, or a friend, we observe. We are an observer, the one who experiences observation. When we observe that we are observing, the conflicting question again arises. Are we the observed or observer? We realize that it is thought and definition that create the view that we observe or are being observed in the act of observing. The process feels absurd and makes us feel uneasy. If we stop defining and thinking, the absurdity goes away. Then we find pure attention.
Once pure, unadulterated attention is uncovered, we come back to discursive thought at the moment of realization. We have had a taste but will get no more for now. We know we have sampled nothingness. We hunger for more pure attention. It is this grasping that keeps us from attaining it once more. It’s like trying to pick up a blob of mercury with tweezers. You might be able to get a little bit of it, but the rest will divide and scatter.
Only by letting go of the idea of grasping can we rejoin the smaller blobs into the whole to observe once again. Pure attention or nothingness cannot be acquired. Nothingness can only be realized or experienced. We cannot own what can only be experienced.
As long as there is an observer there will be division. As long as we try a means or technique to observe pure attention, our efforts will be thwarted. When we try to make the mind still in order to abandon our thoughts, we will not succeed in knowing nothingness.
The truth of the matter is that solutions to problems often arrive when we are not thinking about the problem at all. It is when we are most spontaneous and not trying to find nothingness that we have let go of the problem. Some day, somewhere unexpectedly, nothing but pure attention will be revealed again. Then, what will you tell the visitor from Outer Space?
Don’t bet on nothing happening though.