What Is The Void?
Question: What is the void? I sometimes go with a friend to a Zen meditation class and the Japanese monk who teaches there keeps talking about ‘the void’. Can you explain what this means please?
Most of our life we spend channeling mental energy into our attention – we pay attention to things we want, don’t want, things we think about, imagine and so on.
And our over-energized attention flitters about from object to object – thinking about everything, conceptualizing and reacting, making our emotions churn, which creates mental smoke that obscures other, more subtle aspects of being – particularly awareness.
We notice things and a millisecond later they become concepts – so our real-time sensory experience of the world – of hearing, seeing, tasting and smelling – is constantly being obscured by the concepts we make out of our senses. As such, we spend most of our life thinking this smoke of concepts and subsequent reactions is reality.
But this languaged mind world we live in is not reality at all. It is simply what we have made out of reality. But as I said, because we spend most of our time in that parallel reality, we think it is the only reality there is.
So then we start meditating.
In meditation we teach our attention to let go of everything and be still. So, it slowly learns it doesn’t have to cling to things and think all the time and make concepts out of everything. We learn to accept reality as pure experience, without going to the next stage of conceptualizing.
Relieved of its duties, so to speak, the attention stops creating emotional reactions and relaxes. As a result, less mental ‘smoke’ is created – the emotions calm down, thought energy changes from conceptual bursts to intuitive flow.
The mind opens up and becomes still within the flow of real-time reality.
In this new stillness, our attention merges back into awareness, and all of the qualities we commonly assume are ‘reality’ – of concepts, time, place – they all disappear.
And that disappearing of the usual ‘stuff’ of life is known as the void.
But it’s not a void at all – it’s called that simply because when we first experience it, it always seems as if everything we know has disappeared.
But of course, that doesn’t include ‘everything we don’t yet know’ – which is revealed – and it is this aspect of awareness that cannot be explained, because that would be making it into a concept.
The only way to know it is to experience it.
An experience of ‘the void’ will only happen if we meditate for long period of time – in silent retreat in a meditation centre or temple.
The first experiences of this ‘void’ are very quick – and they are very intense and very beautiful. But as extraordinary as they are, in this first stage, they are a quite frightening to the mind. As soon as a void experience arises, the mind’s first reaction is to go ‘OH!’, then immediately scramble to re-assert its usual activities.
It takes quite a few ‘void’ experiences to get used to it enough to let go and fall into it.
So one should meditate without looking for them – and the more of these ‘Oh!’ experiences we have, the more we become used to letting go of the conceptual reality we had always clung to, and accept this new ultimate reality.
And that’s the beginning of the process of enlightenment.
“You may have expected that enlightenment would come Zap! instantaneous and permanent. This is unlikely. After the first “ah ha” experience, it can be thought of as the thinning of a layer of clouds…“
– Ram Dass
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Regarding meditating. I was wondering, what are the next steps once you enter and sustain the void? Is it a matter of sustaining that for as long as possible and taking it with you outside of meditation? I’ve gotten to a state a void but I don’t feel or think anything. I’m just there blanked out focusing on breath. Some proclaim rapture, bliss, light, or astral projection occurs. However it’s just black, dark, silent for me with occasional mental images that blip across which I just observe. Do I keep at it, should I stay in the void as long as possible? What are the next steps?
I thought long and hard about your question, largely because I hesitated at your description of being, ‘blanked out’, and that it was ‘black, dark, silent’.
The words ‘void’ and ’emptiness’, as I’ve said in various posts, can be misleading – implying a nihilistic ‘nothingness’ that would indeed be ‘black, dark, silent’ – but it is not that at all. The only reason the words ‘void’ and ’emptiness’ were ever applied to this state is because this stillness (which is what I prefer to call it) is so difficult to name or describe. But one thing I can say is it is not ‘black, dark, silent’.
Let me explain …
There are so many experiences we will pass through when we meditate – a gamut running from total unconsciousness to the most sublime sparkly brilliantly blissful – and none of them are worth anything. They are simply the experiences of a mind playing with an unfamiliar environment – which is where it finds itself when we sit still with our eyes closed and do nothing for a period of time. Because nowhere, in our entire life, have we ever done this – sit still, do nothing, eyes closed – so the mind, finding itself there, conjures up all kinds of things – sensations, lights, weird imaginings. And the trouble is, meditators think these experiences mean something. But they don’t. They are just a hyperactive mind playing with itself.
This is one of the first and most difficult lessons a meditator has to learn – never ascribe meaning to any experience. Because that simple act of describing and imagining will itself only begin to sabotage the continually evolving, unlanguaged experience that meditation has to be. So when we point to a certain experience and begin describing it and speculating about what it means and so on – ascribing significance to it – what do we find? We find that next time we meditate, we are looking for it to happen again. And if it doesn’t, we think we’re doing something wrong, or that we have lost our way. And this creates more thinking and anxiety and suddenly we’re not meditating anymore – we’re sitting there trying to make an expectation come true.
This is why the words ’emptiness’ and ‘void’ are used – because there are no words to describe the indescribable – but more importantly, there should be no words to describe – because these states should never be described.
Now, lets look at what we’re doing in meditation.
Put simply, we sit down, close our eyes and we use the methods to coax our attention to let go of whatever it attaches to. Our mind continues on, thinking, sensing and so on, but we keep removing our attention from everything it gets stuck on – thinking? Remove it and take it back to the breath. a Tingle in the leg? Remove it, go back to the breath. Amazement that we feel great? Remove the attention and go back to the breath … and so on.
What is the result of this?
Over time, as our attention gets use to letting go, it begins to do it itself – it calms down. It gets to like being unattached. It gets to like resting on the breath doing nothing as the storm of life goes on around it.
And what is the result of this?
The result is, there is less activity in the mind because the attention is resting. Thought energy reverts to its natural state – just intuitive flow without words. Pain and pleasure without the naming and reacting of the attention simply become characterless sensations.
So when you remove the dualistic reality that our conditioned attention is constantly creating, you find al that remains is awareness. Present time, momentary awareness of everything all at once.
And it is not ‘black, dark, silent’.
It is the opposite of that.
And that’s all I can say Peter.
My advice in the light of all this is, keep meditation simple. Just do the business, so to speak – sit each day and use the methods to let go of everything. Detach detach detach, even, eventually, from the act of detaching itself.
And eventually, stillness will come, and your body will sigh with relief.
Is that the void?
Too much thinking.
Because when the void, or emptiness, appears, it will be a magnificent surprise. Because it always is.
Thank you so much for you question, and keep going.
I had only been meditating for a short while before I entered “the void”. I was meditating in my back yard one night and I guess you could say that I stumbled into it. 😉 I didn’t have a moment of “ah ha” nor did I “scramble”. It felt like an endless hole (hence the “void” lol). My body felt like it didn’t exist. I felt like I didn’t exist. After I finished meditating, I felt a tremendous peace within myself. Not only with myself, but with life in general. But, what I didn’t realize until months afterwards, was that I was disconnected with everything. I still went about my daily routines like normal, but I knew that nothing really mattered. If I lost my job, it didn’t matter for example. I was in a completely contented place within myself, but only because of that truth. After months of not meditating, I eventually “went back to normal” I guess you could say. I began researching what I had experienced and came across people talking about “the void” experience during meditation. That’s the only reason I have a name for my experience. I didn’t like it. As much as I enjoyed the peace, I didn’t like the feeling of being disconnected from my reality. I guess my questions are…
How many people experience this form of “the void”?
Is it normal?
P.S. To try to explain better how I felt I will add that I felt fully connected to the universe, therefore I felt fully disconnected to this reality or time or the world (however you want to see it) because I knew how little it all really matters in the whole scheme of things. I’m not sure if that makes any sense or not, but it’s the best way I can describe it.
Hi Audrey … interesting comment about a an interesting I’d like to make a post out of it if I could .. just give me a day or two to write it … cheers,
No, I don’t mind at all. Thank you for replying.
Have you made a post about it? I’d like to read it.
I’m having similar experience with this quite uncomfortable, overwhelming, no subject-object, no connection to the body, kind of cold state of infinite void. And just wondering each time I experience it, whether or not to stay there a little longer. It is challenging and a little frightening. I feel so not-integrated then. I mean everything dissolves quickly, so there is difficulty of finding anything to integrate.
The experience you’re having is simply a logical result of meditation practice … though it can also happen any time, when self-consciousness is forgotten. Because it is self-consciousness that imprisons us with our conditioned world view.
So, as I said, any time the mind momentarily lets go of its conditioned self, it joins with the void – that is, unconditioned reality.
Some people experience this on drugs, others experience is when totally relaxed sitting by the sea, or in flotation tanks. But it comes as a natural result of meditation practice, simply because meditation practice totally about developing the skill of unconditional letting go.
So … if you’re experiencing this, you practice the middle way. Don’t stop it, but also don’t cling to it. Allow it to exist on its own terms and pass away on its own terms. There IS no ideal state in meditation – there is only letting go. Whatever the attention fixes itself on, the challenge is, let it go. And that does not mean stopping it. It means, cease reacting to it. Allow it to be, or not to be, as things change.
All the best
I’m kind of new here…just had some thoughts that maybe you could shed some light on for me… I have meditated in the past, guided and other… But over the past year When I do meditate (if that’s what I can call it) I actually tune in to the void itself… Right away, like I have a direct link. There are masters there who sit on a council (elders if you will) and then there is this void. There is nothing to explain other then as always they are the most beautiful experiences I have ever had and seen and listened too… I have learned alot about my own spiritual growth here, how to help people,treat people, and have healed myself.
I don’t really know what I’m asking here other then have you ever heard of this happening? I don’t have to meditate per say I can just close my eyes and its like I have out of body experiences here.
Any information would be great! Thank you
I’m probably the wrong person to speak to on this experience, largely because I have nothing much to say about it – the experience that is.
If you read a few other of my posts, you’ll find my view of meditation is rather dry. I don’t talk much about meditation experiences, other than to say that they are not worth talking about. The mind is a trickster, and with you as its captive audience, it’s easy for it to deceive you – simply because you have no outside experiential reference as a benchmark of ‘what is real’. For that reason, in the methods I teach, and from the Vipassana tradition I come from, WHATEVER experience the mind throws up, I recommend letting it go.
So that is what I recommend here – let it go.
But that’s just me.
All the best to you.
I am in the exact same situation as Peter Wang.
Quote : “Regarding meditating. I was wondering, what are the next steps once you enter and sustain the void? Is it a matter of sustaining that for as long as possible and taking it with you outside of meditation? I’ve gotten to a state a void but I don’t feel or think anything. I’m just there blanked out focusing on breath. Some proclaim rapture, bliss, light, or astral projection occurs. However it’s just black, dark, silent for me with occasional mental images that blip across which I just observe. Do I keep at it, should I stay in the void as long as possible? What are the next steps?”
I agree that giving it a name would not get us anywhere and probably the fabled ‘void’ is not what I am experiencing. But, I too go into a state where I am sitting wondering what to do in this ‘space’ that is dark and featureless. ‘Dark’ is just an expression, it is not exactly dark but it is not lit up either. I can stay in that featureless space for as long as I can. This has been going on for many years now.
Expecting a wow moment is NOT recommended I know. Expecting anything is not recommended. I know, I know … I know it is about letting go, not about wanting.
But the ads said there will be wow moments. 🙂
I want to be very clear – as I said in my reply to Peter Wang, if what you’re experiencing is the same as what he described (‘it’s just black, dark, silent for me with occasional mental images that blip across which I just observe.’), then its not ‘the void’.
As I said to him, meditation is ALL about awareness. And awareness is not ‘black, dark, silent’ – Awareness is pure, pristine, bright and crystal clear, and cognisant of everything – much more in fact, than we’re usually aware of.
That is where we’re headed. That is the stillness I talk about so much.
So, awareness of what? Everything – body, mind, environment, sounds, sensations – all at once, as it happens, in every moment, with NO reaction or reactive commentary.
And why is this called the void?
Because once we’ve experienced it, we cannot quantify it or describe the experience in any worldly terms. Because this clear and absolutely still awareness has no qualities equivalent to what we know – so we call it ’emptiness’ or ‘the void’simply because it is empty of everything we know.
But the void is not empty, nor is it black or any kind of closed off place – it’s sparkling with life as it happens, in every moment.
And how do we get to this kind of awareness?
We go through a number of steps to train the attention.
First we train it to become steady, so we know where it is and what it’s doing
Second, we train it to let go of whatever it attaches to, and default to a bland and dependable main object like the breath
Third, once the attention had gotten used to sitting on the main object, for the lack of activity, it quietens down.
Fourth – gradually the attention gets used to being quiet, and realises it doesn’t have to continually be reacting to things.
Fifth – with the attention using less mental energy, the mind naturally allocates that energy to the awareness, which brightens.
Sixth – as awareness brightens, the attention slowly falls back into it, and, with practice, it disappears into awareness.
Seventh – with the attention merged back into awareness, there IS ONLY awareness.
At that point, we’re in the void. Aware of everything, but not thinking or reacting to anything. Calm and stillness as the storm of life whirls around us.
And in that awareness, our senses are MORE acute than usual – so it’s not a black place at all – but very, very bright.
Now … the wow moments. As I think I have said in the past, this process happens slowly, and depending on how intensively you’re practising, it comes piecemeal, as ‘insight experiences’ which come in bursts which, as you get used to them and learn to surrender to them, become longer and more subtle.
But here’s the thing.
You cannot look for the void, or meditate with it in mind – because any looking or expectations you might have are formed from a life experience which has no conception of the void. It can only come when you’ve let go of everything – and just focus on the bare business of meditating.
That’s what the methods are there for – they’re like life rafts to take you to the void – so you cling to the meditation methods, without thinking about them, or judging, or wanting or expecting – and one day, it comes. And it always comes as a surprise.
All the best
Thanks for your reply Roger.
I meditate with a blindfold and earplugs on. Cutting out sensory input, bringing it to bare minimum. There, there is just breath and thoughts. I have been meditating for some five years now, but I am a noob at meditation as my focus on breath has not increased at all from say five seconds.
I read your reply several times and each word is priceless. I will keep all of it in mind and meditate upon it.
Thanks a bunch.
Thank you for your explanation of the “void”, it spoke to me as I am trying to understand what I am experiencing. In the last few months, the smoke seems to be dissipating and such things as labels, mind constructs, and ideas implanted via society all seem to be dissolving away. This is happening of course outside of meditation which makes things a bit more alarming to say the least. I find that I am coming to the point where all the things that I thought I once new, really just don’t exist anymore and I have to find comfort in I guess the “void”. I know I have to surrender to it, but do you have advice for someone who is slowly entering the void outside of meditation other then grounding? Everyday I am experiencing the world in a way my ego can’t make sense of which causes tension and confusion.
Hi there, …
….one of the things that comes out of meditation practice is a sense of reality beyond the labels that we give to its various parts. The more we sit with our eyes closed, just sensing what there is to be sensed, while at the same time ignoring the labels our conditioned mind divides our world into, the more we notice the unity of the reality we are in.
This leads to a sense we find confusing, because it has no name, and it’s not spoken to in the world we live in. That’s why it’s called emptiness … because it’s empty of everything we are used to referring to as ‘real’.
But there’s really no need to surrender to it, or even take it too seriously. After all, the divided, labeled reality we live in is just as real to us as the void it floats in. Our human reality is, to all intents and purposes, the only reality we need – for practical reasons. Our survival depends on us being able to function in it.
The only reason the ‘emptiness sense’ is useful in our life, is as a reminder – or reference point, giving a wider view of our human reality. It puts our lives into a larger perspective. When seen from the ultimate truth of universal emptiness, the separation and conditioned commentary we apply to our human reality seems ridiculous and pedantic, and cannot be taken too seriously. We see that what we call life, and all the so-called ‘suffering’ it entails, is simply temporary friction in a vast continuum in which all things are interconnected, timeless, and immaculate.
Just knowing that, and touching that universal sensing as we meditate, has a calming effect, and ultimately creates mental and physical harmony.
I did a Vispassana retreat last year and experienced a void. I won’t try to describe it in images because it seems useless but my experience was very un-existence like and, as I tried to describe it then, full of an intense vertical joy and deep horizontal sadness.
Since then I’ve found myself seeking some kind of guidance.. I’ve been trying to contact different meditation centers, but the fact that I’m not an “expert meditator” and that I’m not established on a city plays me wrong.. I feel like since this experience Ive started to become more cynical and detached -even angry at times- so I’m really grateful for finding these.. and looking forward to start letting go 🙂
However, I’m confused because through other type of meditations (specially after yoga practice) I’ve experienced a deep clear limit-less connection, very different ( and with a much “light-like” communion quality) to that other “void experience” I had at the retreat, but that resonates more with what you’re describing as the “void”. So I wonder if there maybe are different “void” experiences and if it has something to do with different kind of meditations..
PS: I had a hard time to describe all these (I’m not mother tongue english speaker) but while reading you all I felt like, once experienced, it’s something that can be shared without many words.. so anyway, I hope someone can relate..