I've been removing many objects from my living space and have been thinking about the "nothing" left in their stead, prompting further rumination on the nature of nothing, non-being and nothingness. To contemplate "nothing" in the physical sense is to run into the likes of invisible particles, energy fields or dark matter; there is never really "nothing" there. However, in the realms of philosophy, religion and fantasy, "nothing" is a major character in interpreting the human condition.
Jean-Paul Sartre is as good a place to start as any. In his 1943 work Being and Nothingness, he argues a conflict between our free consciousness (no thing-ness) and our existence in the physical world (being). We can never BE what we actually are and instead fall into roles and strive towards goals, acting out our lives instead of succumbing to pure consciousness. Sartre's seeming desire to be in a state of what he defines as en-soi (In Itself) as opposed to the human condition of le pour-soi (For Itself) strongly brings to mind Hindu yoga practice:
"Yoga is the intentional stopping of the spontaneous activity of the mind stuff."1 Reaching a state where nothing is going on in your mind is intended to bring you in line with the divine reality and the realization that we are all a part of that reality. In the Hindu religion the universe is a dream dreamt by Vishnu. Here is a wonderful description by the mythologist Joseph Campbell:
Vishnu is pictured as the divine dreamer of the world dream. Vishnu sleeps on a great serpent, whose name is Ananta, which means "Endless." The serpent floats on the universal ocean, called the Milky Ocean. But this Milky Ocean and the Serpent and the sleeping God: these are all the same thing. They are three inflections of the same thing, and that thing can be thought of also as the subtle substance that the wind of the mind stirs into action when the universe of all these shifting forms is brought into being. Vishnu, the God, sleeps, and the activity of his mind stuff creates dreams, and we are all his dream: the world is Vishnu's dream. And just as, in your dreams, all the images that you behold and all the people who appear are really manifestations of your own dreaming power, so are we all manifestations of Vishnu's dreaming power. We are no more independent entities than the dream figures in our own dreams.
All this dreaming into being can't help but call up The Never Ending Story:
In both the 1979 novel by Michael Ende and the 1984 film, the Nothing is terrorizing the land of Fantasia, not destroying, but negating the existence of vast tracks of land and creatures. It turns out that Fantasia is brought into being by the dreams and fantasies of humans in our reality. The turning away from dreams and fantasy in humanity have brought the Nothing onto the once vibrant land. A human child (Bastian) is brought to save the world and through his wishes, Fantasia is reconstructed.
This brings us to non-being and nothingness. The creatures of Fantasia fell into nothingness because they were no longer thought of by humans. However, once Bastian thought of them, they existed again, but not in our reality. They are non-beings like unicorns or centaurs; we can say unicorns don't exist, but that does not make them nothing. To think about it another way, a physical object, removed from vision or ownership becomes nothing. Not having to see and think about it, forgetting its being, opens up room in the mind.
There is a recurring biblical theme of selling your possessions. Although this can be seen literally as a ways to help the poor, the simplification of surroundings can lift the burden of possession and make the road to en-soi or clear mind easier.
19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
1 Patanjali: the Yoga Sutras, "Thread or Guiding Thread to Yoga."