Alan Lightman writes: My most vivid encounter with Nothingness occurred in a remarkable experience I had as a child of 9 years old. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was standing alone in a bedroom of my home in Memphis Tennessee, gazing out the window at the empty street, listening to the faint sound of a train passing a great distance away, and suddenly I felt that I was looking at myself from outside my body. I was somewhere in the cosmos. For a brief few moments, I had the sensation of seeing my entire life, and indeed the life of the entire planet, as a brief flicker in a vast chasm of time, with an infinite span of time before my existence and an infinite span of time afterward. My fleeting sensation included infinite space. Without body or mind, I was somehow floating in the gargantuan stretch of space, far beyond the solar system and even the galaxy, space that stretched on and on and on. I felt myself to be a tiny speck, insignificant in a vast universe that cared nothing about me or any living beings and their little dots of existence, a universe that simply was. And I felt that everything I had experienced in my young life, the joy and the sadness, and everything that I would later experience, meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was a realization both liberating and terrifying at once. Then, the moment was over, and I was back in my body.
The strange hallucination lasted only a minute or so. I have never experienced it since. Although Nothingness would seem to exclude awareness along with the exclusion of everything else, awareness was part of that childhood experience, but not the usual awareness I would locate within the three pounds of gray matter in my head. It was a different kind of awareness. I am not religious, and I do not believe in the supernatural. I do not think for a minute that my mind actually left my body. But for a few moments I did experience a profound absence of the familiar surroundings and thoughts we create to anchor our lives. It was a kind of Nothingness.
To understand anything, as Aristotle argued, we must understand what it is not, and Nothingness is the ultimate opposition to any thing. To understand matter, said the ancient Greeks, we must understand the “void,” or the absence of matter. Indeed, in the fifth century B.C., Leucippus argued that without the void there could be no motion because there would be no empty spaces for matter to move into. According to Buddhism, to understand our ego we must understand the ego-free state of “emptiness,” called śūnyatā. To understand the civilizing effects of society, we must understand the behavior of human beings removed from society, as William Golding so powerfully explored in his novel Lord of the Flies.
Following Aristotle, let me say what Nothingness is not. It is not a unique and absolute condition. Nothingness means different things in different contexts. From the perspective of life, Nothingness might mean death. To a physicist, it might mean the complete absence of matter and energy (an impossibility, as we will see), or even the absence of time and space. To a lover, Nothingness might mean the absence of the beloved. To a parent, it might mean the absence of children. To a painter, the absence of color. To a reader, a world without books. To a person impassioned with empathy, emotional numbness. To a theologian or philosopher like Pascal, Nothingness meant the timeless and spaceless infinity known only by God. [Continue reading…]