This mini-series of posts about reconciling my difficult experience of the Void[i] came about because of a reader’s question. It was he, Steve, who introduced me two years ago to a stunning article on the Void by experiencer El Collie, and it was he, not I, who noticed that although I had posted her article here immediately and enthusiastically, I had totally avoided responding to it.
His recent question: “I’d really like to know how you actually view the void now and how you feel you’ve ‘come to terms’” via this view.” (Do not trifle with blog readers; they are made of stern stuff.)
Furthermore, he continues, “… regarding life’s balance, or the ‘yin/yang,’
I’ve never heard you expound on the obviously profound significance of this eastern symbol within your NDE. As impish as they were, they represented life: relativity, duality. Andbeing dualistic, they were Janus-faced, betraying life’s most profound paradox: Life as both savior and betrayer.”
Caught. I am indebted to readers in so many ways! Steve’s comments and his brilliant similes drive straight to the heart of the crux of things—what makes NDEs important, far beyond their superficial “golly-gosh” phenomenology. Beneath their eye-widening images lie treasures, if only we can get to them. Sometimes we are reluctant to go looking.
Life as both savior and betrayer. Ah.
What about those Yin Yang images?
Although it is difficult to remember such a possibility, the Yin Yang symbol was not universally recognizable throughout the United States in the early 1960s. From within mainstream Protestant culture of the time, I saw the images in my experience merely as unusual ‘circles.’ There was no deep familiarity with the symbol; it was not a part of my world, my upbringing, my understandings, and could bring nothing to my perceptions.
For one thing, what was an ancient Chinese philosophical symbol doing in the experience of a New England Congregationalist who did not understand it? What is the purpose of the Yin Yang here, and what can possibly be the purpose of a misunderstood symbol?
This is as good a spot as any in which to answer Steve’s question: At base, I have no idea how the Yin Yang got into my NDE or what purpose it might have served. In terms of immediate utility, it was a wasted effort, as I understood nothing about it. However, perhaps with a touch of that cosmic humor with which the world is possessed, in the long run, the impossibility of answering has helped me keep an open mind; and given fifty years and the comments of others, I can at least now piece together a response which seems to me to hold together. (Whether it is true or not is beyond my pay grade to know.)
The holding together
In its most common definition, the Yin Yang is a symbol of opposites in conflict. From a more accommodating perspective, Scottish homeopathic physician Bob Leckridge says, “I love what it represents, that flowing balance of darkness and light, the harmony of the male and female energies, and the subtle hint that each opposite contains the other.” Nowadays, everyone pretty much smiles and agrees. Similarly, in Wikipedia’s nuanced definition, the symbol describes “how apparently opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. …[They represent] complementary (rather than opposing) forces that interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts.”
Because I had no such understanding, for many years the only resonance for me was not ‘flowing balance’ but the dread associated with a message I took to mean universal annihilation. The Yin Yang as symbol remained submerged beneath the shock of the Void as experiential residue; it has taken a long time and a determined effort for me to be able to distinguish between the power and elegance of the symbol and the lingering devastation of the experience.
It is in this sense that Steve’s simile strikes home: The Yin Yang (my ‘circles’) as our most profound paradox: Life, both savior and betrayer.
What is the betrayal and what the salvation?
As a culture, we are not, in this literal, technological age, skilled in interpreting symbols, and much escapes us. Given enough thought, though, it is possible to recognize, as a Dutch theologian has noted,[ii] that “Despite the differences in meaning-making, human beings from different cultures and religions do not only share the human symbolizing capacity called culture, but also meet the same basic problems. These problems belong to the ‘existentials,’ the fixed features of human existence. Religious experience is marked by them.”
Those “fixed features of human existence” are the origin of Jung’s concept of archetypes. This should be a “Doh!” understanding: that as people across the globe and time share our common humanity, we also share issues and questions for which we devise images and understandings in terms our local culture will comprehend. Because they are addressed to similar issues, those images may overlap and share meanings.
One of these ‘existentials’ is the inescapable reality, built into our perceptual system, of either/or, of both/and–self and other, being and non-being, near and far, up and down—dualism. It is another of those “savior and betrayer” realities, the basic product of our physical senses and the working of our brains, and the trap in which our understandings are caught by their very nature. So far as we can tell, cultures since the beginning of human intelligence have struggled to comprehend such oppositions.
The Chinese Yin Yang stands as a focal expression of that duality, the essence of both/and, the image in which all opposites come together. As a generic, nameless circle with no beginning and no end, it is the archetype of wholeness, eternity, completion, fullness. As Yin Yang, two distinct yet interrelated forms, it carries all of the circle’s implicit meanings plus the tension of Difference holding dualities together in paradoxical simultaneity: both/and, consciousness/non/consciousness, being/ non-being. (And if they click from Yin to Yang, black to white, interchanging Yes/No, the Both/And, no wonder it is confusing to the uninitiated.)
Because we tend to be ignorant of the depth and variety of symbolic implications, it has been too easy to miss completely the fact that the West also has its corollary symbol of the intersection of opposites. In Western Christianity, the central point at which conflicting forces meet and are reconciled, the point at which dualism is overcome, is the cross—body and spirit, life and death, empire and commonality, the loving Yes and the destroying No.
Seeing the cross only literally, as the sign of a single crucifixion, we miss its depth as symbol, its representation of “a unity transcending human consciousness.”[iii] The cross as symbol is not identical with the Yin Yang; but is a close enough relative that we must at least pay attention to the family resemblance.
To bring this around even closer to our topic, metaphysician Alice Ouzounian asks,[iv] “What is represented by the center of the cross and the swastika, the basic principle at the center of the Wheel of the Universe, from which all flows and to which all returns; the center that is everywhere and nowhere?” At that center, she says, stands Emptiness. The Void.
We struggle to understand. We yearn for the radiant and affirming NDE, for the loving light, for the gloriously risen Christ; and of course they also hold a place in the many-storied universe. This other is not what we wanted, this paradox, this troubling puzzle. Yet it also seems deeply, inescapably true: Life as both savior and betrayer. Our task, surely, is to find a balance beyond the dualism.
More next time.
~ ~ ~
[i] An Experience of the Void,http://dancingpastthedark.com/articles-2/an-experience-of-the-void/
[ii] On Sharing Religious Experiences: Possibilities of Interfaith Mutuality, by Jerald D. Gort, p 49.
[iii] The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods, George D. Chryssides, Ron Greaves p. 57.
[iv] “About Spiritual Emptiness or the Void,” Hermetic philosophy and the Mystery of Being,Alice Ouzounian,http://www.plotinus.com/spiritual%20emptiness_copy.htm
Fascinating, Nan. Your links are very helpful, too, although the second one goes to your experience of the void rather than “On Sharing Religious Experiences.” I have some questions about encountering the yin-yang symbol in Jung’s book: You said that in your experience the circles clicked back and forth from black to white. What about the static yin-yang symbol, with its wavy line and dot of each color in the other side, immediately reminded you of circles clicking back and forth, one color to the other? Was it the suggestion of movement in the yin-yang? Also, after you threw the book across the room and fled your friend’s house, what drew you back to take another look? How much later? Hope these aren’t intrusive questions. I’m interested in the process of your recovery following the devastating experience; that is–what can pull one beyond the terrifying immediacy of such an experience toward eventually examining it and integrating it.
Dave Woods says
Savior / Betrayer, doesn’t ring true for me. To be betrayed, you have to have trusted what you were betrayed by. The only constant factor in life is change. This is something I trust, and have never ever been betrayed by.
Life throws me one unexpected curve after another. We all face this. If it’s unexpectedly detrimental, and you’re blindsided by it. I guess you could feel it as a betrayal.
For a Savior, ready or not, I have to adapt. The direction I’m thrown into, and the realizations I have to come to, to cope with it, to me are gifts from a savior.
These events force us to face ourselves……the hardest thing in the world to see, and what else are we here for.
This post prompted me to start thinking about Nothingness. Ah, geeze. What is it? What does it mean?
Damifino, but I like to think about it and I can always ramble. 🙂
Several multi-universe theories compete for our attention, but all they have to go on is their mathematical formulas. Critics refer to them as “theories of anything”, due to their unprovable nature. Sort of like Genesis myths for establishment intellectuals. I have no way of knowing who has the correct model any more than anyone else, but however you slice your favorite creation story, sooner or later you get down to the last turtle. So…
One of the hardest, ultimately impossible concepts to wrap our minds around is the idea of Nothingness. Current physics thought tells us that before the Inflationary Universe and accompanying Big Bang, there was nothing. No vacuum of space to expand into, and by extension, time could not exist.
There wasn’t even a void as we generally conceive of it.
The Ultimate Zero.
This shouldn’t be confused with Buddhist Nothingness. Buddhist teachers warn of Western misunderstanding of the word. As far as I can grasp, in my pointy-headed Western mind, spiritual Nothingness is consciousness without form. In other words, something only The Enlightened can fully understand.
You want Enlightenment? Do the right thing and good luck!
The Yin/Yang of life, if truly balanced, has the potential to cancel itself out, reverting back to the Nothing it came from. But I wonder if it also has the potential for one side to overcome the other – think – free will.
If a cycle of life is involved, perhaps it comes back to formlessness for self-assessment (judgement). Maybe it resets, and takes on newer, unimaginable forms. Maybe it goes on vacation. Who knows?
The fact is, we do not know, we cannot know. All we can do is strive for meaning and purpose in our current existence, do the right thing to the best of our understanding, and go with the flow.
Of course, a little good luck is always helpful.
Dave Woods says
I definitely agree with your last paragraph. You describe what I try to do in what’s left of my present physical life. On the 28th of May, I’ll be turning 80. At this point, I’m still learning a lot through remembering all the different events that my consciousness has traveled through. All the lessons are still unfolding.
Jill Whitehead says
Happy Birthday Dave Woods, May 28, 1935!
You write what I feel!
Dave should go see AGE OF ADALINE, or even CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON.
But then, Rabbitdawg, what would become of us & the universe if we DON’T seek meaning in our lives? What would be the default form of existence?
I shudder to think that Nothingness is the answer to that.
Or is the “default” simply movement, or cycle? From Nothingness, to something-ness (in its various forms), and back to Nothingness?
Rabbitdawg, I think that you touched on a profound point which could use a lot more attention:” The Yin/ Yang of life, if truly balanced, has the potential to cancel itself out, reverting to the Nothing it came from.” In my experience of life I’ve never found an exception to this action of the Yin/ Yang…. for every high there is a corresponding low, life with it’s corresponding death, etc. To extrapolate, somethingness with it’s corresponding nothingness. Very mathematical… so is this the “order” Einstein sought and never found within the seemingly infinite chaos?
One thing one could say with certainty regarding this is that it isn’t a “vital” or “unifying” truth!
Nan Bush says
Welcome back, Nemo!
Steve W. says
So lucid, articulate, and pithy, Nan! Thank you.
Those words I wrote were intuited, thus I cannot defend them or become dogmatic, as w/ an opinion or a belief. They conveyed my own ‘Knowing'(which I reluctantly will term “mystical”), albeit, thoroughly subjective.
Regarding the paradoxical nature of life (or the yin yang), I have always reached a distinct ‘boundary’ or more poignantly, a ‘wall’, whenever I’ve journeyed “toward” the “absolute” via the relative (the mind). I once had the confirmation(and joy) of taking such a journey w/ a dear and wise friend, and we both reached the ‘wall’ together–I said, ” We’ve hit the wall, haven’t we?” And he concurred.
The wall represents that impenetrable paradox.
Dave Woods says
All through my life I’ve heard the expression ” Straight up The Yin Yang” Obviously this has a derogatory intent. This has been presented to me by the less sophisticated members of society, wishing to describe the unfortunate outcome of an event. But hey! this could mean that the Yin Yang concept runs far deeper than we ever imagined!!
Jill Whitehead says
“Straight up” requires mutual consent.
Kyle Youmans says
H, What is the purpose of distressing NDEs? Is there any reason why individuals have them? I think it would be interesting somewhere in your blog to go into detail on this interesting phenomenon.
Nan Bush says
Kyle, if you read through the archive titles, you’ll find quite a few comments about why people have distressing NDEs and what they mean. Among others, three posts in June of 2011 were devoted to this.Thanks!
According to Buddhist teachings people who are close to death may get what is called a sign of destiny (gati nimitta). Some people may see a chariot from heaven sent to pick them up. The song ‘ swing low sweet chariot’ may have been inspired by such a vision. Some peope bound for hell may see flames. If we get such a vision it should be a lesson to do as much good as we can in our remaining time.
I’ve been visiting your website for the last 12 months. Thank you for writing your blog and informing people of your experience and your journey.
I recently watch this documentary about Dark Matter and recent physics. I thought that it supports a lot of what you believe. Its a BBC documentary made in 2015 called “Dancing in the Dark: The end of physics” it can be viewed on youtube.
Nan Bush says
Omigosh, thank you so much for this referral! It’s the first I’ve heard about the program…and trust BBC to do it! I can hardly wait.Will have to report back!
I’m so glad you liked it. 🙂
Saw your interview in the May/June issue of Seattle IANDS, Nan. I found it a little more comprehensive than the book description of your experience (unless my memory is off–quite possible!). In any case, I’m sure it be helpful to new readers.
Nan Bush says
Thank you, Judy. In my view, that’s far and away the best interview I’ve ever had. Amy Stringer did a fabulous job, and I’m so glad to be able to have Seattle share it. I haven’t received my copy yet; am looking forward to seeing it and will think where to put it. Thanks for the suggestion.