by Alan Watts
When I consider the weirdest of all things I can think of, do you know what it is? Nothing. The whole idea of nothing is something that has bugged people for centuries, especially in the Western world. We have a saying in Latin, Ex nihilo nihil fit, which means, “Out of nothing comes nothing.” In other words, you can’t get something out of nothing. It’s occurred to me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions. It lies at the root of all our common sense, not only in the West, but in many parts of the East as well. It manifests as a kind of terror of nothing, a putdown on nothing, a putdown on everything associated with nothing such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principle which is often equated with the negative principle (although women’s lib people don’t like that kind of thing, when they understand what I’m saying I don’t think they’ll object). To me, nothing—the negative, the empty—is exceedingly powerful. I would say, not Ex nihilo nihil fit, but, “You can’t have something without nothing.”
How do we basically begin to think about the difference between something and nothing? When I say there is a cigar in my right hand and there is no cigar in my left hand, we get the idea of is, something, and isn’t, nothing. At the basis of this reasoning lies the far more obvious contrast of solid and space. We tend to think of space as nothing; when we talk about the conquest of space there’s a little element of hostility. But actually, we’re talking about the conquest of distance. Space or whatever it is that lies between the earth and the moon, and the earth and the sun, is considered to be just nothing at all.
But to suggest how very powerful and important this nothing at all is, let me point out that if you didn’t have space, you couldn’t have anything solid. Without space outside the solid you wouldn’t know where the solid’s edges were. For example, you can see me in a photograph because you see a background and that background shows up my outline. But if it weren’t there, then I and everything around me would merge into a single, rather peculiar mass. You always have to have a background of space to see a figure. The figure and the background, the solid and the space, are inseparable and go together.
We find this very commonly in the phenomenon of magnetism. A magnet has a north pole and a south pole— there is no such thing as a magnet with one pole only. Supposing we equate north with is and south with isn’t. You can chop the magnet into two pieces, if it’s a bar magnet, and just get another north pole and south pole, another is and isn’t, on the end of each piece.
What I am trying to get into basic logic is that there isn’t a sort of fight between something and nothing. Everyone is familiar with the famous words of Hamlet, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” It isn’t; to be or not to be is not the question. Because you can’t have a solid without space. You can’t have an is without an isn’t, a something without a nothing, a figure without a background. And we can turn that round, and say, “You can’t have space without solid.”
Imagine nothing but space, space, space, space with nothing in it, forever. But there you are imagining it and you’re something in it. The whole idea of there being only space, and nothing else at all, is not only inconceivable but perfectly meaningless, because we always know what we mean by contrast.
We know what we mean by white in comparison with black. We know life in comparison with death. We know pleasure in comparison with pain, up in comparison with down. But all these things must come into being together. You don’t have first something and then nothing or first nothing and then something. Something and nothing are two sides of the same coin. If you file away the tails side of a coin completely, the heads side of it will disappear as well. So in this sense, the positive and negative, the something and the nothing, are inseparable—they go together. The nothing is the force whereby the something can be manifested.
We think that matter is basic to the physical world. And matter has various shapes. We think of tables as made of wood as we think of pots as made of clay. But is a tree made of wood in the same way a table is? No, a tree is wood; it isn’t made of wood. Wood and tree are two different names for the same thing.
But there is in the back of our mind, the notion, as a root of common sense, that everything in the world is made of some kind of basic stuff. Physicists, through centuries, have wanted to know what that was. Indeed, physics began as a quest to discover the basic stuff out of which the world is made. And with all our advances in physics we’ve never found it. What we have found is not stuff but form. We have found shapes. We have found structures. When you turn up the microscope and look at things expecting to see some sort of stuff, you find instead form, pattern, structure. You find the shape of crystals, beyond the shapes of crystals you find molecules, beyond molecules you find atoms, beyond atoms you find electrons and positrons between which there are vast spaces. We can’t decide whether these electrons are waves or particles and so we call them wavicles.
What we will come up with will never be stuff, it will always be a pattern. This pattern can be described, measured, but we never get to any stuff for the simple reason there isn’t any. Actually, stuff is when you see something unclearly or out of focus, fuzzy. When we look at it with the naked eye it looks just like goo. We can’t make out any significant shape to it. But when you put it under the microscope, you suddenly see shapes. It comes into clear focus as shape.
And you can go on and on, looking into the nature of the world and you will never find anything except form. Think of stuff; basic substance. You wouldn’t know how to talk ” about it; even if you found it, how would you describe what it was like? You couldn’t say anything about a structure in it, you couldn’t say anything about a pattern or a process in it, because it would be absolute, primordial goo.
What else is there besides form in the world? Obviously, between the significant shapes of any form there is space. And space and form go together as the fundamental things we’re dealing with in this universe. The whole of Buddhism is based on a saying, “That which is void is precisely form, and that which is form is precisely void.” Let me illustrate this to you in an extremely simple way. When you use the word clarity, what do you mean? It might mean a perfectly polished lens, or mirror, or a clear day when there’s no smog and the air is perfectly transparent like space.
What’s the next thing clarity makes you think of? You think of form in clear focus, all the details articulate and perfect. So the one word clarity suggests to you these two apparently completely different things: the clarity of the lens or the mirror, and the clarity of articulate form. In this sense, we can take the saying “Form is void, void is form” and instead of saying is, say implies, or the word that I invented, goeswith. Form always goeswith void. And there really isn’t, in this whole universe, any substance.
Form, indeed, is inseparable from the idea of energy, and form, especially when it’s moving in a very circumscribed area, appears to us as solid. For example, when you spin an electric fan the empty spaces between the blades sort of disappear into a blur, and you can’t push a pencil, much less your finger, through the fan. So in the same way, you can’t push your finger through the floor because the floor’s going too fast. Basically, what you have down there is nothing and form in motion.
I knew of a physicist at the University of Chicago who was rather crazy like some scientists, and the idea of the insolidity, the instability of the physcial world, impressed him so much that he used to go around in enormous padded slippers for fear he should fall through the floor. So this commonsense notion that the world is made of some kind of substance is a nonsense idea—it isn’t there at all but is, instead, form and emptiness.
Most forms of energy are vibration, pulsation. The energy of light or the energy of sound are always on and off. In the case of very fast light, very strong light, even with alternating current you don’t notice the discontinuity because your retina retains the impression of the on pulse and you can’t notice the off pulse except in very slow light like an arc lamp. It’s exactly the same thing with sound. A high note seems more continuous because the vibrations are faster than a low note. In the low note you hear a kind of graininess because of the slower alternations of on and off.
All wave motion is this process, and when we think of waves, we think about crests. The crests stand out from the underlying, uniform bed of water. These crests are perceived as the things, the forms, the waves. But you cannot have the emphasis called a crest, the concave, without the de-emphasis, or convex, called the trough. So to have anything standing out, there must be something standing down or standing back. We must realize that if you had this part alone, the up part, that would not excite your senses because there would be no contrast.
The same thing is true of all life together. We shouldn’t really contrast existence with nonexistence, because actually, existence is the alternation of now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t, now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t, now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t. It is that contrast that presents the sensation of there being anything at all.
Now, in light and sound the waves are extraordinarily rapid so that we don’t hear or see the interval between them. But there are other circumstances in which the waves are extraordinarily slow, as in the alternation of day and night, light and darkness, and the much vaster alternations of life and death. But these alternations are just as necessary to the being of the universe as in the very fast motions of light and sound, and in the sense of solid contact when it’s going so rapidly that we notice only continuity or the is side. We ignore the intervention of the isn’t side, but it’s there just the same, just as there are vast spaces within the very heart of the atom.
Another thing that goes along with all this is that it’s perfectly obvious that the universe is a system which is aware of itself. In other words, we, as living organisms, are forms of the energy of the universe just as much as the stars and the galaxies, and, through our sense organs, this system of energy becomes aware of itself.
But to understand this we must again relate back to our basic contrast between on and off, something and nothing, which is that the aspect of the universe which is aware of itself, which does the awaring, does not see itself. In other words, you can’t look at your eyes with your eyes. You can’t observe yourself in the act of observing. You can’t touch the tip of a finger with the tip of the same finger no matter how hard you try. Therefore, there is on the reverse side of all observation a blank spot; for example, behind your eyes from the point of view of your eyes. However you look around there is blankness behind them. That’s unknown. That’s the part of the universe which does not see itself because it is seeing.
We always get this division of experience into one-half known, one-half unknown. We would like to know, if we could, this always unknown. If we examine the brain and the structure of the nerves behind the eyes, we’re always looking at somebody else’s brain. We’re never able to look at our own brain at the same time we’re investigating somebody else’s brain.
So there is always this blank side of experience. What I’m suggesting is that the blank side of experience has the same relationship to the conscious side as the off principle of vibration has to the on principle. There’s a fundamental division. The Chinese call them the yang, the positive side, and the yin, the negative side. This corresponds to the idea of one and zero. All numbers can be made of one and zero as in the binary system of numbers which is used for computers.
And so it’s all made up of off and on, and conscious and unconscious. But the unconscious is the part of experience which is doing consciousness, just as the trough manifests the wave, the space manifests the solid, the background manifests the figure. And so all that side of life which you call unconscious, unknown, impenetrable, is unconscious, unknown, impenetrable because it’s really you. In other words, the deepest you is the nothing side, is the side which you don’t know.
So, don’t be afraid of nothing. I could say, “There’s nothing in nothing to be afraid of.” But people in our culture are terrified of nothing. They’re terrified of death; they are uneasy about sleep, because they think it’s a waste of time. They have a lurking fear in the back of their minds that the universe is eventually going to run down and end in nothing, and it will all be forgotten, buried and dead. But this is a completely unreasonable fear, because it is just precisely this nothing which is always the source of something.
Think once again of the image of clarity, crystal clear. Nothing is what brings something into focus. This nothing, symbolized by the crystal, is your own eyeball, your own consciousness.