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The Experience of Nothingness

When I was about 13 years old, I was allowed to sit outside the main gathering place of the Sufis where my father conducted weekly meetings and the occasional vocal zekr. I don't quite remember the first time I sat outside the room listening to the vocal zekr, but I do distinctly remember the first time I heard my father utter these words: "Ilahi 'ajz wa inkesar, wa nisti 'ata befarma" (0 Lord grant us [the state of] helplessness, abjectness and nothingness).

His words had a profound effect on me though I had little understanding at the time of what he meant. It was only years later when I began reading Sufi literature that I realized that annihilation of self or the "state of nothingness" is the central theme and main objective of Sufism .

There are various ways we may come to experience nothingness in our lives, usually in the context of contemplating our own human condition. One way is through contemplation of the cosmos. For instance, when we consider the vastness of the universe, that there are billions upon billions of galaxies with billions upon billions of stars and our sun is just one such star and our planet just a single small planet among billions of planets in the Milky Way, we may become aware of how insignificant we are and may experience a sense of nothingness in relation to our own existence.

At other times, when we think of the amazing numbers of species that have come before us and the numbers of species that will come into this world after we are gone, and when we see ourselves in this vast flux of species, with homo sapiens being only a recent phenomenon in the history of life on this planet, we may also experience our utter insignificance and nothingness. Edward Fitzgerald (d. 1883), in his translation of one of the quatrains of 'Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat (LXIX), expressed a similar point:

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
     Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays
     And one by one back in the Closet lays.

Yet another way we may experience nothingness is when we are confronted with death and become aware of our own mortality. This happens when a person who is close to us dies. The death of a loved one confronts us with the reality of our situation: that we too are on the path of annihilation, and this realization, together with our lack of understanding of any purpose in our existence, may lead us to the experience of nothingness. Shakespeare has conveyed this very eloquently in his play Macbeth. After hearing that his wife has died, Macbeth contemplates death as the last act of a very bad play and experiences a sense of nothingness:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to -morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

- Macbeth (act 5, scene 5, lines 19-28)

The mystical experience of nothingness, however, is fundamentally different from the above. It is not through the contemplation of the external world and one's place in it that the mystic comes to experience his or her own nothingness. It is through turning inward and focusing on his or her own individuality and experiencing its disappearance that the mystic comes to experience nothingness. This happens when we cease to experience ourselves as distinct individuals and come to feel a profound sense of oneness with the world around us. The mystical experience of nothingness is the experience of the death of one's ego and the encounter with the divine. Such an experience is expressed as the highest form of humility by St. John of the Cross: "When he is brought to nothing, the highest degree of humility, the spiritual union between his soul and God will be effected." (Ascent of Mount Carmel, bk. 2, ch. 7, no. 11)

The Sufis' experience of nothingness is closely linked with the experience of divine love. The more one experiences the love for one's beloved, the more one experiences his or her own nothingness. Obviously no amount of words can convey the sense of such an experience. Rumi in his Mathnawi (bk. 5, vv. 1242-1255) tells the story of a lover who, being burnt in the fire of love, wanted to express the sincerity of his love for his beloved by counting all the things he had done for her. The lover goes on to say to his beloved that he hasn't slept for years, that he has spent all his wealth and strength for the beloved, and that there is nothing else that he could have done that he has not already done for her. The beloved responds by saying that all the lover has done is insignificant on the path of love compared to what he should have done and that he had not fulfilled the main principle and pre-condition of love. When the lover asks, "What is this principle?" the beloved responds, "It is the lover's death and nothingness."

Rumi's story provides a vivid description of the experience of nothingness through love. In moments of love, we forget ourselves and our existence is defined by our love of another. For Rumi it is only when the lover does not "see" himself in relation to his beloved that he is truly in love. To convey this sense of nothingness in a more tangible context, perhaps we can say that when we do things for others out of love, without expectation of any reward or being conscious of our own meritorious act, we are at the threshold of the mystical experience of nothingness.

In one of his last interviews, my father said that the goal of Sufism is nothingness, and then added, "because it is only when one is zero that one experiences the infinite." To paraphrase what he meant in this context: it is only when we do not experience our own individuality that we experience the divine in ourselves and in others.

Article taken from Sufi Journal, Issue 80, 2010


Other Writings by Dr. Alireza Nurbakhsh

  • Friendship

    The Sufis refer to God as the Friend (dūst). This is based on the Koranic verse yuhibbuhum wa yuhibbuhunah (God loves them and they love Him, 5:45), which is interpreted by the Sufis as meaning that it is God’s love for us that gives rise to our love for Him.
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  • In Memory of My Dear Father

    I would like to welcome everyone to this gathering to commemorate the death of my dear father, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, who passed away last Friday on the lOth of October 2008.
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  • Divine Love

    The first time I read Rumi's story of Moses and the Shepherd, I was struck by the fact that the shepherd was much closer to God than Moses even though the shepherd's conception of God was not even remotely plausible. Years later, when I revisited this story, it appeared to me that Rumi had unravelled a deep mystery of divine love: in order to love God, one does not need to have a correct conception or description of God; what is required is a burning heart.
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  • The Meaning of Surrender

    The first step on the path of Sufism is to surrender oneself to God. True surrender is not a self-conscious decision carried out as a result of a series of deliberations. It usually happens after years of frustration in finding the 'right' way to manage our lives, the right way to deal with others or to control our self-destructive behavior.
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  • The Master Disciple Relationship Revisited

    The relationship between a master and a disciple has often been characterized in Sufism as that of unwavering trust, where the disciple follows the master without asking questions or raising objections in his or her journey towards the truth.
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