Emptiness and Radical Negation: Shifts in and Beyond the Story of “Me”

By Adam J. Pearson

गते गते पारगते पारसंगते बोधि स्वाहा
gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond, hail awakening!

~ From the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, “Heart of the Perfection of Understanding” [Heart Sutra]

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“At work, at rest, never stop trying to realize who it is that hears. Even though your questioning becomes almost unconscious, you won’t find the one who hears, and all your efforts will come to naught. Yet sounds can be heard, so question yourself to an even profounder level. At last every vestige of self-awareness will disappear and you will feel like a cloudless sky. Within yourself you will find no ‘I’, nor will you discover anyone who hears. This Mind is like the void, yet it hasn’t a single spot that can be called empty. This state is often mistaken for Self-realization. But continue to ask yourself even more intensely: “Now who is it that hears?” If you bore and bore into this question, oblivious to anything else; even this feeling of voidness will vanish and you will be unaware of anything – total darkness will prevail. Don’t stop here, but keep asking with all your strength, “What is it that hears?” Only when you have completely exhausted the questioning will the question burst; now you will feel like a man come back from the dead. This is true realization.”

~ Zen Master Bassui Tokushō (1327–1387)

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“Question yourself even more intensely in this wise: “My body is like a phantom, like bubbles on a stream. My mind, looking into itself, is as formless as empty-space, yet somewhere within sounds are perceived. Who is hearing?” Should you question yourself in this wise with profound absorption, never slackening the intensity of your effort, your rational mind eventually will exhaust itself and only questioning at the deepest level will remain. Finally you will lose awareness of your own body. Your long-held conceptions and notions will perish, after absolute questioning, in the way that every drop of water vanishes from a tub broken open at the bottom, and perfect enlightenment will follow like flowers suddenly blooming on withered trees. With such realization you achieve true emancipation. But even now repeatedly cast off what has been realized, turning back to the subject that realizes, that is, to the root bottom, and resolutely go on. Your Self-nature will then grow brighter and more transparent as your delusive feelings perish, like a gem gaining luster under repeated polishing, until at last it positively illumines the entire universe. Don’t doubt this!”

~ Zen Master Bassui Tokushō (1327–1387)

You may have noticed that the shifts, realizations, experiences, and insights, that seem to happen to “you”–that is, that the mind’s story about “me” claims as part of your identity–are impermanent. They come and go and because they don’t allow a glimpse beyond the storytelling, only offer another view within it; the ‘zoom’ of awareness remains focused on the story itself.

We can recognize these co-opted realizations because the mind frames them as “my insights, my realizations, my awakenings, my experiences,” and so on. When the storytelling mental process claims them as “me” and “mine,” they get cherished and the mind sometime fixes on their occurrence in the past and tries to replicate them in the future.

In contrast, the shifts, realizations, and insights that seemingly unfold not to or for “me,” but beyond “me,” produce deeper, more permanent effects. They zoom out the aperture of our field of view such that the stories, identifications, and mental processes that we previously seemed to see from and within now appear in front of the camera of awareness. Before, we seemed to be looking from them; now we see them and therefore, know our nature to be beyond them.

Because the things we previously thought we were seeing from now appear before us,  we must be beyond them; they can’t be “you” or “me” in any definitive sense. We can only be beyond what we are not, not what we are. The experiential realization of being beyond permanently alters our view of the things we now know our nature to be beyond. Their former apparent solidity and weightiness now seems lighter and less substantial. The direct insight arises that these things–all that can be perceived and conceived–we are not, and therefore, our nature is free from them, beyond them.

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As a result, even if the autobiographical storytelling mental process seemingly sweeps our interest and attention back into a story about “me” after an apparent shift beyond a layer of the story of “me” and the aperture of consciousness seems to zoom into the mental process once again, the grip of the illusion is now experienced as weaker than before.

What you have been able to experience yourself as being beyond can no longer masquerade as “you” for very long. Beyondness is prior to time and thus, time cannot outlast it. Although our true nature is beyond both time and timelessness, the intimation of our beyondness can influence what seems to happen in time.

This influence expresses itself as a weakening of the ability of form–whether mental, physical, spiritual, or emotional–to entice us to identify with it. Abiding without identifications is abiding in beyondness, sitting as a Buddha here and now. As the great Zen master Bankei once said, “everything is perfectly resolved in the Unborn.” The Unborn is beyond birth, life and death. What is its nature? This, we must find out indirectly by negating all that it is not. Negation of all that can be negated reveals the beyondness of that which cannot be negated. What remains when all perceivables or conceivables have been emptied? This, we must find out firsthand; it is the very heart of the Way itself.

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True intimations of our beyondness tend not to be claimed by the mind as part of the story of “me” because the mind finds our beyondness infinitely boring; there’s no drama, form, or excitement in it from which the mental process can mine autobiographical stories. It contains no specialness the mental activity can claim for “you” because it’s beyond specialness and unspecialness and common to all; it fails to set “me” apart, so its self-enhancement appeal is null.

Thus, when seen rightly, apparent insights, shifts, and realizations beyond “me” need not be cherished as special and there’s no need to replicate them. Such experiences have relative value, but ultimately they must all be dropped like paddles when upon stepping  out of a boat; once we have arrived at the other shore, they are no longer needed. Carrying such insighst and experiences and magnifying their importance in the past only adds to the illusion of weight that isn’t here. Ultimately, there is no difference between “spiritual” experiences and ordinary experiences; knowing we are beyond both, we can carry on without clinging to a past that isn’t happening now. Our true nature is beyond the experienced and the experiencer, beyond experiencing itself. Therefore, although all experiences are relatively useful, they are all absolutely useless. Cast off all “this” and “that” and boldly be!

In truth, there is never any need to go back to what we have realized we are beyond. Our true nature is beyond the dual movements of ‘going forward’ and ‘going backwards’ in any case; anything that can be pointed to and identified as a distinct form, anything conceivable or perceivable, is not it.

If we find our attention and interest are seemingly going back to former shifts and experiences, it is enough to see if the image of whatever the mind is fixating on can be negated, dropped, or rejected as “not what I am.” If it’s not eternally here, then it cannot be us! Anything impermanent and seemingly bounded is what we are not.  All are, as the Buddha taught, “empty of separate self-nature.”

Negating the object of mental fixation reminds us that we are beyond it.  In reality, absolutely everything that appears only to disappear, that is perceived or conceived in time, can be negated, dropped, and emptied, and we can see the view of the form from  beyond it.

Every form, no matter how gross or subtle, physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, is always found to be in front of the camera of awareness, not behind it. And if it appears before you or within you, you must be beyond it. Such is the nature of everything that appears and even of the consciousness in which it appears; we are beyond consciousness and unconsciousness also. The anchor of clinging must not land even on consciousness. Freedom is prior to and beyond all that can be recognized, remembered, perceived, and conceived…

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Whenever we deny something as unreal, it is in reference to something real.
~ The Brahma Sutras of Hinduism

How can we realize what we fundamentally are? Not directly, but only indirectly, by becoming clear about what we are not.  How do we become clear about what we are not? By negating absolutely every quality that the mind proposes that “I Am” and its apparent opposite, not only thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but even the nondual pointers of the great teachers as well, not only unconsciousness but consciousness, not only fullness but emptinesss, not only unawareness but awareness, not only matter but spirit, not only self but non-self, not only immanence, but also transcendence.

Leave no resting place for the mind or a story to stick by negating every possible place the pendulum of “me” can possibly swing. With nowhere to swing, it is immobilized in the Immobile; nothing has nowhere to swing and the negation of all of its potential motions and destinations reveals the stillness of That which is beyond them all. We are That; we are what we fundamentally seek, the Home we never left. What’s looking is what we’re looking for.

Radical neti neti (“not this, not this”) or the via negativa (way of negation) involves the earnest rejection, dropping, and negation of all that arises and appears as “not what I am.” Far from a mere intellectual exercise, total negation reveals that which is beyond both freedom and bondage as a matter of direct, firsthand realization or ‘finding out.’ Negation reveals the reality beyond the negated. It shifts attention beyond belief into an unshakeable, undeniable finding out of what’s true beyond reliance on authority, tradition, and second-hand sources. Only the fruit of this tree is truly reliable; it alone remains when all else has been negated and had its emptiness laid bare.

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Photography by SlightClutter


How does the way of total negation look more practically? It is very simple: the storytelling mental process will propose things as being what you are; negate all of its proposals with the knowledge that you are not that. Along with what the mind proposes, negate even the apparent opposite of what it proposes as well; in this way, there is nowhere the mental process can run to, stick to, land on, or rest as create an identification with what we are not. Whatever can be negated, you will know you are beyond, and therefore, it cannot be what you really are.

For example, if the mind begins a thought with: “if I become…”

Cut it off and discern immediately that “I am neither becoming nor non-becoming.”

If it identifies with the body or the mind, discern that the ultimate is “neither the body nor bodilessness, neither the mind nor mindlessness…”

If it begins a thought with: “I remember…”

Discern that the ultimate is “neither memory nor forgetting…”

If it begins to narrate a story from the past, like “that one time, I was…”

Discern that you are defined by “neither time nor timelessness, neither the past nor the future.”

If the mind fixes on a nondual pointer and says that “I am consciousness…”

Discern that you are “Neither consciousness, nor unconsciousness…”

The mind will get more and more subtle in its proposals. “Oneness?”

“Neither Oneness nor twoness nor not-twoness.”

“Freedom?”

“Neither freedom, nor bondage, nor one who seems to move between them.”

If it moves to thoughts of mortality, like “before I die, I must…”

Discern that what you are is defined by “Neither birth nor death.”

The mind will continue in this way, getting more and more rarefied in exposing the layers of its identifications as the negation and discernment continues, knowing that what you are is not any concept of either relative or absolute, either presence or absence. Absolutely everything gets rejected in this way as “not what I am;” whatever can be seen can be discerned, whatever can be discerned can be negated, whatever can be negated, we must be beyond. Spare nothing, not even the pointers of the great teachers: awareness, consciousness, beingness, emptiness… negate the idea that you are those as well!

This last part is crucial. The mind would like to keep a few ‘sacred cows’ of identification, but negate them all; spare nothing that can be negated. All concepts, subtle and gross, concrete and abstract, all images of ‘what we are’ must be emptied and thrown out, discarded completely, seen through as non-binding, not-defining what we are. Be as ruthless as a samurai, cutting down every identification that appears. Wipe out everything that can be wiped out, drop everything that can be dropped, empty everything that can be emptied, then see what happens.

You may find that the cloudy layers of false identifications begin to part and the truth of what you are begins to shines through brighter and brighter. Whatever can be negated, we must be beyond.

Eventually, even the whole field of consciousness and all of the forms in the universe will appear before the camera of your awareness; you will see the formlessness of consciousness morphing in and out of form, becoming whatever appears within it.

You will see a sense of I Amness suffusing all of the forms in the universe and feel it as constantly in your own body as in the bodies of other human beings who seem to be moving through as consciousness as well. Do not stop here!

Negate even the all-pervasive “I Amness” and both the entire field of consciousness and its apparent opposite of unconsciousness. Then negate negation itself.

Nothing can remain but what is beyond all that can appear and disappear and even the spaciousness in which it appears. Dear friends, dear Self, I invite you to find out what you are by negating what you’re not.


Beyondness is the key that ultimately reveals that what we fundamentally are surpasses even the mind’s movements of seemingly ‘going beyond’ and seemingly ‘falling back from the beyond,’ for what we are is prior to all comings and goings, consciousness and unconsciousness, form and formlessness, immanence and transcendence.

No word or concept can touch our true nature, not even “beyondness;” it is beyond subject and object, referrer and referrent.  Thankfully, there is no need to take Nisargadatta Maharaj’s, the Buddha’s, Ramana Maharshi’s , Bassui’s, Hui-Neng’s, or anyone else’s word for it; the truth reveals itself directly in the absence of identification with the false.

Negating and rejecting all that can be negated and rejected clarifies what we are not. When all that we are not is negated, only what we are remains. At last, even negation is negated; even emptiness is emptied; even dropping is dropped. What we remains is neither something nor nothing, neither absence nor presence.

Our beyondness is always available now; indeed, it alone is ever-available; everything else is a limited-time offer, available for a short time only. Negate all of the short-time offers and see what shines beyond time, beyond space, beyond experience itself.

“People ask me sometimes: “Sokei-an, you have experienced the transcendental world, and you are still there. How do you feel?” I say: ” I feel just like this. I got into it in my twenties and I have been there ever since, so I haven’t much experience of the other world.” How did I get into it? Well, I shall tell you the truth. One day I wiped out all the notions from my mind. I gave up all desire. I discarded all the words with which I thought, and stayed in quietude.

I felt a little strange – as if I were being carried into something, or as if I were touching some power unknown to me. I had been near it before; I had experienced it several times, but each time I had shaken my head and run away from it. This time I decided not to run away, and – “Ztt!” – I entered.

I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but my physical body extended to the corners of the world. I walked two, three, four yards, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words had lost their meaning. I saw people coming towards me, but all were the same man. All were myself! Strange, I had never known this world. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual Mr. Sasaki existed.

I came to my teacher. He looked at me and said: “Tell me about your new experience, your entering the transcendental world.” Did I answer him? If I spoke, I would come back into the old world. If I said one word, I would step out of the new world I entered. I looked at his face. He smiled at me. He also did not say a word.”

~ Zen Master Sokei-an Sasaki


Part of a series of Nonduality:

Everything You Experience “Now” is Remembered: Neuroscience and Nonduality

We Were Never Broken: Beyond the Sense of Lack, Incompleteness, and Deficiency

The Welcomeness Of Now

Beyond “I Am”

Remember To Be Unhappy!: The Unnecessary Root of Human Misery

The Remembered “Me”: Why Presence Implies “Your” Absence

The Vibrancy of Life and the Deadness of the “Story of Me”

The Futility of Sandcastling

Is the Body Limited or Unlimited? : A Dance Through Science, Philosophy, and Nonduality

The Difference Between Seeing A Thought or Emotion and Looking From It

Emptiness in Emptiness

The Ultimate Surrender

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