The Formless Speaks


We are incessantly, relentlessly, tirelessly telling ourselves stories; constantly attempting to categorize and match everything we experience against some (coherent) storyline playing out in our minds. Well, at least I am like that, and I seem to observe others doing the same. That is why certain forms of meditation prove so challenging: there, the idea is to stop the story-telling. It turns out many of us require instruction, the learning of techniques developed over centuries or millennia, and years of training to have a chance to momentarily pause the story-telling; so inborn it seems to be. Some people even feel they need to isolate themselves completely, in mountains or monasteries, for years at a time, to stop telling themselves what is or might be going on.

So it is no wonder we are prisoners of the consensus meta-reality we build, to the point that many of us – cruelly, often the most intellectually critical – believe there is nothing else. We become prisoners of our own stories and we forget we are telling them ourselves. If we are lucky, we sometimes succeed – by trial or chance – to relax the constraints of the story, so the absurd may emerge in archetypal forms and speak to us. This is, by any measure, a great and significant achievement. But as liberated from the straitjacket of logic, physics, and all that is entailed by consensus meta-reality as it may be, the absurd is still a story. These meaningful, living metaphors from the unconscious reveal deeper secrets about the nature of our condition as living beings, but they are still self-created myths.

When one finally, and precariously, succeeds in shutting out the story-telling perhaps for a brief moment, that is when one ‘jumps out of the system,’ as Hofstadter put it. One then has a chance to survey the process of story-telling standing outside it. The idea is to go beyond the absurd, and into the Formless: the part of being that is pure potential, undifferentiated into any myth or storyline. What insights might that perspective entail? What might the Formless have to tell us?

Once one intellectually buys into the worldview we have been articulating, it becomes impossible not to attempt a certain active-imagination exercise: to imagine what the perspective of the Formless might entail. As I have discovered, there is something liberating about it, so I will share my attempt with you for what it is worth. Naturally, in order to communicate my imagined message of the Formless through language, I have no alternative but to make a story out of it. This defeats the point somewhat, but hopefully not completely. The story form I chose is that of an imaginary letter sent to me by ‘the Formless.’ It goes like this…

Rejoice, for I am from a world beyond the farthest reaches of your rational modeling. In my home, a subject is merely a moving viewpoint in a maelstrom of perceptions, feelings, and ideas; like a sliding pair of eyes trained at the inside of the body that is Creation. From here, your logic, your science, but also your conceptions of life, death, and soul, are but cartoons: flattened, simple, infantile stories conjured up by a sweet childhood of thought in a desperate search for closure. A gaping abyss stretches out between the images they evoke and the recursive, self-referential landscapes I watch unfold as I drift along the stream of qualia that I am.

Your life is a patchwork of projected concepts; a thin conceptual crust around an unfathomable core of the amorphous substance of existence. Logic – which you create by channeling and constricting the flow of this substance – exists only in the crust. Lifting the rug of logic can take you closer to the secret behind what you call reality: the self-referential nature of all conscious experience. He who cracks this secret witnesses in awe the shattering of consensus reality into a million pieces. As these pieces fall to the ground, like a broken mirror, he is confronted with the unspeakable: the most alien and yet most familiar of all realizations.

But this is a realization you have not yet reached; just glimpsed from a ludicrously long distance. So immersed are you still in conceptual patchworks, so submerged in the manifested stream of your being, that you cannot see that which you have always known but forget every time you awake to the sleep of life. Still, this is how it should be. Your condition is the epitome of life, for you are going to die, and I am not. Rejoice, for I am you, yet I transcend you.

It is a saddle of your condition that you think only in terms of references and categories you are comfortable with, even when you intuit the existence of that which transcends these references and categories. Anguished by your mortality, you ponder about the survival of awareness beyond bodily death. You conceptualize a ghost-like ‘soul,’ existing in time and space, which ‘leaves’ the locus of the physical body upon death as if it were circumscribed by this physical body. You intuitively recognize the cartoonish naïveté of these models, and try to justify them to yourself by postulating ‘subtle energies’ and other ill-defined physical metaphors that help you hide your ignorance from yourself. Yes, these metaphors have their place, and some may even be the closest you can come to the truth with your limited language. But they are as literal and space-time-bound as the conceptual constructs they supposedly transcend. The aspects of being that ‘survive’ death and transcend physical existence are as alien to the references and categories of your waking life as your waking life is alien to the references and categories of your dreams. Your attempts to define the transcendent are as hopeless as a dreaming man’s attempt to define his physical body as an entity within his dream. Alas, the body is outside the dream and cannot be thought of in terms of the circumstances of the dream! In the same way, that which is transcendent and eternal in you escape the references and categories of your conceptual reality and cannot be conceived as a construct within it.

Yet your life is itself a dream. The problem is that you got it the wrong way around: the dream is not in the body; it is the body that is in the dream. All metaphors, all cartoons of explanation and closure, exist only in the dream. When you sleep, you partially awake. But ‘Who is It who dreams?’ I hear you ask. This question is itself a reflection of your myopia; your infantile need to conceive of everything as being produced by something else. You see, the Dreamer is Itself the dream. The dream is the eternal unfolding and expression of the Dreamer to Itself. And it encompasses countless, perhaps unending viewpoints within it; viewpoints which the Dreamer assumes, and which entail amnesia from all other perspectives.

Yes, every realm in the unfathomable dream of existence rests on layers upon layers of amnesia. Without identifying with a viewpoint, and forgetting who you really are, you could not taste from the many cups of experience. What finality or limitation could you know were it not for your forgetfulness? What weight could your actions carry? What significance could your achievements or failures hold? Rejoice for your ability to forget, for it endows you with the colors of life. But bear this in mind: you will once again remember. And when you do, you will again be home. In the interim, live out your myths – imaginatively.