The Everything, The Nothing, and Justice

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In various mystical perspectives, there are two aspects to reality as we experience it: something and nothing. In Hasidic traditions, this is sometimes expressed as yesh (something) and ayin (nothing).
Since most of human experience is of yesh, there can be a certain mysterious allure to the ayin. Everything is empty! Sunyata! All is illusion! All is God! Indeed, any non-ordinary experience – a good drug trip, a beautiful view – can easily be associated with some verbiage about the numinous, the luminous emptiness, or whatever. The great rock critic Lester Bangs nailed it when he titled one review “I Saw God And/Or Tangerine Dream.”
I’m mocking the idolatry of ayin, but the truth is that transformative peak experiences are achingly beautiful, and do seem to give a glimpse – either of some non-thing transcending all that is, or at least of another way of being. I wouldn’t trade mine for anything.
Yet most every contemplative path also posits a return to the marketplace, a return to yesh. Many also insist, paradoxically, that the everything is the nothing; that everything is both empty and not-empty. Both-and is the coin of the mystical realm.
The forgotten Hasidic master Rabbi Aharon of Staroselse calls ordinary consciousness of love, sadness, pain, and shopping malls, simply “our point of view.” All of these things are experienced in the soul, mind, heart, and body, and are as real as anything we know. Our perspective is defined by a thousand cultural constructions, genetic accidents, and history. This perspective sees the world as yesh, as something.
From “God’s point of view,” however, these mind-states do not truly exist. For Rav Aharon, like his teacher Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, every thing that we think of as existing is actually “absolute nothing and emptiness.” Conversely, that which seems to be nothing is all that really is. As in the J.D. Salinger short story, this moment is God reading God. It is emptiness reading emptiness: a myriad of causes and conditions, none of them independent from anything else, empty phenomena rolling on.
Admittedly, these are only metaphysical propositions. But they do align with certain experiences of the selfless, the deathless, that often arise when the ordinary boundaries of consciousness are shifted. Who knows what those experiences really are – but at least the mere metaphysics and the mere empiricism align with one another.
Both perspectives, too, may be theistic or non-theistic. The theistic yesh is the God to whom I cry; the theistic ayin is the God which cries through me. The non-theistic yesh comprises all my stuff, my gender, my karma, my life; the non-theistic ayin sees that all this stuff is a set of empty phenomena, rolling on, with nobody home.
And together with each attitude is a kind of action. Psychologically, what might be called yesh-work deals with phenomena as they arise: therapy and psychoanalysis; cheshbon hanefesh, which literally means ‘accounting of the soul,’; non-violent communication; somatic practices. Each of these can be helpful in working with the stuff of our lives. What might be called ayin-work drops the phenomena and experiences the pain as an apparent ripple in Emptiness. This is more akin to the predominant disposition of the gate of tears: letting-be, allowing, dropping, coexisting, not changing. A kind of Shabbat of the mind.
For Rav Aharon and other Hasidic masters, it is not the case that one perspective is right and the other is wrong. In this view, both the ripples and the non-rippling-All are truthful descriptions of what is going on. To see from God’s point of view is not meant to be a permanent condition.
Why? Because there is a world to heal. In large part, the Hasidim were concerned with justifying the life of worldly commandments – and why observe the mitzvoth if everything is ayin? But these days, we have expanded this concern to include justice: racial justice, environmental justice, economic justice. We have thus reinvented the first noble truth. Everything may be empty, but suffering is happening, so let’s do something about it. We might suppose that, if suffering does not really exist, then the enlightened one would simply surrender to the Allness of God, inherent in cancer wards just as much as in verdant fields. But somehow it is not so.
More than that, the compassion that flows naturally from enlightenment distinguishes it from mere ecstasy, and invites us to engage with the world. Although some argue that spirituality takes us away from social justice work, in lived experience, the opposite is true. There is a call, as Heschel said, to respond to the numinous with action. That engagement, in turn, requires a sort of tzimtzum on the personal level, a contraction back into finitude, a return to caring.
When spiritual practice is going well, somehow, and this seems miraculous, the mind includes both God’s point of view and our own points of view, and you can see from both at the same time. Sadness does not disappear, but it is included in a serene and compassionate embrace. The endlessly hard work of pursuing justice is somehow interfused with the happiness that does not depend on conditions. Indeed, the Tantric capacity to be at once engaged, angry, joyful, open and seeing-through, seeing-in, seeing-as can sometimes point to the gap between ideal and real, the cracks in the vessel, the urgency of the imperative to mend.
The above piece is adapted from Rabbi Michaelson’s new bookThe Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path.

Dr. Jay Michaelson is the author of six books and a columnist for The Daily Beast and The Forward who has appeared on NPR, CBS, and MSNBC. A sought-after speaker and commentator on religion, law, and LGBT issues, he holds a JD from Yale Law School and was a professional LGBT activist for ten years.