The Agony of Being
Connected to Everything
in the Universe [what?]

by Andrew Boyd [who?]
jan '02 • w.w.norton

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...Mystics traditionally sit in silent contemplation or wander the countryside muttering in paradox. They tend to speak obliquely of a larger reality. That summer Brother Void too would encounter a larger reality, one which he came to call The Void and from which he later took his own name. His spiritual discipline at that time was working in a rib-joint. As a self-imposed penance and ministry, he was organizing in his community for more affordable housing. His daily meditation consisted in reading Alan Watts, Nietzsche, Marx, Camus, Casteneda, Tillich, Derrida, and others.

One hot night, after a particularly strenuous and lengthy period of reading, he stood up, stretched, and walked out on to the outdoor terrace of his apartment, fourteen stories above New York. He was leaning against the railing, looking out across the city, looking out at the building across the way. He was staring intently at this building, trying to fathom it—it an object in the world, he perceiving it. And without smoking anything, there came a moment when he could not distinguish the building from his own perception of it or from himself. And suddenly, it felt as though the ground under his feet became empty and the bottom of whomever he was fell away. He was pitched into a vast, dark, endless, evaporating space. There was no longer any foundation underfoot, nothing solid, nothing given, nothing at all. And into this yawning emptiness he was falling, falling downwards sickeningly into nothing, falling outwards in all directions without limit.

Eternity was gazing through him, a terrible immensity annihilating him, demanding his surrender, and yet, in some strange way, requiring him for its own integrity. He was neither dead nor dying, yet he felt as if he had been put to death. He could feel that Death lived in him—and always had—as real and alive and powerful as life.

His whole life seemed a lie, an elaborate sleight of hand. Every aspect of his personality was little more than a blind slab of psychic armor, a false self, a pretension, a self-deluding vanity. Paradoxically, seeing himself this way felt like the first true moment in his life.

He was being summoned. He was being called to embrace the terrifying Otherness all around him; embrace the world's horrors and hopelessness; embrace all that he feared and all that he had ever pushed away. He was being asked to be perfect, to be holy; to become a saint, a superman; to become as infinite as the moment, as omniscient as the gaze upon him, as selfless as God.

He had nothing to offer but love. Only love could open him. Only an absolute, selfless love of all things for all time, could empty him enough to meet and match the ferocity of the gaze upon him. As if in challenge, the image of an old Chinese woman he had seen on the street several days before came into his mind. Her face was pock-marked; her hands, warped. She was hunched over, unpleasant and prickly. Even now, as she was called to mind, he found her contrary and repulsive. But he had to open up to her or be crushed.
Before this final denouement could play itself out, the vision abruptly ended. There he was, still standing on the terrace, hands still holding on to the railing, the building across the way still there, just as before.

+ + +

In the days and years that followed, Brother Void struggled to reconcile his vision of the Void with the life he was leading. He made it the nickname of his monastic retreat, a group house he shared for a while in a Boston neighborhood, emblazoned on a cardboard sign that slowly grew warped by the rain. He tried to tell his friends about what had happened but there wasn't a story he could really tell. "You are our gateway to the Void", they said, "Every group of friends should have one." Was he being humored or honored, he didn't know. His activist work in the community alternated between periods of tremendous energy and focus, and then periods of lassitude brought on by doubts and philosophical uncertainties that had been kicked up by the Void.

My epistemology, ontology, and teleology are all shot to hell, he wrote. What am I supposed to do with my loosely Marxist world view, now that I have experienced Infinity? What is the point of any historical project to end injustice, if Time is an Eternal Now, and suffering and surrender are a necessary part of some deeper reality? And how could he continue to believe that reality was socially constructed, or mediated by language, when he had experienced what felt like an absolute revelation outside of any text?

How was Brother Void, an atheist, even supposed to know whether he had experienced God? And if it was God, "Now what?" he wondered. Was he supposed to grow his beard and join a yeshiva in New Jersey? Or shave his head and dance around in airports? What if a religious person had had the same experience? There were no angels, or fat little cherubim with trumpets, or severe blue-faced gods with arms to spare. There was nothing even blissful about it. In fact, it was the most disturbing, viscerally unpleasant, gut-wrenchingly apocalyptic experience of his life. If a religious person had gone through this, would she have recognized God at all? Would it have shaken her faith, the same way it had shaken his doubts? Or was The Void an atheist's version of God? Would a true believer have had a very different experience, one filled with the proper meanings and images of her faith? His journals are filled with such reflections.