Being Nothing (and Becoming the Absolute)

Being Nothing (and Becoming the Absolute)

“Falling Towers/ Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/ Vienna London/ Unreal”—T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland.

The Tower has the reputation of being one of the most ominous cards in the tarot. In Rider-Waite-Smith iconography, the card depicts a stone tower ablaze, its crown struck down and two of its inhabitants plummeting from its desolate heights. The card’s black background and muted palate is interrupted only by the lightening fall of divine judgment and the consuming fire erupting from it. The image conjures multiple myths of destruction: the fall of man, the tower of Babel, the slaughter at Jericho, and the writing on Belshazzar’s wall, etc.[1] It can thus understandably be the cause of much consternation when it appears in a spread; it signifies destruction,[2] the collapse of our meaning systems,[3] and the loss of our feelings of certainty and security in the world.[4] In short, it threatens our very identities.

Yet, the message of the tower is not entirely negative. For, if one looks to the margins of the image, one can see that it is flanked by the flaming leaves of the tree of life as it appears in The Lovers card.[5] These leaves promise the possibility of growth. Though our hard built systems of meaning may have collapsed, something else can nonetheless grow of its own accord amid the rubble. The anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism describes the principle as follows:

“One then understands in a split second. . . that it is not necessary either to do, or to leave alone; either to build systems of thought, or to let all thought pass through the head without control; either to devote oneself to exercises of occult,ascetic and mystical training, or to do without constant and continuous endeavor. . .that it is necessary to work, and to allow growth; to think, and to await the growth and ripening of thought; and that it is necessary for the magical word to be accompanied and followed by the magical silence. In a word, it is necessary to cultivate and maintain’. To cultivate and to maintain. . .culture and tradition. . .To will and to dare . . . to know and to be silent.”[6]

While our identities, both carefully curated and brutally enforced, may fall to ruin, a deeper life is yet poised to unfold within us. Indeed, the former may even be a prerequisite for the latter’s perfection. For the tower can bring with it the “shadow gifts” of illumination, the discovery of real values, and the liberation of the true self.[7]

The image resonates with many of us thrown (geworfen) from the falling ivory towers of the academy as late capitalist society consumes itself and the last vestiges of history in the universal conflagration it has initiated. Here, even in the free fall and loss of all we have been and known, a feeling of life and freedom can grow within us.  I am no longer a member of “the profession”, I am neither a graduate student nor a professor, I am no longer a functionary of the university system, hence (via an indoctrinated and pathological inference) I am nothing. Yet this nothing can feel strangely expansive and liberating.

We must thus inquire into the nature of this nothing and its transformative power.[8] To see the spiritual possibilities of the nothing in its purity, it is perhaps best to look at how it was viewed in traditional societies that possessed a more explicit codification of identity than our own. A particularly powerful account can be seen in the Laws of Manu of classical Hinduism. These laws articulate a vision of social and cosmic order, and, as a result, advocate for a traditional caste system.  Much of the text is devoted to dividing society between the Brahmin (Priestly), Ksatriya (Warrior), Vaisya (Worker), and Sudras (Slave), and explaining the duties of each and how they should relate to each other. Upholding this caste system is so important that the text even goes so far as to make the claim that:

“It is better (to discharge) one’s own (appointed) duty incompletely than to perform completely that of another; for he who lives according to the law of another (caste) is instantly excluded from his own.”[9]

The social identities prescribed by the cast system thus appear to be of primary importance. It would be better, for example, for someone born into the Brahmin caste to be a bumbling priest than to be the greatest of warriors and thereby take up the activities of the lower caste of the Ksatriya. For though there may be a loss of quality in the particular actions performed, the overall structure of the castes remains fixed and thereby ensures social (and cosmic) stability.

Given the importance of caste, it is reasonable to expect that the Laws of Manu to go on to prescribe an ever-deepening self-definition through caste as one matures through life. But this is not the case. Instead, it describes four orders of life, asramas, through which one can progress, the last of them demanding the complete elimination of labels. The first order is that of the student. At about seven years old (“in the eight year after conception”), a young Brahmin is initiated, becoming one of the “twice-born”, and sent away to study with a teacher (guru) who will train him the Veda and the proper conduct of ritual.[10] “The teacher is the image of Brahman [the Absolute]”[11] and by obeying his teacher a student obtains “the world of Brahman.” After completing his studies, he can move on to the next order, the order of the householder. Here, one marries, has children, earns a living, and supports the other orders. “As all living creatures subsist by receiving support from air, even so (the members of) all orders subsist by receiving support from the householder.”[12] But in acquiring wealth, the householder must maintain an internal contentment and not engage in a profession that harms others.[13] “Let him avoid all (means of acquiring) wealth which impede the study of the Veda; (let him maintain himself) anyhow, but study, because that (devotion to the Veda-study secures) the realization of his aims. Let him walk here (on earth), bringing his dress, speech, and thoughts to a conformity with his age, his occupation, his wealth, his sacred learning, and his race.”[14]  As a householder, one thus functions as a pillar of society, fulfilling the duties of one’s caste.

After raising one’s children and seeing the birth of one’s grandchildren, one may then, if one so chooses, take up the life of the third order, the order of the forest dweller. “When a householder sees his (skin) wrinkled, and (his hair) white, and the sons of his sons, then he may resort to the forest. Abandoning all food raised by cultivation, and all his belongings, he may depart into the forest, either committing his wife to his sons or accompanied by her.”[15]  Here, he distances himself from the village and removes himself from his previous life to take up the life of a hermit, “making no effort (to procure) things that give pleasure, chaste, sleeping on the bare ground, not caring for any shelter, dwelling at the roots of trees.”[16] As a forest hermit one drastically reduces one’s relation to the social life of the village. Yet, after having lived in this manner for a number of years, one may go even further and dissolve one’s social ties altogether by entering the fourth order as a wandering ascetic. In this final phase of life one takes the drastic step of “abandoning all attachment to worldly objects.”[17] The Laws of Manu describe the process as follows:

“Departing from his house fully provided with the means of purification, let him wander about absolutely silent, and caring nothing for enjoyments that may be offered (to him). Let him always wander alone, without any companion, in order to attain (final liberation), fully understanding that the solitary (man, who) neither forsakes nor is forsaken, gains his end. He shall neither possess a fire, nor a dwelling, he may go to a village for his food, (he shall be) indifferent to everything, firm of purpose, meditating (and) concentrating his mind on Brahman. Let him not desire to die, let him not desire to live; let him wait for (his appointed) time, as a servant (waits) for the payment of his wages. Delighting in what refers to the Self, sitting (in the postures prescribed by the Yoga), independent (of external help), entirely abstaining from sensual enjoyments, with himself for his only companion, he shall live in this world, desiring the bliss (of final liberation). By deep meditation let him recognize the subtle nature of the supreme Self, and its presence in all organisms.”[18]

In the final order of life one thus wanders, cutting ties with one’s roots and previous position to concern oneself solely with final liberation. To find one’s absolute Self, one must abandon one’s previous possessions, companions, and self-definitions.

If one views the four orders as developing sequentially, then the highest phase of life—the phase where one is closest to one’s true Self—is precisely the phase in which one sheds one’s previous self-concepts and stands bereft of all external definitions or supports. I like to think of these roles and definitions as a kind of tough outer shell or exoskeleton that we develop to help us safely navigate our environment. We learn as infants what roles are expected of us in order to garner parental love, approval, and support. We internalize these in the family, and then further refine them with the broadening of our social world.[19] Though the adoption of these roles is likely necessary for biological, psychological, and social survival, true self-knowledge can be attained only by letting them fall and standing, like Friedrich’s Mönch am Meer, face to face with the Absolute. Without the support of (and constriction by) these roles and the purposes derived from them, we are forced to face the suffering and anxiety of simply being who we are. To be, without playing a role, appears to be nothing. Yet we know that we are nonetheless not nothing. But with no anchor in an assigned identity, we are unable to determine what it is that we are. And so, a personal Hegelian dialectic of Being, Nothing, and Becoming begins to unfold, a dialectic Hegel believed to lead inexorably to the Absolute Idea—the primordial source of all content. [20]  Or, in a more edifying and less philosophical tone, it is precisely in these moments of total collapse that one can come to see one’s divine ground or higher self. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart expresses the point aptly in one of his German sermons:[21]

“Whoever had so gone out of himself would be given back again to himself, more his own, and all the things he had in multiplicity and forsook will be wholly given back again to him in unity, for he will find himself and all things in the present now of unity. And anyone who had so gone out would come back home far more noble than he went out. This man lives now in utter freedom and a pure nakedness, for there is nothing that he must make subject to himself or that he must acquire, be it little or much, for everything that is God’s own is his own.

            The sun in its highest part corresponds to God in his unfathomable depths, in his depths of humility. Yes, the humble man does not need to entreat, but he can indeed command, for the heights of the divinity cannot look down except into the depths of humility, for the humble man and God are one and not two. This humble man has as much power over God as he has over himself; and all the good that is in the angels and in all the saints is all his own, as it is God’s own. God and this humble man are wholly one, and not two; for what God performs he performs too, and what God wishes he wishes too, and what God is he is too—one life and one being. Yes, by God! If this man were in hell, God would have to come down to him in hell, and hell would have to be for him the kingdom of heaven. God must of necessity do this, he would be compelled so that he had to do it; for then this man is divine being, and divine being is this man. For here, from the unity of God and from the humble man, there comes the kiss, for the virtue that is called humility is a root in the ground of divinity in which it was planted, so that the virtue of its being only in the eternal one and nowhere else.”[22]

What may look like a free fall from the safety of our tower may thus actually be an ascent into the empyrean. The journey through the underworld and the flight into the very heart of paradise may be one and the same.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] Banzhof, Das Arbeitsbuch zum Tarot (Munich: Kailash, 1988), 50.

[2] Jette, Tarot Shadow Work: Using the Dark Symbols to Heal (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2000), 11.

[3] Wait describes the one falling figure as “the literal word made void” and the other as “its false interpretation.” Wait, Pictoral Key to the Tarot, 43.

[4] Banzhof, Arbeitsbuch, 50.

[5] Wen, Holistic Tarot: An Integrative Approach to Using Tarot for Personal Growth (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015).

[6] Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism (Rockport: Element Classics), 442.

[7] Jette, Tarot Shadow Work, 186.

[8] “Wie steht es um das Nichts?” Heidegger, Was ist Metaphysik in Wegmarken (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1976), 106.

[9] Laws of Manu, in A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, ed. Radhakrishnan and Moore (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 184.

[10] Ibid., 177.

[11] Ibid., 178.

[12] Ibid., 179.

[13] Ibid., 180.

[14] Ibid., 181.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 182.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 183.

[19] This process is also deeply traumatic and often posited as the source of many psychological problems. See, for example, Alice Miller, Das Drama des begabten Kindes (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979).

[20] Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik: Die Lehre vom Zein (1832) (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 2008), 71-72.

[21] Sermons that led to him being condemned as a heretic by the papacy.

[22] Meister Eckhart, The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. McGinn (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1981), 190.

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