the nothing

I am standing on a dusty playing field in a remote mountain setting somewhere in the developing world. Local children are scattered around. I see a frisbee descending to the ground ahead of me and consider taking it on my walk. When it lands I notice that it is a heavy wooden object, not flat like a frisbee but awkwardly shaped. I decide against taking it, for fear that I will lose control of it and be unable to return it to the children.

I become aware that I only listened to the first half of a voicemail from earlier this morning. I retrieve it again and see the caller’s image as I listen, a short, solid, brown-skinned man of around fifty. Wild hair, animalistic in appearance, apparently a senior figure in this community, a shaman perhaps. In the missed portion of his voicemail he advises that a special woman has summoned me to meet with her at a particular time this morning. She is some kind of guru, an oracle, someone held in deep spiritual reverence amongst the people in this place. She is insistent that I see her to receive her assistance. Having only now received her invitation, I have missed the meeting. The shaman is angry with me. I feel his anger hissing in the air around me.

I run to the boundary of the field and exit via a small gate. I proceed in a series of exaggerated frog jumps towards a woman in the distance. She is of similar appearance to the shaman and reminds me of a woman I worked with a decade ago in the waking world. She seems to be an assistant to the oracle, or perhaps a disciple. She is irate, incensed that I would be so foolish, ungrateful and disrespectful as to miss a meeting with the oracle. Such meetings are apparently rare and of profound significance.

As I arrive by the side of this woman a strange phenomenon stirs into action. In the mid-distance ahead of us a deep, pervasive darkness is dispersing across the landscape. It is reminiscent of “The Nothing” from Michael Ende’s novel The Neverending Story, less a darkness than an absolute void, a kind of antimatter so devoid of substance that it wounds the eyes and the soul just to look in its direction. The void is pluming out like heavy clouds of smoke, accompanied by its voice, the savage, sadistic, blood-thirsty growl of a wolf.

This is a scene of pure, relentless terror. As we stand there the void is accelerating towards us, the growling growing ever louder and more depraved. The experience takes on the proportions of an altered state of consciousness, where the approaching doom is perceived less by the outward-facing senses than it is as a swirling physical and metaphysical process within the substrate of the mind-body continuum. As it becomes impossibly loud and impossibly close I begin to wonder if in fact this void was never outside of myself to begin with, that it has rather arisen from some place hidden deep within me and now becomes “closer” and “louder” not by approaching from without but by swelling to fill my body from within. This helps to explain the profound sense of terror, too, for the feared attack is not an impending threat from the outside but is rather actual and live within me.

The fear is indescribably intense. My consciousness is shot through with the sense that this unearthly darkness will at any moment manifest physically into the wolf-like creature that its voice suggests and my companion and I will be torn to shreds. Our gruesome death is imminent. My companion, for her part, is not coping at all. She is yelling and screaming and crying in a desperate and futile attempt to escape the grip of this terrifying force. For my part, I am coexisting in two opposing frames of being. On the one hand the terror has compressed and frozen my energy body into a dense, rigid column, quivering erratically at high frequency, with localised volcanic storms of emotional activity. On the other, the overwhelm and the profound vulnerability is driving a subtle but unambiguous resolve to stand my ground. The irrepressibility of the terror has broken my resistance to death. I have been forced to accept and hand myself over to the possibility that this violence is a distortion of my perception, or a deliberate play on behalf of some benevolent entity to fortify my spirit through a baptism of fire, that whatever the case it may not actually kill me, not the whole of me; that the things that might most profoundly bring one alive will most often begin life as objects of terrible pain, confusion and loss of bearings, even as abject nightmares.

This perspective does not, however, fill me with hope or a sense of power. I stand in a state of ferocious surrender. Perhaps I could describe the emergent psychological state as one of Faith. Suffused by a logical and visceral certainty that my body and soul are moments away from violent obliteration, I stand, held up only by a previously undiscovered filament of psychic material within my core, something so new and apparently independent of the rest of me and of my predicament that I barely recognise it as, in fact, my fundamental self, a kind of quantum string that gives birth with each moment to my surface existence but does not depend on the integrity of that surface for its own resilience. It does nothing to take away my fear, it simply sits alongside, unperturbed, and holds me in place as the storm rages around and through me.

Held in the torrid embrace of such psyche-bending opposing forces, the Terror and the Faith, both of which are in themselves fundamentally novel in my 37 years of life, I whimper like a child, breathless, “I am not afraid. I am not afraid. I am not afraid. I welcome you. I welcome you. I welcome you.” I am momentarily conscious of my companion, fretting and screaming in anger, and worry that she will undermine my attempt to welcome this pregnant form of death. But I quickly determine that she is irrelevant, that I must focus only on my own energy without distraction, that I can and must carry the both of us.

Finally, as this shadowy maelstrom descends ever more impossibly deep towards and within me, I muster the heart to issue a humble invitation. “Be with us, in love. Be with us, in love.” With this, the chaos lifts to a final crescendo. There is no space left for words or thoughts or hopes or regret. The whole of my awareness is growling and darkness and fear and Faith and horrific death. In the final moment, even these are swept away as obliteration arrives.

And then, Breakthrough.

I find myself in a maloca, the traditional ceremonial building used by natives of the Amazon. The ceiling is a series of overlapping triangular canvases, which gently suffuse the morning sunlight. In the centre is a middle-aged white woman, lying on her back on a mat, as if in ceremony. I watch as she opens her eyes and comes to standing. She walks with levity on the balls of her feet, her knees bent, in silence, towards two women waiting in support. Her affect and the atmosphere in the space are filled with a delightful feeling of freshness and vitality.

21 December, 2017