There was neither non-existence nor existence then;
there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which
is beyond. What stirred? Where?
— The Rig Veda
One thousand yogis dressed in white sit on a mountaintop under the vast New Mexico sky. We are here to celebrate the Summer Solstice, to revel in this apogee of light. Heads draped, we chant the sacred syllables in unison, “Sat Nam, Wahe Guru”: Truth is my name; I am in ecstasy. Our reverberations fill the morning. The longer we chant, hour upon hour, the emptier we become, shedding layers of history until we are no longer separate from one another.
We become pure instrument, one clear channel for the mantra that pours from our collective throat. Yet this wall of sound is so easily pierced by the song of a lone pine siskin perched in the rafters, who raises its voice in counterpoint. Hearing this, we smile, and are emptier still.
At the point of zero, shuniya,
we contain the potential for everything.
On this particular morning I am sitting with the teenagers, who are gracious enough about my interloping. They too are clad in white and turbaned, but their reverence is tempered by restlessness, by curiosity, by hormones. The boys struggle with their attention spans. With keeping their man-sized limbs contained, still, in a seated posture. One girl periodically thwacks an orange pillow at the boy sitting across from her. On breaks, they scarf corn chips and Luna bars. They curl into each other’s laps, unselfconscious as kittens. Two white boys attempt to devise a rap about their spiritual practice.
The power of zero, the cosmic egg.
Empty, one prepares to fill.
This meditation is done in pairs, and like many, I have come here alone and must find someone with whom to share the day. My partner, whom I only met this morning, is a lineman from Northern California. He climbs telephone polls and cell towers in the shadow of the redwoods. His face is creased with days in the sun; his eyes are clear. Had we not been brought together under this tent to share this practice, we would never have met. We sit knee to knee in this sea of meditators, our eyes locked during the sixty-two minutes of chanting. His are blue. Our gaze holds steady; we occasionally smile encouragement and help one another to hold focus. At the end of this session, his face lights up in a smile; he says, “Hooray! I found a good partner” and I too am grateful for his steadiness and concentration. That is all we need; we don’t expect to see one another again after this day.
“It was not absolute nothingness. It was a kind of
formlessness without any definition…”
— St. Augustine, Confessions
At lunchtime I leave the sheltering tent, seek the unforgiving New Mexico summer sun. Although we have been warned of its intensity, I open myself to its rays, invite them to burn clear through to some buried core of me. We are all here to slough unnecessary layers—identities, samsaras—to reach the infinite within.
Zero holds the power to shatter the framework of logic.
In the afternoon, we are led out onto the mountaintop. In lines of ten, we join hands and close our eyes and chant aloud the ancient syllables. Voluntarily blind, we walk dusty paths, guided by only our grip on the stranger’s hand we clasp and the sound current rising from our parched throats. Blind, we are each completely alone and yet utterly inseparable from this organism, these one thousand white-clad yogis, chanting and making our way over unfamiliar terrain. Blind, we feel ourselves to be nothing and at the same time limitless. Blind, we do not see the clouds roll in, and are surprised to feel the cool baptism of raindrops on our skin. How can emptiness contain so much sensation?
Zero is powerful because it is infinity’s twin.
Today is the day before the last day of this gathering, when each of us will climb into cars or board airplanes to return to our other, separate worlds. We will remember some of what we knew here—the siskin’s song, the sun, the splash of rain on unsuspecting skin; we will forget most of it. We will quit our jobs or find new love affairs or embark on a new practice of meditation. These things will mean nothing and everything in the scheme of our lives. We will feel full, or we will feel empty, and much of the time we will forget that these states are indistinguishable.
God is found within the void and the infinite.
This essay was first published in Crab Orchard Review, Summer/Fall 2007, Volume 12, Issue 2. You can watch a video of the author reading the essay at http://guerrillareads.com/tag/terry-wolverton/