At dawn, I get out of bed, walk carefully across creaking floor boards so as not to wake my family, and sit on a cushion in the living room. I close my eyes and focus on my breath, counting each exhalation until I reach four and then starting over again at one. It is a simple meditation but difficult, for my attention quickly drifts into memories and images and fears and hopes until I have forgotten all about the breath and the counting. Then suddenly—I don’t know why—I remember what I have set out to do, and I focus again on the breath and on the counting.
If this is as far as I go, then I have failed. I have become sidetracked into trying to achieve clarity of mind and have overlooked my true destination, the clarity of no-mind. In the desert, I have committed myself not to my mind nor to my character nor to the strength of my will, but to the one source of all these things. I have committed myself to noticing that I am awake in the emptiness.
And so to honor this commitment, I turn from observing the breathing to observing where the breathing is happening. Immediately I am alert. My breathing, I discover, is not happening in my chest. No body encases it. No muscles move it. No blood flows around it. I am astonished: my breathing comes and goes in absolute emptiness.
For a moment I attend to this breathing in emptiness. And then I notice that what is true of the breathing is true also of the counting. A number upturns itself out of nowhere, like the silver side of a fish flashing for a moment in invisible depths. Then the number is gone, not into a mind, but into emptiness, like a soap bubble drifting across a park and suddenly bursting.
I shift my weight on the cushion. A bird sings in the emptiness. My knee aches in the emptiness. Images and memories arise and disappear in the emptiness, like sand falling through my fingers. In the emptiness, I sit and breathe and count with nothing but a naked intent toward the emptiness.
To walk across the living-room floor into the kitchen and to observe as I do so that I am infinite—I marvel at it. How can I extend without limits? And yet I do. I go on and on forever.
When I try to think about this infinity, I am stunned. Thoughts go with things that have edges, with concepts that can be defined. I have no difficulty, for example, thinking about the kitchen. I can draw a line around it, separating it from the living room on one side and the laundry on the other, and so define it. Nor, in principle, do I have difficulty thinking about abstractions like “good.” I can draw a mental line around the concept, separating it from what is “bad,” and so define it. But when I try to express in words the infinity which I see here so easily, I stumble. I can draw no lines around it. Outside the edges to which words attach themselves, it is indefinable.
The word “infinite” itself suggests this problem of expression, for broken into its parts, it means “non-finite” or “without edges.” It is thus a word that acknowledges its own limits, as if it can only look at the world and say, “I do not refer to these edges. Infinity is not this.” Thus, it cannot say what infinity is, only what it is not.
What, then, can I think about infinity? Nothing. My thoughts stall repeatedly against the wall of their own limitations. But when at the same time I look into infinity, my awareness leaps over that wall and runs beyond it, immeasurably beyond it, unbelievably and impossibly and inconceivably beyond it, shouting with astonishment and joy at the perception that I am marvelously and infinitely free.
High in the Sierras, I sit by a lake and watch my six-year-old daughter, Imone, laughing and splashing in the water with a friend. The sun flashes on her face, glancing off her eyes and teeth with bright pleasure. How free and happy she is, I think, and I smile.
Who is smiling?
I find here no me, no face or personality, to smile. Only I find the desert, impersonal, unmoved, the same emptiness I have always witnessed in this place.
And yet I am smiling at my daughter.
I touch my mouth, curious, my hand seeming to approach the transparency of a camera lens, not a head. I could be anyone and no-one. Fingertips disappear into the emptiness, sensations arise in the emptiness—the texture of a mouth without a mouth, the curve of a smile without a person smiling.
Who, then, is smiling?
Who else, I realize, but the desert itself. Without eyes or mouth or heart or brain, it—I—thinks and feels and speaks and sees. Naked, it is clothed in the scene at the lake and the response to that scene: my daughter playing in the water, my smile beaming across the sky, the deeply personal blossoming in the absolute impersonality of the void.
Later, long after the trip, tired and grouchy and feeling old, I pause in the rush of life and ask myself, Who struggles thusly? Whose limbs want rest? Whose heart sinks in the face of yet another challenge? And again I find here no human being in the way, blameable in his imperfection for the limitations of my life. It is, instead, this impersonal One who, eternally perfect and free, desires in this moment more than anything else to cry, to sleep, to run away into freedom and be free.
And so, by a long, roundabout route, I have returned to my childhood, to find the one who was lost on the moor, and the one who in all my later years of wandering was lost. It was not a boy or a boy-within-a-man who was alone and feared, who cried or could not cry, not someone who, in this vision of the desert, must disappear or be transcended. In all the difficulties and intractable places, as well as in the joys, it has been this One, this emptiness, this impersonal and unchanging void who has seen, and felt, and grown, and come slowly to accept, indeed to love, the very human life it lives.
We sit around, the three of us, talking about our absence.
“And yet what is strangest,” he says, “is that when I listen to your voice, I hear it rising out of the same silence as mine.”
“Me, too,” she says. “My absence speaks, and it’s the same absence speaking as yours.”
“Just as strange,” I say, “is that the one who speaks is also the one who listens.”
“That is strange. I’m speaking with three voices, but I’m only one speaker and listener. Yet, even though I’m the speaker, I still listen closely when I speak because I don’t know what I’ll say next, whichever voice I use, including this one. It’s intense.”
“Yes, isn’t it? And the listening is stronger when I listen to the silence, as if I’m right there at the source of every word, not an inch away.”
“Right. The voices—their timbre and their cadence—are so intimate, so familiar. Each voice is my voice.”
“Yet each personal and distinct. How lovely it is to listen and speak like this.”
The conversation pauses, though not the listening. In the absence is the presence—awake and tangible.
“So who is this speaker-listener?”
“Who is asking?”
We laugh. The joke is on me, of course.
And yet the question is a real one. I hear it in the listening—to voices, to music, to the noise of traffic, itself another voice. I hear it asked in beauty, in the silence in which birds, and airplanes, sing. In the vast emptiness behind the distant barking of a dog. Everywhere is the listener one with the speaker. And everywhere in the listening and the speaking is the question: Who is this one who hears, who speaks, who listens to itself listening to itself? Who is this strangely awake one, this silence wise enough to be dumbfounded at its own non-existence? Who? I ask, again and again and again, speaking in every voice and listening in every sound, who, who, who am I?
David Lang is a Professor of English at Golden Gate University, in San Francisco, California. This selection is from his forthcoming book, A Flower in the Desert: Images from the Headless Way. Copyright © 1999 by David Lang.