The Open
Leave a Comment

Introducing the Void Mandala

We came together from across the country to reconnect in Joshua Tree. The sky was open and the moon was full. Our camp usually only meets once a year at Burning Man; this weekend was the first time we’d gotten together mid-year. We decided to call this new event “Burning Woman”. Away from the noise and chaos that usually characterizes the playa, we were free to relax and connect in a quieter, more intimate way.

On the last day of the weekend, Sunday, March 8th, I had the opportunity to present the work I’ve been doing here on Live The Questions as a lecture and discussion. Special thanks to Randy García for making incredible Cuban coffee (aka “rocket fuel”) and to Lou Baldanza for taking the photographs.

My goal with this class was to summarize the entire Being & Death project in just 45 minutes, using the Void Mandala as the central organizing principle. It was an eye-opening experience for me seeing how this content can be so efficiently communicated. In fact, the format of the intimate class setting, the brevity of the talk, and the effectiveness of the presentation have gotten me to re-think the structure and goals of this project as a whole. I’m thinking about pivoting this project from an internet book to more of a lecture/class series (based off of this Joshua Tree presentation), supplemented by a root system of mini-essays for those who want to go deeper. More on this idea later…

For those who weren’t able to attend, here are my lecture notes and the class handout:

The Evolution of the Void Mandala - crudely drawn by Paul Wallace.

The Evolution of the Void Mandala – crudely drawn by Paul Wallace.

Introducing the Void Mandala

Purpose: To gain a more balanced understanding of “life & death” by metaphorically mapping a series of analogies, such as “consciousness & the unconscious”, “self & non-self experiences”, and “duality & non-duality” onto it.


  1. Conceptual Metaphor
    1. “She has a warm smile.” What does “warm” mean?
      1. Conflation, co-activation, and source/target domains.
    2. Primary metaphor reveals the metaphorical structure of thinking.
      1. “All meaning is mapping-mediated, which is to say, all meaning comes from analogies [and metaphor].”Doug Hofstadter.
    3. Metaphor, myth, and “As within, so without.”
      1. The computer example.

Life Metaphors:

  1. Negative Difference (duality) & The Mirror Stage
    1. Language is the realm of duality
      1. Meat –> Raw/Cooked
      2. “Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with other terms in the system.”Ferdinand de Saussure
    2. The foundational split of subjectivity: “I/You” [figure 1, 2]
      1. The “Mirror Stage” = becoming a “self” by creating a boundary, and separating off everything else as “other”.
  2. The Hole: Lack / Desire / Consumerism
    1. Lack = the hole left over after cutting off a part of yourself in order to create the “I/You” binary.
      1. This is not just a theory – the lack is emotionally felt by all humans as “aloneness” or “separateness”.
    2. Desire = a projection screen over the lack [figure 3]
      1. “If I can just get this new (car, house, wife) I’ll finally be happy and complete!”
    3. Consumerism = a culture that exploits “the lack” to create a society of scarcity and feelings of “I’m not enough”.
  3. The Donut: Consciousness / The “Self” Symbol
    1. Human brains are pattern recognition systems that create a robust repertoire of categories (symbols) to stand in for these patterns. These categories nest like Russian dolls.
      1. Our “self” is merely the most complex looping symbol we have, a “proper name” for a pattern (with fantastic evolutionary survival value).
      2. “The basic idea is that the dance of symbols in a brain is itself perceived by symbols, and that step extends the dance, and so round and round it goes. That, in a nutshell, is what consciousness is. But if you recall, symbols are simply large phenomena made out of non-symbolic neural activity, so you can shift viewpoint and get rid of the language of symbols entirely, in which case the “I” disintegrates. It just poofs out of existence.”Doug Hofstadter
    2. Consciousness = the high-level dance of these symbols (a system which is “blind” to the low-level processing of information patterns). We are modeling systems that naïvely think the models we interact with are the world, rather than rough territories given to the landscape of undifferentiated data.
      1. The earth vs. countries
    3. Conclusion: Life is the virtual realm of categories and symbols operating under the rules of language (duality). Your “self” is just one of these symbols, a complex proper name for a pattern, which as been “cut off” from the world via duality. [figure 4]
      1. Virtual/Actual –> both are Real

Death Metaphors:

  1. Re-thinking Emptiness as “The Void”
    1. Were we wrong to think about the “lack” as being “empty”?
    2. QM: The quantum “nothingness” is seething with activity. The laws of QM allows a “0” to peel apart into a “1 and -1”.
    3. ST: The “void” in set theory math is the “Nothing from which everything proceeds.”Alain Badiou
      1. Think of the “Void” like a bag of string-theory strings. It looks “empty” since it has no “real world” content, but it actually has the raw material to make everything.
  2. Spiritual Introspection / Exploring the Unconscious / Meditation
    1. What does it feel like to explore your own dark unknowns? What does spiritual introspection feel like? Where do you go in the deepest depths of your meditation? [figure 5]
    2. “I frequently imagined a steep descent. I even made several attempts to get to the very bottom. The first time I reached, as it were, a depth of about a thousand feet; the next time I found myself at the edge of a cosmic abyss. It was like a voyage to the moon, or a descent into empty space. First came the image of a crater, and I had the feeling that I was in the land of the dead.”Carl Jung
  3. Inspiration / Grace / The Collective Unconscious
    1. Where does inspiration come from? [figure 6]
      1. Watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Your Elusive Creative Genius” TED talk for some great musings here.
    2. Grace and the CU = “If you want to know the closest place to look for grace, it is within yourself. If you desire wisdom greater than your own, you can find it inside you. What this suggests is that the interface between God and man is at least in part the interface between our unconscious and our conscious. To put it plainly, our unconscious is God. God within us.”Scott Peck
  4. Sex, Drugs, and Ego Death (non-self and non-duality)
    1. Orgasm = “la petit mort” (the little death). What feels so intuitional about this?
    2. Sex = “Eroticism is assenting to life up to the point of death.”Georges Bataille
      1. The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, a sculpture about orgasm, death, and access to God all at once.
    3. Drugs = a taste of non-self
      1. “I spent several minutes – or was it several centuries? – not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them – or rather being myself in them; or, to be still more accurate (for “I” was not involved in the case, nor in a certain sense were “they”) being my Not-self in the Not-self which was the chair.”Aldous Huxley (Doors of Perception)
    4. Ego-Death = Why is Christianity’s main symbol the crucifixion?
    5. Conclusion: Death is the actual realm of the Void, which is outside of language and difference; it is the realm of non-duality and non-self. The proper name for this space is “God”, and we gain access to this space through our own unconscious.

Both, and yet Neither:

  1. Who Am I, Really? Self or Non-Self? Or Maybe The “-“ In-Between?
    1. Self = virtual, non-self = actual, both = real
      1. Are we trying to lose ourselves or find ourselves? When do we feel the most “us”? Both?
    2. The “-“ = the neither [figure 7]
      1. The gap of self told through mixed-race identity
  2. Both, and yet Neither / Respiration / You Are Breathing
    1. Chiasm and Superposition
      1. The “Tao” is the “Both, and yet Neither” of “Yin/Yang”
      2. “All beings support yin and embrace yang / and the interplay of these two forces / fills the universe / Yet only at the still-point [the Tao] / between the breathing in and the breathing out, / can one capture these two in perfect harmony”Lao Tzu (verse 42)
    2. Respiration as a balanced model for duality: “Good vs. Evil” (one-sided) or “Empty lungs and Full lungs” (balanced)?
    3. What does the “breathing model” do for you? For life/death? For self/non-self? For consciousness/the unconscious?

The Void Mandala:

  1. What Is A Mandala?
    1. “[A mandala] expresses the union of opposites – the union of the personal, temporal world of the ego with the non-personal, timeless world of the non-ego… It is the union of the soul with God… the wholeness of the psyche or Self, of which consciousness is just as much a part as the unconscious.” Aniela Jaffé (a psychoanalyst and contemporary of Carl Jung)
  2. The Void Mandala through Many Analogies
    1. Consciousness & The Unconscious
    2. Self & Non-Self
    3. Life & Death
    4. Individual & God
    5. Inward & Outward Respiratory Process
  3. The Hero’s Journey
    1. Life is not a straight path, but rather a spiral moving in the spiritual dimension.
    2. The Hero’s Journey described.
  4. Conclusion: The Void Mandala is a symbol for the respiration of life & death, consciousness & the unconscious, self & non-self, and the individual & God. Breathing with this mandala lets our life become a constant practice of maintaining balance through exploration – with each journey (there and back again) we rise further and further into the spiritual dimension. [figure 8]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s