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Beauty and Freedom: Re-Embracing Form as the Expression of the Formless

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By Adam J. Pearson

Welcome to the Now

What do you experience here and now? If there’s one thing you know beyond all doubt, it’s that right here, right now, you’re aware. A universe of colour, form, sound,  touch, fragrance, and taste is flowing through your consciousness, leaving no traces. Right here, right now, your formless awareness is filled with forms. Colours and shapes and sensations are dancing through this awake space that is aware of them here and now. The screen on which you read these words is glowing. A steady heartbeat thumps in your chest. Without you having to think about it, your chest rises and falls with the incoming and outgoing of your breath. In. Out. In. Out.

If you focus really carefully, you can feel a tingling sensations in your hands and feet, the feeling of your inner body. You can feel the fabric of your clothes rubbing against your skin when you shift your arms and legs or straighten your back. Maybe these words appear in your mind as you read them, or a thought about the past or future drifts through your awareness. Maybe you’re aware of some emotions stirring within you. Maybe these emotions are clear and you can recognize them as happiness or sadness or anger. Or maybe they are fuzzy and words seem less able to encompass them.

Perhaps you notice that as your attention zooms into the now, your mind begins to calm, to grow quieter. Maybe this unspeakable feeling–wonder? joy? awe?–begins to flood through your chest like the spreading warmth of a campfire. Maybe you begin to notice, as you rest here in the now, that these forms and shapes and colours and sensations that flow through you aren’t separate from the clear spaciousness of consciousness that is awake to them. Can you find any dividing lines between this screen or this page and the awareness that is awake to it, in which it appears? Our thoughts can carve this moment up into infinite divisions.

Without mistaking conceptual distinctions for ontological divisions, we cease to perceive separation in diversity. Without giving rise to a thought to divide them into ‘two’, this awareness and universe, this formlessness and form, this emptiness and fullness remain One.

Attachment to Emptiness

Waking up to the Oneness or nonduality of our true nature is the essence of the contemplative traditions from Zen to Advaita Vedanta, Sufism, and Kabbalah. Here’s the thing that tends to happen in many of these traditions, however. Relatively speaking, when people first wake up to the Oneness that unites the diverse forms that fill the universe with the formless awareness in which they are seen, they tend to get fixated on the emptiness aspect, the formless awareness that is awake to this moment and filled with the universe.

The newborn realization of Oneness can feel fragile in need of protection. There is sometimes a fear that this new insight that has been ‘gained’ will be ‘lost.’ In addition, the stream of circular thinking about a separate self–that some call ‘the ego’ or ‘the selfing activity’–often hijacks the experience of Oneness and uses it to expand its sense of a separate identity. Ironically, it incorporates the idea of being Oneness devoid of separation into its sense of separate identity.

The thought “I am a spiritual person” or “I am enlightened” or “I am Oneness” sometimes arises and gets held as true. This identification is sometimes attended by a smug sense of superiority or of being special, having attained a lofty state, or being superior to others who have not realized this. This sense of superiority and separation is, of course, very ironic, given that the experience that engendered it was of the illusory nature of separation!

Moreover, what people tend to do at this point is to devote much of their time to arguing with and trying to refute all expressions of apparent duality (e.g. opposites, qualities, diversity of all kinds) because they seem ‘false’ to them and in conflict with their sense of Oneness. They become so fixated on ‘abiding as awareness’ that they totally dissociate from the wondrous diversity of form that appears within that awareness. In Zen, though, this state of fixating on the emptiness of awareness and ignoring the diversity of the world of form is called being ‘attached to emptiness and is seen as a grave trap. And a lot of spiritual folks stop here thinking they’ve found the ultimate truth, the final word on the Self.

Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn Soen-Sa explains ‘attachment to emptiness’ in his book, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha.

Re-Embracing Diversity as the Expression of Oneness

The next morning I awoke as if I had just been born into this world. Everything seemed fresh and pristine and intensely alive. A vibrant stillness filled my entire being.
~ Eckhart Tolle in the Power of Now

If, as my Zen teacher Myokyo used to remind me, we choose not to become fixated on awareness and continue our meditative practice, however, something wonderful can happen. A deeper realization can dawn. We can come to realize that diversity of form is not a threat to our awareness of Oneness, but is in fact an expression of Oneness itself.

We realize that all of the apparent multiplicities and polarities–or to use a frowned-upon word in the spiritual scene, dualities–in the world of form inter-are, interdependently co-arise, and are encompassed by the Oneness that I am, then we can celebrate them, rejoice them, and yes, even love them. We don’t have to try to fight them, deny them, repress them, project them, dissociate them, or be at war with them as those who are ‘attached to emptiness’ do.

We realize, in short, that apparent duality in form is ultimately an expression of nonduality. Form and formless, Fullness and Emptiness, are One, and we are this One that is beyond all concepts and distinctions altogether. Before, we were so fixated on the formless that we totally denied and dissociated the form. Now, we re-embrace form as the flowering of Oneness and One with the formless awareness in which it appears.

We rediscover the Beauty that is the expression of the formless in form, of the unmanifest in manifestation, of boundless Being in apparently bounded beings. And we find, in this re-embracing of form, a fountain of creativity springs up from somewhere deep within us as we find our Self playing in the world of form without the delusion that we are a separate self alienated and cut off from Being. The Formless is ultimate Freedom for it is ultimately free. The world of form is the resplendence of Beauty. We are vast enough to embrace both aspects that seem like ‘two,’ but are really One.

Fixating on Awareness vs. Re-Embracing Form

Speaking from the relative perspective, these differing levels of realization–attachment to emptiness and re-embracing of form as the expression of Oneness–tend to play out differently in the body-minds of those who express them. Those who are ‘attached to emptiness’ tend to speak in a kind of monotone. They seem to lack a sense expressive vitality, of love for what is, of passion for the present moment, and of sexual excitement–which can only return when form is re-embraced.

If you try to ask them personal questions, they’re so dissociated from the personal aspect of form that they tend to simply respond with platitudes like “there is no one here to be personal, no one here to love, no one here to answer your question.” They’ve cut themselves off from the personal dimension of Being altogether by being so fixated on the absolute. And in the process, they’ve forgotten how to have fun and hear the music of the song of form that resounds through the vast expanse of the formless.

If, in a moment of wonder and appreciation, you exclaim to them “wow, this is a beautiful song!” they respond that “there’s no song and no one here to hear it” in a smug and monotonous tone. And if you tell them “I really love you just as you are,” they’ll answer that “there is no one here to love.” How drab, how empty of passion and vitality!

Those who are fixated on the formless tend to be totally uninterested in creative pursuits. The idea of painting a painting, or writing a song seems meaningless, because “there’s no one here to paint, no one here to sing.” In contrast, those who have re-embraced the Beauty of form that dances as diversity within the Freedom of the formless tend to be prolifically creative and fresh in expression.

Why is this? It’s because when we see that apparent ‘duality’ isn’t a threat, but an expression of nonduality itself–yes, the dance of our flowering Self in action, movement, and form–then we can love the splendor of manifestation and embrace it. This is an experience of embracing that notably features neither the feeling that our sense of self is ‘at stake’ in form, nor that form is marked by separateness. In more technical terms, we become aware that phenomenological distinctness does not imply ontological separateness; things can appear distinct even while being One. The experience of this re-embracing of form after the wintry flatness of attachment to emptiness feels liberating, freeing, exciting, and inspiring.

Shaken free from the death-grip of seeing diversity of appearance as implying separateness of being, there’s a new sense of freedom. We find that we can honour the beauty and wonder of form without seeing it as separate or weaving it into the ‘selfing activity’ of a story about being a ‘separate me.’ We can embrace the unity of emptiness and form. We can love our mothers while knowing that they are not separate from us. We can appreciate awareness without fixating on it. There’s a sense of relaxing, of releasing, of letting go, of flowing freely.


In short, when the fixation on awareness falls away and the world of form is re-embraced as an expression of Oneness, there tends to be an accompanying sense of comfortable freedom with form, with the body, with being creatively wild and bringing worlds into being and dancing imagination into art.

There’s a sense of delight in exploring the world of form with renewed vitality and excitement. Everything feels fresh. Every tree is seen with new eyes. Every bite of flavour feels mind-blowing. Every touch and taste and sensation and kiss flowers as a burst of form in the vastness of the formless.

We can love the treeness of trees and the humanness of humans and the mountainness of mountains while seeing that all form is the formless itself, that the dying is the Eternal, that the precious moments spent with loved ones unfold within the Timeless, and that the finite forms that arise, endure, and subside are expressions of the Infinite.

Read More from Adam Pearson at


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