MCTB Nothingness, The Seventh Jhana
If the meditator wishes to attain to the next formless realm, that of nothingness, they simply cultivate the jhana of boundless consciousness and disenchant themselves with the vastness and luminosity of that state. Eventually, the mind will abandon these and shift to the jhana of nothingness. To imagine this state, imagine space with all of the lights completely out, so that there is no vastness, and almost no sensations other than those of nothingness. It is almost as though attention is out of phase with nearly all phenomena except those that imply nothingness. They are still there somewhere, but they are not being attended to.
This jhana is different from the previous two formless realms in that they are quite present to reality in some way and panoramic in perspective, whereas nothingness is more turned away from phenomena and perhaps more focused in some way. There is, however, some very subtle thought and some extremely subtle sense of a separate self. Note well, nothingness is absolutely not emptiness, though it is empty, but this is not the attainment of this understanding. However, one can easily be convinced that this is emptiness due to the extreme profundity of it.
As before, this jhana can have different degrees of intensity to it. Even when one is not strongly in it, there is a sense of being out of phase with reality, like being dissociated. Reality is there, but you have tuned it out on your radio. Note well, this is very different from just being “tuned out” in the colloquial sense.
While equanimity prevails, this state can be a bit scary at first, and this can cause some instability of this state. Now even consciousness and space are basically gone. However, there is still awareness of this state, indicating that there can be awareness that is not particularly consciousness or space. This really helps debunk the sense that awareness is consciousness or space or even a thing, that we are our body, etc. That said, it is not nothingness either. Nothingness may be perceived, whereas awareness may not.
From this state, the mind may get stuck, but this is not quite as likely as with the first two formless states, as this state is quite refined but not as breathtaking as the first two in some ways. The meditator may then try to move on to the next jhana, or may investigate this state. It may seem incredible that the sensations of nothingness itself could be observed to arise and pass, i.e. strobe in and out of reality, or that they could be known to not satisfy or not be self. However, this is definitely possible, if potentially quite disconcerting due to its extreme profundity and ability to really kick some sense into the mind about the truth of things. It also helps debunk the false idea that “The Void” or “awareness” is nothingness. It is not even this. Remember, no sensation can observe another, so anything you can think of cannot be said to be “awareness.”
By simply paying close attention to every instant that nothingness or equanimity is perceived, and with precise attention to the exact arising and passing of each of these, that these transient moments do not satisfy, and that these neither can impute nor can be a separate self, the three illusions can begin to be penetrated in the highest state in which this can be accomplished. As this is a particularly subtle business, the meditator may also leave the jhana and begin insight practice in the afterglow of this state as before. Strobing sensations of nothingness are more likely to arise during the progress of insight in the stage called High Equanimity for those with very strong concentration skills.