Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Zen of Nothingness

It must be a Zen thing.  How to think about . . . nothing.  No really. Try thinking about . . . nothing.  I think we can’t do it.  The best you can do is to think about thinking about nothing.

But imagine for a second that Jesus Christ, Mohamed, Buddha and Krishna were all real, but just, well, guys. You know, dudes who were born, grew up, said a lot of interesting things, hung out with some other interesting dudes, and then, at some stage, died, that is, ceased to exist.  And that was it.  They didn’t rise to heaven, or wherever it is a Buddha or Mohamed might go (into the energy ether, I suppose). No, they simply ceased functioning and their earthly shells gradually deteriorated, like everyone else.
And the reason? Well, one possibility would be that, there is nothing that follows life. And that’s why you might want to imagine/think about nothing. Because, some day, that just might happen. That is, you’re alive at one second, and not the next. And you don’t wake up in a bus that is carrying you to heaven, along with a bunch of other passengers. Neither do you emerge into a fairy land in which all of your close friends and family are awaiting your arrival. Instead, your mind simply ceases to function. It all goes blank—dark I suppose, except that dark always implies light somewhere. Instead, there is . . . nothing.  And you don’t know it. Because you are no longer here, there, or anywhere. What would that be like? Well, I imagine it wouldn’t be “like” anything.
Suppose, just suppose that it’s true. Nothing follows being.  See, that’s what I have trouble conceiving. That nothing thing.
And, I imagine, that was one of several reasons that early people, dudes mainly, invented God and heaven and all that fairy tale stuff.  People couldn’t look around them, see all of the world’s wonders and imagine that there wasn’t some big guy somewhere who  invented all that stuff.  And like everything else that develops slowly over a long time, the fairy tale just kept getting larger and more elaborate over that very long time. Then someone invented writing and guys began writing down what they had been told by other guys. And guys in different parts of the world invented different versions of this fairy tale, much as plants and animals emerge differently over very long time periods in different parts of the world.  If plants become very complicated as they develop over eons, surely the fairy tale would become very complicated.
Now, the fairy tale was invented for more than one reason surely. First and foremost is this notion that we can’t really grasp this concept of living one second and not living the next. I mean, we know it happens, because we see it routinely. But what we don’t see is the possible reality that nothing follows something. We needed to invent a continuum of somethings that follow the dying bit. But, the more clever dudes who were writing this all down, or maybe the ones who were dictating the tale, began thinking that they might become relatively more influential with this crowd of dummies if they could pretend to knowledge that they didn’t have, I.e., the knowledge of what happens after the dying thing.
Because if they have some special knowledge, then the dummies—ordinary folks like you and me—might go to them for advice. And soon, people would be lined up at the door, asking questions. And the more questions the smart dude answered, the more elaborate would become his “understanding” of the fairy tale. And he would continue elaborating the fairy tale, until it spilled over into multiple chapters and then the chapters into “books”.
Soon, the dude would begin dressing differently, so that he would be recognized whenever he left his house. And the ordinary folks might begin deferring to him, clearing a path, bowing.
Thus beginneth the lesson about priests.
And think for a moment, how elaborate that tale could become over, say a thousand years.  And how the fairy tale would become multiple fairy tales, depending on where you live. So, a fairy tale in India might include stories about the different strata of people, and how some types of people are better than other types of people.
But the biggie in all these tales would be what happens after the dying thing.  Each culture would invent something different, including that oldie but goodie-- the  return to a new life thing that Hindu’s prefer. I have never really understood the appeal of that one, if you never realize you are in a subsequent life. I mean, wouldn’t it have been better to portray a follow-on life as a state of being in which you get smarter?
I can sort of “get” the afterlife thing in which you join with your family and your buddies, and sit around on clouds playing harps and flapping your angelic wings once in a while. But I have always wondered about the crowds. Do you get your own cloud space? And can you actually converse with your great, great grandfolks, or, better yet, with dudes like John Kennedy, or Napoleon? And does everyone speak English up there?? And what about all the cockroaches?
I really wonder about the 71 virgin thing. Some dude gets killed defending the regime and then, when he arrives in heaven, he is given 71 virgin playthings?  So, what did they do to deserve that fate??
See, lots of questions.
So, for me, the fairy tale is about as plausible as Santa hiding away in some really cold North Pole location, with his factory manned by elves, making toys to be delivered by sleigh to good boys and girls.  Yeah, right . . .
Which brings me right back to square one—the nothing thing. As much as I really, really hate the idea, it seems the most plausible outcome. One second, you’re a living, sentient being. The next your mind is gone. And even “gone” is misleading, because it implies a journey. No, what I think happens is that we simply cease to function and we aren’t anywhere. And we don’t know it, because there is no mind any longer.
So, what does nothing mean?  Unless of course, it means nothing.
But even if we could derive some understanding of this nothing thing, what would it mean, were everyone on earth to awaken tomorrow morning and decide that sometime in their future, they would enter this state of nothing and cease to exist, sort of like a light bulb burning out? Would they act nicer to other people, or would they all turn into schmucks like Mitt Romney, deciding that, since nothing follows, I have to get it all here and now, and nobody better get in my way? Is that what might happen? Would guys still strap dynamite vests on and go out to blow themselves and other to oblivion?  What’s the payoff to doing that? Better, perhaps, to have another cup of wine and dream about a better tomorrow.  Would guys with rifles and bayonets still charge the hill to kill other guys, knowing that they might well get killed--cease to exist-- in the process?
I rather imagine that a lot of things might change, perhaps the biggest being one’s willingness to die for God and Country. I had enough trouble with that one even before the nothing thing entered my brain. But now, I cannot even imagine what would cause someone to join the marines, or the infantry, knowing that you might be told to “win Gallipoli” for the Gipper.  I guess being a flyer, or a navy guy might still look ok, since you have all that hardware between you and the presumed bad guys.
But, I wonder, in the absence of any belief in the hereafter, or any belief in the Big Guy up in the sky, or the Big Guy’s prophets, would there be any point to “Alternate Belief Systems” wars? I mean, what would we fight about then?  I guess we could still decide to fight to give Mitt a larger share of the pie than he already has, but guys with a limited lifespan and nothing to follow, might just tire of trying to make Mitt even richer than he already is.  So greed would work as a warrior theme, only if the guys charging that hill were guaranteed a share of the larger pie that might follow, say their own oil well in Iraq.
Now, I think that everyone would not suddenly turn nice and act reasonable, or even civil. Some people are genetically programmed to act stupidly, or recklessly. I suppose they would continue acting that way. But still, there probably wouldn’t be any more of them than we have now, arguably  fewer I imagine.
Well, this all requires some more imagining, you know, since thinking about nothing is so damned difficult.  We’ll return another day. Perhaps a nice nap would be good . . .
So endeth the first lesson about Nothingness.

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