There is a kind of destructive and delusional conspiracy in the history of much of human thinking that has undermined the fundamental importance of one of our most incredible resources: Nothing.
People are down on Nothing.
What we should see if we think about it more clearly, is that the world of things is really the creation in our own minds, in our mental model of the world, of the line between two equally important parts of one whole. One of those parts is Nothing.
To fail to appreciate Nothing, to harness it, to be blind to the role of Nothingness is to deny ourselves of the most natural fulfilment.
Nothingness is the secret to understanding not only the world, but the self, and after all, what, really, is the difference?
Listen to Alan Watts talk about Nothing:
Also enjoy the music.
I recognised part of Neil Young’s soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s classic black and white movie Dead Man in there, one of my favourites, the track “Organ Solo” which I think is played on a hand organ. This movie features Jonny Depp as a man named “William Blake” who is mistaken to be the reincarnation of the famous poet by a native American man, aptly named “Nobody”. Iggy pop is in there too. Choice quotes from memory “One thing’s fur shurr, I wouldn’t trust nothin writ down on no piece of paper” and “I can’t take whisky like I youstacould”. The movie is intense (a couple of graphic scenes) but unmissable, so if you managed to miss it, you have your homework.
Also behind Alan Watts in the video is “Lars is no loser” sung by Icelander Siggi Ármann and “Dawn” by Cinematic Orchestra from their gorgeous album “Man with a movie camera”. This music ties so many references together for me and for my appreciation of the message so eloquently furnished by this master of Nothing, Alan Watts.
The rest of the music I feel familiar with but can’t identify, so if you recognise it please do tell.
Recently I read the Tao te Ching for the first time. This little book, two and a half thousand years old, so tenderly rendered into English by Stephen Mitchell, contains a raw and ancient wisdom that has been carried into the modern era in more recent eastern traditions such as Zen Buddhism.
Like the true poetry it is, there are things said and unsaid, metaphors and imagery woven into an artwork that speaks not only to us but through us. The author, Lao Tzu, an ancient master of The Tao, or “The Way” teaches us how to live in a way that religion often does, but which does not define laws for us to follow. Instead it shows us where to look to discover the laws of nature.
The book is tiny. The message is simple. As much as we would rather demand that the mystery of living is a puzzle that only exertion and grand learning, perhaps even selective divine inspiration can reveal to us, this book leaves us with ourselves. The words leave space. The guidance is a mere nudge and a nod, a gesture towards a path that winds through the trees without high ceremony or the odour of empire (unlike Confucianism which almost ruined eastern philosophy for me when I was younger).
Far from shying away from the every day, a reading discourages high retreat from family life or work or pleasure as much as it encourages compassion and peace and precisely the kind of inner harmony that people like me can normally never bear to hear about without cliche-induced nausea.
Yet somehow its message has penetrated me. I like it.
It doesn’t tell, but it helps us tell ourselves. It uses language to exceed language.
At once a tactic, a style and the core message, the Tao te Ching exhibits a common characteristic of eastern wisdom traditions: things in the Tao te Ching often seem to conflict with each other in a way that unsettles the puffy rational ego into a game where it, if it can be personified, believes it can win by rejecting the message and text as shallow nonsense. Simultaneously, a part of us – perhaps what some people like to call a soul, whispers into our ear that it didn’t win, it lost, that it was really the ego being shallow and reminding us that we can too easily be drawn into imaginary conflict like a bird pecking a mirror, unable to see the beauty of reflection.
How can I say more?
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
I was recently reminded of a fantastic book I read last year, one that sat in my mental reading queue for at least a decade. The book is called The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind spending a little while thinking about big questions.
If you’re wondering whether you will like it, just read the following quote slowly and properly, you will probably feel the same way about the whole book:
That was after some of us were discussing the Great Masters of Wisdom, and someone was saying how all of them came from the East, and I was saying that some of them didn’t, but he was going on and on, just like this sentence, not paying any attention, when I decided to read a quotation of Wisdom from the West, to prove that there was more to the world than one half, and I read:
“When you wake up in the morning. Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say. Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s the same thing,” he said.
“What’s that?” the Unbeliever asked.
“Wisdom from a Western Taoist,” I said.
“It sounds like something from Winnie-the-Pooh,” he said.
“It is,” I said.
“That’s not about Taoism,” he said.
“Oh, yes it is,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” he said.
“What do you think it’s about?” I said.
“It’s about this dumpy little bear that wander; around asking silly questions, making up songs, and going through all kinds of adventures, without ever accumulating any amount of intellectual knowledge or losing his simpleminded sort of happiness. That’s what it’s about,” he said.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.