39. Understanding Nothing

Q: You know, Robert, I often wish I could be as self-deluded as the true believers in religions and gurus. That would make things much more bearable. Unfortunately, my bullshit detector seems permanently set to “on,” but sometimes I wish it weren’t. I’m speaking from the heart and without irony.

A: Yes, I understand your desire for relief from the pains, fears, and insecurities of living. As Woody Allen once said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.” So the situation is a double-whammy. Not only must one face up to the mental, physical, and emotional challenges of day-to-day living, but also the specter of mortality that seems to cast a pall upon even happy moments, and leaves us asking, “If I am just going to die at the end, what’s the use of any of this? How can I find any meaning in this vale of tears?”

When confronted with that question, some people take the nihilistic/hedonic approach that says, “There is no use to any of this. Life is a bitch and then you die. There is no meaning or purpose to life, no God, and no overarching morality, so I might as well have as much pleasure as I can while I can.” Others take the opposite tack, an eternalist faith-based approach that says, “Despite appearances, there is a Cosmic Plan—an ultimate, transcendental first cause to all we see—and if we put ourselves in attunement with that plan, everything will work out fine in the end.”

Those approaches may seem to be polar opposites, but from my perspective, they have a lot in common. Both nihilism and eternalism attempt to whitewash ambiguity and uncertainty with an unwarranted assuredness that one knows what’s what with respect to ultimate matters. Both rest upon belief in propositions that cannot be falsified, and thus cannot be demonstrated either. And both serve to finesse the perplexities that may arise when living moment-by-moment without having answers to ultimate questions. So while eternalists and nihilists may imagine themselves to be far apart philosophically, both types appear to be defended psychologically in the same way against the same fears. Apprehensive of being in the dark about what life “really means,” which might open the door to depression and despair, they simply will not allow it. Any questions that arise are met with iron-clad dogma.

I trust that you are speaking from the heart in wishing for the relief you imagine might ensue if only you could sign on to “spirituality.” But there is, I say, no real relief there at all—only escapism and self-deception. The only relief I know is the freedom one feels when finally the need for certainty comes to an end, replaced by a willingness to allow life to unfold as it does without knowing a damn thing about “cosmic” anything, either pro or con.

When I say “freedom,” I do not mean happiness. Nor do I mean immunity from ordinary human suffering. I mean the equanimity and peace of mind that emerge in the light of the comprehension that in this moment things are as they are and cannot be any different, including what I think, what I feel, and how I see and understand myself and the world.

Each of us sees a different world, and what each of us sees is oneself. This does not signify as some people believe that the world is not real. It means that what I see is not the same as what you see. What you see is you, and what I see is me. When this identity of seeing and seer is understood, freedom is obvious, for then there is no stand-in, alternative, or substitute for seeing what I see and being what I am in this moment. All I can be is myself, and all I can see is myself.

From my perspective, following a spiritual path, a religion, or a guru serves primarily as a means of avoidance—a way of replacing what one actually is right now with a glorified vision of what one could be. This is the fallacy of becoming. Those who purport to teach methods of “self-realization” or paths to “salvation” are not awake, I say, but hypnotized by fancy ideas they learned from previous epigones. Then, having convinced themselves of their “attainment,” they regurgitate the nonsense they learned to imitate, hypnotizing their followers in the same fashion.

You are what you are here and now. There is no “later,” and there is, I say, no path apart from one’s own suffering, one’s own confusion, and eventually, with luck, one’s own understanding.

There is nothing occult, mystical, or esoteric about this. Awakening is about relaxation and acceptance of each moment, moment-by-moment, not striving and exertion in search of some later, “better” state of mind. You can be only what you are right now, and right now is all you ever have. You do not have to be, and you cannot be, anything which you now are not. But the path-followers, who want to imagine that their efforts, if pursued seriously enough and long enough, will lead them to some exalted or special state — some attainment — do not like that idea.

Yes, as you say, there may be pain involved in living without the promise of spiritual attainment, or call it what you will: transcendence, enlightenment, cosmic consciousness, finding “God,” salvation, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, whatever. But if one will remain in touch with that pain—in touch with the human condition of not knowing answers to ultimate questions—an unexpected beauty may be perceived in this long goodbye called life.

My friend, the esteemed Buddhist teacher, Robert K. Hall, and I were talking last week about the desire to know the “self.” He said that after a lifetime of looking he had found “nothing.” The self, he meant, is empty at its core, so if you search for a lasting, permanent self, you find no-thing. If you try to “realize” the self, you will arrive at no-thing at all. Like peeling an onion, if you peel long enough, you end up with nothing.

I agreed that I too had found nothing, and added, “So all of this religion, and practice, all this conversation about noble truths and such, is just a wall they build to keep out nothing.” Robert laughed, and nodded his head yes.

This may sound like defeat or failure, but it isn’t. It’s quite a relief, I say, to stop looking for assurances of an eternal future, and to spend one’s time instead in the eternal present—a human present.

Observing our closest primate cousins, such as bonobos and gorillas, may reveal aspects of our true nature that we human primate animals prefer to repress, but which they act out freely in a natural manner. I recall a group of bonobos I watched, surprised not just by the intelligence in their eyes, but by their acute social comprehension as well. Always the photographer, I soon had my camera out and up to my eye for a portrait of the alpha male. He instantly twigged what I was up to, and gazed into the lens patiently while I made adjustments and got off a couple of shots. Then, apparently weary of the game, turned his back on me and showed me his ass.

The Buddha (“Buddha” means awakened one) himself said it long ago, but the path-followers don’t want to hear that part of it. They like noble truths—which Robert called “just kindergarten stuff”—and practices, and they just love “enlightenment,” which they imagine is a promotion to the status of “self-realized being,” and so the end of having to suffer and die like any other human being.

“Subhuti said to the Buddha, ‘World Honored One, when you attained unexcelled, perfect enlightenment, is it true that nothing was attained?’”
“That is so, Subhuti. That is so. When I attained unexcelled perfect enlightenment, I attained absolutely nothing. That is why it is called unexcelled perfect enlightenment.’”
—The Diamond Sutra

Anyone who understands this, I say, understands nothing.