DISCLAIMER: This article is not intended to be taken to the letter. Its purpose is merely entertainment, and inspiration. However, you can choose to take it as seriously as you like. The Cosmos series is a tribute and an overview of the body of work of the philosopher Alan W. Watts(see the P.S. section of article Reality Is Bliss for more information).
It might start with a blank slate. But the end result is always something. Or maybe it invariably leads to nothing. Does one cancel out the other? No, they always arise mutually. I call this the great conspiracy. Because of its peculiar way of managing to bamboozle nearly everyone in the universe. That nothing is just plain nothing. That it is to be ignored completely. But you have to have nothing to have something. The universe wouldn’t even be here without nothing. This makes it very important. The following is an attempt to bring the various aspects and functions of nothing under one description.
What is the colour of your head from the standpoint of your eyes? It’s not black, is it. There is no colour at all. When you close out your other eye and try to see beyond the edges of the visual field, you cannot distinguish anything at all, even black. This is what might be called The Void. It is darker than blackest black - it’s practically nothingness, it’s so mysterious.
So, what does it actually looks like inside one’s noodle? Well, all one has to do is look out in front of them. Because everything they see in the external visual field, is a state in their brain. That visual field, is a notion inside the skull, from a neurological perspective. An electrical signal running through neurons. It’s a happening inside their heads.
This makes the nothing part of the whole thing important. Because the lens of the eye doesn’t have any colour, it is able to distinguish colour. Same way one’s mind has to be empty, to contain anything. Thoughts arise out of this emptiness. But nonetheless, it is not literal emptiness. As the brain has to be the background for thoughts to occur in it. This makes backgrounds important. But we have been largely taught since our childhoods, to ignore the background, and only focus on the important things. It happens like this:
Whenever a child is pointing at something it notes as being of interest, it asks its parent “What is that?”. That of course, is something at the end of the tip of the finger. And if the parent doesn’t understand what the child is pointing to, it tells the child to ignore it. By a subtle process of elimination, it is told which things are the important things, and which are not. The child of course, regards all patterns it sees with fresh eyes, as being interesting. It doesn’t make a differentiation between important and unimportant, unless told so. And so we come to focus on the points, instead of the general areas - and we tend ignore the backgrounds completely most of the time. And this was carefully thought out in gestalt psychology, that our attention goes to the relatively moving, instead of the relatively still. To the relatively focused, instead of the relatively vague.
Let’s take a teacher giving a lecture to a room full of people. If the teacher was the only thing they could see, what would they be witnessing? They wouldn’t see the teacher at all. Because if their entire visual field was filled with that person alone, they would see a strange sea of mass that had something that resembles a face with textures of pattern running all over the sides. Because in order to see the person, one has to see their limits. It’s the difference between the limits and its surrounding space. In other words, one has to have a background to make out significant features noteworthy.
This tendency, to regard backgrounds, nothing, as merely the absence of something, is the great conspiracy. Just as you don’t expect the mind to be the absence of thoughts, but where thoughts arise from, you won’t find the absence of space without its correlative objects. It needs the space to contain everything. That’s what the mind is. Mind means space. And everything in that space is a mutual interdependence. You cannot have figures unless they are in relation to backgrounds, solids in relation to space.
Solid is mostly empty space. This however is only apparent to us when we examine something, really carefully. When we look at what the tiniest specks of matter are made of. We’ll use our favourite object historically for academic presentations, the table. The table is being able to appear as a solid thing, because it’s actually vibrating so fast, that we cannot push our finger through it. Same way as we cannot jam our hands into a spinning table fan. It will repel it. If we magnify into the table far enough, the atoms that would fill the length of an orange, would have their counterparts hundreds of kilometres away - that’s how solid anything really is. So what actually looks like a sturdy construct, is a sub-atomic arrangement not unlike that of stars in the night sky.
As our modern scientific field of astrophysics sees the origins of our universe, it came out of nothing. Yes, nothing. In other words, the universe wouldn’t exist if weren’t for nothing. Our very planets, stars and galaxies are being moved by the empty space between them. And this will be the answer to gravitation. It is a relationship between large bodies of masses.
Because it is the very vacuum the objects create, that keeps things going. In other words, space, nothing, has a function. This can be compared to the dynamics of social behaviour. But, I don’t have much foothold in astrophysics to make any concrete statements, merely general ideas towards the points of the article.
After all, every system in the universe are designed to return to the nothing. Everything is running out, disappearing, in a state of decay - nothing can be held unto. This can be very easily interpreted as nihilism. But it’s just a fact. Try to hold unto anything in, and you’ll see it can’t be done. It is only temporary. And it is just the way things are. But if one understands that and accepts it, then there’s no reason to try to hold on to things. And it will free them from a terrible predicament. Because people suffer when they think something can be safeguarded and clung to, and then find out it all went away.
And this is connected to why we regard events generally disconnected from each other. But in order to really get the point across, I have to start from the basic metaphysical assumptions, or “axioms”, under which most human beings operate on. There are certain unquestioned assumptions, they are not aware of. And even the most hard-headed, rigorous, logical scientists, whose approach to life is purely academic and scientific, are haphazardly, metaphysicians. Now, let’s start with the thing that should’ve been taught to us before we learned anything else:
All systems in nature, is a pulse. And a pulse has two aspects, on and off. It seems to be manifested in waves, where there are crests, and troughs. Nobody ever witnessed a wave with just a crest, or just a trough. Same way as one will never bump into a person with only one side. And although the aspects are distinct from each other, they are for that very reason, inseparable. And one has to get used to the idea then, that distinctions, can be inseparable - that what is explicitly many, can be implicitly one. If we forget it, very odd things start to take place. Because we get scared when we forget that black and white actually go together. Because we think that the negative aspect, death, nothing, might win, not realising there’s the positive which eventually follows it.
You see, we have specialised in specific form of consciousness for several thousands of years, which has a strange dynamic. We call that conscious attention. And through it, we can detect tiny details in our surroundings and focus on them. We have a central visual field and a peripheral visual field. The first we use for reading and other such close activities, sort of the same way as a spotlight. Where as the peripheral vision is used as a floodlight, which takes in large areas at a time.
We are as it were, scanning with our spotlight over several areas. And the price we pay for this, is ignorance or ignoring. We include things and events with the central field, to the exclusion of the peripheral field. And this makes us feel isolated, contained within a limit of the epidermis only, and not part of the natural process.
This process has to have the negative and the positive built into it. Without it, the game would cease to be worth the candle - it’s what keeps the dynamics of life going. It is the very nature of this playing of energy that creates everything. But everything that is, has to have the opposite of nothing, something that is not, as its background. It is its source. But no one can really say anything about what comes after, or rather, before that. There’s an ancient poem which says:
If you want to know where the flowers come from, not even the God of Spring knows.
That mysterious depth of the void you see, is where everything emanates from. One would think that the god of spring knew where the flowers come from, but the truth of the matter is it doesn’t. No one does. Because the whole idea of life is being clueless as to your own true nature and where you originate from. It is to be under the illusion that life is a serious business of disconnected things and events, to make one feel anxious, scared, delighted, happy, an all the spectrum of sensations it contains.
Next assumption, is about the connection between events themselves. So I have to describe the principle of a network: There is a term which describes the patterns of nature in terms of their causalities, called a catenary sequence. It is based on old Newtonian mechanics that describes the universe as a series of billiard balls being banged around by each other. Large portion of the western hemisphere is still under this assumption.
But this idea has become insufficient to explain the patterns of nature. There is a new idea of thinking things that has surfaced over the years, especially since the appearance of the World Wide Web. It describes the patterns of nature in terms of not only by their causalities but also their present context. It is what is knows as a reticulate sequence.
Is it enough to describe any given event simply as part of a long historical sequence, which you can lay down on a piece string? Well obviously not. You also have to describe its present context, of its relationship to past and future events as well. But everything that exists, all things and events, are not doing so apart from each other. And this is essentially what quantum mechanics is trying to say. It states that you cannot describe any event apart from the totality - it is a completely interwoven and interrelated network where all points depend on each other. And so if you describe the behaviour of any organism, you cannot do so, without also describing the context, that is to say, nature, in which they are found. What you have then is a new domain of study. You are describing a unified field.
But one has to be very careful not to fall on old Newtonian assumptions, about the universe. Because the individual is not something that is shoved around by the totality, anymore than the individual is actually shoving the totality around. Their relation to each other is ‘transactional’, borrowing a term from John Dewey. In other words, no living being in this cosmos, is existing apart from their context. Next, a paraphrased excerpt by Watts:
“Consider a spider’s web. A multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop, has in its reflection all the other dew drops. And those reflections in turn has as their reflection, all the other dew drops. And so on. This is a network, where time goes in all directions. And every dew drop, as the kind of a reflector it is, wouldn’t be that if it weren’t for all the other dew drops. It’s the same with people.”
There could be an argument that this world wouldn’t be as such without Socrates. Because we’re living in a world that included Socrates, in another time. And every network connection since then, has as it’s reflection contained within it a dew drop with Socrates in it. And if that is so, if nothing in this cosmos exist without anything else, that it’s a completely interwoven and connected network of events and things since the Big Bang, the same goes with you - the world as such, wouldn’t exist if you didn’t exist. And if you realize your own inseparability from that context, you realize that you are not just and only your body.
We tend to think that our self, is located in the unknown part of the body. And some people, seem to think their ego is located in their chest. But in fact, as far as your physical existence goes, you are your entire organism, in addition to its environment. You are the entire universe as centred around your particular being. As has been explained through the point of view of ecology. Even though you are not aware by conscious attention as to how you work all the different organs and nerve ends in your body, nonetheless you do those things. And if you discover that you are your feet, you’ll at the same time discover you are shining the sun.
I digress and get back to the negative side of things. Negative, the nothing, is the creative point. This is true in the arts and crafts, in story-telling, and countless of other activities regarding creativity. You introduce the element of the negative, and that immediately makes things interesting. For contrast. Whether it’s a villain, a sensation, or a setting. You need the negative, to have the positive be what it is. The negative is the source, the power of the positive. You cannot get rid of it.
If everything one creates was positive and only positive, it would be boring. Even if you create a lovely mood, and there is nothing else except the positive there, people will only see it as such, because in the background of their minds they have the concept of its opposite, something that is not lovely. So they can make a comparison between the two. You always need the whole spectrum.
This is also true of the spectrum of sound. Sound comes out of silence - out of nothing. If one listens to a gong, it will keep vibrating until it recedes back into silence. If they listen to music, what they are hearing is not only sound. It is a rapid switching between sound and silence, a pulse. What they hear are the steps between the tones, the intervals. This makes silence important. People who are tone-deaf, don’t hear the intervals in the melody, they only hear the noise. There is a whole culture that regards sound, as the actual creative force of the universe. That vibration itself is the fundamental force that starts everything.
Now then. How does any of this transfer to the practical life? Can one even be apply it in the first place? Yes, most certainly. There is a whole concept called the art of doing nothing. Some people are masters at this, without even trying. For some of the more active people, it takes some practise. These are usually the really busy, working, professional type people. Or just plain neurotic.
Some people cannot take a 5 minute time out during their day. Just to have a breather. They have to constantly keep at it, whatever needs to be done. One that chooses to practise certain amount of doing nothing, will notice in due course how vibrant things around them are. That there is a whole world out there that seem to just continue to do its thing, whether they take part in it, or not.
This practising however, will make one seeming to other people, more passive than they would ordinarily be. And they might get some opinions about it from them. This is expected of course. One that creates a pattern that radically differs from that around them, will invariably have other patterns making assessments and avoid that pattern - because it’s different to them. And people always seem to resist difference and change. They’re afraid it might have an influence on them too.
But in my opinion, a little bit of passivity would actually cool all the craziness happening in the world. Imagine a television announcement that suddenly everybody would have to participate in one hour of meditation every day. I bet people would be against it. That’s not how you get people to do something. It would create an opposition.
So instead of that here is my own take on it: I like contemplating. It refreshes my mind, increases my creativity, especially regarding these writings, and also gives me insight. It helps me remember things better, see things clearly and gives me focus. It also makes me more relaxed towards things that would otherwise easily piss me off. And referring to my own health issues, it makes everything a lot easier to handle.
I think if people would at least try it and started by taking few minutes to the art of doing nothing, they would see some results. If they did nothing for just a little while, at least they would give themselves a chance, on this wacky planet. Because all the troublemakers out there, are the ones that just has to do something about problems in society - and that’s how you create additional problems, for yourself, and others.
There is another practicality to doing nothing that can be fully utilized in doing anything creative. People that are aware of the principle of opposites, can use it in any form of art. This is very well understood in Japanese aesthetics. Especially in zen painting and literature. Many of the moods of zen describe it perfectly. They have a term, - yūgen - which is the deep, dark, mysterious something, where things are evoked from.
It is suggestiveness, undefined, disappearing, void. It is creating with as few elements as possible, so to suggest the mood of it. This is yūgen. The principle can be used in music, drawing, calligraphy, photography, architecture, engineering, anything one can utilize. So certainly nothing is not just plain nothing. It is the polar opposite of something. It is the creative point for everything that there is.
So then. Perhaps what my final point of this article boils down to is this: Don’t be scared of the nothing. It can’t hurt you. You also don’t have to get rid of it. Because by it’s very definition, it is not there. One that truly understands that life consists of both of the opposites at the same time, will be less inclined to get worried over matters in life. They can harness it’s power and get a positive outcome. But you can’t own it - it’s not a matter of controlling the nothing. The moment one thinks they can somehow control the one or the other, will only discover they can’t. So instead one has to go with them, wherever they go. This is the only way not to get anxious. You go with the negative, you go with the positive. You use them. Not possess them. Because they cannot be hold unto anyway. They will disappear, into nothing.
Credits and sincerest thank you to https://alanwatts.org.