2021-2-21 Embracing Nothingness-But In What Way?
12:53AM Mar 5, 2021
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
This is February 21 2021. And we're just a month away from the official beginning of spring. Days continue to lengthen. Every with every passing day length, they continue to lengthen as they have for millennia. But we're still in the grip of this pandemic, even though the numbers are looking better. Now we're still we're all experiencing something the likes of which we have never none of us have ever experienced before. There was recently an article in The Atlantic - a recent issue of Atlantic - called the title is bring back the nervous breakdown. And the subtitle is it used to be okay to admit that the world had simply become too much. And this is by Jerry Usem u-s-e-m. And he first he traces the the origin of the word nervous breakdown. It goes back to the 1930s. April 1935 was a nervous month he says. Unemployment in America stood at 20%. A potential polio vaccine was failing trials. The term Dustbowl made its first appearance in newsprint. And Fortune magazine introduced its readers to the nervous breakdown.
So the takeaway the nervous breakdown, he says was deemed to be as widespread as the common cold and the cheapest source of misery in the modern world. Anyone could be susceptible to it. It could be precipitated by nearly anything, and it prevented one from carrying on the business of normal living. Resolution of the breakdown entailed a timeout - ideally, at one of the deluxe sanitariums profiled a few pages into this this book called The nervous breakdown.
And then the author says right now we can all agree that we're once again living in a nervous time, pandemic, wildfires, indefinite homeschooling. post election political chaos, tick tock. Feelings of impending collapse have arguably never rested on firmer empirical grounds. But today, we no longer have recourse to the culturally sanctioned respite that the nervous breakdown once afforded. And then he goes on no longer can we take six weeks at a healing facility a healing healing getaway sanitarium. And he mentions in the article - I'm just going to pick up a couple threads here - he mentions that some some very wealthy people John D. Rockefeller, Jane Adams, and Max, Max Vaber. All had acknowledged breakdowns. They found a way to get their rest and reemerge to do their best work.
And a 1947 headline in the New York Herald Tribune, read, modern world viewed as too much for man. And then, the author writes By the mid 60s, the concept was getting pushed to the margins that is the concept of a nervous breakdown caused by unmanageable environmental stress. Stress from the outside. That was getting pushed to the margins by the rise of mass market, prescription driven psychiatry.
This new field of prescription driven psychiatry had little use for an affliction like a nervous breakdown that could be treated without the assistance of physicians. A social and cultural historian of the nervous breakdown at George Mason University- his name is Peter Stern - said, the very general and Ill defined characteristics of a nervous breakdown were its benefits. It played a function we've at least partially lost. You didn't have to visit a psychiatrist or a psychologist to qualify for a nervous breakdown. You didn't need a specific cause. You were allowed to step away from normalcy. The Breakdown also signaled a temporary loss of functioning like a car breaking down. It may be in the shop, sometimes recurrently. But it didn't signal an inherited or permanent state, such as terms like bipolar or ADHD might signal today.
The nervous breakdown was not a medical condition, but a sociological one implicated a physical problem, your nerves, not a mental one. And it was a one time event not a permanent condition. It provided sanction for a pause and reset that could put you back on track.
But as psychology eclipsed sociology in the late 20th century, it turned us inward to our personal moods and thoughts, and away from the shared economic and social circumstances that produced them. And then, the author suggests at the end of this short article, it's got me thinking that maybe we need to bring back the nervous breakdown to protect the nation's collective reserve of nerve force at a time when it's stretched so thin.
Now, that then leads me to a second article, this is from the New York Times Sunday magazine, New York Times Magazine, I guess it's called of last month, January, January - turning the light on - January 24. of this year. It where the author a Kyle Chaika talks about the much more contemporary version of people struggling to deal with this enormous stress we're all in not just a pandemic, but other things.
It's a long article, I'll just be reading bits of it. The article is called into the void. Even before the pandemic, American culture was embracing nothingness as an antidote for the overload of digital capitalism. But is it a real escape or another trap?
And he starts off. In 2019, of course, that's before the pandemic, I developed a habit of indulging in nothingness. Overwhelmed by social media notifications, news headlines, political crises, abnormal weather patterns, and the constant sense of looming Cataclysm that was a defining characteristic of that time, even before the world was in fact, upended by a pandemic, I decided to try out some sensory deprivation. It forced total unplugging inside a sealed tank sounded deeply appealing. At the time, the sensory deprivation industry was booming. Like many wellness trends, floating combines tangible physical benefits with nebulous mental ones pitched to prey upon our collective anxiety. It promises faster muscle recovery, a calmer nervous system and heightened creativity. All this in exchange for erasing your existence for an hour to the shallow Epsom salted water bouys, your body like a fishing lure bob - removing the need to think about your corporeal presence at all. Perhaps most important, it's impossible to hold your phone while immersed. It's a good one.
And then he is skipping a couple paragraphs here. There are moments when it feels as though the universe is trying to send you a message. The vibrations - he's not talking about the the float tanks now - the vibration of a particular wavelength driving a possibly justified paranoia. signs in there it gets into the larger theme of the article, signs of a culture wide quest for self obliteration appeared everywhere in the time after my first float. I walked by an exercise studio whose sandwich board commanded me to log out, shut down, do yoga. REI marketed a garment that quote feels like nothing, and that means everything. In a January 2020 column, it's a year ago about omnipresent noise cancelling headphones, and the desire to block out our surroundings with constant sound, the Economist in the magazine The Economist argued, the shared world is increasingly intolerable.
So, back in the 30s and 40s, if you had enough money, then you would respond by maybe by doing one of these, these retreats at a at a facility, the way JD Rockefeller did, but now we don't have those. But we have a lot of other ways of withdrawing.
He, he he goes on, he gives all kinds of examples to support his perception of a culture wide quest for self obliteration. He goes back to a year ago. Much of our lives in the outside world and had been so agitating ground to a halt as the first round of Coronavirus lockdown hit the United States. Alongside so much tragedy and despair, mass quarantine has represented a final fulfillment of the pursuit of nothingness, particularly for the privileged classes who could adapt to it in such relative comfort, sunk back into the couch cushions of spare country houses, equipped with Grocery deliveries, Netflix shows and live streaming exercise classes.
This interregnum has often felt to me like an all encompassing full time session of sensory deprivation. Quarantine has been widely regarded as a radical break in our daily lives, and the ways we interact with the world. But in truth, it's simply an overdose of the indulgences that a certain segment of the population was dabbling in already. We're a little like kids caught with a cigarette, forced to smoke, smoke a whole pack at once. A little bit more before I start commenting. This obsession with absence. The intentional erasure of self and surroundings, is the apotheosis of what I've come to think of as a culture of negation, a body of cultural output, from material goods to entertainment franchises to lifestyle fads. That evinces a desire to reject the overstimulation that defines contemporary existence. This retreating, which took hold in the decade before the pandemic betrays a grim undercurrent, a deepening failure of optimism and the possibilities of our future. A disillusionment that COVID and its economic crisis have only intensified. It's as if we want to get rid of everything in advance, including our expectations, so that we won't have anything left to lose.
Well, we have to acknowledge that there's very, very good reason to stay in our homes during the pandemic, to socially isolate, for for of course, for health reasons. So, a lot of that makes good sense. Of course, again, his point is that this started well before the pandemic and, and I would bet he would suggest that it will go on, after we reach herd immunity and people are all emerging from our caves.
He goes on, saying that this desire for nothingness - and we'll soon get to what a different nothingness is from Buddhist no thingness - this desire for nothing this reaches its most literal manifestation in the sensory deprivation fad, but it can be found in more subtle forms elsewhere. And then he runs through all kinds of examples, certain kinds of succulent plants, ceramics functionalist beige and monochrome outfits, the clingy softness of athleisure athleisure and cashmere sweatpants and then CBD. He says the CBD is like a mental moisturizer, it promises not the blissed THC haze of the stoner, and then he puts in parentheses to uncontrolled too many thoughts, but the psychological equivalent of white noise, dampening anything negative. And then he cites more examples this, this - I think this a lot of work went into this article. He talks about an endless parade of e commerce brands, promising the last X you'll ever have to buy hoodies, water bottles, bookshelves, and then he devotes a whole paragraph to meems. He says the negative spirit of the moment also shows up in memes, the internet's equivalent of Pompeii and graffiti. That is graffiti they found from the time of the eruption in Pompei preserved signs of the incipient pandemic Apocalypse, and artifacts of its wake.
He goes back again to a year when the pandemic was was just setting in. He says, it brought an era of quarantine consumerism, the feathering of our respective nests to a state of benumbed comfort enabled by essential workers whose lives were valued less than the continued flow of Amazon boxes.
He cites a a, a futurist, as he calls him a by the name of Venkatesh Rao, who prophesized in two years ago - he he described the inclination then even two years ago to hole up at home with Netflix binges, video games, seamless deliveries at capital M seamless must be a brand accompany seamless deliveries as domestic cozy, a pre emptive retreat from worldly affairs for a generation that quite understandably thinks the public sphere is falling apart. Those are the words of this Rao, Venkatesh Rao. And then this same guy Rao, he says the world looks forbiddingly difficult to break into today. More to the point, it increasingly does not seem worth the effort. And then the author here says soon the public sphere disintegrated anyway, after the pandemic.
Let's acknowledge that what we are going through is just nearly impossible to manage. I was talking with someone the other day, who, who made this point and got me to step back and realize we are in a pandemic, a world pandemic. This last happened 100 years ago. This is rare. We are we are so on the ropes all of us with our our inability to join with others in this all this awful stuff. We can't embrace one another we can't join. And except virtually, of course, we can't see one another except virtually can't sit in the zendo together, except virtually, which is a lot better than nothing.
If we are spending too much time escaping into these different forms of home entertainment, then let's at least at least forgive ourselves for that because it's just.... A 19th century British cleric or Scottish cleric once said, Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
He then he then acknowledges that before the pandemic, the malaise that defined our culture was periodically broken by huge protests, acts of physical solidarity. He mentions the Women's March that follow the election of Trump, the mass public outcries against the travel ban against the border wall against the acquittal of Trump's first impeachment and Kavanaugh's confirmation. And then came the killing of George Floyd and others. He says this communal direct action seemed like a glimpse of the culture of negations hard to find opposite, invigorating and sometimes uncomfortable, but not a distraction or a suppressant. And yet these moments of tumult also inspire retreat, climate change, technological upheaval, racism, inequality, the churn of history, which shows no signs of stopping these all make it easy to instead slip into the welcoming void of the content stream. Numbness beckons when Life is difficult, when problems seem insurmountable, when there is so much to mourn.
I'm just going to skip to near the end for a minute and go back near the end of the article where he says micro trends rise and fall daily, but only within the bounds of the digital spaces, like Tick Tock and Twitter, where they exist. What stays consistent is the mode of delivery and the sale of your data. Right now, counterculture glorifies passive numbness, just as corporate structures reinforce and profit from it. Any alternative ideology or stylistic innovation, like those of the hippies and punks of decades past is instantly integrated into the commercial mainstream by the algorithm algorithmic feeds of the enormous social networks that establish mass taste. Boy what an indictment this is. Positions of resistance are neutralized. Ennui itself is a brand. In December, Pantone announced two colors of the Year for 2021. The first was ultimate gray.
He continues earlier in the article, many opt to simply stay home pursuing as uncomplicated and swaddled a life as possible, surrounded by things that feel if not good than at least neutral. And the same guy, the futurist Rao, he said, it's not pure subtraction of public sensations. It's the addition of private sensation -- hot cocoa, gravity blankets, sensory deprivation -- we create an acceptable layer between our internal and external environments, a barrier that's still under our control, even as the outside world grows increasingly chaotic. It's an essentially defensive posture, he said, an instinctive adaptive response.
But you know, what's even more adaptive than any of these things, these very understandable things that so many of us have fallen back on. What's even more adaptable? You know, what I'm going to say, is zazen, this practice, not just the sitting. That's really the, the strict meaning of the word zazen is the sitting but more largely carrying through our lives, this presence, this no mindedness.
A little more, he says, and now in a very anxious time, it's even harder to find what doesn't conform as theatres, art galleries, opera houses, symphonies, cinemas, poetry readings, comedy clubs, and bookstores all evaporated in the pandemic. The last thing left seemed to be streaming video, broadcast through the largely unregulated for profit, digital platforms, they now have a monopoly on our house bound attention and connection.
Later he says the culture of negation inspires a taste for nothingness and glorifies numbness. So there's this word nothingness. Most of you who are listening to this, know that this is a core concept and experience in Zen, called shunyata. It's there are many ways to understand this. One is no self, empty of self, no thing has any permanent self nature to it. Everything is in flux. Things are coming and going so quickly, that there's nothing we can hold on to. So this is a way to understand nothingness as, as the the evanescent nature of existence of life. The dreamlike, quality life, because there is, if there's no thing permanent, then there's no thing. No thing we can put our finger on, there's no thing that persists from one moment to the next.
But to see, nothingness in this, this dead way, is just negation. This is seen as a kind of blindness in Zen. When you see it as apart from the world of phenomena, when you see negation as apart from affirmation, then it's a fatal mistake.
In zen, we're not retreating from the world. We're not disengaging from it. We're not withdrawing from it. But we want to see through it -- we want to see through this world of appearances. This is absolutely different. It's not sectioning off our experience as something apart from the world of coming and going. relating that apart from connection.
When we're, when we're really embodying this practice, well not benumbed, we're not numb. The further we go into Zen practice, the more the more open, the more sensitive, we become to others, and their pain and their needs -- not reacting to the pain around us. In fact, it's really a state where we we grow into the state where our hearts can be broken more easily by others pain, by loss, by the passing of family and friends and others and and all of the, the many essential workers who are so exposed to the pandemic and who, who have to go through grieving on a daily basis in the case of medical workers, who are embedded in so much dying and other suffering.
Always in Zen, we want to be aware of getting attached to either side of the coin, either the side of negation, or the side of affirmation, the side of death or the side of life. Not clinging to either. We avoid clinging to to life by learning to let go of our thoughts. When we're, when we're sitting no mindedly or when we're doing anything no mindedly -- is being -- no mindedly means beyond thought or just fully present in the direct experience of activity, then we become this nothingness, this emptiness. We are at, we are the, the flux we are and in that we are, we are our creative forces are working, are accessible.
Just a small example, I learned a long, long time ago that I had to sit before giving teisho at least 45 minutes. Even if my organization of the topic, my comments, were not terribly organized, because it's it's in the sitting, that I have the best chance of bringing to life the teisho, bringing myself to life -- same thing -- by by sinking into this realm of no mind, that we come most alive.
And then, this word nothingness or emptiness, it rather than escaping, being a being an escape from this world, worldly things even -- it becomes, it turns into its opposite it turns inside out. When when, when we when the mind is empty, which always remember always means free of thoughts, or most vividly, vibrantly present, then the so called emptiness turns into the rich the ultimate richness of of experience. People who've been to sesshin know this. It can of course, happen anytime and any sitting in sesshin. But consider after consider the morning after a seven day sesshin, when you've had some rest finally, how's the world look then, when the mind is empty.
The author uses this term nihilism a couple of times. This course is not what we're aspiring to. Nihilism means there's no no meaning or purpose to life, the feeling that there's no meaning or purpose to life. And that's one way of understanding reality. There doesn't need to be a meaning or a purpose. When we're completely one, we're completely present, we don't need to, to superimpose the notion of meaning or purpose. We don't need it, when we are life itself. And so, there are various koans that begin where the monk asked what is the meaning of Bodhidharma is coming from the west, which became a conventional way of asking what is the ultimate principle, what is what is our what is our essential nature, but look at look at some of the responses. Well, one of them at least where -- this is in the blue Cliff record -- where the monk asked what is the meaning of Buddhadharma's coming to the west. And the first Master says Pass me the the cushion, zazen cushion, and the monk passes it to him and he swats him -- the master swats him with the cushion and he says, after all, there's no meaning to Bodhidharma's coming the West -- bringing the monk back to this -- this -- the physical, the direct experience.
The author goes through so many more examples, very persuasive case here of many, many ways and all different aspects of contemporary contemporary life that we're, we're slipping away from the real Buddhist meaning meaning of no thingness. No thingness means there's no thing apart from any other thing, it means connection, it means intimacy. But instead, we're just in a tidal wave of consumer products and consumer services that are taking us in the other direction. The disconnection is quite, he makes quite an indictment here of, of capitalism, and what it's become especially digital capitalism.
One at one point he says, no one seems to want anything. There is no enthusiasm for desire in this culture, only the wish that we could give it up. It's an almost Buddhist rush towards selflessness, with the addition of American competition, and our habit of overdose, as much obliteration as possible. In the words of an enormous piece of graffiti I spotted recently near Philadelphia, make America nothing again.
Yes, yes, let's go to the very source of everything in this world worth, worth living for, which is nothing. This is the the very ground of everything. When it comes to the degree, that we, we see everything as flux, that is, with neither self or other any fixed self or other, then we'll be less fearful of any experience less fearful of the pandemic less fearful of other political parties. We'd less less need for us to push anything away, reject anything. There less need for us to, to run away to escape to avoid.
Again, he talks about absence, this kind of yearning, this misguided yearning for absence and distance and disconnection, numbness. This practice that we're doing, Zen practice, is not about any kind of absence, really, but about a vast presence. And when we can live to the degree that we can live in this presence, that is absence, then we have we're from we're in a position a position of non abiding that is ultimate adaptability, where we can give, we can give to others, we can respond. This is this is the ultimate position of responsiveness is a non abiding state. We're ready we're poised for what needs to be done.
Recently, I had the privilege of delivering a big shopping bag full of notes and cards and letters of appreciation that some of you gathered together. I took them to the hospital. And to me, this is a this is a sign, this is a confirmation of visibility to to rest in non abiding -- this, this ability to rest in our, in our own impermanence, our flux, in which which then gives inspires us to respond to those who are suffering. See the the the all fundamental, non dual nature of, of wisdom -- that is wisdom as seeing the essence of wisdom being seeing the the emptiness of everything -- between that and compassionate response.
All right, then our time is up we'll stop now and recite the four vows.