March 2nd, 2007
Philosophy and Self Identity
Avoiding a Nihilistic Approach to Ultimate Reality and the Self
By Jason Root
What of these words? Existence meets Nothingness. Nothingness introduces Emptiness, Emptiness presents the Self and the Self finds its way through Existence back to Nothingness.
Leaving my head in a jar for later inspection, I walked out into a vast scape of white. There I beheld the only thing I’ve ever known. That I am all alone. But it was in this empty whitescape of nothingness where the populating of the universe began, giving rise to a comforting figment of ice and poppies, lice and copies of Time Magazine for the masses.
Regency 42. The universe opens its eye and winks, closing again, leaving the imprint of its soul on me as I stand dumbfounded before the waking wonder glimpsed only for a moment; remaining now only as some far distant memory I am not even sure is not a fabrication of my long lost longing which I now strive to recall.
When I was less than an inkling of thought, I remember not. But as a child, though I never thought much on who I was, I always felt that I had a pretty clear sense of who I was, that I was someone specific and essentially at my very deepest self unchanging even if I never consciously thought about it in this way. But then the cataclysmic advent of adolescence threw that all in my face, leaving me bewildered, lost and certain of nothing anymore. I thought I was pretty sure I knew who I was up until this volatile time in my life turned my world upside with existential questions of life’s inherent meaning or possible purposelessness of which I grappled to come to grips with, leaving me grasping for something to hold onto: nothing about the world, reality and my self were as they had seemed, once so reliable, concrete, permanent and sure.
I think the hardest adjustment during this time was acknowledging that I was unbecoming the person I had happily been for as long as I could remember; that everything about who I thought I was and identified myself as was no longer holding fast but rapidly slipping away leaving in the void of uncertainty, unfamiliar thoughts and ideas that I fought to resist, but that were nevertheless, and against my will to acknowledge, would reshape who I thought I was. The realization that there was no superior figure who had all the answers and who could reassure me that everything would be okay and that, yes Jason, life has meaning and purpose, and there are concrete, tangible and comforting answers to all the tough questions and when you wake up the next morning everything will be as it has always been was a bit of a blow. During this perplexing time, it never occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t anything so concrete, so predefined, so unchanging, so absolute and essential at my core; that I might altogether not even have a core self: ideas at the time too uncomfortable to even consider. So I suffered this disillusionment of my true nature as feeling wholly lost, with life boiling down to nothing more than a “mustard burp, momentarily tangy and then forgotten in the air.” (Film: Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.) In hindsight, I realize clinging to my old childhood self that perhaps never even existed beyond my own vague notions of it caused me much more pain than necessary, but we don’t grow up in a culture that shows children how to move safely through the dark tunnel of adolescence and into adulthood. Maybe if I had been told “you don’t die because you were never born. You [have] just forgotten who you are.” (Page 40, The Book) I would have been better equipped to assimilate the transition of coming of age and all the questions that come with it.
The other big hurtle of adolescence was acknowledging that God had long since been removed as the main myth of explaining man’s existence and the world and had been replaced by one that explains life and existence by a blind and essentially, unto itself, an unconscious program that began as a big bang and somehow, miraculously and inextricably, resulted in a myriad of elements, gravity and light which in turn resulted in planets and finally intelligent life. This had an averse effect on my thinking. If conscious, feeling life came from something that doesn’t think, isn’t conscious, and doesn’t feel, then what is it really? What purpose and meaning does my life have? I was born, soon I will die and will cease to think, to exist, to be, forever. What’s the point? This combined with the unraveling sense of the concrete self threw me into an often nihilistic and defeatist way of looking at life.
Over the course of several years these thoughts slowly diluted and didn’t much trouble me anymore until one day about a year ago I was offered a brownie containing an illicit substance of the minor variety by a friend which I naively believed was an ordinary brownie when I asked if it had any special nature. About a half an hour later I’m suddenly hit with a mind trip that totally has me off guard and sends my thoughts into the absolute pit of pointlessness and purposelessness of existence and reality. Basically I concluded what Alan Watts’ The Book and Buddhist philosophy teaches, (this was before I went to India and took part in a ten day Buddhist retreat) that you are apart of everything, everything is connected and everything is one, but with a very nihilistic bent. I did not, however, experience that there is no separate, individual self which is an essential part to Buddhism and what Alan Watts was trying to illustrate in The Book. But instead of having an epiphany of ecstasy I was taking the whole idea way too literally, way too intellectually and concretely causing me temporary insanity and nihilistic woe. I then concluded from the first realization that nothing outside me exists inherently. That only I exist. And that everything in my reality is just a projection of my complex brain. The universe, people, everything was like a movie playing in my mind and did not in fact exist at all. I was IT. I was the universe. I was everything. I was One. I was alone. Completely and utterly alone with this realization. I was the only thing that actually existed and (here comes the outrageous part) as a result of endless time being, for I did perceive the illusion of time, with the endless forever that will never ever ever end and will go on for eternity (a concept that still scares me) I had in time infinitum created the game of life, of endless universe, of being born with no memory so as to hide myself from realizing the true nature of reality and my self (a part of The Book that I really enjoyed), that ultimately I am the only thing that exists and therefore I am completely and utterly alone. The worst part of which was that I couldn’t tell anyone, because I would be talking to imaginary projections of my mind. Further frightening was the fact that I could not disprove this hypothesis which felt so very unshakably true. Who is to say that isn’t the way it is, that the paper I’m writing on my computer that I will hand in and will be read by a separate conscious entity and will be corrected and handed back to me, isn’t just a projection of my mind, that there is no separate conscious entity reading my paper, correcting it and handing it back to me? Who is to say that there is an objective concrete isness to existence that can be perceived beyond the very specific program that is my brain interacting with and perceiving a concrete, physical and very much existing world? The question I should be asking, though, is… why does it matter to me so much the particulars, the true nature of reality and the self? Why do I strive to understand some absolute truth to the true nature of things, of the universe, of existence, of my self? Why isn’t it enough to just be in the miracle of life?
A half year later I am invited by a friend to India. All this nihilistic, simplistic deduction of reality into one singularity resurfaces right before the trip pitting me once again at the edge of IT. I see a fortune teller who tells me I am a little bit insane. I never thought I’d be happy to have someone tell me that. I decide to take the fortune teller’s meaning to be applied to my nihilistic spin on Ultimate Reality and Self. At the Buddhist Retreat I still found myself struggling to apply these ideas in a comprehensive way that didn’t involve contradictions; that made sense but didn’t come back to my nihilistic bent. But one thing I hadn’t really taken into account with the nihilistic viewpoint is how the notion of pain and pleasure, or any of the senses for that matter, fits in as merely illusion.
Okay, so the Buddha teaches that mind, the self, has existed since beginningless time and will continue for forever through countless different life forms based on the innate law of karma permeating Ultimate Reality. Now this, with perhaps exception to the karma bit, makes sense to me innately. We can’t fathom a start point to time, because you always have to ask “well, what was before that?” And you can’t fathom an end point because you have to ask “well, what comes after that?” But there is nothing inherent or innate about sound, light, pain, sight, pleasure, taste and smell. Why these things? What has caused them? Why should a random and seemingly meaningless collection of matter and chemicals result in consciousness and feeling? I can see endless time existing outside of being created from something else, as an innate concept by itself. I can see the Self having fear—and even love—without it being programmed in, existing innately as a reaction to the unknown and loneliness. And I’d be willing to accept that all other emotions of the self come out of fear and love, such as hate, empathy, jealousy, etc. But even loneliness is hard to argue as a natural result. Why should the Self care that it is alone? Is this feeling of loneliness a natural byproduct of self awareness or is it not innate at all? Part of it can be argued comes from our biological and evolutionary history as a group animal for survival.
But the experiences of the senses, these are a formidable foe to the nihilistic approach to the Self. It’s one thing to say the physical world is illusion, a projection of the mind. You see it, you move through it, but it’s all relative; are you moving through it or is it moving around you and you are still or are you moving and it is moving as well? (as was given as an example in The Book when you continually add balls and objects to the picture of reality.) Buddhist Dharma says the senses are illusory; they keep you from knowing your true nature and the true nature of reality and therefore continually lead to suffering. But if the nihilistic approach to the self and reality is to be taken seriously, we have to say that the senses aren’t just illusory, they don’t exist at all; are just further projections of the mind. But this is absurd! The one thing I can be certain does exist is what I feel and experience. As for you and the rest of the world? Maybe you exist, maybe you don’t. The following is an excerpt from Dan Millman’s book The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. The Zen master Socrates tries to illustrate to his pupil the wigglyness (to quote Alan Watts) of reality:
"That reminds me of a story I heard a long time ago about a woman who was overcome with grief by the death of her young son:
'I can't bear the pain & sorrow,' she told her sister.
'My sister, did you mourn your son before he was born?'
'No, of course not,' the despondent woman replied.
'Well then, you need not mourn for him now. He has only returned to the same place, his original home, before he was ever born.'
'But he's gone!'
'Perhaps he's gone, perhaps not. Maybe he was never here!' Her laughter rang throughout the house.
The last line is what disturbs me. Maybe reality exists unto itself; maybe my mind is the ultimate creator. But physical pain and pleasure are as real as reality needs to be. One of the greatest thinkers of our time, Albert Einstein, once said "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." Did Einstein mean this to apply to just the physical properties of the universe which he was so intimately endeavoring to understand or to the senses as well? Do people exist individually but are connected to and of each and every other human being and everything else in the universe as part of the same One? Or, less paradoxically, more absurdly and more disturbingly, nothing and no one exists unto itself but are “merely” a movie playing in my mind and therefore they do not actually feel anything, are actually nothing at all but pure illusion; my eye the projector and the world I see and interact with the movie screen, a vast, elaborate game of life; but nothing more than a projection of my imagination created through the course of the river of endless, beginningless time: I am One, I am IT, I am the universe and everything in and of it.
I am not trying to be narcissistic, I am merely trying to postulate an explanation that I feel isn’t contradictory; one that came to me through the use of an illicit substance and was so cogent in its persuasion I felt compelled to understand it; as much as I want to say it is not true; that I haven’t glimpsed the true nature of reality; there was a very cogent experience that it was. Remember, I don’t like this nihilist approach. I am trying to avoid it as a conclusion to how Ultimate Reality and the Self truly are. But when I read books and watch movies they only seem to confirm it. “You are the world, you are the universe; you are yourself & everyone else, too!” (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior)
One example that I think supports my nihilistic hypothesis comes from the film (I never read the book) The Never Ending Story. All Atreyu has to do is give the Princess a name, and Fantasia will not be destroyed by the Nothingness. But because he doesn’t believe, Fantasia threatens to cease to exist from the Nothingness. To me this story says: without imagination the world ceases to exist. Without believing the world ceases to exist. The world is nothing but a never ending story created through Atreyu’s imagination; or my imagination (which to me implies it is not real) and then through his or my believing in it, my believing it is real. But it is only real because I believe it is real! If I don’t believe, it vanishes; destroyed by the Nothingness that is the Ultimate Truth, the Ultimate Reality.
J. R. R. Tolkien of The Lord of the Rings fame (the classic books) as a strong believer in God and as a Catholic believed that being a sub-creator was the will of God. Again, he is espousing this idea that reality and the world is a story. Stories aren’t real. They are the stuff of imagination.
"We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall." (J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter).
There are many people that have experienced enlightenment of the Self and Ultimate Reality. Each independently coming to basically the same conclusions, so there must be truth to it. But perhaps I am trying too much to be too literal with my understanding of IT. I am obviously not enlightened, as I still have a mind that is disturbed; I’m still confused by all this business and still struggle to see clearly the meaning of Enlightenment; what Ultimate Reality truly is, and thus my true nature.
I am very much a person who believes what he experiences and feels are a better guide to Truth than relying purely on logic. I think ultimately logic—and truth itself—serve only as far as the constructs they are in. Honestly, my head hurts from trying to sort all this out. I know that I exist, but I am the only one I know exists. That’s the whole point of the nihilistic approach. And it doesn’t mean I can now behave immorally, hitting pedestrians in my car as they cross the street for an easy score of 20 points because life is nothing but a movie, nothing but a story. It’s not like I can get beyond my programming that people and things are perhaps not by themselves real. And why would I want to? But more interesting to ask is: why, if I am the master of my universe, of the entire universe, of my reality, of all that is, then why have I created a world of pain and hardship? And why am I trying unhide myself from this game, to see beyond the veil? In light of this, I think it’s probably wise to not bind myself to my nihilistic approach, but rather accept that I still don’t quite understand and continue patiently down this road to illumination, enjoying the process as it unfolds and be less concerned with the destination and more with the journey.