Being No Thing

“Love says ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says ‘I am nothing.‘ Between the two, my life flows,” taught Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.   I am not a thing, and this is good news.  And although I am limited I have a capacity to feel unlimited, to feel  compassionate connection with everything.  This is also good news.  The bad news is that feeling like nothing in the ordinary sense of feeling like nobody is the usual gateway to letting go of a sense of specialness, of separateness from everything else.   But that is a very wobbly, stressful state to maintain.

The Buddha called this state “dukkha,” which is usually translated as “suffering” but which is closer to “unreliable” or “stressful.” The root of the word means something akin to “dirty wheel,” referring to the gunky oil that builds up in the hub of a wheel making the turning wobbly.  Dukkha has also been compared to the pain that comes from rubbing naked skin on a brick wall.  It may not hurt much at first, but after a time it is a torment. This is the way things it goes, taught the Buddha. Things are not stable and reliable, not really solid.  Nothing goes as smoothly as it does in our thoughts and dreams.  Reality is rough.   Head knowledge of this is not the same as living knowledge, human being knowledge.   But life has a way of getting around our thinking and showing us our true nature.  Here is one example of how the lesson of truth and possibilities of nothingness came to me:

The Metro North train pulled into a station, the doors slid open and a pretty young woman got on and sat down next to my then 11-year-old daughter Alex and me.  As soon as we started rolling, she turned to us and asked if we would mind watching her lunch box while she went to the restroom.  Alexandra looked at me for a clue about how to respond.  After hesitating for a moment, I smiled back at the young woman and nodded yes.  She seemed so nice, so open.  After the young woman trotted up the aisle and through the heavy doors at the end of the car, Alex asked me in a whisper how I could know for sure if this person and her lunch box were safe?

We sat facing a shiny new poster with a picture of an ominous-looking black bag sitting unattended on a seat.  It read”  “If you see something, say something,” meaning that passengers should alert conductors to any suspicious objects or activities because they might be bombs or bombers.  It was the winter after the attacks on 9/11, and fear and sadness and a terrible doubt seeped into everything like cold fog.  Just after the attacks things had been different.  There had been what one journalist called a “suspension of distraction.”  Strangers made eye contact and held doors for one another.  There was the feeling that we were all together in the midst was a mystery, and the best we could do was to be helpful and kind.

But things changed as the months passed.  Yet I utterly fogged in by fear doubt.

Pundits in the media told us we were in the midst of a great war that sounded like The Lord of the Rings, in which merciless forces of darkness were out to extinguish the light of civilization.  The major difference was that in our contemporary dark age the agents of evil might strike might they might look just like us.  The most effective terrorists we were told might look like ordinary businessmen or mothers or students, like the young woman.

We had been hearing speculation that there might be bigger and more horrible attacks at any moment, and Grand Central Station and the trains going in were always included as possible targets.   Periodically, State troopers patrolled the train cars with gas masks clipped to their gun belts.  “I wonder about the etiquette of that, ” commented a commuter friend.  I suggested they could hand out gas masks and have a collection box on the platform at the end of the ride, the way they collect 3D glasses in movie theaters.

I told Alex I thought we would have noticed if there was anything amiss.  It would have been ticking or looked strangely heavy or something.  But it looked like an ordinary insulated lunch bag.  And the young woman was so pleasant and open, not nervous or fixated on a goal.  But the technology of the terrorists could be subtle, Alex cautioned.  It could look like an ordinary lunch box and be a bomb.  And terrorists themselves could look perfectly nice and normal.  We couldn’t trust our ordinary senses.  We just didn’t know.

We were all fogged in by fear.  I thought of the way that even single-celled organisms reflexively grasp at bits of food while contracting and scooting away from other cells.  That’s what we were like then and for years to come, doubting our own senses and intuition, reflexively grasping or contracting to protect ourselves.   What had become of that sense of openness and sharing, that recognition that we were all in this together?

A new stream of psychological research is exposing how it is that sights, sounds, or gestures can “prime” the unconscious, spurring us off in pursuit of goals that may or may not line up with the intentions of the conscious mind.  Handing test subjects hop coffee warmed their opinion of a hypothetical person while iced coffee elicited chilly opinions.  In what one scientist calls a “bottom-up” decision making process, ancient instinctive areas of the brain act on such subtle cues to make decisions about our survival without waiting for input from the much slower conscious mind.  Being driven by fear is not life, I decided.  I would make a stand.

I suggested to Alex that we could open the lunch box and have a look inside.  She looked at me like I was crazy.  Hadn’t I seen any movies or TV shows in my whole long life?  If it was a bomb, opening it will make it explode.  She told me she had a better idea.  She snapped open her CD player, took out the stormy dramatic Fellowship of the Rings disk she’d been listening to, and clicked in a CD of upbeat pop music.  She explained that she was creating a sound track to go along with a happy ending.

Believing that changing a soundtrack can change reality is magical thinking, I told her.  She asked me if I had a better idea.  I did not.  At that moment, it seemed painfully clear that none of my ideas were good.  What I took to be my life was actually a stream of shallow and repetitive thoughts, images, memories, all in the past and all of it driven by a primitive tendency to grasp and contract like an ameba, like pond scum.   I felt like Dorothy, throwing back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz.  The nice young woman came back and thanked us, and Alex turned to me and smiled.

The impressions of being nothing—of having no solid being—kept on coming.  I walked through Grand Central Station on Christmas Eve.  I watched heavily armed National Guard troops and police officers surround a deranged old homeless woman who had pushed her shopping cart into the terminal to take shelter from a freezing winter rain.  She’d stood clutching a broken doll, looking bewildered as the officers poked through the possessions that were spread out on the ground around her.  I noticed one young officer in particular.  His stance was stern but he had a horrified, questioning look in his eyes, as if he were having one of those nightmares where you can’t move.  Life is just like that, I thought, watching him.  We are carried along passively by forces we do not understand.  We need to face ourselves and try to understand.

Years later, some of our most distinguished journalists would write columns in our leading newspapers musing about why they had been so paralyzed during that period, confessing that what passed for investigative journalism too often had been reduced to gaining access to high-ranking officials and printing their quotes.  When had they stopped digging for the truth? What could I expect of myself?  In those days, I mostly wrote book reviews and interviewed famous authors for the weekly magazine.  Sometimes I wrote for glossy monthly magazines.   I worked hard to engage authors.  I pounced any bit of live insight that might break out during these brief and contrived encounters.   Still, I often saw the very same comments and anecdotes printed elsewhere or heard them repeated on National Public Radio.

I didn’t want to dig for more facts but for more awareness, I realized.  Where was the questioning and generosity that we had all shared right after the attacks?  I thought of a memory the Buddha just before his enlightenment, a memory which guided him.  He remembered being a child, sitting alone under a tree, watching a plowing festival.  He was withdrawn from the busy world of the adults, delighting in his  solitude yet receptive to the impressions that came in.  He was being nothing, and all children are very good at this.   Yet, as the legend goes, he watched some insects struggling as their home in the earth was plowed up, and his heart went out to them.  He was very limited yet he didn’t feel limited.  He was nothing yet he felt everything.

A few days before the attacks in New York, I had interviewed neurologist and author Oliver Sacks in his office in the West Village.  The very day of the attacks, I had boarded the train to New York, awash in anxiety and self-pity because I had a deadline and because I was tired of doing these interviews with celebrity authors for a living.  After the lunch box incident, one story Sacks told me came back.

Sacks spent part of his boyhood in London during the Blitz.  He would come out of his house in the morning and often find that something familiar had disappeared over night.  A distant landmark would be gone, next the iron railings along the steps of his house, taken for the war effort.  This daily loss (and during the same period he lost his brother to psychosis) made him resolve to be a keen observer of life, which is what is he became as a neurologist and writer.  Suddenly what had just been an anecdote became a vital and practical bit information.  It was like having a plastic fork and disparaging it as a plastic fork and suddenly needing one and realizing the true value of it, the function over the form.

I told Alex about meeting Oliver Sacks, and about how he built a career around noticing what was missing. The Blitz was actually much harder than what happened in New York, Alex and I agreed.  The bombs dropped in London for 76 consecutive nights.  Over a million homes were damaged and destroyed, and 40,000 civilian lives lost in the U.K., half in London.  Yet it didn’t break their spirit.  And at least one kid learned that a life didn’t have to be based on things and places being solid never changing.  A person could observe, digging below the surface for deeper truths.  A person could be with change.

9 thoughts on “Being No Thing

  1. Hi Tracy

    “Man would like to be an egoist and cannot. This is the most striking characteristic of his wretchedness and the source of his greatness.” Simone Weil….Gravity and Grace

    Perhaps we are nothing but with the potential “to be” It isn’t bad to admit square one.

    1. Hi Nick,

      It can actually be quite liberating to admit we are nothing–but with great potential.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, T

  2. Hi Tracy. You said

    I didn’t want to dig for more facts but for more awareness, I realized. Where was the questioning and generosity that we had all shared right after the attacks?

    What or how much in us wants genuine awareness as opposed to feeling compassionate? I’ve come to believe at least intellectually that functioning awareness or the ability to live in the world with awareness can with rare exceptions only come from the results of “vertical thought.” Unfortunately I read less and less about it and more and more about wonderful thoughts and compassion.

    I consider myself lucky to still be able to read the ideas of the Work in relation to vertical thought such as this from Dr. Nicoll

    One part of ourselves wants esoteric awareness but the majority doesn’t. Without appreciation for vertical thought and acquiring a human perspective normal for the pursuit of vertical thought, it seems to me we continue to accept living as a plurality in opposition to ourselves. Expressions of awareness are more often than not just group appreciation of mutual pride and vanity expected to lead to a realistic vertical conscious human perspective.

    The Work recognizes the crisis in our world. Of Course Simone Weil did. Now I receive an update from the Franklin Merrell-Wolff Fellowship:

    The Fellowship’s first forum is a reflection of current world affairs, in which we find ourselves questioning the role of government in our lives. Wolff thought that it was important to engage in the political world, and in 1940, he began to advance a political agenda known as the “Vertical Thought Movement.” This forum is prompted by the following questions: Does Wolff’s agenda have any relevance to our current political scene? In particular, can this agenda help us chart the turbulent waters of today’s political world?

    It seems there is an undercurrent of people aware of the importance of the vertical thinking process. It seems the majority have lost respect for its importance in favor of wonderful thoughts considered spiritual, political solutions, and normal selfishness. This seems to assure that our reactions remain on one level guided by external influences rather than becoming capable of action normal for an acquired vertical conscious perspective.

    I’m fortunate to have those like Gurdjieff and Simone to kick my inner behind when I tend to want to forget the human condition as it exists within me and the absence of conscious vertical thought. The truth hurts. :)

    1. Hi Nick, I have a great deal of respect for Gurdjieff, and lately I’ve come to feel that one part of the vertical awareness and wisdom that he intentionally left out has to do with compassion. More and more, I realize that love and compassion are are part of the highest awareness–not as I know and express it, God knows. But God is Love, and compassion allows us to participate in that awareness.

      1. That has also been my experience Tracy. People IMO with real “understanding” do not teach conscious love by spreading on the feel good mayonnaise but instead as our potential. Of course Simone experienced the same which is why she isn’t considered wonderful.

        Normally what is considered compassion is actually expressions of romantic love: a self justifying attraction to an idol or idea. Many believe it as valuable because of its intensity but actually it is an energy that moves through us by imagination.

        If we are an reality living by imagination as either man #1,2, or 3, there is nothing surprising about this. Subjective love can lead to societal good and also harm. This hypocrisy is natural for the human condition.

        Objective love expressing itself as compassion is something that we can strive to consciously open to. But why bother if we underestimate compassion and already believe we are consciously compassionate?

        In ISM Gurdjieff explains on p, 157:

        “Many people say that they do not understand the moral side of your teaching said one of us.” “And others say your teaching has no morality at all.”

        “Of course not” said G. “People are very fond of talking about morality. But morality is merely self suggestion. What is necessary is conscience. We do not teach morality. We teach how to find conscience. People are not pleased when we say this. They say we have no love. Simply because we do not encourage weakness and hypocrisy but, on the contrary, take off all masks. He who desires truth will not speak of love or of Christianity.”

        This is attractive to someone like me. I sense a depth of real spiritual understanding that is unwilling to take advantage of others by telling them what they want to hear. Gurdjieff of course understood levels and qualities of love. Simone Weil did as well which is why she could be considered strange but never “cheap.” These people are rare but I believe their influence is vital for the human potential to sacrifice the satisfactions of imagination and opening to conscious awareness through the experience of objective conscience..

        You’ve probably read this but it is good to post it. Much food for thought.

      2. People with real understanding do have compassion. Real compassion. It cannot be separate from real understanding. It comes with the awakening of conscience. In Pali it comes from a word that means something like “the quivering of the heart” in the face of suffering. It is not romantic love or sentimentality. It can be taken as a very grave, penetrating kind of intelligence, a gaze from above that sees through the situations.

      3. “Love says ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says ‘I am nothing.‘ Between the two, my life flows,” taught Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.
        Self love asserts “I am God” Wisdom proves I am nothing. How do we tell the difference.? It requires humility but who has it?

        “Compassion directed toward oneself is true humility.” — Simone Weil

        It isn’t so easy discriminating between self love and self compassion. It is far more attractive to pass the buck and direct our attention to “saving the world.” Is saving the world possible without humility that admits the human condition?

  3. I really like this writing, Tracy, and am going to print it so that I can read it again. Many thanks for taking the time to articulate this lesson! I love the “change” that can come about with Practice…and to be with the change instead of in denial.
    I hope all is well in your domain.

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