Everything and Nothing

“Love says ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says ‘I am nothing.‘ Between the two, my life flows,” taught the great spiritual teacher Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.  How can this be? Spoiler alert: flow is key. Science and reason and our own subjective experience tell us we are limited. Yet we don’t always feel limited. In the face of staggering amounts of evidence to the contrary, we sometimes feel as if we are connected to everything. We feel as if we overflow the banks of our own small lives and embrace the whole known world and all that is unknown beyond. How can this be?

This is how. There is a power in us that that is not limited to us. I don’t mean this in any misty mystical sense. I mean “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” to quote the poet Dylan Thomas. I mean the force that creates and pervades life, and destroys it and creates it anew. We remember this great power at times in the spring, when everything is bursting into bloom. It can also creep up and surround us in times of heartbreak and loss, times when we must let go of our sense of specialness, times when we must, as the saying goes, let go or be dragged. Lying there in the wreckage of our plans and hopes, we may remember that we are alive, and more, that we are part of life.

The Buddha described the state called “dukkha,” which is usually translated as “suffering” but which is closer to “unreliable” and “stressful.” This pervasive state has 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 go, taught the Buddha. Nothing goes as smoothly as it does in our thoughts and dreams.  Reality is rough, and we have a way of making it roughing. We brood about ourselves. We keep doing the same things and expecting a different outcome. Little rough patches begin to bleed.

The way out is to be nothing and everything. There was a memory which guided him the Buddha on his way to waking up.  He remembered being a child, sitting alone under a rose apple tree, watching his father and the other men in the village plowing the fields in the spring.  He was withdrawn from the busy world of the adults, delighting in his solitude, being nobody and doing nothing, just hanging out open to the life around him. Left to their own devices, children can be very good at this.  As the legend goes, he watched some insects struggling as the earth was plowed up, and his heart went out to them. Nothing was too small. He was very limited, nothing really, just a little kid. But he didn’t feel limited.  He was one with everything.

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