On Nihilism

A theme has occurred to me repeatedly in the last weeks and months, and I would like to comment on it before the central insight of it slips from me.

It has occurred to me as I watch popular media. Kung Fu Panda. Man of Tai Chi. True Detective. Others, though these are worthwhile examples of where my head has been while contemplating this. Each, in their way, grapple with an existentialist question of being and nothingness. Perhaps they did not intend to, exactly – except for True Detective, which most certainly knows what its about – but there’s a common thread nonetheless.

Jung said “Where love rules, there is no will to power, and where power predominates, love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.” This is where I would like to start. Or, rather, end, though it is with it as inspiration that I begin.

There is nothing outside of this. This very world, this moment, my cold fingers as I type, the lingering illness, the frozen image of a movie on the TV screen where I paused it to write, the settling of sunflower seeds and dates in my stomach, the dog barking outside, the quiet-almost-unheard hum of the A/C, my thoughts as they cast about for the next word, the language as it writes with and without my consent. The recognition that “my” in all of the above is an unfounded ontological assumption that presumes a possible subject and object and a relationship between them that suggests hierarchy, even an authoritarian subjugation of soma to psyche, or psyche to ‘self’.

There is nothing outside of this. The study of Zen has presented this insight over and over. If there are gods, they are not other than as I am, made of this self-same stuff, whatever it may be. I am not a materialist-reductionist, I don’t mind if there are ‘modes’ of being that are not material, that do not lend themselves to a mode of inquiry based on reductionism and isolation, as powerful as those tools may sometimes prove to be. Frankly, my own proclivities would welcome the possibility of non-material modes of being. But whatever other modes there may be, they are still of this and nothing else. There is no external meaning. There is no sanctioning authority outside of all the rest. There is nothing watching us, judging us, keeping us. And wherever the Way may be as it moves through, there is still only this. The Source itself is beyond knowing and speaking of, but I cannot dive any deeper into it, plumb any depth of ontology and not come back with only this, as it is right here, now, my breath in and out.

There is nothing outside of this. There is a kind of nihilism in it, but there perhaps should be. We need a nihilism, a clarity that cuts through everything else we imagine, in order to see what is. Meaning is a shadow, a play of images. It is not real. That can be liberating or it can be terrifying and it’s perfectly alright if it’s both.

I mentioned three films above, and they run a pretty broad spectrum, but I think they make a compelling case that this is not an insight limited to philosophical speculation. Tai Long in Kung Fu Panda, Donaka Mark in Man of Tai Chi, and Rust in True Detective each, in their way, have recognize this kind of nihilism. They have a kind of freedom. They have seen that there is no meaning, that there are no rules, nothing outside of just us, just here, right now. Nothing to judge, no one to condemn us. That there is no standard for morality, for good and evil, no right and wrong, no better and worse. In the two kung fu movies, “power” becomes the obvious marker then – might making right. Rust goes in a different direction, seeing a kind of fatedness to it all, a Nietzschean eternal return, an inescapability, “power” here perhaps a will to power, but in a sense of the simple and mindless energetic-mechanics of an impersonal and dispassionate universe playing themselves out over and over and over again.

I will return to Love, but I want to spend moments longer with nihilism.

I think the worst possible thing we can do is to attempt to refute this nihilism, this recognition of emptiness. It grabs hold and shakes us soundly – and if it does not, we have not really stared closely into the dark – because there is an undeniable reverberation of reality about it. In our moments of clarity, our eyes open, and we too see the world as it is – bare of other imaginations, meanings, layers of hope and dread, of desire and revulsion. Clarity requires that we embrace this nihilism. There is nothing outside of this. The world is empty of meaning that transcends the moment to which the meaning is inextricably bound. Truths are never abstract and universal, only fragmented, momentary, and contingent. We see both the fractal, infinite nature of the world and its cracked-discordant-brokenness at once. If there is a pattern we are locked in and always have been, if there is no pattern then we are without purpose, plan, or hope. Both, perhaps, are true at their edges, but likely something far stranger beyond the boundaries of the thoughts that my brain – by accident of genetics, physiology, lifestyle, education, and even very likely its constraint to the biological parameters of life on this kind of planet, around this kind of star – is capable of.

Delusion is all that can result from an attempt to cling to a hope for meaning to the world that transcends the this-ness of the world. Meaning, where it exists, arises from the world itself in the way that heat arises from fire – a part of it, due to it, and dependent on it, fading when the fire fades. And with a rejection of meaning as something that guides the world from outside, that is not part of the world and thereby subject to manipulation and modification just the same as all else, it becomes implausible to look to meaning as a hope for ‘sense’ in the universe. The ontological ground of the universe is itself in flux, and what was true before is not true in the next moment, not by the same standards, as that ontological ground is itself not outside of this-ness. Clarity means an acknowledgement of a rejection of superfluous transcendental meaning, a kind of nihilism to see what is.

It is only by saying yes to the clarity of a kind of nihilistic-emptiness that Love can ever fully open. Only when we struggle to hold on to meaning does the absence of meaning seem so stark and terrifying to us. Only when we expect order do we recoil from chaos. I can look at the emptiness of the universe, the emptiness of the world, its voidness of meaning, and say “yes” to it, and find in my heart compassion for those who suffer, to find wonder and mystery in the brokenness and uncertainty of the world around me. If there is a “God” to whom I could pray, it would be only this – the opening of Love not despite, but because, of the clarity of emptiness around us.

Love is a word far too loaded with religious, political, affective, and flagrantly sentimental values to ever mean what I would like for it to mean here. So let me begin again.

When I was in a ceremonial house in Peru, I saw a vision of a man holding a gun, anger in his eyes, as he willfully pulled the trigger and gunned down a little girl. She was already dirty, standing beside a mound of earth, her little skirt ragged, her shirt torn, as unidentifiable as her face, all streaked with filth. He fired, and she fell. And all around them both, without differentiation, I could see like it was particles of energy, what I would call Love, as if it surrounded, infused, and was the stuff of both. Their possibility. It was the earth linking their feet, the matte black of the gun, the burnt smell in the air, the blood in her veins as she fell to the ground, already forgotten, the anger in his eyes as he ceased to see her, had never seen her. There was Love, something that had never judged either of them, had never considered them as separate at all, had never known their shape as anything other than itself, that would never understand the scene as anything other than something to be gently held, a life, a death, a gunshot, the embrace of the earth as it took in the little slain form. This Love did not explain itself, did not enter a world of morality or meaning. It did not refute emptiness. It did not deny suffering, disease, death. It looked at them, it was them, and it was with them. This is the Love I mean, when I say that Love opens up, looks in the face of emptiness. Love was already with emptiness when we conceived of it after having wished for fullness, for meaning. Emptiness never existed either, it was just another, final layer of meaning that we had waiting after we had stripped away every other word and delusion the world had been painted with.

For me this is the Bodhisattva ideal. Love is not a response to the deviation of “power” as it presents itself as the only worthy tool in an empty world. Love was before power, and has no need to deny it, to struggle with it. Power screams into the dark that there is nothing, all is void, and only by it can anything move or become. Love nods, but knows power only as energy, a force that acts on other forces, without the moral component that power simultaneously denies but depends on, and wishes so wholly to affirm.

I had a dream a few weeks ago, where a torch was lit in my heart. Or, I was given a torch, and it was the opening of my heart, as it entered my chest. It was both at the same time, and it happened at the self-same moment that I made a choice for my heart to be open. It was a gift and a decision at the same time. There was no difference between subject and object, or, rather, there was simultaneously a recognition of a subject/object and the impossibility of that separation, and a decision and a gift could coincide at precisely the same moment. The torch was the decision/gift of compassion, or Love, however phrased or understood.

To be with emptiness, to embrace the clarity of nihilism, and to open to Love – to reach across with compassion and not down with magnanimity is the only ‘religion’ I can understand for myself. I am the very stuff of every other. If there is no meaning outside of this, then we are not “going” anywhere. There is nowhere else to be, no story to finish, no ideal to make real. What then is there but the suffering of those around us, the fears and uncertainties that keep us divided, deluded? We could control them with Power. There is no one to tell us no. It is not even “wrong”, as there is no standard, no authority to judge nor to which we must bow. But to what end? What story do we tell with power, what ideal do we realize, what hope do we express that is not ultimately a delusion, one that will wind its way to nothing, to still more emptiness?

Love as I understand it is not a refutation of chaos and suffering. Love is not an answer, as if to say “yes, there is suffering, but Love makes up for this”, and to leave the theodicy of it with a simplistic and trite response. It may well be that there are not answers, not in the way we would like, to the questions we want solved. Buddha describes a man shot with an arrow, who before he will allow it to be taken from his body and his wound treated, requires that someone describe to him who shot the arrow and who his family was, what the bow looked like and from what kind of tree the wood was taken, the type of metal in the arrowhead, etc. Perhaps our demand for meaning is, itself, as one of these questions. And perhaps Love is withdrawing the arrow and tending the wound.