Discussing Nihilism on Twitter (#973)

I received a question on my Twitter feed this morning that asked “What is the difference between the 3 Principles and nihilism?”

My quick, 140 character response was simple:

Nihilism points to emptiness and fills it with dread; we point to emptiness and fill it with hope.

To better understand what I mean by “emptiness”, consider the example of “the University” given by the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his book The Concept of Mind:

A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks ‘But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your University.’

So where is the University really?

Is it in:

a. The buildings and grounds?
b. The students and professors?
c. The interplay between them?
d. The spirit of education that infuses them all with “university-like” qualities?
e. All (or none) of the above

Substitute “the Self” for “the University”? and you have the paradox at the heart of all attempts at self-improvement – where is this separate “Self” that we are trying to improve?

Is it in:

a. Our mind and body?
b. Our thoughts and emotions?
c. Our behaviors?
d. The spirit which animates us – what Ryle called “the ghost in the machine”?
e. All (or none) of the above

It seems to me that there is no one “thing” which can be pointed to as “the University”, even though we can identify its many parts; similarly, there is no one “separate self” to be improved.

In the midst of my early attempts at spiritual spelunking, I read in numerous texts that “the self” was like an onion. As an experiment, I bought an actual onion from my local green grocer, took it to Hyde park, and tried to peel away the layers to see what lay at its core.

To my initial disappointment, there was no core – even the smallest part of the center could be peeled away as just another skin. This is the nihilistic view of the self – that because there is nothing but emptiness at our core, there is no meaning, purpose, or value to life.

But a few moments later I had a “kensho” experience – a momentary glimpse of the vastness of our true nature. For the nothingness at the core of the onion which had seemed so empty a moment before was suddenly filled with everything – the entire park, the city of London, and the universe beyond. From nothing came everything; from emptiness came a fullness of feeling that I can remember to this day.

And this is the good news about emptiness. Just as we do not need to be able to find the “real” University in order to benefit from its apparent existence, we do not need to pump up the separate self in order to live a full and rich and meaningful life. You are nothing, but you are also everything – and in that paradox is the secret to happiness and a life well-lived.

With all my love,

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