NOTHING ALMOST SEES MIRACLES!
SELF & NO-SELF IN PSYCHOLOGY & RELIGION
 
 
David Miller first gave this lecture as the fourth annual Jim Klee Forum lecture at West Georgia College on May 17, 1993.  Other versions of the essay's argument have been presented to Jung groups in Atlanta, Buffalo, and Montreal, as well as to classes at the Jung Institute in Zurich and at Pacifica Graduate Institute.  A print version of the essay appeared in The Journal of the Psychology of Religion, 4-5 (1995-1996): 1-26.

Introduction

William Shakespeare has given to the European imagination one of the strongest articulations of the problem of self and no-self. The locus classicus is surely King Lear. "Speak," demands Lear apropos his favorite daughter's affection. "Nothing," replies Cordelia, knowing that silence often speaks love more strongly than words. "Nothing?" queries the King. "Nothing, my Lord," says the daughter, to which the father replies in desperation: "Nothing will come of Nothing" (I.i.86-90).

The feeling mimes conventional wisdom. Ex nihilo nihil fit: nothing can be made of nothing. But the wisdom of foolishness knows better, as does the love of the daughter. When Lear reports to his Fool that Cordelia said ". . . nothing," the Fool responds: "Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?" Lear--not getting the point, a point that it will take the whole tragedy of his madness to understand--repeats the natural attitude: "Why, no, Boy; nothing can be made out of nothing" (I.iv.134-39).

Nor was the tragedy of Lear its author's only stress upon the importance of the experience of nothingness. The poet used the term "nothing" 503 times in 36 plays. Typical is the case of King Richard II. Bushy says,

    Madam, your Majesty is much too sad.
    You promis'd, when you parted with the King,
    To lay aside life-harming heaviness
    And entertain a cheerful disposition.
    The Queen tries to explain her depression.
    To please the King, I did; to please myself,
    I cannot do it. Yet I know no cause
    Why I should welcome such a guest as grief
    Save bidding farewell to so sweet a guest
    As my sweet Richard. Yet again, methinks
    Some unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune's womb,
    Is coming towards me, and my inward soul
    With nothing trembles. At something it grieves
    More than with parting from my lord the King.
 
Bushy tries to help with this nothing that is not a some-thing and has no object.

    Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
    Which shows like grief itself, but is not so . . . .

But the Queen thinks that her experience of nothingness is more complex. She says:

    It may be so; but yet my inward soul
    Persuades me it is otherwise . . . .
    For nothing hath begot my something grief,
    Or something hath the nothing that I grieve.
    'Tis in reversion that I do possess;
    But what it is that is not yet known what,
    I cannot name. 'Tis nameless woe, I wot (II.ii. 1-15, 26-29, 36-40).
 
Three centuries later we seem no more able to handle the "self" that experiences itself as no-self. We have jargon, to be sure: "free-floating depression," "chronic fatigue syndrome," "low self-esteem," and so on, but the fact is that the presenting complaints these phrases mean to name is in our day epidemic and seems resistant to the treatment that one of Freud's patients called "the talking cure." We know well the symptoms. "My life has been worth nothing." "My marriage (or work) is empty." "Nothing has value or meaning." "I feel inadequate." "It's hopeless." Sometimes the psyche today seems like the economy and computers: when you need it, it is "down." As David Loy has written recently: "We experience a deep sense of lack as the feeling that something is wrong with me. (1992: 152)

Attempts have been made to give psychological explanation to this epidemic.

It has been called narcissistic character disorder, a core-self crisis or trauma, an absence of self-sense ( e. g., Heinz Kohut and Nathan Schwartz-Salant). Alfred Adler attributed the condition to a fundamental and universal inferiority complex that he thought is more basic than sexual instincts and complexes. C. G. Jung called it negative inflation:

The initial stage of personal infantilism presents the picture of an"abandoned" or "misunderstood" and unjustly treated child with overweening pretensions. The epiphany of the hero (the second identification) shows itself in a corresponding inflation: the colossal pretension grows into a conviction that one is something extraordinary, or else the impossibility of the pretension ever being fulfilled only proves ones own inferiority, which is favourable to the heroic sufferer (a negative inflation). In spite of their contradictions, both forms are identical, because megalomania is balanced by unconscious compensatory inferiority and conscious inferiority by unconscious megalomania (you never get one without the other) (CW 9.ii.114; 9.i.304). These explanations may be somewhat helpful, yet the symptoms are nonetheless resistant in the face of such theoretical understandings. Two sorts of problems may account for the poor prognosis in the case of this epidemic. The problems are psychological and theological.

The psychological problem has to do with a theoretical fantasy regarding depression as a problem to be solved (see Loy, above). A sampling of statements by Jung regarding neurosis will begin to serve to indicate why there is difficulty in this fantasy:

. . . no one has ever thought of seeing in the neurosis an attempt at healing, or, consequentially, of attributing to the neurotic functions a quite special teleological significance . . . . Psychoanalysis does not conceive the neurosis as anti-natural and in itself pathological, but as having a meaning and a purpose (CW 4.415).                     . . . [neuroses] are attempts at a new synthesis of life (CW 7.67).
 
                    A neurosis is by no means a negative thing; it is also something positive. ...hidden in the neurosis is a
                    still undeveloped personality, a precious fragment of the psyche lacking which a man is condemned to
                    resignation bitterness and everything else that is hostile to life (CW 10.355). Only if we understand and accept the neurosis as our truest and most precious possession can we be sure of avoiding stagnation and of not succumbing to rigidity and neurotic subterfuge. In the neurosis is hidden one's worst enemy and best friend. One cannot rate it too highly, unless of course fate has made one hostile to life. There are always deserters, but they have nothing to say to us, nor we to them (CW 10.359).

We should not try to "get rid" of a neurosis, but rather to experience what it means, what it has to teach, what its purpose is. We should even learn to be thankful for it, otherwise we pass it by and miss the opportunity of getting to know ourselves as we really are. A neurosis is truly removed only when it has removed the false attitude of the ego. We do not cure it--it cures us. A man is ill, but the illness is nature's attempt to heal him (CW 10.361).

                    He had the great advantage of being neurotic (CW 11.74). The ultimate cause of a neurosis is something positive which needs to be safeguarded for the patient; otherwise he suffers a psychic loss, and the result of the treatment is at best a defective cure (CW 16.564). I have cited these comments at length in order to indicate that they are not isolated or idiosyncratic and because they represent a perspective that is very much against the grain of the present natural attitude in our mental health culture.

If for the moment we intentionally overlook distinctions between neuroses and characterological disorders of other sorts, then together Jung's statements imply that conventional psychological explanations of the experience of nothingness obscure a fundamental depth psychological insight. By assuming that low self-esteem is a problem to be solved, the perspectives of these explanations do not entertain the possibility that the psyche is a compensatory, autonomous, self-regulating system. The explanations thus miss the possibility of the insight of Lear's Fool and Richard's Queen that nothingness may have a purpose.

But there is also potentially a second difficulty with the problem-orientation of a sense of emptiness. This second matter is theological, but it may well have very practical therapeutic significance. The majority of mystical theologies in the world's religious traditions hold as a spiritual goal precisely the nothingness and emptiness about which those who suffer today complain. The spiritual goal in these religious traditions is spoken of in rhetoric that suggests that one not aspire to achieve self-sense, self-hood, or identity, but that one precisely loose these in favor of a sense of no-self. How can this be? How can it be that what is experienced as a psychological problem is precisely the religious solution to the very same problem of selfhood? Is this merely a semantic accident, a sort of slippage of language, so that in fact there are really different "nothings"? Before turning to the psychological questions, I will first treat the theological issue; then I will return to the question of what this symptom of nothingness--when and if it strikes--wants.

The No-Self of Religion

It is customary to think that the goal of emptiness is characteristic of the religions of Asia, or at least of the mystical practices of those religious traditions. To be sure, this is not altogether a false notion. Examples from Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism will make the point.

In The Upanishads there is a well-known passage in which a spiritual teacher responds to a student's question concerning the nature of the "self" by asking the student to bring a glass of water and to stir some salt into it. On tasting the water the student reports that it tastes salty, but that he can see nothing in the water. At which point the teacher says: Tat tvam asi, "thou art that," which is tantamount to observing that the "self" is the nothing-- the no-thing--within (in Mascaró 1965: 117-18). The "self" is thus neti . . . neti . . . , "neither this nor that," that is, neither this some-thing nor that some-thing.

This perspective, however, is not only to be found in the esoteric traditions within Hinduism. It also is found in sources of popular piety, as in the case of The Bhagavad Gita. There one finds Arjuna being instructed by Lord Krishna in the nature of nirvana, the goal of piety. Nirvana, Krishna says, is "hoping for nothing, desiring nothing" (in Mascaró 1962: 70). Presumably this includes neither hoping nor desiring "self." Indeed, by the time of Nagarjuna (2nd C CE), the "self," atman, is described precisely as "no-self," anatman/anatta (Nagarjuna 1967). In his commentary on the Brahma Sutra, Sankara refers to a Upanishad that has since become lost. Bahva, asked by Baskali to expound Brahman, kept silent. The student prayed, "Teach me, Sir." But the teacher remained silent. When asked by the student a second and a third time, the teacher said, "I am teaching, but you do not follow. The self is silence" (in Coward and Foshay 1992: 220).

Similar testimony is to be found in Chinese religion. There is the famous 11th poem of The Tao Te Ching, which may date from the fourth century BCE.

Thirty spokes share one hub. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose at hand and you have the use of the cart. Knead clay to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose at hand and you have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose at hand and you have the use of the house. What we gain is something, yet it is by virtue of nothing that it can be put to use (Lao Tzu 1963: 31). Thus, the author of this classic text writes: "I do my utmost to attain emptiness" (Lao Tzu 1963: 72).

In the same tradition of Taoism, Chuang Tzu relates the following parable:

    The Yellow Emperor went wandering
    To the north of the Red Water
    To the Kwan Lun Mountain.
    He looked around
    Over the edge of the world.
    On the way home
    He lost his night colored pearl.
    He sent out Science to seek his pearl, and got nothing!
    He sent out Analysis to look for his pearl, and got nothing!
    He sent out Logic to find his pearl, and got nothing!
    Then he asked nothingness, and nothingness had it.
    The Yellow Emperor said:
    Strange, indeed; nothingness
    Who was not sent
    Who did no work to find it
    Had the night colored pearl" (in Merton 1969: 74).

If Indian and Chinese traditions possess many rich resources pointing to a perspective of no-self, the Zen ideal of dynamic self-emptying in Japanese spirituality insists centrally on the nothingness of so-called "self." The koans of adepts' questions and roshis' responses are well-known and delightful:

    "Who or What am I?" "Search for your self from the top of your head down to your bottom. No matter how hard you
    search, you'll never be able to grasp it. That is who you are." (Ikkyu, 15th C, in Suzuki 1955: 111).

    "What is it that makes up the self?" "What do you want from me." "If I don't ask, how will I find the solution?" "Did
    you ever lose it?" (Sekito, 8th C, in Suzuki 1955: 109).

    "What is my self?" "What makes you ask?" (Yentoko of Yentsuin-ji, in Suzuki 1955: 110).

    "What is my self?" "You are putting frost on top of snow." (Tokuichi of Ryuge-ji, in Suzuki 1955: 110).

It has been argued by some Western psychologists and religionists that the dynamic self-emptying of the practice of Zen refers, not to the emptying of what in Occidental psychology is called the "self," but rather to what is called by the name "ego." However, not all Zen philosophers are in agreement with this attempt to soften the radically deconstructive aspect of Zen thought for psychological theory. For example, the comparative philosopher, Toshihiko Izutsu, speaking at Hunter College in New York City in 1975, ironically under the sponsorship of the C. G. Jung Foundation of New York, said at the outset of his presentation that there was a problem in speaking forthrightly about Zen in a Jungian context. The problem is that Zen philosophy asserts that there is no difference between ego and self. Izutsu said: "One enters into the world of Zen only when one realizes that his [or her] own I has turned into an existential question mark" (1977: 65). This refers to the so-called "self" as much as to the so-called "ego." Masao Abe, the Zen philosopher of religion, has put the matter even more strongly, saying that the notion of "self" itself leads to "selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill will, conceit, pride, egoism . . . .all the evil in the world" (1992: 57-58).

These are harsh words. Indeed, this matter of questing for self or for no-self is not simple. The difficulty was demonstrated when Hisamatsu Sin'ichi, a Zennist of the Kyoto School, went on 16 May, 1958, to the home of C. G. Jung to discuss with the depth psychologist whether or not the issue of seeking no-self in Zen and seeking self in the Jungian process of individuation was a semantic or a real difference. As Masao Abe reports, their meeting was a disaster, a judgment apparently shared by Jung himself, and surely by the guardians of his estate (see Abe 1992: 61n6). One wonders whether the lack of understanding between these two seminal thinkers may not have lead to Jung's outlandish statements: "My attitude toward their [Oriental] philosophy is irreverent" (CW 13.74). "Eastern Occultism . . . is a mist of words and ideas that could never have originated in European brains and can never profitably be grafted on them." (CW 13.3).

But the difficulty is not explicable on the basis of a putative split between East and West because the same view of the "self" as no-self is found as much in Occidental spirituality as in Oriental. The idea does exist in European brains, Jung to the contrary notwithstanding, and it seems to have grown there fruitfully without benefit of grafting. This is why it is only a partial truth to say that the goal of self-emptiness is characteristic of the religions of Asia.

In the tradition of mystical Judaism, for example, the Kabbalistic Zohar speaks of the unspeakable Divine by the image of sefiroth, and it declares that the ontological status of this is that of en sof, which is to say "no-thing." Adam Kadmon, according to a representative text in this tradition, is the archetypal human figure within whom "God dwells [as] in the depths of nothingness" which each of us is (see Scholem 1969: 102). "When the Zaddik [the righteous person] cleaves to naught," says the Kadishat ha-Levi, "and [then] annihilated, then [alone] he worships the Creator . . . since no division of . . . attributes is discernible there at all . . . . Moses was constantly cleaving to the naught" (in Idel 1988: 72).

There is this apophatic side to the Christian tradition as well. Abe notes parallels to Zen in Christianity (1991: 63-7). For example, compare the saying of Lin-chi lu-- "If you encounter a Buddha, kill the Buddha; . . . if you encounter mother or father, kill mother or father; if you encounter a relative, kill the relative--only in this way can you attain liberation and disentanglement from all things, thereby becoming completely unfettered and free"--with the saying attributed to Jesus in Luke 14:26--"If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also--he cannot be my disciple" (cf. Lk. 18.29,30). There is also the hymn of kenosis in Philippians 2:5-7, a testimony to "emptiness," as well as the sayings by St. Paul regarding the crucifixion of the "self" for the sake of Christ (Gal. 2.20, II Cor. 4.10, and Gal. 3.27, II Cor. 3.18). Perhaps most compelling are Jesus's own words--"For whoever would save his life [ten psuchen] will lose it; and whoever loses his life [ten psuchen] . . . will save it" (Mk. 8.35; Mt. 16.25; Lk. 9.24; Jn. 12.25), words which are especially striking when one notes that the Greek text of the New Testament has the word psyche, meaning "soul" or "self" where the usual translation into English gives "life." It would seem that the religious goal of not seeking the "self" or some self-esteem or self-identity, but of giving it up and letting-go of the notion of selfhood altogether, is as much a part of Judaism as of Hinduism, of Christianity as of Buddhism.

Those who have stressed this apophatic side of the Christian tradition have not been much propagated. Yet the names are well-known: Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Dionysius the Areopagite, John of the Cross, Jacob Boehme and Meister Eckhart, to name only a few. Typical is Eckhart's sermon, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," and the saying of Angelus Silesius (17th C): "No life is more vital than that from which the death of self takes wing. . . .The emptier I do become, the more delivered from me, the better I understand God's liberty. . . . God is sheer nothingness, whatever else he be, he gave it that it might be found in me. . . . When I am neither you nor me, then I begin to be aware of God--as nothingness. . . . To become nothing is to become God [nichts werden ist Gott werden]; nothing becomes what is before: if you do not become nothing, never will be you born of eternal light" (1985: 122, 130, 140). Compare this with the words of Marguerite of Porete : "And so such a soul, having become nothing, possesses all and yet possesses nought, wishes all and wishes nothing, she knows everything and knows nought" (in Joy 1992: 256).

That this apophatic religious perspective stands in positive relation to the psychological experience of emptiness is a case that has been argued by Roman Catholic theologian, Michael Novak, in his book, The Experience of Nothingness. "The experience of nothingness," Novak writes, "is an incomparably trustful starting place for ethical inquiry. It is a vaccine against the lies upon which every civilization is built . . . . In its dark light, nothing is beyond questioning, sacred immobile . . . . The experience of nothingness arms us against our own puritanism, our addiction to perfection, and our despair at not being free (1970: 1, 115, 117)

Even in Islam, or at least in the Sufi version of that tradition, one finds similar testimony to the virtue of no-self. It is especially prominent in that portion of Sufism given to ecstatic trance-dancing. The spiritual intoxication of the release from "self" has the iconoclastic function and purpose of never mistaking "self" or "spirit" with Allah. Such would, of course, be an unforgivable idolatry. This is the same psycho-theological point as that argued by Novak.

The testimony is overwhelming and powerful. The question remains whether psychology and religion are really opposed to each other on this matter--as Jung's disastrous misunderstanding with Shin'ichi-roshi in fact seems to indicate.

The Self of Psychology

Let us stay with Jung as example. In spite of Jung's talk about "occultism" and "irreverence" in relation to Asian religious traditions, and in spite of the Shin'ichi visit, Jung in fact talks at length about figures such as Eckhart and Lao Tzu, and his interest in them is precisely psychological, and positively so. When speaking about such persons and their thought, whether Oriental or Occidental, Jung asserts that the use of the term "nothing" means "does not appear in the world of senses," and therefore that the term is what from a Kantian point of view would be thought of as a borderline or boundary concept (CW 8.920f). In fact, for Jung, "self" is itself a borderline concept. "Since we cannot possibly know the boundaries of something unknown to us," Jung says, "it follows that we are not in a position to set bounds to the self" (CW 12.247). This means that for Jung the so-called "self" is, as he says, a "postulate" (CW 9.ii.124). "Nothing is known regarding the self because it is a transcendental hypothesis," says Jung (CW 7.405). To Miguel Serrano, Jung said: "So far I have found no stable or definite center in the unconscious, and I don't believe such a center exists. I believe that the thing I call the self is an ideal center . . . a dream of totality" (in Serrano 1966:50), and Jung then goes on to compare his notion of the "self" with notions of "no-self" or Asian religious traditions.

For Jung, to say that "self" is a borderline concept means that all discourse concerning the so-called "self " is "hypothetical" (CW 11.46), because in psychological discourse the self is both the subject speaking and the object of the speech (CW 14.501, 503, 505; 18.277, 279). Jung goes so far as to acknowledge that all psychological theory is in fact "confession" (CW 15.132a; cf. 3.393, 395, 397; 18.275), and that therefore there can never be a claim by any psychology to universal validity (CW 3.406; 6.8-10). Jung utilizes the saying of alchemy, ignotium per ignotius, "the unknown by the more unknown" (CW 17.162), to describe the function of psychological explanation. For Jung, the so-called "self," which is in principle unknown and unknowable, is described by concepts which have hypothetical status only.

Jung was definite about this. He spoke of the impossibility of knowledge of archetypes (CW 11.460), of "ego" (CW 18.10), and of the "unconscious." Concerning the latter, he wrote: "The concept of the unconscious posits nothing, it designates my unknowing" (1973: 1.411; cf, CW 18.11; 11.64; 12.247; 12.20).

The implication of Jung's post-Kantian observations about the epistemic status of psychological theory has important implication for therapy or, as Jung called it, "individuation," that is, the becoming of "self." The implication is that to become "self" is to become nothing, that is, no-thing, not some-thing. Where "ego" is, there let "self" be, means (since the notion of "self" does not have a definite empirical referent) let nothing be. The integration of "self" into "ego's" life is the integration of nothingness, just like the people in religions say.

This is indeed what Jung did say: "If you will contemplate [your nothingness], your lack of fantasy, [lack] of inspiration, and [lack] of inner aliveness which you feel as sheer stagnation and a barren wilderness, and impregnate it with the interest born of alarm at your inner death, then something can take shape in you, for your inner emptiness conceals just as great a fullness, if you allow it to penetrate into you" (CW 14.190). "The experience of the self," Jung wrote late in his life, "is always a defeat for the ego" (CW 14.778); that is, it is a defeat for "ego's" sense that the "self" is some-thing, is something, is something else. Jung put this practical therapeutic matter in a stunning way during a seminar on Kundalini yoga. "Individuation is not that you become an ego; you would then be an individualist. An individualist is a person who did not succeed at individuating; such a one is a philosophically distilled egotist . . . . Individuating is becoming that which is not the ego, and that is very strange. Nobody understands what the self is, because the self is just what you are not . . . if you function through your self, you are not yourself--that is what you feel . . . as if you were a stranger" (1975:31).

The theoretical and therapeutic implication of this perspectival shift is cognitive humility. This in fact was the effect of the theory on Jung's life. So, at the end of the autobiography, he says: "There is nothing I am quite sure about. I have no definite convictions--not about anything really . . . . When Lao Tzu says: 'All are clear, I alone am clouded,' he is expressing what I feel in advanced old age" (1965: 358-59). When he was 78 years old, Jung wrote to Maud Oakes something similar: "I don't know who I am. I am the last person to tell you who I am . . . . I'm nothing. I'm an old man. I no longer lie. Once perhaps I had to, as a young scientist without a reputation. Now I no longer lie. What I have to say is so simple that it is hard to understand" (in Oakes 1987: 15).

As one follows Jung's argument in its philosophical depth and epistemological sophistication, one begins to sense that the "self" of (Jung's) depth psychology has the same ontological status as the desubstantialized and deconstructed notion of the "no-self" in the apophatic religious traditions. "Self" is no-self.

Deep Calls Out To Deep

But if depth psychology's "self" is tantamount to religion's "no-self," then there are ramifications for those in the helping professions who are confronted with persons questing for what they take to be self, for identity, for self-esteem, for a sense of well being of the "I." Indeed, there are implications for the epidemic depression with which we are today confronted. These implications return us to the question of what the depression wants, what its purpose or telos is.

First, in the light of the epistemological and theological discussion above, it is now possible to observe that the neurosis which presents itself as a feeling of nothingness is not the "nothingness" about which the religious traditions are speaking. The psychological symptom presents itself in the complaint of the person suffering as something, some-thing negative. Though it feels like nothing, it is not yet deeply and truly nothing. It is still something. Martin Heidegger spoke about this confusion in philosophical discourse, saying that "he who speaks of nothing does not know what he is doing. In speaking of nothing, he makes it into something . . . . Authentic speaking about nothing always remains extraordinary" (1961: 19, 22). The philosophical problem lies in the implicit assumption that nothing has being, not noticing that it is already an onto-theological category-mistake to imagine that being is itself something rather than no-thing. This sort of metaphysics of presencing has difficulty in seeing that nothing is not the being of non-being. Nothing is not being nor (the presence of) non-being. Yet, this is just what one who suffers imagines unwittingly. The so-called "ego's" experience of so-called "nothingness" is not yet truly no-thing.

But this leaves a conundrum. If the experience is not nothing, why then does it present itself as if it were nothing. Why do I say I am nothing when I am not, when I am in fact full of negative something? Why do I say that my life is empty, when in fact it is full of what seems substantial darkness? What is the teleology of this error, this mistaken utterance? What is the psyche's autonomous "purpose" in this "self-presentation"?

Since, in the dark night of the religious soul, this same error is also often made, perhaps there is a clue to the psychological utterance in the apophatic spiritual tradition. Jacques Derrida has called attention to the raison of this psychic irrationality in the writings of Angelus Silesius where the latter speaks of two abysses. One abyss is the nothingness that "I" think that "I" feel (which is not yet nothing, but a negative something). The other is a "deeper no-thing." And Silesius says: "One abyss calls to another [ein Abgrund rufft den andern]--the abyss of my spirit always invokes with cries the abyss of God--say which may be deeper?" (in Derrida 1992: 315). The mystic is alluding to sayings in the Psalms: "Him who has made the dark his hiding place" (Psalm 18:1), and "deep calls unto deep." (Ps 42.7, cf. Job 11.7; I Co. 2.10). The point is that my experience of so-called "nothingness" may be an initiation into the deeper no-thingness which apophatic religious experience calls (for lack of a word) "God." It is an invitation to deepen what the "I" takes to be the "nothingness," to go into it more thoroughly rather than to cure it or to attempt (vainly) to be rid of it.

Could it be that the epidemic psychological depression in North America may be a concealed wish for spirituality, but not spirituality in the sense of conventional positive, literalistic religion, nor in the sense of a New Age spiritual transcendence of darkness? Could it be that the malaise so many feel really wants not to be gotten rid of, not healed, but deepened and, like the neurosis, "accepted as our truest and most precious possession." It is our worst enemy only because it turns deep nothing into something. Due to a wrong or partial attitude of "ego's" psychologistic perspective, the so-called "nothingness" is felt as nihilistic and self-destructive only because it is destructive of the "self" which is no-self, replacing it with a fantasy of the "self" as some-thing, worth something, full of itself, attached to itself, i.e., to so-called "ego," to "I."

This possibility brings back to mind Jung's description of neuroses (see above). It implies that our low self-esteem, our sense of victimage, our free-floating depression, our sense of worthlessness and hopelessness might be experienced as "positive," leading to "a new synthesis," "purposeful," "a precious possession," and even our "best friend."

If this were so, then Prozac, New Age remedies, cocaine, martini lunches, counselling, meditation, therapy, religious practice, support and recovery groups, self-help literature--all, if they imagine themselves to be to the purpose of "curing" depression and low self- esteem, may well be not only ill advised, but even counter-productive, themselves participant in the fantasy and perspectival context which constitute and provoke the symptoms these are designed to remove. That is, if I am taught to value my "self," then when I cannot feel that way, when I cannot live up to that "ego-ideal," I will feel "down"--ashamed, guilty, anxious. The refusal of nothing, the "avoiding the void" (Loy 1992), is taught early. We turn on the light when the child cries in the dark. The dark is thereby valenced as some-thing to be rid of. The point of the deep dark nothingness is to correct it, cure it, fix it, light it up. But what if it is not we who cure it, but--as Jung says--it that cures us of a debilitating perspective.

This, for example, seems to be the view of the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who said: "The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things." Indeed, the poets seem to know the psychological teleology of authentic nothingness. For example, Rilke wrote in The Duino Elegies: ...das Leere in jene Schwingung geriet, die uns jetzt hinreisst und tröstet und hilft, "...emptiness first felt the vibration that now charms us and comforts and helps" (1963: 26, 27). Wallace Stevens' "Snowman" is also to the point:

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine trees crusted with snow;
    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The Spruces rough in the distant glitter
    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,
    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place
    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and
    The nothing that is (1975: 9-10).

Christopher Fry expressed a similar sensibility in The Lady's Not For Burning:

    Nothing can be seen
    In the thistle-down, but the rough-head thistle comes.
    Rest in that riddle. I can pass to you
    Generations of roses in this wrinkled berry.
    There: now you hold in your hand a race
    Of summer gardens, it lies under centuries
    Of petals. What is not, you have in your palm.
    Rest in the riddle, rest. Why not? (1950: 55).

The Japanese poet, Saigyo, puts it directly:

    So, then, it's the one
    Who has thrown his self away
    Who is thought the loser?
    But he who cannot lose self
    Is the one who has really lost (1978: 89).

 And, of course, there is Shakespeare, with whom we began. After Richard II has resigned the crown, he says:

    And straight [I] am nothing. But whate'er I be,
    Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
    With nothing shall be pleas'd till he be eas'd
    With being nothing" (V.v.37-41).

Eased with nothing! Imagine that! No wonder that in that other great drama of the deepening of nothing, King Lear, Kent says :

    Nothing almost sees miracles! (II.2.165)

 

Notes
 

 

 

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