I must reduce myself to zero. So long as a man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him.
– Mahatma Gandhi
Enter the universe. Look around. If it’s a typical space, a space that’s on average the same as all the others, then it’s black, inky, empty and without form. It is devoid of life or rock or much heat. It seems infinite and stretches for lightyears in every direction. It is as close to nothingness as it comes.
How does it sound? Scary? Intriguing? Stressful, in a Gravity, Sandra Bullock, uncut-camera kind of way?
It seems that nothingness so often comes with a concern related to loneliness. As though the two were the same. Nothingness, the absence of anything, could sound terribly frightening, and I suspect it does because it might reflect back in us a deep void that’s unable to be fulfilled. The constant, low-hum pressure of a soul that’s deeply concerned about its own inadequacy.
Lately, I’ve started jogging. I’m not a jogger. I never thought to myself, “Man, I really want to run a 5K or 10K or whatever.” And, in general, I think marathoners are at least partial masochists.
But, I started running when my wife casually encouraged us to run a couples 5K. I took a long look in the mirror and discovered, unsurprisingly, that my pouch was becoming a gut. I decided she was right, though she certainly didn’t need the exercise like I did.
Now that I’m nearly at a month in my morning jogging, I’ve found that nothingness isn’t something to be afraid of. In fact, the opposite is true. When I get a lift, when I experience joy, when I have a life-affirming rush of endorphins that I’ve heard so much about, is when I have exited myself. When I am reduced to nothingness. When my self-centered ego leaves and I am not in my mind at all, it’s just my breath and the run and the path, often beautiful with does and their fawns glancing up at a sweaty person disrupting their silence.
These moments are so incredibly brief that it only takes the awareness of them for them to evaporate and leave me. But they’re powerful enough to want to continue going each morning and, hey, maybe one day try out a 5K or longer…
I’d suspect that even in the depths of space, so many of us wouldn’t hear the silence. We’d be caught up in our panicked breathing, the terror of death and the possibility that we’d never see our loved ones again. There are so many practical concerns to think about alone in the universe — did you say goodbye, was it good enough, will they find your body, did you leave the gas on? It’d be hard to feel the depth of the nothingness because our egos would get in the way.
But, I believe that even in that moment, we wouldn’t truly be alone. So many religions ask us to think of everything as being wonderfully interconnected. The richness of this idea provides the backbone of countless stories, adages, platitudes and more. It’s the wisdom our ancestors tried desperately to give us… And if it’s true, how could we possibly be alone? If we are all part of one entity known as the universe (or multiverse, depending on how specific we’re getting), then how could we ever be alone? You and I are truly the same, and we’re made of the same stardust as the ground we walk on and the air we breathe. We are all one, and in a wonderful happening, we can acknowledge this, we can celebrate it, we can meditate on it, and we can feel lifted from it in true transcendent joy.
It is in this way that nothingness demands us to listen to it — to take seriously the words of Gandhi, to continue to reduce ourselves to nothing. We must eliminate our selfishness, our egos, our pride.
This is harder to do than one thinks. Our egos, that little nervous voice so often shouting at us, or others, in the backs of our heads are rewarded almost unconditionally for putting themselves first. Our consciousness is the only thing we can say with 100 percent certainty is true. We can trust that we have a perspective and a life and interact with other stuff in it.
But, I invite you to consider the words of David Foster Wallace, in his commencement address to Kenyon College:
…here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
Ejecting our consciousness sounds implausible, but it is the only true path, I believe, to not freaking out when alone in the universe. And the only sustainable way to joy in this world.