Friday, November 10, 2023

The Magic Box: How Nothing is Impossible and Everything Is Part of Something

Rays of sunlight of setting sun reflected on water
This post is dedicated to two Bobs that I have had the pleasure of meeting via my podcast: Bob Thurman affiliated with the wonderful and colorful tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and by extension the Dalai Lama and Bob Kramer who has a vivid connection and impressive grasp (both in terms of understanding and reach) of the criminally underrated Otto Rank and his wonderful world and depiction thereof filled with insights and wonder. Apart from having identical first names, the subjects of Bob² open a magic box of endless cosmic possibilities, in which, to borrow the words of Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza (Sanskrit for box), tout est possible.

Presented here are my own, rather independent, perhaps eccentric, and certainly odd reflections, and neither of the Bobs is in any way or form affiliated with them, but both have at least inspired them to some degree if not served as midwives by making me give birth to them. And it is to both these brilliant minds as well as everyone connected with them and their work that I would like to dedicate this post.

To some extent, nothingness looms large in both their conceptions of the world. Whether it is the beautiful void of Nirvana or the wondrous nothingness of existence, there seems to be a push and pull towards that which is not versus that which is. Nothing is what it seems and there is certainly a ring of truth to it. Whether we point towards things, events, or people in our lives via language, words, and thoughts, or we try to grasp existence in a limited fashion by using the intellect or trying desperately to rationalize it, there is a common denominator at play: our life on earth is limited; whether we acknowledge it or not, it is marked and stamped with an expiry date.

In fact, Bob (Kramer) posits life between two bookends of nothingness: the void we come from and the void we end up in with a brief candle-lit flame in-between, that is our personal life. He firmly situates us in an unstable and precarious place: Carl Sagan’s conception of the pale blue dot that spins weirdly in the middle of cosmic vastness, which defies understanding no matter how you look at it. In fact, when looking at the “big picture”, our planet is so tiny in space and time that we may even consider it insignificant. We are not the sun like once believed but barely a single note in the majestic Beethovian symphony of the music of the spheres.

Although this may make us feel depressed and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, it is also oddly uplifting and inspiring. We have no time to waste and need to focus so much more on this brief interval given to us, appreciate it, love more, hate less, and not waste any time on things that are insignificant or harmful to ourselves, others, and our beautiful tiny dot blue planet itself. Instead, we need to calibrate and fine-tune our existence and play the music from the deepest recesses of our unique soul and being. I believe that the other Bob (Thurman) will not object to that either. 

And yet, I wish to disagree with nothing. By this I mean I am actively disagreeing not agreeing with it. Because I believe that nothing can come out of nothing. There needs to be some thing to bring out something and in the same way, our existence is not nothing nor is our starting point and departure nothing either. I do not think that nothing is possible but rather that nothing is impossible.

There is a thought experiment in philosophy entitled the box (here we go again). Imagine you have a small box that includes a few utensils, ranging from a book (let’s make it the Tibetan Book of the Dead for our purposes), a picture of Spooky (Otto Rank’s dog), a picture of Mr. Floofles (our once precious hamster), a pair of scissors, a broken watch, crayons of different colors, a piece of string, and a business card of Arash’s World. We may disagree with the choice of some of its contents, but we would all agree that the box is not empty.

Now let us remove items, one by one from this given box. First to go, is, alas, my business card, then the broken watch, the scissors, and then the colorful crayons. The box is not empty yet as it contains various other objects within it. So we continue removing the remaining objects (the book, the photos) until we are left with nothing but a box that has nothing in it whatsoever.

You have forgotten the piece of string, the careful reader might interject, and I agree. Let us also remove that last piece and empty the box the same way meditation attempts to empty the mind of thoughts, feelings, sensations, or anything that interferes with pure consciousness. We are now essentially left with an empty box.

Yet although the box (and the meditative-focused mind) may look empty, it is still not so. There may be remnants floating about, like air or oxygen. When we remove that as well, we have a vacuum. But the vacuum is still not nothing. It is something that contains things; it is not immaterial. In fact, it is hard to imagine, let alone have no-thing. Because nothing is indeed something, or at least it needs something to distinguish itself as being or becoming nothing. We can take away our thoughts, emotions, memory, identity, and personality, but something will remain whatever and however vague that something may be.

It is the same paradox of nothing staying constant when nothing itself actually does stay constant whatever we mean by or define and refer to as nothing (a similar point could be made about everything in moderation). Along the same vein, nothing is what it seems neglects the fact that nothing is indeed the same as itself, it may be its mirror image or reflection. And if we zoom out, just like Sagan with the expansive view of the universe, then everything is the great whole, das Ganze in Otto Rank’s perspective versus the part or fragment thereof. The drop is not only in the ocean, but it is part and parcel of the ocean. One might say, in its own way, it is the ocean itself, albeit on a microscopic and microcosmic level.

Similarly, atoms from the universe are and flow within us, and the outside is reflected in the inside. According to the analogy of theologian Matthew Fox, we would be the fish in the water and the creative cosmic force within us flows outside while the outside forces also enter within us and indeed are us in the same way that we are one and interconnected with them. The fish needs the water, but the water needs the fish too to become fuller and more fulfilled. Each of us is filled with living cells without which we could not exist, and which need us for a fuller and more living and conscious expression. “I think, therefore I am”, Descartes famously said, whereas in the Bible God, defines himself as “I am that I am”.

But Descartes overlooked the whole, which includes feelings and sensations, and God cannot possibly exist outside of the realm that He has created because just like the artist, the work and art reflect their creator, and the creator is reflected in and within them. If we are created in His image, then at least part of Him must reside within each of Us. And a spark of divinity is divinity itself, or at least has the potential to transform into it. A drop of infinity is infinite itself, like divinity, it cannot be divided into parts.

By extension, everything is included within everything (everywhere and all at once) and nothing can be excluded from it. Nothing is also something, but it is still part of everything. In fact, since everything includes nothing or nothing is included in everything, the whole or das Ganze would also include opposites of each other. In this quantum perspective of sorts, logic is not necessarily paramount and opposites can live side by side peacefully while nothing and no one is ever excluded. Everyone not only feels but is in fact at home in this cosmic world and no one feels alienated or left out from this cosmic dance.

No one can exist on their own. This is what Otto Rank discovered with his relationship therapy as we do not and cannot exist in isolation and separate ourselves from others. We need others to exist, and others need us to exist. This was ingrained within us in the womb and it is necessary for our stay on the blue tiny dot, but it also holds true for the existence (in whatever shape and form it may have been) that came before our earthly Dasein (existence) and the realm, or post-world that we must head towards, which must be different than the one we have experienced during our limited stay here as temporary guests.

Finally, darkness, a distant cousin of nothingness, is nothing of and by itself. It is the absence of light, but light has the power to dispel it. Case in point: our universal existence emanating from the Big Bang. But it is not just sound we are talking about; it is a bright explosion of light and sound and powerful waves and atomic vibrations and the music of the spheres that brought all our existence into being. We collectively and individually made our entrance with Schall und Rauch (a confident tightrope class act amidst buzzing and whirring sounds and smoke around us). This is certainly not nothing and it cannot possibly have come out of nothing either while nothing can equal it!

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