One of the biggest difficulties with mindfulness practice is deliberately doing and thinking nothing. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Nothing is a concept that is infuriatingly hard to grasp.
Philosophers have struggled with nothing. Early Greek philosophers struggled to answer the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” In other words, why is there “stuff” in the world when there could just as easily be “not stuff”. Later, Aristotle gave us the idea that “nature abhors a vacuum”, building on Plato’s notion that “nothing cannot rightly be said to exist.” This might lead us to believe that “nothing is impossible”; a phrase that flips meanings with each repetition.
Mathematicians have, historically at least, been quite averse to the concept of nothing. Almost every early number system eschewed the zero. That said, the Romans and the Babylonians seem to have got on just fine without them. In fact, the early Christian church was positively against them. There could be no such thing as nothing, they argued, because that would exclude the presence of God. Nothing is a heresy, you might say.
The zero first appeared thanks to Leonardo Fibonacci (although it’s doubtful he ever actually used them in the way we do today), who introduced the Hindu-Arabic number system to the west. Eastern philosophers had never had the same abhorrence of nothing as an idea, so their number systems evolved to include a figure for zero. It could be argued that Eastern cultures gained immeasurably from the inclusion of this extra digit – just compare the complex geometry of an oriental palace to the simple lines of a Roman temple, for example. Also, it could be argued that the ability to perform abstract calculations brought with it the ability to explain and predict the motion of the stars and planets. According to the Bible, the Magi came from the East having spotted a new star in the sky. This kind of zero-based calculation led to all sorts of lavish celebrations.
Nowadays, zeros are sprinkled liberally throughout the world – Google “googol”, for instance (an accidental misspelling of one gave the name of the other), or consider the zeros which with their accompanying ones speed around the world at light-speed to be processed into this page.
Roaming widely through the middle east at around the same time Fibonacci introduced the zero to the West was Hassan-i Sabbah. A philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, alchemist, architect and ferocious theologian, this was a man who must surely have been comfortable with the concept of nothing. He led a mission converting all he met to Islam, often at the point of a sword. His followers were known as Hashashins (from where we get the word ‘assassin’) and were known for their fervour. His teaching would lead to a lot of ruffled feathers among the great and the good and he effectively spent the last thirty five years of his life under house arrest living entirely by himself. It is believed he wrote one of the first autobiographies, which hasn’t survived. His last words have. The were this:
[bra_blockquote align=””]Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.[/bra_blockquote]
On first reading, this sounds like an invitation to create mayhem and bloody havoc. However, when contrasted with the quotes from Aristotle and Plato above, it reads quite differently. Rather than taking the view that ‘nothing cannot exist’, we now have the opposite view. Nothing can exist. And more than this, because nothing can exist, everything is possible.
Nothing is positive. It needn’t be a synonym for oblivion or emptiness, loss or loneliness. In fact, embracing “nothing” leads to a wealth of possibility.