Your To-Do list is across two sides of A4, emails are bouncing in at an alarming rate and you now have three conference calls to attend that weren’t in your calendar first thing this morning.
It’s all too much. Everything is clamouring for your attention at the same time. And to top it all off, you know that there is no food at home so you’ll have to make a special visit to the supermarket and grab whatever is still on the shelves for dinner.
You can’t live like this. You’re simply too busy. Your day is packed so completely full of stuff that you can’t take any more. All you want is to go home, eat whatever you find in the shops, open a bottle of wine and relax in the bath. All you want is to do nothing.
But sadly, you’ll never be able to do nothing. There will always be something.
According to the ideas of physics, if you were able to create a perfect vacuum with absolutely no energy in it at all, tiny quantum particles will continuously and spontaneously appear. Some of these particles may instantly disappear, while others may exist for ever. It is impossible to produce a situation where nothing is able to exist undisturbed for very long.
Buddhists also reject the idea of ‘nothing’, as it can only exist outside of what is real. They prefer a concept of ’emptiness’, which, like the popping a fizzing of quantum particles in a vacuum, is a state close to nothing but full of potential. Zen teachers would argue that the world we perceive is made of a broad and continuous spectrum of ‘something’ and ’emptiness’.
Let’s look again at the trees:
How many trees are there? Count them for me.
What was your answer? 30? 40? 50? Now look at the branches – how many of those are there?
Of course you haven’t tried to count the branches. That would be a ridiculous waste of time, but did you notice all the shrubs. I wonder how many of those there are…
Seriously, though. Look at the picture again. This time, don’t look at the trees. This time, look at the emptiness.
How many kids of emptiness are there?
Isn’t that easier to deal with?
Looking at the picture this way it becomes clear that we only really know that we are looking at trees because of the spaces between them. In fact, it’s only the ’emptiness’ between the trees that makes them exist as trees at all. The branches stretch into the space between the trees because of the potential of the ’emptiness’. This potential makes the trees able to grow at all. And they seem to be flourishing.
Now look at your day again. Is it better to look at it as a packed schedule and an overflowing inbox, or as a continuous sweep of empty moments?
Accept each moment as it comes and realise that it is empty, but full of potential. Focus on each task and fulfill its potential to the very best of your ability. Do the same on your way home, when you’re in the shops, when you’re talking to your loved ones.
And while you’re in the bath, remember that you are still doing something.
Can you see the wood for the trees?
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.