Richard Pevear, Foreword to Notes From Underground
Through a fear of failing, we limit our reach as we feel that this will allow us to keep our balance, maintain our clean record, keep the fantasy of ourselves intact. Often we prefer to stew in what we know, deriding those who bumble on, but who bumble forward nonetheless as fools or failures. This is the enemy of progress because it restricts movement. Being cowed by an imagined ideal of excellence, creates an unwillingness to engage in new activities or to push yourself into difficult situations that may tarnish this ideal.
If you take a step toward your soul, you will at first miss the meaning. You will believe that you have sunk into meaninglessness, into eternal disorder.
How could anything meaningful grow out of nothingness? If nothingness is the grounds for nihilism, and nihilism is the rust gradually disintegrating society, then wouldn’t an encounter with nothingness lead to the hollowing out of meaning and value?
In Zen Buddhism, nothingness can be better understood by hyphenating between the conjunction of the two words, ‘no-thing’. The Zen tradition understands nothingness as an encounter with the absolute of emptiness, a dropping away of the self-referential concepts and thoughts that make up our sense of self, our usual conscious experience. Through the disciplined practice of mindfulness, the cultivation of the present moment, Zen practitioners can experience the dropping away of self-consciousness, an experience described as a vast nothingness or emptiness.
Self-consciousness, the ‘I’ in the drivers seat of how we experience the world is occupied from morning until night with the definition, categorisation and association between ‘things’ in the world and their meaning. We have evolved like this for the purpose of survival – to master our environment, as well as to map out and manipulate our social worlds. Most importantly we have turned this capacity inward, onto ourselves. We have become objects for reflection and assessment, as ‘things’ in the sense of ourselves being an “I”, an object that is perceived as having experience; a ‘me’ that is constant across time. This ‘me’ that we spend so long thinking about and referring to is a classification of our mind, a classification that has emerged from the intersubjective meanings we have attributed to relationships, objects and places that we encounter.
It can be reasonable to understand how an encounter with nothingness can lead to nihilism. These experiences can reinforce the emptiness of concepts and striving and as such the delusion of attributing any meaning or value to anything. If concepts and thoughts are empty constructs, ‘no-thing’, then a logical view would infer that any concepts and thought of meaning and value are also empty. This groundwork then sets the scene for a kind of cynical, spiritually destructive path for life. The famously cynical character of Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has the famous line “everything is permitted” indicating a moral relativism. However, this world view may also express itself in a more insipid and pernicious way, leading to a general inertia and banality. A life that is unaware, distracted, uncritical, mindless – easily placated by the packaged entertainments, bullshit work and sedating pleasures of modern life.
Taking a purely logical view, this also seems to be a rational way to behave. If there is no meaning or value to be found in the nothingness, then why not just zone out and allow yourself, in the words of Kierkegaard, to be “tranquilised by the trivial?” This Philistinism, which is recognisable across any age, may grow out of this encounter with nothingness. No appreciation or interest in spirituality, the arts or culture, because of a view that none of it matters, or that none of it is real. So much of the science, business, media, and political mainstream implicitly or explicitly encourages or propagates this view. Selfish genes, the God delusion, the orthodoxy of utilitarian progress, the fashionable ideologies that attempt to replace religion with abstract frameworks of secular ‘shoulds’ are all in some way an expression of this.
These concepts are then set against each other in a never-ending ‘what-about-ism’ shouting match that serves as its own distraction and entertainment. This is now our daily experience and the vacuity some of us feel, arises out of there being no common ground to any of it. No common axiom, no Maypole to dance around. The implicit shared meaning of the village commons has been discarded as valueless and now everything needs to be made explicit. This explicitness, the minutiae of having to explain every grain of detail is the chaff that is clogging the mills of our society.
What is the alternative?
The Zen concept of nothingness refers not to a black hole of meaning and value, a wasteland of being, but rather as an absolute emptiness, a formlessness that is embedded in being itself. Freud referred to this state as oceanic consciousness, the conscious experience before thought and concepts. This sense of emptiness is experienced because our categorising, classifying, comparing ego (self) has dropped away. There is nothing there that can do the ‘thing-a-fying’ that carves our world into distinctions, creating a matrix of things and associations, which includes our own sense of self.
The feeling of no-thingness or emptiness that results in the dissolution of the concept bound self can be the grounds for a new concept of freedom. Without the subjective I, there is nothing to anchor the grasping, taxonomist nature of our self and what is experienced is the void of pure awareness, a black hole of concepts and associations. This can be a very anxiety producing condition, the Christian Faith refers to it as the ‘dark night of the soul’, the wilderness, the desert. As mentioned this experience of emptiness can be framed as nothingness, a field of absence, but it can also be viewed as a field of presence, the presence of the implicit value and meaning of life as it is.
The philosopher and physicist Henri Bortoft talks about the active absence of encountering no-thingness, or the whole of awareness. Paradoxically he refers to the awareness of the whole becoming known through the complete attention of the subjective ‘I’ with all of the parts (or things) of awareness. This is the practice of mindfulness. A broad, all-encompassing awareness of the myriad parts within consciousness. A mindful, open concentration on all the parts of our awareness ultimately can overwhelm and dissolve the self-referential, egoistic part of our minds, revealing the whole of being. This inexhaustible fecundity of being, shows us that we and life itself are implicitly valuable and meaningful. The tone of a sunset, the enveloping sound of rustling leaves in a forest, the Kookaburra’s laugh in the rising dawn, all these experiences are all still happening, regardless of the machinations of our self-obsessed, re-presentational thought. They do not rely on our subjective concepts to be meaningful, they are inherently meaningful for their own sake and carry on without our self-obsessed thinking.
When we realise this, when we become attuned to it, we realise the value of all life as an end-in-itself, rather than as an instrument we can leverage for a purpose we have momentarily conceptualised. Far from being the empty hole that nihilism grows out of, nothingness can be thought of as a connection with the whole of being that refreshes us and, in a Copernicus-like revolution, de-seats our sense of self as being at the centre of our conscious universe. Encountering nothingness in this way shows the inexhaustible wholeness of being, of life itself.
“This was the point, that I blindly believed then that through some miracle, some external circumstance, all this would suddenly extend, expand; suddenly a horizon of appropriate activity would present itself, beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready made, and thus I would suddenly step forth under God’s heaven all but on a white horse and wreathed in laurels. A secondary role was incomprehensible to me… Either hero or mud, there was no in between. And that is what ruined me, because in the mud I comforted myself with being a hero.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
The Russian Novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is widely viewed as one of the greatest writers of all time and one of the greatest psychologists in world literature. His novels, including Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground deeply explore themes of psychology, philosophy, religion, literature and family, shining a light into the darkest depths of the human heart, whilst also gazing up in awe at our capability, despite everything, for transcendence through our love for each other. For Dostoevsky the good life was a kind of embodied, reciprocal exchange, with this reciprocity between self and other, being the foundation for grasping any kind of truth or understanding.
The passage above refers to a sense of superiority. A retreat into grandiose and delusional fantasy, a fantasy whose carriage is a warped kind of rationalism. A vision in a vacuum, dissolving on contact with reality and experience. The anti-hero of the novel holds a preference for the perfect conception of himself, over a potentially stained one in reality. A fixed conception that results in a fear of life and so a retreat from it. A burrowing into a solitary invention, one in which he is the hero, or will soon be. The abyss between his flawed self-conception and the inconvenience of reality, is filled with a despairing envy and hatred of those he encounters, as they represent a hammer to the mirror of his intellectual invention. Unwilling to let go and accept the contradictions and hypocrisies that are involved in living, this individual festers like a bad seed, his potential growth cut off by an unwillingness to expose himself to the fertiliser of experience.
The narrator of Notes from Underground is a disheveled, shambolic, and completely isolated individual, who views himself as a kind of messiah, someone who, if only the right moment would present itself, would be able to demonstrate his genius. Of course there is no such moment, and the narrator’s fixed, warped notion of himself, leads to a belief that the world should present itself to him “beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready made”, rather than presenting himself to the world in all the messy reality that entails.
For Dostoevsky, so much of his writing dealt with the dangers of pride and the limits of rationalism. Whether it is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, calculating the personal and moral necessity of the murder of his landlord, the cold and calculating Ivan in The Brother’s Karamazov, or his unnamed anti-hero in Notes From Underground, a detached, cold and prideful way of thinking that carved the world up into fragments and calculated each step out of context with the reality, was persistently shown by Dostoevsky as being a pernicious and ultimately disastrous way to live. Richard Pevear in the foreword to his translation of Notes From Underground reflects on Dostoevsky’s writing as a whole that;
“The one quality his negative characters share…is inner fixity, a sort of death-in-life…. Inner movement, on the other hand, is always a condition of spiritual good, though it may also be a source of suffering, division, disharmony in this life. What moves may also rise.”
Pevear refers to ‘inner fixity’ like a kind of narrow mindedness, or blindness, resulting in a spiritual ‘death-in-life’ or the death of potential. In these books we live in the minds of his characters and are shown, through their examples, the catastrophe’s that await us when we let narcissistic pride prevent us from connecting with others. Dostoevsky was very sceptical that we would be able to think our way to a better world and was vehemently against the utopian ideals of the day, including both capitalism and socialism. In The Brothers Karamazov, he captured the utopian thinking of socialism at that time, saying that the socialists wished, “…not to go from earth to heaven, but to bring heaven down to earth”, prophesying that this would lead to disaster. Referring to capitalism, consumerism and the increasing isolation he believed this was causing he said;
“For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in peoples help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles, lest his money and his acquired privileges perish.”
These warnings relate to how the development and over reliance on a kind of wobbly rationalism, stripped from history and context, with a blank slate, a year zero, the projection of a new kind of reality ‘free’ from the constraints of the past would ultimately lead to further division and death. This solitary focus on our own idea of the world, or of our blinkered, solo pursuit of material possessions ultimately would isolate us, disconnecting us from each other and life. Redemption for Dostoevsky’s characters came through an authentic, even vulnerable embrace of life, a dialectical exchange where a kind of embodied (not just intellectual) truth is mutually constituted by the interaction between self and other.
What does Dostoevsky have to do with a growth mindset? Well, Carol Dweck, a Stanford Psychologist, renowned for her work into “mindset”, motivation and how people succeed defined a growth mindset as a belief that our capacity is not fixed and that we can develop our abilities and skills over time. Dweck showed in her research that our fixed conceptions of ourselves had to be constantly updated and transformed by the growth that comes from experience and the insights it yields.
Some of her most impactful research, which investigated praise and its impact on motivation amongst fifth-grade students, showed that those praised for effort started to value learning opportunities, whilst those praised for intelligence were more interested in demonstrating their existing ability rather than stretching to improve. Dweck showed that the reinforcement of an existing way of thinking or viewing your own abilities as fixed can have a detrimental effect over time, leading to stagnation, frustration and a loss of potential.
Growth often involves stretching beyond your existing potential, which often means discomfort and effort. But as Dweck mentions in a revisiting of her initial publication, effort without actual learning is pointless. It is not simply about encouraging effort or resilience but also the encouragement of developing a personal insight into what works, a repertoire of techniques and strategies to learn and grow. In other words, a willingness to fail, which gives you the opportunity to update your understanding of what works by testing your concepts against reality and using this insight to transform skills and understanding. A fear of failure can often lead to the restriction of experience and develop into a kind of perfectionism that over time, if coupled with a fixed-mindset can become restrictive. Dweck, herself a recovering perfectionist, stated in a talk at The School of Life a number of years ago that, “I had to start shrinking my world in order to maintain [perfection].”
The shrinking of the world to match the conception you hold of yourself, as opposed to transforming your conceptions to match the world, would have been a thread of thought that Dostoevsky would have admonished. What is interesting about Dweck’s personal insight along with her extensive research is how it shows that in order to even maintain our abilities we need to keep challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. A fear of looking foolish or ridiculous, leads to a retreat from experience and a constriction of action. A true growth mindset appears to involve a willingness of being the fool before becoming the master.
We were all but proud of our drunkenness, debauchery and bravado. I would not say we were wicked; they were all good young men, but they behaved wickedly, and I most of all. The chief thing was that I had come into my own money, and with that I threw myself into a life of pleasure, with all the impetuousness of youth, without restraint, under full sail.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
The passage above is from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and is the account of the elderly monk Zosima’s youth, recounted by the protagonist Alyosha. This passage struck me when I read it last night and I wrote the section down as the first thing I did this morning due to it reminding me so much of my own approach to life in my ‘youth’.
Over the past couple of weeks I have been increasingly thinking of past behaviour and how hedonic and aimless so much of it was and how all I was interested in over the course of many years was where I could find fun and pleasure. It is interesting to me that it is only recently, during the last couple of months, that my own opinion of my old life has so rapidly shifted, shifted to a point where I sometimes find it difficult to recognise the motivations of that old self.
“We were all but proud of our drunkenness, debauchery … they were all good young men, but they behaved wickedly, I most of all.”
This was what university and the emerging adulthood period of life was for me. There was a feeling of pride. A sense that what we were doing was right, smart even. That we knew we were ‘making the most of it’ by sewing wild oats and getting our kicks whilst we could, before it was too late.
I always thought when I was younger that I had to see and do as much as possible so as that I could stave of future regret and not have the chaotic mid-life catastrophe that eventually engulfed my father. I realise now how misplaced some of these notions were, how pursuing fun and distraction only drove a chasm in my own life, a void in which I lost a sense of meaning, purpose. My expediency regarding work and university led me to feel that whatever it was I was doing over those years didn’t really matter. There was no wisdom in the drunkenness, debauchery or hedonism but it did ultimately yield wisdom, wisdom of what not to do.
The move to Hong Kong was the apex and termination of this ultimately unsustainable trajectory. We went to Hong Kong out of boredom, chasing fun, status, money; and the pressure, heat and brightness of that fascinatingly strange place incinerated this old part of myself, revealing an old truth and an old vein of understanding that I had lost. During this painful process, one which is still unfurling, it was as though I rediscovered a part of myself which had been occluded by the fog off all that I had tried to distract myself with. I realise now that I was blinkered and blinded by the light reflecting off the wrong values, values which I had never really stopped to consciously consider.
What is likely true is that in desperately trying to not repeat the same mistakes as our parents we simply blunder on, smashing into things on the periphery of the tunnel vision that focuses so determinedly on avoiding their bad examples, instead creating our own.
The remedy for this appears to be living as truthfully as possible. Of not giving up the potential you know is within you simply because it is difficult and will jeopardise your security and comfort at that moment. Manifesting what you intuitively know to be right seems to me at this moment to be a bulwark against the future corruption of your psyche. The difficulty of course is finding that moment of clarity, a still moment when the fog has lifted and you can not only see, but know that truth. What this might mean is that in order to find it you first need to jump into that fog.