Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Critical Zero Revisited I

Scott Bradley


It happens sometimes that I wake up to emptiness. Though I have no way of knowing, I suspect that this experience might be common to humanity. This is none other than the 'positive' emptiness espoused by many within the traditions of the East, but it is also not other than the 'negative' emptiness expressed as 'existential despair' in the West.

It seems doubtful that there are two 'emptinesses'; there is but one emptiness which lies at the heart of human experience. This emptiness might be called zero; it is the experience of being a zero. There is contingent existence; we live, pursue the necessities of our animal existence, add the unquestioned veneers of purpose and meaning which self-awareness seems to require, and sometimes wax religious or philosophical as necessary in such a way as to underpin those veneers. We manage to muddle through life with some sense of purpose, and then we die and become the zero that we really are (and are not).

Underlying it all, of course, is life. Life is not empty. Life requires nothing but that it happen. But this is life that knows nothing of individual aspirations to purposefulness and the continuity of individual existence that that seems to require.

It is true, as the Stoics saw, that life has a 'primary impulse', namely the preservation of itself as the particular entity in which it is manifest: "Nature from the beginning endears itself to itself," wrote Diogenes Laertius, who then quotes Chrysippus, "The first thing which is dear to every animal is its own constitution and awareness of this." All things with life devote themselves to the continuation of life within themselves, consciously or otherwise. And within the realm of living things generally this ensures the perpetuation of life itself; yet within the human, though it proves sufficient for most individuals to see the experience through to the end and thus perpetuate the race, it does not entirely satisfy. We sometimes awaken empty.

It is my opinion that this emptiness is what most distinguishes humanity from every other known phenomenon. And if this is the case, it is upon emptiness that every human endeavor turns. This is especially true of every 'spiritual' endeavor.

This may not be a view shared by all; indeed, though doubtless all human beings on occasion experience some degree of emptiness, most happily find the usual pursuit of the 'primary impulse' and the veneers of established meaning sufficient to their needs. I say 'happily', because, when it comes to the stark reality of human meaninglessness, this may well be a case where ignorance is truly bliss.

Again, there are those who might disagree; if human beings need somehow to be 'saved', then awareness of their essential emptiness would seem to be required. If, on the other hand, no metaphysical salvation is required, then it is only those who experience emptiness deeply who require some form of temporal salvation. These sad souls wake up to write posts on emptiness.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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