I have to be honest: my interest in mindfulness started off, and still is, almost completely secular. I do not aspire to awakening and all those other big things that spiritual teachers preach (market). For me, it is more about resting the brain so as to allow it to function at its peak. This may sound cold and clinical, but all it is really is that I don’t have massive expectations.
All the same, I figured that if I am to get good at mindfulness, I need to explore it properly. The language used to explain mindfulness: non-attachment, non-judgement, acceptance – seemed very confusing to me. Confusing to the point of seeming to defy basic human nature.
The best way I can phrase it now is that the practice of mindfulness requires us to treat thoughts and emotions as if we are just watching them.
But it did beg the question: how do you make sense of acceptance and non-judgement? How does that gel with constant resistance and overpowering ourselves that we are all so familiar with? How, and why, do we set and strive for goals if we are meant to be just accepting? I did wonder if there is a certain nihilism to the teachings behind mindfulness.
So who better to ask than Professor Nietzsche, nihilism-connoisseur in chief?
Nguyên Giác and I like to explore the thinking behind Buddhism, so in this latest piece I discuss Nietzsche’s understanding, rejection and emulation of Buddhism in his philosophy and explain the logic behind his claim that it is a nihilistic religion.
If you want the quick version, here it is:
- Nietzsche misunderstood the concepts of Buddhism by mistaking interdependence for emptiness, probably due to lack of context and good translations
- He defined Buddhism as a “true-world theory”, meaning that Buddhism claims there is another, superior form of existence (Buddho, Nirvana, etc) and that inherently defies the value of our common, normal, unawakened life, hence it is nihilistic
- Despite Nietzsche’s rejection of Buddhism, his own philosophy is, in places, remarkably similar to it.
Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people lose their feeling that their way of life is worthwhile they […] simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish.
What is nihilism?
Nihilism is a confusing term. It can mean rejection of societal norms (political nihilism). This is not what I am going to discuss here.
I will talk about Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism: the radical rejection of value, meaning* and desirability.
I think this communicates the most important concepts. Of course, there are more specific definitions, so I will get them out of the way here. There is moral nihilism that says that there is no right and wrong. Epistomological nihilism says there is no universal truth or meaning. Existential nihilism rejects meaning in life.
Stoicism vs nihilism
Stoicism is really en vogue these days. Seneca’s writings have grabbed my attention early last year and haven’t really let go. First, his Moral Letters are incredibly easy to read – compared to most undigested original philosophical texts (e.g. A. Schopenhauer). Second, they make one feel good, a bit like after watching Pulp Fiction. I was starting to wonder – what’s the catch? My “too good to be true” radar was going off.
Here’s a short summary of Seneca’s views:
- life is set in circumstances that we’ve no control over;
- it is possible to get through life by working on our response – not on the circumstances;
- there is no need to fear death because
- it is just like the blissful nothingness that came before we were born;
- it would, so to speak, “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”;
- we didn’t earn life – it was given to us by circumstance. Hence, we cannot expect to hang on to it.
This doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, it is quite resonant with the ultimate optimist Viktor Frankl: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” and more or less the basis of modern day talking therapies like CBT and REBT. However, Seneca is quite pessimistic. Having re-read his letters a number of times, I picture him as a man who barely endured his life.
Any modern psychiatrist would say Seneca had a passive death wish.
It’s also interesting to remember that he was one of the wealthiest people of all time. Here’s a telling quotation from Letter 65:
“The wise man, the seeker after wisdom, is bound closely, indeed, to his body, but he is an absentee so far as his better self is concerned, and he concentrates his thoughts upon lofty things. Bound, so to speak, to his oath of allegiance, he regards the period of life as his term of service. He is so trained that he neither loves nor hates life; he endures a mortal lot, although he knows that an ampler lot is in store for him.”
Nietzsche famously pointed out that Christianity is nihilistic in the sense that it is denying the value of one’s current existence and instead placing it on a dream of a better afterlife.
By that same logic, Seneca too seems nihilistic. One might argue that in the context of Seneca thinking of death – it is kind of hopeful.
Nonetheless, Seneca belittles the value of the current life, encourages escapism and hope for, essentially, life in heaven after death.
At the same time, Seneca repeats that we have limited time on Earth and we better use it wisely. Just like Christianity, this philosophy appealed to all strata in society. Using either philosophy, anyone could be a hero by thinking themselves so. In a sense, one is less responsible for their actions as this world doesn’t really matter. Certainly, making the right choices matters – as it will be assessed for the purposes of a heaven vs hell decision, but it presents life as something that happens to a person – and the person has little agency. Having said that, much of what Seneca demands of Lucilius could safely be called overcoming-oneself, a cardinal virtue according to Nietzsche.
Meaning by school of thought
Unbound by any aspiration to philosophical scholarship, I have taken the liberty of making these one liners on how different schools/philosophers viewed meaning:
Stoics: there is meaning, it is to be wise and kind;
Schopenhauer: there is meaning; awareness of suffering and death create the need for meaning;
Buddhists: there is meaning, but it is ambiguous;
Hinduism: there is meaning; it is to shed the illusion and realise the unity of the universe;
Christianity: there is meaning; the meaning is to live so as to attain entry into a superior world;
Nietzsche: there is meaning; meaningful suffering is sought after, meaningless suffering is a curse – more on this later;
Nihilists: there is no meaning.
A nihilist’s escape routes
Being a bone fide nihilist is intolerable: there’s nothing to wish for, nothing makes a difference – like the tribes that encountered Western culture described by E. Becker in the epigraph, one may as well lie down and die. It’s a state fundamentally indistinguishable from severe and enduring depression.
Those who proclaim they are nihilistic and still go on about their lives as if nothing’s wrong are probably hedonistic, or have some kind of meaning they simply don’t call meaning. Or, they are like Anony Mole who appears to think that meaning is a psychological hack to staying motivated to live on, but ultimately hypothesising that there is no meaning at all.
For someone who doesn’t see meaning in life there’s another option, however. It is to defer meaning to one’s next life. In this sense, Christianity is a form of escapism away from nihilism.
In Christianity, the purpose of life is to live one’s current life in a certain way and attain entry into an alternate, “real and true” world – heaven. At first glance, it would seem that Nietzsche is overreacting by accusing Christianity of being nihilist. Christianity is full of ways that make this life meaningful. On closer reflection, the motivation behind acting according to the tenets of Christianity is that someone, from a place that we all really belong in, said that it is the right thing to do. This life is only a smoke and mirrors version of the blissful life in heaven. Nietzsche rejected true world theories as nonsense. He demonstrated that it was an assumption of his – and ultimately unknowable. Richard Dawkins says it’s intellectual cowardice to not come down on one side or the other. I think it is intellectual cowardice to not admit that there are certain things that we just don’t have a way of knowing.
Despite his rejection of true world theories, Nietzsche understood that they are the fabric that holds people’s lives together.
Of course, there are many more true world theories than Christianity, but it is the one that dominates the Wester world today. For example, Marxism is a true world theory – yearning for a future utopia. Nietzsche also argued that a Christian heaven helps the human sense of self: it is kind of validating to know that, really, one belongs in a special true world – not here.
Pema Chodron wrote about the psychology of our need for such a world in an accessible way. [There’s a funny story to go with that. I was sitting on the beach right after reading Chodron, reflecting on the ways in which we’re conditioned to want a fatherly God. An elderly man approached me and wondered if I was OK – I guess I must have looked distraught. It’s rather unusual for a man in his 80s to approach a random person on a beach, so I was wondering what’s going on. He didn’t say much, just asked again if I was ok and if I like reading. He reached to hand me a brochure – looking directly at me – and said only this one thing: “Oh, and there is a God”. I thanked him, mind-boggled. After he walked away, I looked at the brochure – turns out he was a Jehovah’s witness. I didn’t know they mind read.]
Besides turning to true world theories, there is another way to avert the pain of nihilism.
Like David Foster Wallace pointed out, there’s no such thing as atheism. We all believe something.
Science slowly becomes scientism and provides explanations for things it can and cannot explain. Following a political movement gives a sense of belonging. Our culture is a kaleidoscope of options for all tastes.
Searching for meaning is nihilistic
Nietzsche argued that asking the question “What is the meaning of life” and demanding an external answer by some superhuman authority diminished the value of the person asking – as if it comes from a lack one’s faith in their own ability to figure it out.
Nietzsche argued that nihilism arises when people get disillusioned with their default set of beliefs – let’s say beliefs that are inherent in one’s cultures – and take this disillusionment to more generally mean that no beliefs could ever be satisfactory.
This view of nihilism is once again almost indistinguishable from depression. Nietzsche expressed it best here:
“A new pride my ego taught me, and this I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a meaning for the earth.”
Prof. Nietzsche’s meaning of life
So what did Nietzsche himself think the meaning of life was? It was to realise one’s inner potential.
Nietzsche believed in radical responsibility: it is only ourselves who we have to blame if we miss our life’s calling.
To him, we weren’t all born human. We become human by realising our potential. This is what he meant when he said “become who you are”. Fear and laziness are our ultimate enemies. Incidentally, this sounds like it is straight out of Seneca’s writings. Nietzsche claimed there was a higher self, a kind of will that dragged us to become who we are. To me this is terribly reminiscent of a true world theory albeit one confined to the self and to this life. His method was through setting difficult goals pursuing which elevates the soul. Congruent with the traditions of Buddhism, Nietzsche argued that suffering isn’t inherently bad – and one doesn’t need to immediately try and fix it or worse, distract oneself away from it. It is an opportunity for growth and wisdom, according to Nietzsche.
I guess it comes down to awareness, adaptability and agency again. This whole piece makes me sound like a Nietzsche fan girl. In a sense, it’s true, but he was a bit too anti-social, self-contradicting and melancholic for my liking. I will put that in more analytical terms at a later stage.
You may want to read
*[To be clear, we’re talking about meaning to a given person, not some universal, objective meta-meaning because ultimately an attempt at identifying this universal meaning will always be the meaning to the person thinking about it, or a projection thereof. This is one of the reasons humans are so naturally self-centred. David Foster Wallace describes it well here. As seen above, none of the major philosophies really even try to answer what the ultimate meaning of the universe is. This is probably because the question isn’t asked very often. This author is more interested in the tangible psychology of it – than the unknowable philosophy].
Children are a spectacular audience in that they have a great BS filter. It is quite common in paediatrics for kids to be very skeptical of advice. I recall an overweight doctor working in paediatric endocrinology giving dietary advice to a diabetic child. Let’s just say, the poor doctor was informed of the value of giving advice that they themselves don’t follow.
Through the years, I’ve met many smoking surgeons, neurotic psychiatrists and overweight dieticians (but never a less than glowing dermatologist). It’s not necessary to practice what you preach to give good advice. However, going directly against what you preach, what you are meant to be good at – does raise authenticity and competence concerns, not always fairly, but we would be worse off without this filter.
Whatever about overworked doctors, my real question is about philosophers. Schopenhauer is widely regarded as having been an intolerable hedonistic psychopath and a chauvinist. It is well known that he nearly pushed a woman down the stairs – for being annoying. He bailed on a woman who was pregnant with his child. Hegel did something not entirely dissimilar. Nietzsche didn’t have much of a social life, except for in brothels (not unlike Schopenhauer, actually). Kant didn’t have one at all. Gazillionaire Seneca denounced worldly possessions. He was clearly preoccupied with a fear of poverty. At times, in his letters to Lucillius, he sounds like he’s trying to calm himself down more than anything else. I strongly believe he has what modern day psychiatrists would call a passive death wish. Marcus Aurelius was born into being arguably the most powerful man in the world – and so his advice sounds good, but it’s not clear of how much use it was to him. Seneca’s and Marcus Aurelius’ explanations often reference two separate entities: luck an the gods, without really examining the nature of these. Machiavelli, regarded by many as the ultimate weasel and plamaser, didn’t exactly fare so well at court. Freud came up with a theory that is to philosophy as Newtonian physics is to physics. Nonetheless, there is some outrageous stuff in there too. And if you say enough – some of it is going to be right, a bit like a broken clock is right twice a day.
Two quotes come to mind. Both from Seneca. The first I will use as a disclaimer:
“I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good”.
The second, the one I am actually interested in is:
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
What if replace the word religion with the word philosophy? Let’s be honest, philosophy is nearly more powerful than religion – because it spreads more insidiously. There’s no discrete baptism, no conversion, no point of no return – just silent incremental exposure. And so, I wonder, we treat philosophy with such reverence, but should we?
Arthur Schopenhauer said something very interesting:
“Genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight… so as to remain pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world.”
He argued that talent allows people to get to where other’s cannot get, while genius allows to solve problems that other’s don’t see. By that logic, Uber and Facebook are examples of genius – with a hefty dose of being in the right place at the right time.
What strikes me about this quote by Schopenhauer is how Eastern it is. I have been thinking about the subject of dreaming of a better future vs fully engaging with reality. It seems like there is no way to set goals without trading in some of the appreciation of what’s currently going on. By setting goals, we almost certainly forego the opportunity to experience what Schopenhauer called genius.
Being grounded in reality is possibly the thing we run from the most. We call it boredom. How many apps do you open on your phone just to not be alone with yourself and your surroundings when you’re on your own? I, for one, open too many. And before there were apps, books and music – there were daydreams. Boredom is a form of pain – according to Schopenhauer. He said it was an issue of affluence: if one moves on from satisfying the most basic needs, boredom becomes the source of discomfort to deal with next.
Boredom seems to upset children too. They are generally excellent at finding solutions to it: in fact, I’ve always been encouraged “to do x, y and z – because it’s better than being bored”. This is also why children hate school: there’s no escape from boredom. Boredom is vilified from the get-go.
Maybe it’s time to be bored – and not to plug every free minute by consuming something in a directed manner. Having too much direction – too many goals – leaves us with a kind of schizophrenia-by-choice – as it is splitting us away from what’s actually going on. It’s not a comfortable thought for me. All along, I’ve been sailing towards certain coasts, catching up with milestones and deadlines – while becoming progressively wrapped up in my own bubble. At the same time, I am terrified of not sailing in a direction: the thought of waking up one day when I am x age and realising I’ve nothing to show for the last y years is scary. However, it is clearly also silly. By being more mindful of what’s going on – rather than constantly having my eyes on the prize, I will surely be mindful of what way my own life is unfolding.
A focus on the present moment doesn’t mean becoming reactive and directionless. It’s not about passively accepting everything that happens and losing all sense of agency. It’s about acknowledging what’s going on and what one can do about it – while letting go of illusions. I am talking about – most of all – the illusions propagated by modern-day influencers that we can create the future. In a sense, we can, but not through brute determination and risk taking – rather through relentless examination of what’s around us – and that means embracing boredom.
On a personal note, I have a very long night connection flight coming up soon – and I realised that I was dreading it. Why? Because I feared the impending boredom. For some reason, I can’t fully relax into a book or film while I am travelling. Then I remembered something I’d noticed year ago. Some of my most significant realisations tend to happen when I am travelling. Long connecting flights are better than any meditation retreat. One has to be alert enough to be on time, watch out for gate changes and not lose one’s boarding pass – and kind of kill time too. This state allows me to be ok with the fact that I will be bored. I am inevitably grateful with what bubbles up to the surface through this boredom.