Why you should not worry
On nihilism, impermanence, and the oneness of cosmic life
A.: You don’t talk much, do you?
B.: I do when I have to. Otherwise I remain silent.
A.: I’ve noticed and think I now understand why. Do you mind if I speak to you about it?
B.: Please go ahead.
A.: Have you always been like that or has something happened to you that made you that way? I’ve known you for five years now and you always seem to be this way.
B.: I have always been the silent type, though experiences can always influence one’s disposition.
A.: I see. I thought it would be because of some event in your life or some phase you went through.
B.: Maybe you expected a different reply? I suppose you had some other topic in mind that you intended to elaborate on? I can hear it.
A.: Sorry for making this awkward… It’s just that I have been depressed for about a month now. Ever since my pet died. I had to quit a job that paid well and burnt bridges with old friends and colleagues, including a professor of mine from my days at the university. I was just too sad to listen to anyone or be productive.
B.: First off, there is no need to apologise. You have not done anything wrong and, as I said, I am willing to listen to you.
B.: Regarding depression and the loss of loved ones, I know exactly what you mean. It feels like each loss leaves an open wound in your heart.
A.: Do you mind if I ask? Did you ever go through depression like what I am experiencing now? Can you relate to what I am alluding to?
B.: Just ask. No need to get permission for it. Yes, I have suffered from depression. Perhaps it was worse than your case, though that is beside the point. In hindsight, it was not all negative though it really felt all doom and gloom at the time. It was a test of my mental fortitude. In those depths where all hope seemed lost and no escape route was clearly available, I was remade. A part of me died there, only for another to grow in its stead. I have since been able to lead a life of tranquillity and aloofness.
A.: How can depression remake you though? Were you not feeling like super demotivated and exhausted? As if your vitality was leaking away and there was nothing you could do to reverse the process?
B.: Depression is a state of mind that differs profoundly from your default condition. It puts you in a position of extreme doubt, where you no longer have faith in your own abilities. Yet that same doubt can be used to undo the damage being done: to question the very reason of one’s pessimism, to consider how absurd the sense of powerlessness is when there is no underlying inhibition, and to change one’s priorities by shifting attention to things that can no longer be questioned. Depression made me a nihilist, though unlike the semantics of that term, the transformation was of a creative sort. It provided the impetus for a power impulse that reformed my mental representation of the world.
A.: I think I have become a nihilist as well, seeing how I stopped caring about activities that once seemed valuable. Care to elaborate on your case? How can nihilism work against depression? Shouldn’t it be invigorating a vicious cycle?
B.: A vicious cycle is the expected outcome for as long as the nihilist world-view does not turn inwards. When, however, you ask yourself what the value of depression is you must answer in a consistently nihilist fashion, namely, “none”. You see, depression is related to a sense of not recognising the value in things you once cherished. Just as you once assigned significance to a job or certain social connections; a value that has since been lost though it might be established once more. What is value then? It cannot be intrinsic to those magnitudes, as then it would be impossible to alter it by merely thinking of them in a different way, same with how you cannot make a dog a biped by virtue of a newfound opinion. Value of this kind is a human construct. It is always extrinsic.
A.: Okay. We learn that a career and social relations are not valuable in themselves. They acquire subjective importance under certain circumstances. Otherwise it would indeed be odd to annul it. We have discovered this fact. Now what? Does that really cure depression? I can hardly believe it.
B.: It is not magic. The emptiness of depression is exposed in full only once the belief in its futility is deeply embedded in you to the point where it is unshakeable. Right now you have been merely introduced to the concept. Take your time to think things through. Let it “sink in” as they say. Besides, I did not mean to imply that this change of perspective is all it takes to fix the problem. Apart from what you may be thinking, a change of state is also contingent on your physical condition.
A.: Physical condition? Isn’t depression a mental illness?
B.: It is. Though what is the locus of the mental state? Does it have a standalone presence or is it an aspect of a fully fledged human being?
A.: It must be part of being human.
B.: Correct. The mental state is a facet of the human organism, not some parallel dimension that exists regardless of what the rest of the organism is doing. Put differently, there is no mind without body, no body without mind. They are part of the same system, even though we may speak of them as if they were distinct. When we express ourselves in such a way, we tacitly acknowledge that we are performing an analytical exercise where we abstract from the totality of all there is the patterns we deem relevant to our inquiry. The abstraction of the thing is not the thing.
A.: Fine, the mental state is related to the physical state. Which one takes precedence though? I would say that what I think is not dependent on what I eat, for example. I can devour junk food and still be productive at my job in the same way I can when I consume my favourite salad.
B.: Do not trivialise the impact of dietary habits though. Some processes yield effects over time. Others have more immediate results. Junk food or generally a poor diet will not burden you right away but will definitely work to your detriment for years to come. A better example for our case is alcohol. Can you be productive after you drink, say, five pints of beer? Seriously though, don’t do that. Just pointing this out for the sake of the argument.
A.: I see what you mean and can now better grasp the original point on the connection between the mental and the physical states. So it is how when we are sick or tired, where we can’t really concentrate despite our volition.
A.: So the body must be kept healthy? But how do you do that when depression makes you not want to eat properly? You don’t wish to exercise either. It seems like you are stuck.
B.: There is no one-size-fits-all. Each case comes with its own requirements and particularities. Sometimes you need help from friends and family and/or professionals. There is no shame in that—again, “shame” is an extrinsic value, so don’t worry about it. In my case though, I lived alone and had none but myself to rely on. I had enough base strength to go for walks, expose myself to daylight and, generally, keep the body functioning properly. Doing so ensured that I was hungry and had to eat properly, which prevented a deterioration of my condition. Given the depression, I avoided populated places and thus ventured into the wilderness. Perhaps that is what inspired my remaking. Being alone in the middle of a forest on a cold, rainy night awakened a primal force. Kind of how a dog basically is a domesticated wolf (some breeds more than others if you want to be technical, but I digress) yet still retains a kernel of its original wild nature that becomes evident in certain situations such as in social relations between dogs or once it turns feral. Depression cannot annul the animal within, nor can it deprive you of the sense of awe that the world gives you. When you set foot on a mountaintop overlooking a river valley, when you go for a winter swim at the ocean on a windy morning, when you escape from the comforts and distortions of your domestication, you realise how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things and how elaborate yet consistent the cosmos is. Such a realisation does not reduce you to nothing. Instead, it reminds you of what your core already knows: the distinction between pragmata and chrēmata, i.e. things that stand independent of human convention and those that are contingent on it. You dismiss the chrēmata, such as the notion of a stable job, the normativity of some “other half” to fulfil you or family life in general, wealth, what others think of you, etc., on the premise that their value is extrinsic and arbitrary. You cannot reduce your essence though, such as the fact that you may not render irrelevant your bodily functions through sheer thought. In other words, your original nihilism attains a peculiar counter-nihilist function, as you critically re-assess every human-made construct, every desire and aspiration, every figment of convention, in pursuit of the essentials. Hence the reversal of nihilism, for you cannot assign a zero value to that which is invaluable. The animal within is thus unleashed and with it a vigour and resolve unlike any other.
A.: You seem to have gone to extreme ends. Alone in the forest? That is scary. Not that a winter swim in the ocean is any less intimidating… I have not done anything remotely interesting this last month. Mostly stayed at home.
B.: Yet here you are now, walking along the seaside with an old friend. I did not say that my endeavours happened all at once. There were many prior incremental adjustments, such as a brisk walk around the neighbourhood at dawn when no people were around, followed by longer strolls, and so on from there. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Start small and take it one step at a time. The slow and steady road is the least treacherous one.
A.: I understand. Back to your escapades then. Your description suggests that one can be propelled to the greatest heights by delving into the murkiest of depths. Is that so?
B.: Maybe not as poetically, though that is the gist of it. To stick to your metaphorical approach, it is just like how the darkest and coldest hours are those before the crack of dawn. Or how the days preceding the Winter Solstice are the ones with the least sunlight only for daytime to start growing again in a symbolic triumph of light over darkness. Hercules or the Sun-god (or Jesus Christ if you need a more relatable reference) was born at around that time because a hero/saviour is not hindered by the expanding darkness. Same for the primal vitality that lies within this fragile animal right here.
A.: How do you think I can overcome the loss of my pet? It meant everything to me.
B.: I have lost loved ones too. The pain of the first loss was excruciating. And the second felt like a major blow. I gradually learnt that while feelings of sadness are normal, the shock and amplification of the accompanying pain is due to misplaced expectations. We are made aware of death from early childhood. We know that every form of life is perishable. We understand impermanence, yet for whatever reason act as if it does not apply to our case. My dog will die one day, as will everyone I love. Myself included. Nothing can be done about it. Perhaps then, when we delude ourselves, when we entertain lies about the permanence of our immediate milieu, we maintain an unsustainable position beneath which tensions develop until they culminate as a crisis of sorts. Whereas the approximation of the truth, the recognition of what is evident, can keep us on a sustainable path where we can withstand the difficulties with the understanding that life and death are indivisible despite of how we experience them.
A.: What do you mean that life and death are no more divided? Aren’t they opposites?
B.: They are, though only as we experience them, for we have a linear conception of events with a clear beginning and definitive end. Such is our subjective interpretation. The subjectivity of human perspective is of paramount importance. What we understand immediately is not necessarily all there is to it. The life and death of individual presences is indistinguishable in the grand scheme of things. The cosmos is all there is. Life everlasting, infinite loops of differentiation and transfiguration of the same underlying substance, consistent modes and patterns, ever-changing phenomenally yet constant overall. Forms of life are like figures in the clouds that reveal themselves as the winds are shifting, only to be dispersed and turned into rain until they take another shape once more, and so on forever. There is no life, no death, no beginning or end in circularity. Just ever-present being whose forms alternate between states with varying degrees of complexity and strata of emergence.
A.: This is counter-intuitive. How can the death of a loved one be the same as them being alive next to you?
B.: Intuition, what makes sense and what doesn’t, is a function of the scope of application. With how we experience things, there is indeed a difference. Think, however, about the notion of connecting dots until a certain silhouette is discernible. In micro terms, all there is are dots and straight lines between them, yet the macro view once you zoom out sufficiently is that of the figure. The micro and the macro perspectives reveal distinct facets of reality. Rather, they condition the perception of what is real. It would be false to claim that only the micro foundations are truly there and that the silhouette is but an illusion of interconnected dots, as that would fail to account for the actuality of emergence in supersystems. For instance, humans are made up of organs, which themselves are composed of molecules, which in turn are collections of atoms. If we suppose that the atomic stratum is the irreducible one, and if we hold that only the micro level is real, then we would have to conclude that a human being is an illusion. So I must stress the importance of the scope of application and how that informs the constitution of the case under consideration.
A.: Fine. So given a different perspective, life and death are not distinguishable. How is that?
B.: In the universe there is no presence from nothing, in nothing, or towards nothing. This means that everything to ever exist has come from something, in something, and towards something. Presences undergo transfiguration: those changing forms we interpret as life and death. There can be no beginning and end for that would entail start and end points of nothing. Transfiguration then. Leaves decompose into what practically feels like dust that saturates the soil, which in turn provides nourishment for other organisms that are all interlinked in complex ways, as well as supporting the seed that will eventually become a tree whose existence is also framed, informed, conditioned, by all other forms in its milieu as well as the prevailing conditions therein. The constitution of the human organism and of every organism is reducible to minerals, metals, water, carbon: elements we find in nature in various combinations or compound forms. Yet human is not the aggregation of those elements but something more, as factors in their particular connections—in their interplay—establish emergent forms that are distinct from those same elements without any particular connection between them. Same principle for systems of systems, hence the stratification of emergence. What we experience as death is the deconstruction of a system (or system of systems), whose components will become integral to the reconstitution of another system not necessarily related to it in formal qualities, and so on forever. Such is a matter of modality, of alterations to the mode of being, though not to being per se.
[ Read: Why I learnt to let go (2021-09-20) ]
A.: If that is so, what is the meaning of life? Why not die instead?
B.: The human being is conditioned to operate within a scope of application where those magnitudes are perceived as distinct. While the cosmic scale is characterised by incessant transfiguration, each presence is defined by an overarching commitment to its form. Death scares us because we are naturally inclined to preserve ourselves and thus resist the inevitable transfiguration. Even our stories of an afterlife are consistent with this propensity. We do not want to accept that what we are experiencing will cease to be and that other systems of systems will be constituted in its place, with different strata of emergence within them.
A.: Does life have a meaning or is it just a losing battle against the inevitable?
B.: We provide meaning to our life by assigning value to specific states of affairs, objects, animals, people… Kind of how you show more affection to your dog although you love all dogs. There is nothing inherently different other than the circumstances that have made one have a higher relative value than others. Though we can think of “meaning” in an altogether different light in terms of transfigurable interconnected presences in a cosmos that always is.
A.: You mean kind of “why are there humans?” and that sort of theme?
B.: Yes. To answer such questions I start by thinking about factors in a system. For them to form a system, they must affect each other in reproducible some way. Thus there are feedback loops of triggers or stimuli that carry consequences and repeat the cycle. A feedback loop represents a mode of communication, for it sends and receives information whose content determines the relevant outcomes. A system may then be described as a nexus of interwoven communication channels and a system of systems as a stratified nexus thereof. There is, in other words, a universal language with its concepts, notions, meanings, syntax. Then we observe pattern and structure in all systems. A single hair encapsulates all the details that make up the organism it belongs to. The small thing, a factor in a subsystem, has in its potentiality its particular supersystem. How can it know so much and not fail to remember everything or execute its algorithm properly given the appropriate triggers? Similarly a seed just knows when the conditions are right to evolve into a tree and why a given seed yields a specific tree instead of an unpredictable result. There is an immanent logic in the composition of all presences. Our logic has ontological implications exactly because there is only one logic, even if there may be differences in degree or capacities. Then comes conscience which is an emergent state that is not required for the self-reprogrammability of presences though has awareness of some aspects of it. Conscience is not specific to humans and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that it is limited to a given stratum of emergence either. It is a property of a supersystem, such as a human or a dog, though such systems are subordinate to other superordinate systems which themselves share the universal language and logic. It thus would not surprise me if there is a universal conscience as well and that we are all partaking in it exactly how we partake in every other aspect of the cosmos.
A.: Fascinating. Is the universe alive?
B.: That would seem so. If there is a language and a logic and if systems of systems give rise to conscience then there most likely is a supersystem beyond us which envelops us and which itself experiences the particularities of its given form. What that presence looks like is unknown, though it existing is plausible. The reason I mentioned those is to return to your point on a possible meaning to our life. Could our presence as humans be contributing to the experience of this greater being in the same way our molecules make our experience possible in ways we cannot perceive? Since nothingness is impossible, all we do amounts to something even if it too will be transformed or reused in some way as itself was the product of transfiguration. Perhaps our deeds are stored as cosmic data or memories that will be employed in the formation of new states of affairs. Or they are like dreams that may or may not have a lasting impression yet perform a certain function in a more general set of processes.
A.: What are the implications for how we live?
B.: We live in accordance with our nature because that is what we are designed to do. We cannot know whether there is some ulterior motive behind that fact. For me, the understanding that the cosmos is language or logic or conscience goes together with my belief in the oneness of the universe. Presences are interconnected, they co-exist, while systems of systems are interdependent at various levels. Just as there is no distinction between the human mind and the body, I think there is no such thing as a soul in the traditional sense of an irreducible constant “self” that survives transfiguration intact and travels to some otherworldly dimension or domain in order to be punished or rewarded for its deeds during its time as a human. There is no alterity to the cosmos. The one is divisible into many, which is why we have forms of being. These are all consubstantial. The notion of the other is one of perspective or circumstance, not of substantial difference. The oneness of life means that we live in a constant present without knowing what future forms will take shape and how their scope of application will condition their mode of being. In this ever-present experience we recognise our self in the others because we are them, they are us by virtue of jointly partaking in—and partaking of—the universe. There is no individuality, strictly speaking, for one cannot have a standalone presence in which they are not informed, framed, conditioned, or determined at the level of their supersystem, or partially at some of their subsystems, by an environment.
A.: These extend to how we relate to other humans, but also animals and plants, right? Basically you are saying that we are not special as a species, but also no single human is special in their own right.
[ Read: Why you are not important (2021-08-28) ]
B.: We are a form of life like all others. While our nature does not leave a choice on the fact that we must eat other forms of life for sustenance (even vegans consume life forms, i.e. plants), we can nonetheless conduct ourselves in moderation. Not engineer mass suffering and destruction for matters where we do have a choice: we may choose not to pursue excess profits, not to hunt down wild animals or erode their habitat, not to deforest areas for luxury housing, not to pollute the air and the waters, not to wage wars of conquest, not to exploit people at the workplace, and so on. This is why I think stories or myths of deities, higher beings, impeccable heroes or sages are useful. They allow us to imagine how a more enlightened agent would behave and thus inspire us to use our power with restraint just how an omnipotent god would. We need role models so that we may aspire to our highest.
A.: Now that you mention it, what is the role of god in this oneness?
B.: There is no god in the traditional sense of an entity outside the cosmos. If there must be a god, it is the universe as such. Meaning that the one god is at once the multitude of gods. Furthermore, there can be no god as absolute goodness, for that would require non-goodness to be assigned to some other entity, effectively outsourced, which is impossible given the lack of a cosmic alterity. Such otherness would have to be extra-cosmic, of an altogether alien substance so as not to partake of the world, in which case we would have to wonder about the more fundamental magnitude that encompasses it and the cosmos and binds them together as opposites. Again we return to the one, the infinitely divisible one. In oneness there can only be equilibrium. For us humans this translates into a life of moderation, of avoiding excesses or else of not committing hubris. Hubris is the act of attempting to defy the constraints imposed upon our nature.
[ Read: Why it is not only your fault (2021-11-12) ]
A.: If there is no god, what is the role of religion in our lives?
B.: At its best, religion provides a community that humans need as the social animals that they are. Religion can also popularise insights such as those I have outlined so that everyone can learn from them. Just as people need myths and stories, they also require relatable personalities who can help them find their way in life. The problems with religion are not inherent to religiosity: corruption, abuse of power, dogmatism…
A.: You said that our nature determines a great deal of how we live. Do you think monastic life is consistent with that claim? Monks don’t seem to be like the rest of us.
B.: Monks do not become non-human by changing their behaviour. They simply choose to forgo the chrēmata I mentioned earlier: all those things that have conventional value. Instead they commit to a purposeful life of contemplation, which practically entails a simple modus vivendi. The only reason I am not officially a monk is because there is no religion for people like me. That granted, I don’t think there is a requirement for all humans to lead a monastic life. Some must do it so that others may be inspired to live in moderation.
A.: I must say, old friend, that you have given me hope in these dark hours I am going through. I will probably have more questions, though I get what you are saying. Basically, we need not worry about what happens in our life because nothing is permanent anyway.
B.: We can still be sad, happy, joyful, indignant, but in a non-committal fashion. Emotions must not take hold of us. Instead, we have to accept them as they come and go, in the same way we cannot force our eyes to unsee, our skin to not feel cold or heat, our heart to beat, and so on. We do not cling on to emotions or to states of affairs that produce them: that is what the acknowledgement of impermanence implies. Experience the present for what it is, whatever comes, whatever goes. For example, I maintain that I am not attached to my ideas, projects, writings. What I mean is that I have long overcome the fear of losing what I have, such as by means of criticism. These are not truly mine because they can be alienated from me. What is truly ours, my friend? I think we will not like the answer, for we are reducible to the substance of the one. To return to your point though about depression and not worrying, we sense how nihilism is an untenable position as it assigns a nil value to matters that are invaluable and assumes to know the full extent of the answers to all those questions we have entertained. The honest nihilist annuls their nihilism. The point is that we have now discussed how to overcome the constraints of the self-defeating tendencies that depression engenders, fathomed the world beyond our own conception of selfhood and its immediate phenomenality, escaped from the narrow confines of our particular experience, and eventually realised that we can grow out of both the depression and its accompanying nihilism.