The transformative encounter with nothing


Following is one of my favourite articles by the Landmark Forum leader, Joe DiMaggio. This, and many articles, are available from Landmark Worldwide.


Chinese philosophers hundreds of years ago said, nothing is written. Canadian author, Margaret Atwood contemporises that notion:

From an early age I knew my ambition was to be in a plot. Or several plots – I thought of it as a career. But no plots came my way. You have to apply for them, a friend of mine told me. He’d been around, so I took his advice and went down to the plot factory. Like everything else, there was an interview. So, said the youngish bored man behind the desk, you think you’ve got what it takes to be in a plot. What sort of character did you have in mind? You could be the best friend. Or you could be the next-door neighbour, drop by for friendly chats. Or you could be some guy with lore – sort of like a coach. Or you could be a wise person.¹

It makes you think, doesn’t it – about an empty canvas upon which to imagine infinite characters and plot lines for how our lives could play out?  We might even test the waters – start over in a new country, switch careers after 20 years, change religions, leave everything we know and sail around the world – or just muse comfortably within the safety of our imagination. Each of those forays, real or imaginary, is an exploration between something and something else. What I want to explore here, however, is not something – but nothing.

If we look at our lives, and other people’s lives, we see a lot of activity and behaviour that clearly doesn’t work and is counterproductive. Why do we do that? If even before we do it, we know it’s not going to work, why do we do it? The answer is usually because we have some attachment to the significance of what we’re experiencing or what we think it means. It’s like we tell ourselves, “Well, things are a particular way, therefore I’ve got to handle things a particular way.” We don’t realise that the level of the information that we’re dealing with is microscopically limited against what’s possible.

Here’s what I mean: We get born, and we’re taught whatever we’re taught, the culture passes on to us whatever gets passed on, our families and educational systems teach us whatever we’re supposed to learn. And we hold on tightly to all of it – because to be accepted, good, or at least, well-functioning, we need to know something. It seems, though, we never really question the underpinnings of what we know.

We end up with a view of ourselves that we essentially just accept. We have a sense of how we developed this trait or that quirk, this conclusion or that belief. We say that life means this or that, or you mean this or that, or my life is about this, but it should be about that. Kurt Vonnegut says it this way in his book, Deadeye Dick:

I have caught life. I have come down with life. I was a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness, and then a little peephole opened quite suddenly. Light and sound poured in. Voices began to describe me and my surroundings. Nothing they said could be appealed. They said I was a boy named Rudolph Waltz, and that was that. They said the year was 1932, and that was that. They said I was in Midland City, Ohio, and that was that. They never shut up. Year after year they piled detail upon detail. They do it still. You know what they say now? They say the year is 1982, and that I am fifty years old … Blah, blah, blah. ²

Like Vonnegut’s character, we may see that who we are came from what we were told, places we lived, and experiences we had – mostly when we were young and learning to deal with life. Along the way we made decisions to get through the circumstances we encountered, let’s say, when we were 5, or 7, or 10 years old. Those decisions worked for us at the time, so we kept them around. A kind of absurdity lies underneath acting as if who we are today is just a compilation of those ways of being that we put together way back then. Obviously, we’re not really stuck with those ways of being – also, it’s not inherently who we are. So the question becomes, who inherently are we? Maybe nothing – maybe there’s no inherent way that we are. Perhaps in the underpinnings, there’s this … nothingness.

We live in a world where meaning is attached to almost everything, but not as if we were the ones who put the meaning out there. We think it’s really out there. If we remove meaning from life, then what is really out there? Maybe nothing. This encounter with nothing can be a difficult task for any human being, because we are wired to perceive all phenomena as meaningful. There are things out there: the sun, a road, a tree, a lamp, a friend. But what does the tree mean? Does the tree mean, oh, that tree was placed here so I can sit underneath it and read? Or might the tree just be a tree? What if we just for one moment strip out the particular meaning we’ve added to a tree being there, or to things that have happened in our lives, and then ask, what’s really out there? Perhaps there’s nothing inherently out there – things are just the way things are.

This notion of nothing or nothingness has been pondered by philosophers over the centuries. “Nothing” puts us face-to-face with the malleability of our present meanings – it is antithetical to the common-sense view of our culture. It is our structure of meaning that defines our individual relationship with the world and gives us a confident hold on our identity – which we grew up holding as fundamental to healthy human living. To encounter nothing as a freedom, we must pass through and beyond our initial and natural resistance to the very idea.

One of the essential elements of Landmark’s technology is that it makes this transformative encounter with nothing available. Nothing is elusive – nothing, as nothing, disappears. While we may get it and then lose it again and again, getting it even once is an experience we never get over. The importance of an encounter with nothing lies in the fundamental relationship of nothing to being. Nothing, or non-being, is the other side of being; and just as we cannot fully understand light until we have experienced dark, a full openness to what’s available in being human demands an equivalent openness to nothing – an essential element of transformation. When we are able to access nothing, we are able to create, design, and live with a freedom that’s not available when we create from something.

But the nothing that’s available for us to experience is not nothing as a negation of self. A transformative experience of nothing does not do away with our identity – our identity is simply no longer seen as defining, in any way, the limits of what it is to be human – in the same way that our height or gender doesn’t define it. The possibility of being human is open to being created. The message isn’t that we are nothing – “being nothing” is an oxymoron, and an identity is as necessary for the game of life as a playing piece is for the game of Monopoly. The nothing we are speaking of here is nothing as a clearing for self, a clearing that frees the self from its own self-imposed restrictions, leaving us with the full range of possibility available to us in being human.

~ By Joe DiMaggio, MD, Landmark Forum leader

1. Adapted from Margaret Atwood, The Tent. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2006
2. Kurt Vonnegut, Deadeye Dick. New York: Dell, 1982


Image: Jill Krementz, courtesy of The New York Times


22 thoughts on “The transformative encounter with nothing

  1. Love these quotes by Atwood and Vonnegut. Both of them are real bell ringers.

    Great question: Obviously, we’re not really stuck with those ways of being – also, it’s not inherently who we are. So the question becomes, who inherently are we?

    I kept picturing an old wooden stele driven into the European ground. And when the word ‘nothing’ was used I asked myself if it was ‘nothing’ or how it was ‘nothing.’ Or the minds that created it. Their lives.

    Not sure I really am sure what the author is getting at.


  2. This means nothing to me and that does not mean anything (nothing). or as est trainer said,’it does not mean anything that it does not mean anything.’ Cleveland, Ohio est training forerunner of the Landmark forum Nov. 1977

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It does not mean anything and it does not mean anything that it does not mean anything. Am not sure I have the words quite correct. You do get the meaning. gnd III


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