The nihilist’s way out

Nihilism seems to have undertones of apathy, doesn’t it? There’s something about it like a big sigh. A world-weary, ‘ho hum’ sort of way of being at the core of it.

But detachment… correct detachment, which is what the Eastern philosophical concept is often translated / sold as, seems to have a rather mirthful (or perhaps just serene) quality. And it does not mean, as the name might suggest, ‘not caring’ or ‘indifference’. Also, while nihilism is not materialist, detachment itself is neither non-materialist nor materialist.

Regardless, both concepts (nihilism and detachment) recognise the same fundamentals – basically that the joke’s on us… but the similarities end there.


Nihilism compactified runs along the lines of “there is nothing; (therefore) there is nothing that is intrinsically meaningful, therefore nothing matters”; detachment on the other hand (at least my interpretation of modern reinterpretations of it) will just lop off the conclusions: “Nothing IS, period.” It’s not bothered with outcomes (and by extension conclusions). Only the “is-ness” of things (even things that “are” nothing) are celebrated.

So detachment… or at least “correct” detachment, already seems to come off as the more satisfying way of thinking/being. A balanced way of being.

However, unless you ‘re gonna spend twenty years at the feet of some transcendental meditation guru, life without a biased focus on outcomes and conclusions is notoriously difficult for the average human being. The brain just isn’t cut out for that. But, I was thinking the other day, Nihilism might nevertheless be a useful precursor to the eastern-flavoured idea of correct detachment…

A beginning of sorts

Nihilism is the great simplifier of life: it cuts down everything at the knees, from enemies to unified theories and policies and best efforts to communities and people and their beliefs and their feelings… nothing is safe from its withering condescension. All is hewn down with the bleeding edge of the nihilist’s unassailable rationale, for what is easier to show, especially in our physicalist/secularist times, other than that nothing matters?

Nihilism is also pretty accessible. In fact, it’s a bit of an attractor in philosophical phase-space: don’t most soul-searchers tumble into it on their way to wherever else? I’d guess a lot of them do. It’s a sort of first model that explains everything away, scrubbing out the confusing cross-attributions and inconveniences of meaning in the real world, while you fine-tune your own understandings of things, per chance even to re-orient yourself for re-entry into everyday Reality (where, I can assure you, things will most certainly be ascribed lots of meaning… however you might feel about it).

Lastly, nihilism is a nimble concept… it can invade / give rise to / co-exist with / be derived from lots of other philosophies. Hell, even popular-yet-materialist positions like physicalism have, I’ve always felt, a sort of nihilism at their core… Try saying “quantum fluctuations birthed the universe and there is no need for God” without sounding a wee bit nihilist.

So far so good. Except that we don’t really socially promote nihilism, do we? We don’t feel safe around people for whom “nothing really matters”… and perhaps for good reason. But the ultimate Achilles heel of the nihilist is their own self: if you’re going to be sentient for longer than 2 seconds, nihilism is usually a fairly pointless state of being anyway. It won’t be long before you want to springboard into other realms. And depending, perhaps on your brain chemistry at the very least, and the circumstances of your life, you will navigate a path away from the raw Big NIL toward melancholy or depression, or hedonism, or servitude, or psycopathy and criminal behaviour, or faith/religion to name a few things. The world might literally be your oyster, actually, if you will travel through nihilism-as-a-hub.

It’s true that some people’s personal philosophies and life journeys will lead them straight away to materialist positions in which they can construct value systems that they can cling to… all with little to no prodding and little to no plodding about in philosophical purgatory. Perhaps these clear-minded folk are less at risk of falling into the spiraling, cobwebby arms of the Nihilism attractor, but in any case I am not concerned with them. Nor concerned for them as it happens. I reserve my concern for, and interest in, the people plodding about in their own heads, wandering and wondering:

Toward detachment

Out of all the possible ‘next states of thinking/being’ after nihilism, Detachment is the one, I’ve fairly arbitrarily decided, that encompasses the most of what nihilism is, without actually being reduced to nihilism itself.

But perhaps nihilism is a practice run before you can tackle detachment. You, the nihilist, have already had practice in ‘being in the world’ as a nihilist. You have had to maintain a duality: a belief/understanding that “there is nothing (of meaning)”, while in your everyday behaviours, actions and rituals, you will necessarily deny the same. So you are accustomed to what a b*tch duality can be. You might have a chance then perhaps, of growing accustomed to the non-duality at the core of detachment: meaningful/meaningless. You’ve met “both sides” of the non-duality, you can multi-task meaning and meaningless on a daily basis. But now suppose that you stop “multitasking” and embody both concepts simultaneously.

It can’t be done as written of course, because the moment we say “both concepts” we shatter the non-duality. But the point is, is it possible to live in such a way that the one thing does not necessarily negate the other?

What might ‘meaning’ be, anyway?

An idea:

Since the nihilist has mostly decided that reality is a feat of imagineering, the cause of which (at least for those nihilists that will admit that we even exist) might be the very nature of our sentience (senses, locomotion, neurology giving rise to a perceived reality), then reality might as well be reduced to the very mechanism of our being.

In other words, being a sentient being instantiates a set of perceptions that constitute (that being’s) reality. If we reduce an individual’s reality to the boundaries of the (sentient) organism that they are, might we not similarly constrain ‘meaning’ to the boundaries of that same organism? On the basis that meaning must exist within the realm of perceivable reality, and you ARE your perceivable reality (in that you manufacture it)?

Therefore the most authentic forms of meaning might be of your own being. And the most direct interaction with our ‘being-ness’ is though our bodies and our conscious manipulation of it. Yes, we can perceive meaning in a great many other things outside of ourselves, but recall that even the appreciation of such external things is manufactured by the process of being you, or “I”… that process itself quite possibly reducible to a nihilist’s illusion, but say that this is where we drew our arbitrary line in the sand. Our ‘exists for the purposes of argument’ line in the sand. So that, as far as the you that ‘exists’ is concerned, the instances of meaning least removed from yourself (i.e. OF yourself, directly), are the truest or most authentic forms of meaning.

So the ‘meaning’s that matter most might just be within the very tight sphere of bodily function: locomotive actions. conscious thoughts. Intention.

So “breathing”, for example – that favorite bodily function of Eastern-flavored focus – might have no no intrinsic ‘meaning’, speaking nihilistically… But consciously paying attention to the breath might be the thing that imbues it with something like meaning. This jives with the whole “mindfulness“, “being present in the moment” ethos, which wants us to celebrate mundane actions like sharpening a pencil, cooking a meal, or brushing one’s teeth. It joins the dots between nature-as-perception and nature-as-separate-objective-reality. Perhaps. In any case, for a nihilist looking to find a version of meaning that coalesces with the inherently meaningless world, this framework might have some value.

Only human

Correct detachment requires that, since you are human and will ascribe meaning to things, you nevertheless prevent that instinct from destabilizing your journey through life. It should not, for example, lead to incorrect attachment.

Perhaps, at level one of the escher-esque stairway to correct detachment, you can at least do this: you can have small intentions (honestly, I cannot linguistically do better than “small intentions”), directed at your own small actions (ditto for “small actions”), and through the intention (not the result, but the intention of the action), you create meaning. You embody meaning when you perform the action. And you accept that the outcome of each such meaningful action is meaningless. This just might be the act of symmetry-breaking needed to bring a fairly theoretical/philosophical, non-dualist concept into the realm of the quotidian.

Moreover, when someone else comes along and ascribes meaning to your outcomes, you do not lose sight of the fact that the outcomes are intrinsically meaningless. Yet at the same time you will not discourage others from finding meaning in the results of your actions or the artefacts of your being. You will neither encourage nor discourage them disproportionately. Because of the line that we arbitrarily drew in the sand, you are amongst other expressions of being, within which different philosophies and value systems might prevail. And within reason you don’t prescribe things for others’ existences, because that is the humane way forward. Despite the several paradoxes facing the nihilist, hopefully humane behavior is still worthy, even if meaningless in some more ultimate sense.

So the nihilist, through mindfulness, might cultivate a form of meaning that is not antithetical to the nihilist position: insofar as you have senses and locomotion, being (and by extension doing) is what will hold meaning, for the organism that you consider yourself to be. Being the organism is what shall be meaningful in this new sense, while the organism itself is not, nor is anything that it creates, nor it’s impact on the world, meaningful.

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