I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism
– 1901. Friedrich Nietzsche
“Whether you worry or not, you’re still going to die. Live in the moment and don’t overthink it. Reject your nation, your religion and your family – in fact all traditional values are there to choke you.”
As a millenial, I feel that there is a lot of this kind of thinking, termed existential nihilism by some, inherent in my generation’s minds. It’s not that I feel compelled to defend or reject traditional values. It’s that many in my generation seem to reject them for the sake of rejecting them. Sometimes I feel like the world we live in remind me of the Brave New World.
On my first encounter with mindfulness and Eastern philosophy, it seemed nihilistic. In fact, many of my peers practice yoga and seem to reject the religions that are common in their societies, usually Christianity of some description. What many fail to realise, of course, that yoga and its associated spirituality is a filling the same need a religion filled in the past. For others, it is politics. The fervour with which people hold on to political beliefs is fascinating. They may not have a deity in the heavens, but they almost certainly identify with a historical figure or a modern day pharaoh.
Eastern philosophy seems to abhor any kind of resistance and perpetually focus on the present. You know who only focuses on the present? The kids who had the marshmallow straight away. People on drugs. Criminals. People who don’t worry about the past and the future. What makes them different? I guess they have different values and no discipline. The East in all about discipline. Mindfulness is a perfect example of that – but it’s not really a form of resistance. It is a way of embracing the present moment rather than diving into whatever form of escapism is distracting us at that time. They seem to believe in acceptance, no matter what. For example, Pema Chödrön talks about two ways to go into a gas chamber: free or not free. For someone who detests nihilism, the only correct way is to die fighting long before he is faced with a gas chamber. Interestingly, Buddhists believe that anyone can become a Buddha – and powerfully affect other people’s lives. This doesn’t seem nihilistic at all, though getting there does. In fact, it’s really empowering. You can, kind of, be a sort of God. Buddhists also believe that understand reality is key. This means they accept that there is a true world – a belief inconsistent with nihilism. It’s not that the world is meaningless, it is that the meaning is ambiguous. This concept is too abstract for the kinds of circumstances that we humans usually use religion to deal with. That’s one explanation as to why while the religion may not be nihilistic – its followers tend to be. At the same time, I find it hard to see a Buddhist who is ambitiously crossing off items off his to-do list. Thinking of the future doesn’t seem to gel with Buddhism as it inevitably takes you away from the present moment.
On the other hand, in Western religions, we are told to forget about the present. It’s all about making it into heaven. There is a purpose. We’re all about resisting temptation in the West. Pure resistance. However, this is precisely the sort of thing Nietzsche called nihilistic. He claimed that Western religions get us to forsake our current life for a promise of a better life in heaven.
It turns out that it doesn’t matter: you can focus on the present or on the future. You can be all about resistance or not at all… And still end up a nihilist. A religious one, too.
Could it be that religion, and its substitutes, tends to attract people who are inherently prone to nihilism? Religion gives us the illusion that there is always someone to fall back on; that if we’re good, it will all work out. It’s a way of letting go of responsibility and finding explanations for everything. It is a way of finding someone who will lead us. Perhaps, looking for a leader is in and of itself a nihilistic thing. People who cannot find the inherent meaning and value of life look for ways to explain what it’s really about – looking for ready-made answers, where, perhaps, the only way to find them is by on your own.
Where does it leave us then with mindfulness? Mindfulness comes from a non-nihilist tradition. It’s about understanding the world. For most of us, the context is that we are either too concerned with the future or too preoccupied with escaping the present. Hence, it is a safe way to get a better grip on life.
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