The Temptation of Nothing
A man lies on his living room floor. His eyes are closed, arms by his side. His face is still, even, but occasionally furrowed. He continues to lie there and then, after several days, a smile begins to form. Suddenly, he feels free from the hassles and negotiations of the social — free of words and phone calls, of texts and emails and traffic, of PowerPoint and stomach aches, of all the worldly things that drag him down. In closing his eyes, he's shutting out his body and this crass, physical world. He's entering the pristine world of the spirit.
Another man lies on his living room floor, eyes closed, arms by his side. And, like the other man, a smile begins to form after several days. But he's not smiling because he's distancing himself from the world. No, he's smiling because he's breaking out of the hypnotic trance of anxiety, fear, desire, and judgement that define our everyday. He shuts his eyes not so as to deny his body but so as to feel his body from the inside, as if for the very first time. He's smiling because he's alive, because he feels the cosmos flow through him. He's not smiling because he's not part of the world; he's smiling because he is part of the world. And just lying there is enough, is plenty, is everything. Why? Because life itself is beautiful and perfect.
From the outside, the two may look the same. But they couldn't be more different. Or at least that's the idea.
My shrink — who is of another order, another plane; he's not a therapist per se — has been encouraging me to be that second man, to cut out all intoxicants for 90 days, give or take. Do nothing, he says, just be. And then you can drink and what have you but not because it sates but because you want to. For him, there should be no difference between sitting on the floor doing nothing and getting lit.
Me, I'm not so sure. Isn't this world always inflected, always in motion? Certain doing feels and does good while some does not. I may be body and spirit but I am body, for sure, and right now a cocktail sounds mighty fine.
For as long as I can remember, I've been a seeker — and finder — of pleasures. From my high school daze to my present self-employment, I've never been one to suffer when there's another way. I'm a good drinker, a good consumer of this and that. It's a comfortable life, my life, for the most part.
But, alas, these pleasures are not always enough to keep the horrors of life at bay. I still have the demons of my fucked up childhood; I still wrangle loves lost and found; I still have to watch people I love die and, from time to time — too often — it leaves me dazed and demented, frazzled, depleted, anxious, and awash. At times like these, neither the booze and Ativan nor a kiss suffice. Which is why I found myself at the shrink's office in the first place.
His vision is that I should feel pleasure — joy — from just being alive, not from a Vicodin-scotch cocktail. It's not that he believes that this joy comes from doing nothing. In fact, he asserts over and over that it doesn't matter what I'm doing, as long as I embrace doing it. He believes I should do nothing for a while to break my dependence on the hypnotics of pleasure which leave me, finally, lacking. And then, perhaps, I may imbibe as I will but it won't be to put the demons away but to experience life just as I would lying on my floor, eyes closed: with joy.
But the thing is, I'm not so sure that's right. After all, aren't I body and shouldn't I feed it pleasure, even if that means sometimes experiencing harrowing sadness, pain, and anxiety? I love this world — I love words and ideas, chocolate and trees, smiles and dreams and gin. I don't want to do nothing; I don't feel I should have to do nothing. I want to be in and of this world, thoroughly and ecstatically.
Yet I don't want to be enmeshed in the horrific culture of despair that insists, that persists. And the image of calm amidst the storm that doing nothing dangles is certainly enticing — perhaps even more enticing than this tasty gin cocktail.
Nietzsche, I believe, would assert that both modes — pleasure and doing nothing — are nihilistic modes of avoiding life. They may be less egregious than Judeo-Christian sanctimony and ressentiment but they are still salves for the weak. They are premised on the belief that life needs remedy whereas, for Nietzsche, life is always already perfect. His version of joy is different than the Buddhist version in that his is lined with flesh and words while Buddhism defers to silence and spirit. Both seek to affirm this life. But the do-nothing way poo poos words and ideas and actions while Nietzsche affirms them as being as much of this life as anything else and therefore perfect. (I want to say that Buddhism seeks bliss — the transcending of the body — while Nietzsche seeks joy, a radical affirmation of the body.)
In any case, I am not that noble man Nietzsche writes of. Life, for me, is hard — I live the despair of death, the humiliations of the body, of guilt, of anxiety, self-loathing, and endless judgement. For many years, I've been able to negotiate all this with a cocktail of delights and life engineering. But lately I'm feeling this strategy might have run its course and that another kind of pleasure awaits: the supreme pleasure of life and nothing else.