I have just finished two books on the concept of nothing: a book on John Cage, titled “Where the heart beats“, and Jenny Odell’s “How to do nothing“. I picked up the former first, so I had no idea that serendipitously Odell would attribute a life-changing moment to a performance of John Cage’s music:
This particular night, I had come to see the symphony perform pieces from John Cage’s Song Books. Cage is most famous for 4′33″, a three-movement piece in which a pianist plays nothing. While that piece often gets written off as a conceptual art stunt, it’s actually quite profound: each time it’s performed, the ambient sound, including coughs, uncomfortable laughter, and chair scrapes, is what makes up the piece…I walked out of the symphony hall down Grove Street to catch the MUNI, and heard every sound with a new clarity—the cars, the footsteps, the wind, the electric buses. Actually, it wasn’t so much that I heard these clearly as that I heard them at all. How was it, I wondered, that I could have lived in a city for four years already—even having walked down this street after a symphony performance so many times—and never have actually heard anything?
Contrast this with the reaction when Cage’s 4′33″ was performed the first time in 1952:
The furor that arose around 4′33″ inflamed the town for weeks afterward. The anger was so great, Cage observed, that he lost friends. “They missed the point,” he said. “There is no such thing as silence.”
Imagine doing something you consider your life’s work and it was so provocative that it made you lose friends. But decades later Cage’s music would be performed by the San Francisco Symphony and it would change Jenny Odell’s life, and she in turn, would create a talk and a book that would inspire countless others. I love these connections that span across generations of history. Cage himself was inspired by Zen, a philosophy thousands of years in the making, fused with both Taoist and Buddhist principles. I wonder who would be a world-changing beneficiary of Odell’s book, and who will they pass the baton to?
I return to the concept of nothing. As Cage stated, there is no such thing as silence – perhaps nothing is a space where we reduce so much of noise, that it allows us to notice what is really there. This is one of the main takeaways from both of those books.
To be able to do nothing is a privilege, as Odell acknowledges in her book. But it is also a privilege many people these days can afford but do not use, as they opt to get busier and busier, using busyness as a virtue signal. I had found myself returning back to my workaholic patterns whether I was doing volunteer work, taking a sabbatical, or more recently, delivering food. I learned that changing my external circumstances can only affect so much, and it is my internal programming that haunts me whatever I do, even when I attempt to do nothing.
Odell tells a story about a man who quit his job in his early 20s because he became ill due to stress, and after two years of travelling he founded a retreat that allowed people to digitally detox. Unfortunately he passed away at 32 due to brain cancer, and in an eulogy for him:
In his eulogy, Poswolsky says that Felix “dreamed of escaping the stress of running Camp and moving to a beautiful farm somewhere in the redwoods where he could just listen to records all day with Brooke.” He also recalls that Felix sometimes talked of buying land in northern California. Even farther from the city than the old Camp Grounded, this new retreat would let them do whatever they wanted, including nothing: “we could just relax and look up at the trees.”
We often escape from one stressor to another. Doing nothing sounds really idyllic and simple until we actually try to live it. I just got back from ten days of travelling when right after I fell sick because I tried to do too much. Four years since quitting my last full-time job, I still suck at doing less, much less nothing.
After years of experimenting with various diets, habits and regimes it finally occurred to me that my problem could be me. I just don’t have the capacity to notice when my body has had enough. I am constantly trying to actively shape my life and body into submission, into states I imagine and predefine as optimal. But what does my body really want, and what do I really need?
I feel like I’m nearing the age of 40 and I still don’t know how to take care of myself, much less others. Society has conditioned us to believe in certain wants and needs, and humanity too, has been actively shaping the world into submission, into states we imagine and predefine as optimal. We need more imagination and introspection in designing our society and lives, but we are still caught in vicious loops of busyness, never stopping to question like Odell does in her book:
Productivity that produces what? Successful in what way, and for whom?
People often mistake the call to do nothing as simply for rest and restoration. We stop there. We think only losers need rest. Apart from the research that shows creativity takes place in a space free of distractions and interruptions, and that we need rest to be alive – it is only when we enter states of quietness that we notice things that have always been there, but too busy to notice. Just like how Odell only starting to notice all the sounds after listening to Cage’s 4’33”.
By allowing our internal programming and external conditioning to drive us to our busyness, we deprive ourselves of the wholeness and fullness of life, the world and our selves could have been. We don’t notice what we are losing, or destroying.
In a personal context, I have been chronically suicidal since I was a kid, and only in recent years have I begun to question my perception. What I see is what society has taught me to see, and I would like to enter a life where I learn to see out of the narrow boundaries that modern society has bestowed upon me. For Jenny Odell it was birdwatching, for John Cage it was the sound of silence, I am not sure what would it be for me. But it was only after I removed as many external stressors I could remove, that I noticed how powerful my internal programming was. What would it be like to live a life being as aware as possible of my unconscious drives, and being capable of overriding it with conscious intentions? I don’t know, I haven’t lived that life before, and I am only just beginning to learn how to.
I look forward to be acquainted more with nothing.
I plan to write full reviews of these two books, but just wanted to document some transitionary thoughts post-reading them.