The recent hot spell may partly explain why I find myself in such a listless state of mind lately. I was going to write about some pressing issue of the day, such as whether the United States can recover from another four years of Donald Trump (A: Not in my lifetime.), but that will have to wait. Right now I am more interested in nothing.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

“Nothing is more real than nothing,” Nobel Prize-winner Samuel Beckett wrote in his absurdist novel “Malone Dies.” I’m reading Beckett’s first novel, “Murphy,” at the moment, so that may have contributed to my estival nihilism as well.

The other day, I was getting my lovely wife’s car serviced, which necessarily entails an idle hour or two. Most of my fellow customers were reading, texting, surfing the web on their smartphones or watching the mindless chatter of daytime television. I was doing nothing. Very deliberately doing nothing.

“Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in his existentialist novel “Being and Nothingness.”

I’d like to be able to say that my own embrace of nothingness was the result of decades of philosophical inquiry, beginning with a taste for Camus and Sartre in high school, passing through a collegiate embrace of the Theater of the Absurd of Beckett, Ionesco, Albee and Pinter, and coming to fruition in later life under the influence of the Buddhism of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, but I’m just not that linear and logical.

My recent ability to sit or recline for long periods of time without doing a blessed thing is an artifact of five months in the hospital last year. Lying in hospital beds I first lost interest in the Red Sox, then everything else on television and finally even reading. I didn’t even really relish visitors. I became perfectly content to lie motionless in bed waiting for something to happen. Vital signs. Grand rounds. Blood draw. CT scan. Lying very still I found that my body and its various aches and pains just melted away. I was reduced to my consciousness of self.


When I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t fight it. I spent entire nights staring at the wall, watching the clock tick through the wee hours. I became a patient patient. A year later I can bring that sense of surrender to bear whenever the situation calls for sitting and waiting.

From what little I understand of Buddhism, the concept of emptiness is not the same thing as nothingness. Emptiness is a state of mind and perception free of presuppositions. It’s very difficult to attain, especially for a judgmental person like myself. Nothingness, on the other hand, is the human experience stripped of its false narratives, the myths we create in order to make sense of the phenomenal world.

Years ago, when I had the opportunity to spend a little time with Thich Nhat Hanh and the monks and nuns of the Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont, I was a total failure at meditation, both sitting and walking. I was never able to empty my head of all the busyness, the psychic noise, the firing of the synapses, the self-awareness, the habit energy that keeps us all going.

In popular culture, “Seinfeld” was billed as “a show about nothing.” That nonetheless survived nine seasons and now lives on in rerun eternity. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld realized that you can go a long way in life without a plan or a plot. Attitude is everything. Ultimately, nothing is revealed.

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