There’s something. And I’m part of it, as are you. This simple fact is so amazing, it should be a daily wonderment—the Wow! that keeps on wowing through all of life’s routines and trivialities.
Existence exists. Seemingly there could have been nothing, though this is a subject that philosophers love to debate: can “nothing” be? Parmenides, I seem to recall, said “no.” Calling something nothing makes it something—a nothing. Buddhists similarly speak of the emptiness of emptiness, though speaking in this fashion fills the void with words, displacing the emptiness.
My head hurts when I think too much about existence. But I get an enjoyable chill up my spiritual spine when I simply try to wrap my psyche around existence. Not in a wordy way. In, well, an existential way. This happens when I try to let the stark reality of existence blow the roof off all my notions about what exists, when I try to strip away thoughts about all that is until the skeleton of a bare is remains.
For me, existence pure and simple is absolutely real, though I’ve never seen, heard, smelled, touched, or tasted it. I have no idea what it is, this essence of everything that can’t be a thing itself and certainly isn’t nothing either. I feel it much more than I think it. Not emotionally, but like sensing an invisible presence in a dark room that you know you’ll never be able to put your finger on.
Yet, is there. Oh yes, is surely there. So there, it’s more there than solid, substantial things. Existence somehow can make us starkly aware of its omnipresence without revealing the barest hint of its essential nature (assuming it has one).
My experience of the mystery of existence seems to be more abstract than that related by others. However, we seem to be touching the fringes of the same profound sense of wonder. John Horgan, for example, writes in his excellent essay “Beyond Belief”:
One of my fondest altered-state memories dates back [to] my late teens. I was sitting alone on the porch of my parents' house on a warm summer night. My mother and father had gone to a party, and my brother and three sisters were in a room just above me watching television. There was a kind of urgency in the air; the trees shimmered like dark flames against the starry sky, and the crickets and cicadas seethed and pulsed toward a crescendo. So loud was this insect symphony that I barely heard the inane laughter from a television sitcom drifting down from the open window above me.
I was suddenly overcome with astonishment that I exist, that the world exists, that anything exists. I wanted to run upstairs, grab my siblings, and tell them to stop watching that stupid TV show and pay attention to the miracle of being right there in front of them. Fortunately, I restrained myself. But everything I have learned and experienced since then has reinforced my sense of the unutterable mysteriousness of things.
Horgan notes that a British Buddhist, Stephen Bachelor, wrote about a similar experience. This, Bachelor says, was not “an illumination in which some final, mystical truth became momentarily very clear. For me it gave no answers. It only revealed the massiveness of the question.”
Yes, the question is massive indeed. As massive as everything that exists, and then some. Leibniz phrased the query as “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Unlike Bachelor, though, Leibniz answered his own question: Because of God. That’s an unsatisfying answer, but it worked for Leibniz. I have to ask a follow-up, though: “Why is there God rather than nothing?”
In the end, the mystery of existence is insoluble. I’ve read all or part of some heavy-duty philosophical books on this subject, and I’m pretty sure that the authors would agree that either Leibniz’ question can’t be confidently answered, or the question itself is meaningless (See “The Mystery of Existence” by Milton K. Munitz, “The Faces of Existence” by John F. Post, and “The Philosophy of Existence” by John Micallef. None of these books could be called light-reading.)
As was noted in an earlier post about Plotinus’s vision of the One, even a cutting-edge physicist such as Brian Greene, who is used to dealing with exceedingly abstract and far out cosmological concepts, says that a primal state of existence beyond space and time as we know it “pushes most people’s powers of comprehension to the limit.”
Still, I believe that even this is an understatement—pushes over the edge is more like it, presuming that you open yourself up to the mystery of existence and let it serve as a spiritual bulldozer. Or, if you prefer an attractive rather than repulsive metaphor, as the Mother of All Black Holes.
Existence is warm, fuzzy, and all too familiar if you keep yourself at a fair distance. But, as Horgan and Bachelor experienced, lurking beneath the surface of our habitual everyday perceptions is something more. A lot more. So much more that we can’t even begin to imagine it.
Plotinus called it “the One.” He said that you’ll never know it from the outside. However, if every possible distinction between you and the One is erased, then you can know it from the inside, as your very self. Which makes perfect sense (Plotinus was a rational mystic), for if we exist, then knowing the nature of Existence with a capital “E” should be feasible.
The problem is, few of us genuinely want to be one with Existence. Or, if you like, “God.” The prospect of being sucked irrevocably into that freaking ultimate mystery of all mysteries is just too much for our egos to envision, much less actually experience.
Believe me, I can relate to Horgan’s honest words: “One morning, I confessed to my journal that in spite of my professed interest in cultivating mystical wonder, I am actually quite content to remain in my ordinary dull-witted state. Deep down, I fear confrontation with reality. I keep it at arm’s length by turning it into an intellectual puzzle.”
In my first book, “God’s Whisper, Creation’s Thunder,” I wrote back in 1994: “The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of life remain only so long as we ourselves are a part of the puzzle. If you have done your best to fit together the puzzle, and find—as has the new physics—that some pieces needed to arrive at a complete understanding of existence seem to be missing, consider this: is it possible that the very consciousness which is trying to solve the puzzle is the only missing piece? Is there a way for you, yourself, to become the piece which completes the jigsaw puzzle of reality?”
I still think so. And I’m still trying to become that missing piece of the puzzle.
I am. Existence is. That’s the logical answer to the Big Question. But logic isn’t experience. I’m still waiting for the Cosmic Bulldozer or Black Hole to push/pull me from the idea into the reality. Patience, grasshopper. Patience.
[Those who want to dive right away into an intellectual black hole of philosophical musings about the mystery of existence can click here, here, here, and here.]
Hi, i read Munitz's "The mystery of existence", wonderful book.
i would like to ask you if “The Philosophy of Existence” by John Micallef is similar. I don't think so and it would be a pity wasting money buying it.
Please, if you already read it, can you tell me if its content is similar to the book by Munitz? Is that book centered around the question: "why does the world exists"? as in Munitz's? a friend of mine sent me the first page of the book scanned together with the content page, and it seems to me it is not similar to Munitz's.
Posted by: Matteo | February 17, 2010 at 05:28 AM
Matteo, I haven't read Micallef's book. There were some cheap used copies available on Amazon, so I decided to order one. I'll let you know what it's like after I peruse it.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | February 17, 2010 at 11:35 AM
Aahh that joy of realizing the nature around, and its intricacy and beauty, and the fact that I AM REALIZING IT! :)
Posted by: Ananya | January 30, 2012 at 09:19 PM
I've just had one of those moments in which you realize how amazing it is, the very fact that we exist is a miracle.
Posted by: Betty | April 02, 2014 at 01:47 AM
Thank you. Nice post.
Posted by: Lalit mehra | September 20, 2016 at 11:54 PM