You read that right: NOTHING
Joan Konner is inviting us on a tour of what poet Shel Silverstein used to call: “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”
Joan is one of our most respected journalists—as Dean Emerita of the Columbia Journalism School and a longtime producer of Bill Moyers documentaries. Right now, like all journalists, she is standing at the end of a sidewalk, watching her beloved profession crumbling in front of her—and hoping that creative new forms materialize ahead. She’s also interested in the voids beyond what our language and our religious faiths can express.
She wants more people to become aware of the vast body of reflections on “Nothing.” And at the same time, she has created a book about this Nothing in a new-style format that she calls a “sound-byte library.” She’s standing at the end of the sidewalk of 20th Century journalism—casting her new style of book into the undefined nothingness of this 21st Century.
Sound just a little too abstract?
Well, get a load of this book! If you enjoy Buddhist Koans (logic puzzles designed to bust the mind free of our normal daily patterns of thinking), then you’ll enjoy her 300-page collection of bits and pieces on Nothing from a whole host of thinkers.
Among the hundreds of references here are thoughts by Douglas Adams (of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame), Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Woody Guthrie, Pope John XXIII, theologian Paul Tillich, J.R.R. Tolkien, Bill Waterson (of “Calvin and Hobbes” fame), Elie Wiesel and W.B. Yeats.
This is a wonderful little (it’s a pocket-sized hardback) guidebook to these incredibly anxiety-producing times in which we live! When we think we’ve reached a point where familiar old forms are falling away—and we see a yawning void of Nothing ahead? Well, that’s where the fun truly begins, Joan argues.
“Nothing is where knowing stops. And starts!” she writes in her introduction. “What Nothing should not be is a Dead End of thinking. Nothing is the other half of Being, of the paradox we call reality. Irrational? Naturally.”
That’s the adult version of where Shel Silverstein took us as kids. With Joan in your pocket, you’ll feel honored to be standing at that precipice with giants.
Order “You Don’t Have to Be Buddhist to Know Nothing: An Illustrious Collection of Thoughts on Naught,” by Joan Konner, from Amazon.
Highlights of Conversation with Joan Konner on
“You Don’t Have to Be Buddhist to Know Nothing”
DAVID: You call this book’s format “a sound-byte library.” You’re famous, Joan, for your television productions with Bill Moyers, so I understand the “sound byte” reference. But tell us more about this concept?
JOAN: I do hope that more people recognize that this is an important format and that it is journalistic. What I’m trying to create, over time, is a sound-byte library of important ideas. I’m collecting and preserving and organizing them so they’re accessible to people.
DAVID: Well, we truly are ready for new forms. No question, we’re at a precipice in American print media. Newspapers are crumbling all around us. Book publishers and bookstores are going through a painful transformation. We really need to devote our collective energy to preserving the best of our culture in collections that will survive this transformation.
Are you surprised by how fast this is all moving?
JOAN: We were all taken by surprise, especially those who are running newspapers and are scrambling to try to survive. The process began with cost cutting, even before this economic crunch brought about by the Web.
This change already was happening in the 1990s, even before the Web hit full force. Then, once the Web hit, it meant a faster diminishment and devaluation of the print product for newspapers.
DAVID: It’s not entirely clear to me from your book where you stand personally—although obviously you’re very interested in these challenging ideas in philosophy and religion in your new book. What can you tell us about your own religious orientation?
JOAN: I’m exploring the inner landscape. That’s my agenda and I think it’s part of the religious agenda, too. I see myself as a journalist if anything.
I don’t call myself an agnostic but I do recognize that I will never know. As I explore this field, this beat of ideas, it takes me into what is sometimes called the spiritual landscape. After 45 years in journalism, at this point in my life I’m interested No. 1 in pursuing ideas and No. 2 exploring the inner landscape. Other people may describe it in different ways, but that’s how I prefer to say it.
This exploration does take you into your own belief system, if you have one. I respect many of the religious traditions. I think that insight, experience and wisdom are present in religious traditions. I myself was born Jewish and I have great respect for that, but if you ask me to name what I’ve learned the most from—and what seems to guide my own behavior now—I say I’m a “Trans-Zen-Jewish-Quak-alist.” By that I’m referring to the Transcendentalism, Zen Buddhism, Judaism and Quaker traditions that inform my actions in the world.
DAVID: I like the way you approach these questions. One of the most important interviews we’ve published in the past few months was with Samir Selmanovic, an author and activist based in New York City who says that all religious traditions—including atheism—need to be a part of our community.
JOAN: Yes, I would acknowledge the importance of that full spectrum with one qualification and that’s: life affirming. If I have any bias in my religious belief, it’s toward affirming life, because that’s all we have. Some people have carried religion into areas that are not life affirming anymore.
DAVID: You’re not talking about “pro life” issues here, are you?
JOAN: No, I’m not referring to that term. I’m talking about a definition of “life affirming” that sees a pattern connecting life and nature and science and even religion in a positive way. There are positive and negative forces out there. The killing of life, as in the actions of a suicide bomber in the hope of a better life after this world, is not acceptable to me.
DAVID: Another important writer we just welcomed into this online magazine was Jacob Needleman, who wrote a landmark book back in the 1970s about the emergence of Eastern religions in California at that time. He’s still writing and just published his memoir, which we recommended to readers, too.
You quote Needleman in your book: “America is the land of zero. Start from zero, we start from nothing. That’s the ideal of America.”
You’ve lived through this same era of our history and, like Needleman, you’ve been a close observer of what’s unfolded. Are you surprised by what you’ve seen?
JOAN: I can’t say I foresaw where we are today, but I did report on some of this as it unfolded and I experienced it.
This seeking we’ve experienced started as a challenge to Western values, materialistic values. Those materialistic values grew into what we now call consumerism. And this seeking often was an integration of Eastern thought into Western culture as a different way of being in the world.
People were learning from another tradition that had been introduced into our culture in quite a different way. They were experiencing this through meditation or spiritual practice without a religious institution behind it.
I served for a long time, about 10 years, with the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which works to introduce contemplative practice into our world. That was not a religious organization although it had at its root the Filet Mignon of all religious practice: contemplation. You might call that prayer or meditation or centering prayer as some Christians practice it.
I can’t say that I’m surprised that there is this growing movement against the materialistic traditions of Western cultures. But, this takes us into even thornier areas. We are bucking a scientific tradition on which our Western tradition is built. It’s logical and provable and physical. But what people were exploring in the 1970s was their inner freedom to choose alternatives from other traditions. This led to a clash of values. It was acknowledging that there was something beyond our world—something “other.”
DAVID: Now, for Jacob Needleman, his gateway into this mysterious “other”—this larger spiritual realm—was through his exploration of the ancient religious texts. He began teaching in San Francisco as a religious skeptic, but his immersion in these ancient texts seemed to wake up his spiritual awareness.
JOAN: That’s a connection that’s hard for me to make. The power of the texts is in the beauty of the expression and the knowledge in the words.
But here’s the other side of the coin: Our vocabulary literally contradicts the infinite. That’s what vocabulary does. A word contains a thought or an idea, so while I think of the beauty of the text in earthly terms—our own vocabulary—I think the power of the text can point the direction and when the text runs out, then symbols start to point the direction as you find in Jung’s work, let’s say. And then you come to a certain point where Nothing is known.
At the end of the power of text, we’ve reached the beginning of something. I’m not talking here as a scholar. I’m a researcher and I’m a journalist. But I am interested in these people who we might call mystics who reach a point beyond which we don’t know. It’s like a horizon point where things converge. Call it a zero point.
People may imagine their own beliefs into this point and that might take the form of a literal God or it might take the form of George Lukas’ Force. You can imagine into that zero point, but basically we don’t know. Our words don’t work there. Has some text tried to capture it? Yes, I think this is what my book is trying to do.
Nothing is really a difficult subject. When I start talking about Nothing, my own friends sometimes look at me like deer in the headlights not knowing what I’m talking about. Yet, as I’ve shown in this book, there is a great body of literature that addresses this awareness of Nothing.
DAVID: Yes, there are many who have touched on this puzzling concept down through the millennia—you even quote Jeremiah on your first page, talking about “void” thousands of years ago.
When I think about the limitation of language you’re raising, I remember the Zen monk well over 1,000 years ago who was famous for tearing up Sutras to encourage a more immediate encounter with Buddhism. Words got in the way for this Zen master.
JOAN: Right. Right. Sometimes symbols are the most expressive. One of the most expressive Eastern symbols for me is the Tao. The combination of the light and the dark and the paradox in the symbol—I don’t want to go into talking about all of those traditions here—but that symbol has great meaning for me in terms of Nothing.
DAVID: Well, we may have lost some readers along the way with the abstractions of this interview and perhaps with some of the references we’ve made here. So, I want to make sure we end by emphasizing how much fun this book represents.
I mean: real fun. There’s amusing and very thoughtful stuff here.
You’ll find this from Tennessee Williams: “A vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.”
Pope John XXIII is here: “The feelings of my smallness and my nothingness always kept me good company.” What a great line to capture his disarming humility!
You even quote A.A. Milne’s Pooh talking with Christopher Robin, who tells Pooh that he loves doing “Nothing.”
“How do you do Nothing?” Pooh asks. And there’s an exchange between them that made me smile to remember it. Then, Christopher Robin finally says:
“It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
Of course, you’re not alone in recognizing the spiritual insights of Milne and his characters.
JOAN: There is fun in this. Nothing has its depressive side to it, but there’s also a lovely side to Nothing as well. Buddhist thought posits that Nothing is love and light, when you erase all boundaries and transcend into this world of Nirvana. It’s love and light. So you have these polarities from Sartre to Buddha.
Once you’ve concentrated on Nothing for a couple of hours, you’ll wind up laughing. There are lots of jokes you can make about this. Seinfeld certainly did.
This book has a playful organization to it. That’s my intent. The form is more important than you might realize just opening the book and seeing that it’s a collection of quotes.
Today, we communicate and think in short form. Television started this process, but the Internet is pushing it even further. So, this collection of quotes is a very carefully researched, checked and planned collection of quotes that is part of what I hope will become a journalistic sound-byte history of ideas.
That’s my passion—to play with this as an artist might. My own inner sense is that books like this are verbal collages.
I wish some publisher with real force in the marketplace would get behind this idea and see that there’s real value in this kind of sound-byte library dedicated to the preservation of perennial ideas in accessible form.
There are so many important ideas that can be gathered in this form simply by doing the careful research and creative work of assembling them.
This really is journalism to me. We must find new ways to explore and write about our inner landscape.
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