On Some Terrors of Nothingness


In 1654, Blaise Pascal wrote:

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

In 1939, William Faulkner wrote:

“Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.”

In 2014, a group of scientists ran an experiment investigating the validity of these statements, testing whether people left alone to sit quietly in a room, when offered the choice between pain and nothing, would actually be unable to remain still and choose pain. Participants were left alone, sitting on a chair in an otherwise empty room for 6-15 minutes, with two rules: no falling asleep, and no getting out of said chair. Additionally, they were provided with a small red button that, when pressed, administered a mildly painful electric shock to the participant’s body via attached electrical pads. The study found that participants preferred self-administering painful electric shocks to themselves over sitting quietly with nothing but their thoughts for 15 minutes.

What did participants encounter in that vacuum of external stimuli that drove them to shock themselves? Why is it so fucking difficult to meditate for more than 15 minutes? Have you tried it? The boredom can be excruciating; the rising sense of restlessness inevitable; the weight of wasted time accumulates.

Why? Perhaps because if I’m not doing anything, then I don’t know who I am. My identity is tethered to my biography, and sitting quietly doing nothing makes for an uneventful story. When I do nothing, I feel myself sinking, disintegrating into a vacuous oblivion, a numb non-existence, and everything I am rebels against that.

Of course, this isn’t really happening to me when I meditate, and it wasn’t happening to the participants in the 2014 study. But I suspect we’ve learned to savor the fragmentary surges and jolts of experiences, rather than the neutral, ever-present, miraculous fact of experience itself. The former orientation renders us little different than slot machines, in perpetual need of inserted experiential coins to sustain vitality. This becomes problematic when one cannot keep up the flow of stimulating experiences, inputs, to sustain one's sense of being alive.

As with the participants left alone in their chairs with nothing but an encroaching void and a plastic red button, the rush of electrically stimulated pain promises to keep us alive, with a jolt of experience, if only for a little while.

What might it take to realize that when our coins run out, when experience flatlines and idleness engulfs consciousness for long enough, if we’d only sit in that chair a while longer, what dies is the tether between identity and vicissitudes. ‘I’ grow less attached to the treadmill of experiences, and what emerges is the bare, moment-to-moment beholding of experience itself, the wonder-full apprehension of any given, gifted moment.

But this is all talk, writing to distract myself from the silence of an otherwise uninterrupted moment. I’m sitting in the chair now. I’m a participant in the study. I’m in Pascal’s room. I’m choosing Faulkner’s pain. Writing is my plastic red button, and I’m pressing it frantically, like a man gasping for air in a deflating vacuum. If I couldn’t write, and I had to just sit here, I’d probably take the shock after a while. Wouldn’t you?

If you enjoyed that, consider signing up for the Mind Matters Newsletter, where I write small things similar to this, share new essays, post brief book reviews, and the like: