Look Who Thinks He Is Nothing

Seekest thou God, then must thou, Man,
First lose thy Self-identity,
Nor ever find again the trace
Of Self in all eternity.
--Angelus Silesius           

There’s an old joke about a rabbi who prostrates himself in the synagogue during the High Holy Days, crying, “Oh, Lord, before you I am nothing!”  The cantor likewise prostrates himself and cries, “Oh, Lord, before you I am nothing!”  The janitor, watching from the back of the synagogue, gets caught up in the fervor of the moment and joins in.  “Oh, Lord,” he cries, “before you I am nothing!”  The rabbi, taking note of this, nudges the cantor and whispers, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”

As with many jokes, this one tells its own kind of truth; in this case, that even self-abasement is not entirely free of one-upmanship.   Every religious tradition has recognized that the self and its desires are an impediment to higher spiritual attainment.  Most have developed elaborate ascetic disciplines to “put to death the deeds of the body,” as St. Paul advised in his Epistle to the Romans.  However, as often happens, the self will not be denied without seeking another outlet for its gratification.

There is no accounting for the lengths some devout souls will go to in mortifying the flesh.  The Desert Fathers performed feats of self-denial that beggar the imagination.  St. Anthony gave away his worldly possessions and shut himself in a tomb.  St. Simeon Stylites perched on top of a pillar for the last 37 years of his life and never came down.  The saints and monastics who followed wore hair shirts and scourged themselves with whips.  Flagellation, which began as an act of penance in certain monastic orders, became a central feature of popular movements in the 13th and 14th centuries.  Huge throngs of flagellants wandered from place to place, especially during plague years, until they were eventually suppressed by the church.       

The young Buddha practiced extreme asceticism for years before deciding this was not the path to enlightenment. In Buddhism, as it subsequently developed, the self is regarded as illusory – a view shared at least implicitly by many mystical traditions.  It therefore becomes a question of how much energy you want to invest in subduing a self that, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist.  Think of a hypochondriac trying to cure an imaginary disease, and you get the point.  The self can be an impediment to higher spiritual attainment only if there is one.  Once you realize you are nothing, there is only one thing left to do – nothing.

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