239 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

Read the most recent articles, or mail the editorial team to contribute.

Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

Most of us would reach for the dictionary to find a description for “nothing”, so here goes nothing:


Nothing is: nothing (pronoun) is not anything, not a thing: nothing. But is there more to it? The term nothing makes its appearance in the works of many great thinkers and philosophers. Like Socrates, for example who said, “I only know one thing: I know nothing.” In this context, nothing refers to knowledge, in other words, that which is not tangible. But isn’t nothing the intangible immaterial?


Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Nothing has no centre and it borders on the nothing”. He situates the “nothing” as an endless given. What would I do with absolutely nothing? Before “something” exists there must first be “nothing”. Could you describe this as a cause and effect reaction? In today’s society, one must be sure to do “something” to stand out. But doesn’t this great collective desire for “something” not simply heighten our desire for the “nothing”? “Although one can profit from something, we can only find that which is useful in nothing”, according to Lao-Tse3.

Tom Friedman, Erased Playboy Centrefold

Let’s get this straight. At this point, I’m convinced that “nothing” indeed, is intangible. But I do think that “nothing” becomes tangible when it is the starting point for an idea. The absence of “something”, or in other words, “nothing”, acts as a foundation, and creates the urgency to fill the space of that which is lacking substance. Does “nothing” really exist?

When I look around me, I see many concrete things, but I don’t see a sign of “nothing”. Is “nothing” not just a term that humans have devised? Maybe we created the “nothing” so that we have a word for the incomprehensible and the unfathomable, an idea translated into vocabulary. Is “nothing” simply a made-up thing that we’ve grown accustomed to?

The Nothing

The villain from the film The NeverEnding Story: a dark cloud that engulfs all.


Artistotles said that everything that exists within the mind has first existed within the senses. Haven’t we just talked each other into the concept of “nothing”?

For example, when I look at the sky, I ask myself if this is “nothing”. No. The air is made of particles, molecules, and these are made of atoms. Has science, then, spoiled our mystical idea of “nothing”?

The thought of a complete vacuum is exciting. But science has rationalised this concept and to told us that this is impossible.

Martin Creed, Work No. 227 The lights going on and off

So if an external “nothing” is impossible, what does this say about an internal nothing? Is it possible to not think or feel anything? These are questions that I still struggle with.

But I can share my own experience. I can’t think of “nothing”. There is always something going on in my head. If I tell myself to sit quietly and think of “nothing”, I’ll only think of the word “nothing”. Feeling “nothing” seems like even less of a possibility. “Nothing” must then also be impossible internally. But what, then, remains of “nothing”?

“Nothing” is intangible. “Nothing” can be the start of “something”. “Nothing” can become “something”. “Nothing” could be just a man made word. “Nothing” can be a thought or a feeling. “Nothing” does not really exist: simultaneously the meaning of the word itself. In the end, this text is much ado about nothing.

When I was a child, my father used to ask me “What are you thinking about?” . And when there was just a rush of thoughts, or nothing special, or something too embarrassing, I just said, “nothing”. To this he would also reply in a very sarcastic tone: “Nothing? How is that possible? Is your head totally empty? Is there a vacuum inside?” Of course that was not the case, and although I replied “Yes, kind of”, my head was always full of thoughts, but it was an easy way to end this awkward conversation.

Void particles

Then, when I became a teenager, my head got filled with too many thoughts, so I started to think about cleaning it up, and I came across the Buddhist philosophies. According to these, the goal of life is to get rid of these thoughts, get rid of the Ego, and be one with the “nothing”. This would be the key to end the suffering of daily life. This is called “Nirvana”. In fact, I tried very hard, but apparently this was the key to not succeed, because the more you want the nothing, the less you get there. And actually I never experienced or saw nothing until I reached the point when I didn’t want or expect it to happen. I did not even realise it was happening, it was just there. And it was there in several forms.

Last year I was working in fashion retail. Sometimes I had to watch the top floor of the store, and greet all the people coming up. As greeting is a starting point of the communication, I had to look into the face of every customer. I believe, when you look into someone’s face, you can normally see what is inside. And there it was: nothing. It is hard to describe, although I tried to explain it to myself so many times, that I could really see that emptiness, that vacuum, or not even that. Just nothing. No expressions, no real goals, no sign or inner processes, but also no sign of interpreting the information of the surroundings. It was there. At this time I always asked myself, what could have possibly happened on the floors under me that washed away the content of their cranium so efficiently. And I was also wondering if it could happen to me as well, me, who spends more hours in that building than any of them.

Dawn of the Dead, 1978

Zombies in the shopping mall

And yes. Afterwards I went home, and I was sitting on the couch, staring at the wall in front of me, and there was nothing inside. Nothing to say, nothing to feel, no urge to eat or do something, but no thoughts either. It was even more shocking that I often tried to think, and I could not. I just could not grab an idea and stick to it, because it floated away, like when someone tries to grasp the water in a river. So this was the state the Buddhists wanted to reach? This is annoying! Actually there was still something that is not perfectly nothing, namely the longing for something, the willingness to do, to think, to be. The last cry-for-helps of the ego, who was not ready to disappear, but not cared about enough to function in a meaningful way.

The Value of Void, Navid Nuur

Luckily this period ended before any tragic consequences could have happened. Now, as a fresh art student, I was free to think again, and do, and create. And then it really happened. I was travelling across Europe in a bus. During all the days of the journey I was overwhelmed by impressions, I was realising how many opportunities there are, how many artists there are to learn about, how many ways exist to place letters on a sheet of paper, how many relationships… On the last day I was extremely tired. I was walking around an unknown city for days, I was drinking too much beer, smoking too many cigarettes, and had not really slept. Instead of sleeping this night we decided to travel back. I decided to lay down on the floor between the chairs and try to sleep. It failed. As it was useless to complain about it, I started to accept the situation, just as I accepted the dirt around myself, the chewing gum stuck into my stockings, the random objects falling on my head… As I was lying there, I realised that my feelings and memories were vanishing away, and I welcomed the open emptiness in their place. I stopped thinking. My motivations and intentions were no longer there. I did not want. I did not want to sleep or eat anymore, but I also did not want to not sleep or not eat.

The Neverending Story, The Nothing

Just the same was true for everything. I did not think, and I did not want to think, thoughts just “were”. My ego was gone. It stopped working. There was the “nothing”. The nothing inside me, lying on the bus floor, among the falling-down jackets, scarves, cigarettes and who knows what else, staring at the cloudy sky or a science fiction movie, feeling the waviness of the German highway in my whole body. There was an unexpected, inglorious moment of Nirvana.