This phrase – nothing to gain, nothing to lose – seems like an important one to me in my current state. I have witnessed its power especially in moments of stress. It is a fear-removal agent that acts to reduce and eliminate the effects of delusional societal thinking. I want to discuss this and consider if there is any sense in it in what follows.
‘nothing to gain, nothing to lose’ implies that the concept of ownership is null. What about ideas and learning, then? Can that not be thought of as a gain without invoking the completely artificial conception of private property? But the implicit message of this phrase goes far deeper than this. It seems to delve into issues of primal concern for us such as free will, our natures, and our identities. I will consider these one by one.
First, let us examine four options for interpreting this phrase:
A) There is nothing out there that could represent a gain if acquired and nothing in me that could represent a loss if removed, meaning that there is no value in things that could be acquired nor in things that could be removed.
B) There is nothing out there to acquire and nothing in me to remove, meaning either a coexistence of ‘I already have everything I want’ and ‘I don’t have anything’ or a coexistence of ‘I already have everything I want’ and ‘I don’t want anything’. In other words, either ‘I want nothing’ or ‘everything is nothing’ for the first option. The latter is clearly a fallacy, so we eliminate it. The second option is more trivial to reconcile; it reduces down to I don’t want anything. So, both options converge on the same meaning: I want nothing.
C) Ownership and property are false human imposed concepts that have no grounding in reality, meaning that it is impossible to own anything, so nothing can be acquired and nothing can be removed because nothing could be thought of as ‘owned’ or ‘property of someone’ in the first place.
D) Fate has already determined what I will acquire and what will be lost from me, so there is nothing for me to do, thinking that ‘tiny little me’ in the grand scheme of things is actually choosing freely. So there is no need to exert effort to acquire what I want and protect what I have because that’s taken care of by my destiny.
So, A says ‘nothing has value’; B says ‘I don’t want anything’; C says ‘I can’t have anything’; D says ‘I can’t change my destiny’. These are the only options for interpreting the phrase “nothing to gain, nothing to lose” that I could come up with. I’m sure there’s more, but my mind is not currently receptive to these.
The first of these propositions deals with the intrinsic nature of things and asks whether this might have any value inherent to it, to which it replies in the negative. The second deals with desire and proclaims not to have any. The third deals with our concept of property and how this relates to our identities and whether these are defined by us or independent of us. The fourth deals with free will and proclaims not to have it.
I want to deal with free will first. If my future is predetermined, is my ability to choose compromised? It is evident that some choices are still being made, whether by ‘me’ or by the universe. So it seems that what is at issue in these sort of questions is not whether choice can be made but if it can be made freely. In other words, can ‘I’ choose, or does the universe choose for me? This way of formulating the question reveals its deeper implications. What it really means to ask here, but which it conceals in questions of free will, is: do I exist autonomously? Autonomy is an implicit property of our concepts of selfhood and it is precisely the conflict of this notion with reason – and even reality, but more on that later – that provokes our deliberations on free will. In fact, I believe that it is the central, and perhaps even the fundamental, property of what we call “self”. If a being is not autonomous, it has no will; it is what we would say of a rock or a puppet. Such beings are entirely subjugated to the forces and conditions of their environments. A puppet has no self, precisely because it is not autonomous, but also because it lacks that other essential feature of selfhood: consciousness and self-consciousness. What I mean by ‘I am autonomous’ here is that when I am presented with an opportunity, it is me, in other words my ‘self’, that makes the choice freely, and it is possible for me to choose any of the available options, at whim even. That this is at odds with reason and reality is clear: it should be, in principle, possible to trace my every action back to its roots in the complex interaction between my genetic blueprint and my environment, if one believes that my brain is the source of my actions, at least, and not some ethereal ‘soul’ substance. If this were shown to be the case empirically, then my notion of my ‘self’ will have received a deadly blow; at least half of it will have. However, the notion of choice will not have been affected by this at all. That a choice was still being made, absent my own autonomous contribution, is evident. So, logically it is more correct to say that the universe made the choice than that I did, since it is clear that all the mechanistic factors contributing to my particular genetic code and my environment are themselves conditioned by other mechanistic factors, and that if we continue thus searching for the cause in this we shall eventually come to see that it was the state of the entire universe at a given moment in time which conditioned the following moment, and in it, my action. I am referring here to the causal interconnectedness of everything; nothing can be causally isolated from the universe in analysis. If this is so, then it would seem that our usual concept of our identities is flawed in its assumption of causal autonomy. And then our fixation with questions of free will becomes understandable; we recognise at some level that there is an inconsistency in our core beliefs about ourselves and seek to reconcile the contradictions. We search, and hope, for arguments and models that can demonstrate and prove our causal efficacy. Whether by recourse to the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics or by invoking soul-stuff, we reveal our attachment to this idea that we are autonomous.
‘Nothing to gain, nothing to lose’ can be interpreted as in D above if the idea that self is autonomous is abandoned. It is arguable that the refutation of causal autonomy implies also a refutation of our primary assumption that we have selves in the first place. If all that’s left is consciousness, then it rests on whether one believes that this can be reducibly or otherwise explainable on neurobiological grounds. I am currently inclined to believe that it can, and people who share that disposition with me have no grounds left to justify the belief that they have selves, since there would be no boundary left to maintain between self and other. If both my actions and my awareness are conditioned by mechanistic factors stretching to encompass the universe in its entirety, in what sense then can I continue to maintain that these are ‘mine’? In order that I am not misinterpreted I wish to clarify here that when I speak of self, I am referring to the common intuition about the self, that it is both autonomous and self-conscious, and not the trivial understanding of ‘self’ as a reference, in the way that any object may have a self when it is referred to by ‘it’ or ‘object’. The phrase under present analysis thus comes to light in the abdication of selfhood implicit in the understanding of causality. Thus, ‘nothing to gain and nothing to lose’ is understood to mean that there is no self inside me that freely chooses and can gain and lose, and that instead there is just a causal chain of events which we label as ‘gain’ and ‘loss’ erroneously due to our misguided belief in independently existing selves.
Now, it is clear to see that option C for interpreting the phrase has been brought under the fold of this interpretation and it has proven to be entailed by it. In the abdication of selfhood, the impossibility of ownership becomes amply clear. And so, there is no reason to pursue this interpretation further. Option C has revealed itself to be a special case of, or a superficial account of, selflessness. The notion of private property depends upon, and flows quite naturally from, the belief in independently existing selves, which if abandoned, renders the former utterly null.
Option B takes an internal point of view, rather than the external considerations of the last discussion. In this the phrase ‘nothing to gain, nothing to lose’ becomes meaningful in that nothing is desired in the first place. However, this seems not to be the case for the vast majority of humanity, and so I may be questioned as to the relevance of this interpretation. There can scarcely be found a human that does not entertain a host of desires, the primary of which might be health or happiness, at the very least. Given the desire for happiness, for instance, any situation which brings me closer to this can be thought of as a gain. Absent this and with it all desire, however, it becomes clear that nothing can be gained nor lost. Nevertheless, the question may be asked, and perhaps rightly so, as to the relevance of this view to the world since something as basic as desire can hardly be absent in the average human being. The value in this consideration depends upon another consideration which sheds light on the sufferings of humanity and traces the roots of this in desire. If we clearly apprehend that all our suffering has always been conditioned by our desire, then it becomes understandable why a cessation of desire is aspired to. However, there seems to be a paradox here concerning the aspiration for the cessation of desire, which itself seems to entail a desire, and so can seem to be self-contradictory. However, in a previous argument, I found that in order to arrive at the cessation of desire, which is a radical departure from our current states, we must first harbour a very general desire for happiness while eschewing all petty desires for spatiotemporally localized things. Since our nature is to desire, we must strive to clarify our understanding of what it is that we desire, and by so doing we shall realize that what we have desired from time immemorial has always been the same, namely happiness. But our confusion has led us to seek this in the acquisition of petty things, and once we have been sufficiently thwarted in these efforts, we shall abandon that route to happiness and pursue another. This is the encouragement that ‘nothing to gain, nothing to lose’ always gives me. It advises me to stop grasping for things, because happiness is not a thing to be gained. Happiness is a realization and a cessation and a release from the grip of incessant desire. Admittedly, however, this effect depends upon the extent to which desire and suffering are seen to be related. In my case, I strongly believe that the former leads certainly to the latter, and as such, this phrase has a powerful effect on me.
Finally, we are led to the consideration of option A above which asserted that there is no value to be attributed to any thing which it is possible to gain or lose. It is my strong conviction that there is no value in anything except insofar as it brings us closer to happiness and further away from suffering. If desire is taken to condition suffering, as I believe it does, then there is no value except in the cessation of desires. If the only way to achieve this lies in the pursuit of truth, then this must be the only thing which it is justified to pursue. However, pursuit necessarily implies a potential gain. So, it seems there is a conflict here with the phrase ‘nothing to gain’ since truth is valuable, and if pursued, can be gained. Perhaps, a distinction needs to be drawn here between the pursuit of truth and every other possible pursuit. In this way, the phrase can be reformulated as ‘nothing to gain except truth, and nothing to lose except truth’. But this is dissatisfactory as this new phrase has a quite different meaning. The solution to this puzzle lies in the subtle understanding that the truth which is aspired to and pursued is in this way rendered distant and provokes effort and analysis in order to arrive at it, whereas the final realization will reveal the truth to have always been within us but hidden by the distraction and agitation of our minds in their incessant grasping after things. In this way, we can understand the phrase ‘nothing to gain’ to imply that we must abdicate all our attempts to gain in order for the mind to settle down and allow us to see what has been here all along, right at the very heart of things, in the present moment waiting to be discovered. If we were to pursue truth as a thing to be gained like any other material object one may strive after, we will only succeed in clouding our minds and making it harder to apprehend reality which is stretched out before us at every moment of life. Here we finally come to see why there is no value that can be attributed to anything which one can strive after and procure, since these necessarily engage the grasping of the mind and the yearning and desiring which keep its focus perpetually scanning the external world for the slightest opportunity to fulfil these desires. This last argument is heavily couched and grounded upon intuitive experience, and as such it may be subject to criticism for lack of persuasive force by those who have not ever tuned in to their internal realities. That this grasping and desiring blocks the mind’s clear apprehension of truth is undeniable to me because I have experienced this directly, and so to attempt to forge an argument that will prove this is exceedingly difficult, but the lack of which detracts nothing from the validity of its assertion as a brute fact.
To tie all these fragments together, it suffices to show the four interpretations to be intimately linked and flowing from the same underlying mindset. Options C and D examined the matter from the point of view of a metaphysical consideration of selfhood whose crucial point was that the causal interconnectedness of the universe entails a refutation of the common assumption that a self exists as an autonomous entity set up under its own power and in this way independent of the whole. Without a self to fall back upon, and seeing that my actions and choices are conditioned by the whole, what use is there to struggle and resist the natural flow of our common destiny? In this sense, there is nothing to be gained or lost because there is no one to gain or lose – that is to say that our usual conceptions of gain and loss subtly imply the existence of this independent self which is that which gains and loses, and seeing the utter impossibility of such a self’s existence, we are forced to a like annulment of our conceptions of gain and loss. Options A and B examined the matter from the internal point of view of the attribution of value and desirability. The crucial point from these considerations was that value cannot be attributed to any thing which is gainable or losable because these things are irrelevant to our happiness, which consists in the cessation of our suffering, which is itself driven by our desire. What is relevant, then, is our internal relation to the world and to reality in general, and whether or not we grasp and strive after things. The things do not possess intrinsic value since it is not the thing but my reaction to the thing which conditions my happiness or suffering. Seeing the matter in this way, we come to the realization that the happy person is the one without desires, and for this person it can be said that there is nothing to be gained and nothing to be lost. These two points taken together naturally synthesize the motivational aspect of the phrase under consideration, finally brought to conceptual clarity but always intuitively appreciated, that is as follows: surrender and submit to the natural flow of events, God, Dhamma, the Universe, whatever you like to call it, and quit striving for your own sake at the expense of all others’, but instead release the grip of your mind on this limited and tiny notion of self and let your being rise and expand and grow to the fill up the cosmos to see what a tiny and insignificant portion of it you occupy and to rejoice in your participation in this Cosmic Self and to relax and to be content to let whatever is happening happen seeing in this way and from this cosmic point of view that there really is nothing to gain and nothing to lose.