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  • Writer's pictureilana

The Joy of Zero

What the number zero can teach us about freedom. ~~~

A time in my life when I was closer to zero.

In my twenties I was a substitute teacher for Special Education classrooms in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I would sometimes work with a class for several months and other times I’d work for just a single day. Despite spending only one day with this particular class, there was a student in the group who has held a place in my memory twenty years later.

This student was non-verbal. I can’t remember exactly the task we were working on together, but it had something to do with flash cards and numbers. What was notable about him was that every time a card with the number zero appeared in front of him he would laugh and become excited. At first I didn’t make the connection that his laugh was related to the number zero. After several rounds of moving through the deck of cards, however, it occurred to me that the only time he would laugh was when he saw the number zero. He would point to it and double over with laughter. I began to find it funny too, though I didn’t know why at first. It began primarily as a laugh of joy at sharing in his delight.

After an hour or so of working with him on this “task”, I began to see the humor in the number zero myself. What an odd thing that we have labeled this number that is no-number, “zero”. This thing that is unaffected by other numbers. You want to multiply it by 5? Sorry, it’s still zero. You want to add it to the number 20? You’re still left with 20. And it is still 0. It is not affected by our attempts at dividing either. When I tried to divide the number 88 by zero in my calculator, the response was “Error”. What a delightfully impenetrable number! It is nothing. No thing. It is the symbol of freedom!

"The Tao that can be talked about is not the true Tao"

So begins the philosophical Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching.

Follow the nothingness of the Tao,

And you can be like it, not needing anything,

Seeing the wonder and the root of everything.

Image by Rob Middleton

In Taoism and in Zen, there is a practice of always coming back to the “don’t know” mind. This is a mind that does not make anything. We simply are. And we allow everything to be as it is without “painting legs on a snake”. This is a Chinese idiom that, in an essence, means we don’t add anything that isn’t there. Just as the zero leaves the other numbers be. Zen master Su Bong says, “Trust that the snake is enough. Why do we need to put our idea on the snake? 'Snake you don't have legs, so I put on you legs because you should walk. Now you have legs, so of course you need socks and shoes.' So you make a snake with legs and socks and shoes. If you cannot believe that the snake is enough, that means, we cannot believe in ourselves. We cannot believe our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind, so we cannot believe anything.”

How much of our lives are spent trying to make things into something they are not? Including ourselves? We can learn from the zero in this regard. Zero is the enough-ness of being. It is the snake without the legs and shoes and socks.

The fool is the zero

The Fool from the Rider-Waite tarot deck

The fool in the tarot deck is represented by the number zero. They are no-thing. The fool is in a perpetual state of beginning. The holder of potential. Undefined. As Alejandro Jodorowsky describes it in his book, The Way of the Tarot, the fool “represents the original boundless energy, total freedom, madness, disorder, chaos, or even the fundamental creative urge.”

What would we be if we were to become the zero? To be ourselves before we learned to “paint legs” on our already complete and perfect being? Who are we in the chaos of the creative urge, before identity, outside of our persona? Is this madness or freedom or are they one in the same?

The student could not tell me with words why he found the zero so amusing. However, I do feel there was some mutual appreciation for the “madness” of the zero. For its ability to stand alone, incapable of being reduced or divided. Whole and complete in its nothingness. The Tao that cannot be spoken.

Perhaps he and I were delighting in the possibility that zero offers - of our own selves existing freely, unable to be divided or multiplied, in our innate foolish state.

Journaling Prompt*

In what ways, moments, aspects are you the zero?

Leave a comment below or email I'd love to hear your reflections.

*Journaling tips can be found here.


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