Doing nothing, going nowhere: Reflections of an urban mystic

Nothing everywhere.

High overhead

The call of blue cranes

Antony Osler – Stoep Zen
Antony Osler

Covid-19 has been a time of turmoil, uncertainty, loss, grief, loneliness and isolation – nothing new about any of that! It has also offered an opportunity to redefine ourselves, to reassess our values, to reset our moral compasses. 

Seeing adversity as a stepping stone to re-evaluating our lives and identifying what is meaningful is one of the 12 principles for spiritual intelligence identified by the internationally renowned physicist, philosopher, writer and systems analyst Dana Zohar.

Other principles are: self awareness, humility, compassion, being led by vision and values, spontaneity; holism; asking deep and fundamental questions, reframing, not being afraid to stand against the crowd, the celebration of diversity, and a sense of vocation.


Holism means recognising the world as an unbroken whole.  Covid has created a sense of how interconnected human life is across the world; how we are a small part of a much bigger picture.

As quantum physics tells us, there is no such thing as separation in this world. There is no separation between you and me; between us and nature; between us and our beleagured planet. I am part of the other side of the universe. I can’t afford to think of myself as an island; I am part of the whole.

Dana Zohar

Live the questions

Albert Einstein

Questions are infinite; answers are finite.

Dana Zohar

We are always closer to the truth when we are asking questions than when we know the answers, Zohar says.

When Einstein was a child he asked so many questions that his teachers said he was a nuisance and he was made to sit down and keep quiet. When he was interviewed as an old man, he was asked what he enjoyed about being famous. He said: “When I was a child in school, the teacher would scold me for asking stupid questions, but now that I am an old man, I can ask all the silly questions I like.”

“Don’t accept what they tell you.  Don’t do it because someone says to do it.  Ask why. Why should I do it the way that you tell me?  How does it work?  Why does it have this outcome?  Could it be different? Undermine the system when you feel the system is wrong.  Undermine it with your questions.  Children ask questions all the time and that is why they are so fresh, that is why they are so spontaneous,” Zohar says.


To reframe is to change your mindset, your paradigm, to look at things with new eyes, to put them in a new frame. “We humans have to reframe our vision of ourselves as rulers of the world and see ourselves as fully part of the world,” says Zohar.

Reframing makes me think of the films of Yasujiro Ozu.

Going nowhere… isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

Leonard Cohen

Enduring images: the films of Yasujiro Ozu

The Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu made 55 films in his career. His films have been described as “exquisite in their simplicity”.

Life is simple and the man continues to complicate it by waving the still water

Yasujiro Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963)

Ozu’s films are recognisable by their spaciousness.

Although all his films always revolve around the life of a Japanese family, they somehow reveal the blank spaces between them and around them, around objects and furniture, and within different settings, creating a sense that there is something happening that is not part of the immediate scene – a kind of transcendent dimension. 

A chapter on Ozu’s work is in the book Inventing Peace (a book of letters and dialogue between film-maker Wim Wenders and Australian academic Mary Zournazi). The sense of transcendence in Ozu’s films, says Zournazi, “remind us of the perpetual continuation of life through the transformation and renewal of it, which is ultimately a creative affirmation of peace.”

The end of summer

In Ozu’s film, The End of Summer, there is a scene that speaks of the transcience of life, which of course is a very Buddhist theme. 

A man (Ryu) and his wife are fishing near a crematorium. Crows have settled nearby.

Wife:  Aren’t there a lot of crows today?

Man:  Ummm. Yes there are.

Wife:  Someone must have died.

Man:  Perhaps. But no smoke is rising from the crematorium chimney.

Wife:  You’re right.


Wife:  Hey, someone died after all. Smoke is rising.

Man:  Yes, so it is.

Wife:  It’s pitiful if it’s a younger person…instead of someone old.

Man:  Yes, but new lives…successfully replace those that die.

Wife:  Yes. How nature works.

They look at the chimney for a while in silence. Then continue fishing.

Yasujiro Ozu’s grave


The simple word mu is inscribed on Ozu’s gravestone.

The word often translates into ‘nothingness’ or ’emptiness’ in the Buddhist context.

Zen Buddhism suggests that nothing is also everything. This aesthetic principle can be found in Ozu’s approach to filmmaking and storytelling.

Ozu is one of many filmmakers who have attempted to convey what they perceive as the spiritual crisis and alienation of their times, and to shine a light on the sacredness of life.

Mu – Nothingness

Mono no aware

The terms mono no aware have been used in connection with Ozu’s films. They refer to an awareness that relates to the pathos of life as well as its transcience. Mono no aware has a long tradition in Zen and Japanese aesthetics. Its meaning incorporates a ‘sense of the continuing balance of emotions and a gentle or sympathetic awareness of life’s transcience.’ (Wenders & Zournazi)

You can find more writing by Melody Emmett here, here and here. She can be contacted at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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