In the Spring of 1970, at the age of 27, Janis Joplin first sang the lyrics to a song that would make her an international superstar. The tune was called Me & Bobby McGee. And one line in particular has transfixed listeners over the ensuing decades: “Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
In the context of the song, that stanza depicts a loss of such gravity that one’s life has contracted to essentially nothing. An unfathomably dark place. In fact, within six months of first reciting those lyrics, Joplin would be dead.
Nothing left to lose.
Yet the tragic reference has another perspective. Which was the quintessential liberation Joplin strove toward with the word “freedom”.
Very much like another poet / philosopher twenty-two hundred years earlier, Zeno of Citium, who lost everything in a shipwreck. Zeno would subsequently found a school of thought known as Stoicism, citing this insight: “It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you are free to do anything.”
Nothing left to lose.
But what is nothing?
From the perspective of another philosophical school of thought, A Course in Miracles, the word nothing has an astonishing equivalence.
The world is nothing (W-pI.132)
Everything we think of as reality, as substantial, as consequential, as meaningful is … nothing.
But not nothing in a pejorative sense. Rather, nothing as an ethereal essence. A vaporous wisp.
As that passage continues:
Your mind [gives the world] meaning. And what you behold upon it are your wishes, acted out so you can look on them and think them real.
In other words, what we consider to be reality is a tabula rasa - blank slate - upon which we project experience. And thus Joplin’s line is quite insightful. Freedom is the recognition that nothing can be lost. Because nothing is literally an imaginary concept.
Which is the spirit of salvation for which Janis Joplin sung, to which we all aspire. As the course continues:
There is no world apart from what you wish, and herein lies your ultimate release. Change but your mind on what you want to see, and all the world must change accordingly.
Nothing left to lose. Because only nothing can be lost.
Join me in Thursday’s class where we’ll explore this concept of nothing-ness, and practices we can cultivate to experience the “tremendous release and deep peace” of which the great poets and sages speak. I look forward to seeing you then.