“What is the rule that tells us how to be?” is the same as asking what the method is for being, what the correct procedure or protocol is for being. We are asking what the correct formula is, so that we can then follow it and makes sure that we ‘get it right’. We are asking some ‘external authority’, so that we may follow what it says and learn thereby how to be ourselves in the approved way. Strange as it may sound, this is the number one human preoccupation. This our number one concern – how to diligently adapt ourselves to a universally-accepted set of rules so that we can learn to advantageously define ourselves. So is there a ‘Golden Rule’? Is there a method? Can we be instructed in it? Is there a recipe for living life, a correct or optimal approved way to define and conduct ourselves?
The answer is of course that there is no rule that can tell us how to be. Life doesn’t come with a manual, no matter what the religious fundamentalists may like to tell us. It’s not just a matter of ‘doing what you’re told’. We simply can’t have the security of having a set of instructions that tell us how to live life. When we reflect on it, we can see that it is actually very strange that we should even want such a thing. We want to hand over responsibility for everything – even for living our own lives. This is more than just ‘strange’ – it’s completely perverse!
The reason this desire is perverse is because when there is a rule telling us how to be (or how to ‘live life’) then we are being externally determined and when we are being externally determined then we can have no interiority, we can have no ‘inner life’. Inner life is, after all, that which is quintessentially independent from all external constraints, external rules, external circumstances. When Kierkegaard says “Once you label me you negate me” it is to this principle which he is referring. This is what rules do – they judge us and label us accordingly. We don’t necessarily see rules as doing this – we tend to imagine that the rule only judges us when we fail, when we don’t measure up, when we fall by the wayside, but this is not true. A rule judges us whether we fail or succeed – a rule judges us just as much either way!
A rule says what is right and what is wrong – this is the rule’s essential function. It defines the parameters, it draws the line, it provides the boxes that we are to fit into. If we fail that then that’s one box we fall into (the ‘fail box’) and if we succeed then that’s another. Either way we’re in a box. We might think that being in the ‘pas box’ is a lot better than being in the ‘fail box’; we might (and we do) say that there’s all the difference in the world between succeeding and failing, but this isn’t true. In reality, there is no difference at all – both ‘succeed’ and ‘fail’ are boxes provided for us by the rule and when it comes down to it one box is as good as another. Both are judgements that have been made on the basis of the rule, and the rule itself is a purely arbitrary construct.
One box is as good as another because we are equally thoroughly defined either way and because we are equally thoroughly defined both ways we are also equally well negated! Being a success is every bit as much a judgment as being a failure is and what this means is that the rule negates us just as thoroughly however well or not well we do by it. We always think we have a chance (a glittering golden chance, in fact) with the rule – no matter how much the odds might seem to be stacked against us we always think that we’re in with a chance of winning, a chance of making good, a chance of redeeming the situation, and then everything will be OK. This is pure projection however; it doesn’t matter how well we do because we’re negated either way. Win or lose, it makes no difference; it makes no difference because we’re negated whatever happens!
We’re under a particular type of illusion here – we’re under the illusion that if we obey the rule successfully then this will be a gateway to a whole type of reality, a whole new set of possibilities. The world will open up to us then (so we imagine). Our way of thinking about rules is that we automatically assume that if we manage to pass the test then the rule will set us free. It may be demanding to reach the standard that is demanded of us by the rule (the higher the standard the more demanding it is) but it is worth it because when we pass the qualifying exam then – as everyone knows – the world is our oyster.
The truth is very different – starkly different, we might say. The truth is that by trying very hard to accord with the rule we define ourselves. Or rather, by trying very hard to accord with the rule we allow the rule to define us. We allow the very narrow rule (rules are always narrow) to define us because then – we think – we will be granted access to a whole new set of possibilities, a whole new world of freedom. Quite the reverse is true, however. What different possibilities does the rule hold for us if we pass the test as opposed to failing it? How can we possibly gain access to ‘a new world off freedom’ by being defined? How can we be free if we are at the same time defined? The rule isn’t going to ‘let go of us’ just because we have passed its examination!
Rules can of course never free us. Rules can never take us anywhere new; they cannot ever grant us access to a whole new world, a whole new set of possibilities, possibilities that we hitherto denied us. A rule epitomizes ‘only the one possibility’. All a rule can ever do is to define us. Once we hand ourselves over to the power of a rule then we can never get beyond it. If we fail the test then we are defined and if we pass it we are just as defines – both ‘success’ and ‘failure’ only have meaning in relation to the rule and since this is the case, how can succeeding (or ‘being a success’) ever take us beyond the rule? The one thing a rule can never do is free us…
A rule doesn’t understand freedom. Freedom is the one thing a rule can never understand. A rule can only understand what it itself defines and freedom is freedom precisely because it is not defined, precisely because it cannot ever be defined. A rule can only understand what it itself has defined and yet ‘what it itself has defined’ is only itself. There is an almighty ‘hidden glitch’ here and the glitch in question is implicit in the very way that a rule works: a rule defines (or ‘judges’) by comparing everything to itself (because it itself is the standard, because it itself is the yardstick) such that whatever accords with it is deemed ‘a pass’ and whatever doesn’t accord or match is ‘a fail’. This being the case, how can passing the test (i.e. successfully conforming to the fixed standard which is the rule) ever allow us to go beyond this standard, become something different from this standard?
We think that the rule is helping is to attain some specially elevated status whereas the truth is that it is merely negating us. Rules cannot do anything else other than negate us – they don’t have the capacity to do anything else. Rules don’t tell us how to be, therefore, they tell us how to not be. They convert us unfailingly into a nullity. Being negated or nullified is a consequence of us acting on our insecurity and handing over our responsibility to some random collection of rules; we don’t trust to ourselves, and the innate wisdom that is in us, but rather we allow ourselves to be browbeaten (by our own insecurity) to accept some ‘external authority’ to tell us how to be, some authority that has nothing to do with us. All this external authority can do however is to tell is how to be its idea of who we should be (or how we should be), which is the same thing as telling us how to be it. So the external authority tells us how to be what it wants us to be and thus in the process of trying as hard as we can to conform successfully to the All-Determining logical system we end up denying ourselves.
Every success we notch up in the ongoing struggle to adapt ourselves to the system is a ‘success against ourselves’, therefore. The more assiduously we obey the rules the less room there is in this for ourselves. When the rules say that we have succeeded, passed with flying colours, done ourselves proud, etc what this really means is that we have lost all our interiority. We have had our ‘inner life’ taken away from us, and this ‘inner life’ was the only thing we ever had that ever meant anything! Everything else is meaningless! To make up for this loss of an inner life (which we do not in any event notice) we are presented with a row of cheap plastic medals to pin across our chest!
The process by which we ‘lose our interiority’ goes unnoticed precisely because we are given something else in place of it. Instead of an inner life we are given and outer one, which appears to us to be the very same thing. In the ‘outer life’ (which is the defined and regulated life that the rule-based mind tells us we are living) there is the solace of apparent comradeship, apparent togetherness. Everyone is living the same ‘outer life’ – this of course being the nature of the outer as opposed to the inner life – which is provided by the external template or ‘extrinsic reality’. This template or extrinsic reality is the same for everyone (one size fits all, as Carlos Castaneda says); the whole point of a template is that it is generic – it wouldn’t be much good as a template if it wasn’t! The extrinsic reality defines all of us in exactly the same way since it is the same extrinsic reality doing the defining in every case. Our reality itself is standardized therefore, and there is no space or leeway in this rule-based reality for anything to be any other way that the way that the rules say it must be; since the extrinsic reality is made up of nothing else apart from rules there is absolutely zero freedom in the system for anything to not be defined, to not be regulated.
We are therefore subject to a very remarkable illusion. We are subject to the remarkable illusion that the generic or one-size-fits-all extrinsic reality somehow provides us with a unique identity. We are subject to the remarkable illusion that the external authority that is the fixed template bountifully provides us with the priceless gift of true individuality. As we have said, the extrinsic reality provides us with everything (that is, again, the whole point of a standard or rule) and this means that it also (along with everything else) provides us with our conception of ourselves, with our perception or understanding of ‘who we are’. The template generates – in other words – the experience of being a self. To say that ‘I am myself’ is to say that I am unique, that I am not a mass-produced unit. It means that ‘only I am me’, which seems so obvious that we don’t bother to go around saying it. And yet this statement (or assumption) just isn’t true. It’s patently untrue. It’s patently an illusion! If everything about how I understand myself (my understanding of ‘who or what I am’) has been provided by the generic template or ‘external authority’ then how can I possibly be as individual and unique as I perceive myself to be? My base-line (which is my fundamental understand of ‘myself’) is completely and utterly false, completely and utterly fabricated. The me I perceive myself to be simply doesn’t exist – it’s a construct of the system of thought and nothing more! It’s a generic ‘token-identity’ in a game that we are playing.
As we have said, the rule cannot tell us how to be, it can only tell us how to not be. It can only tell how to be what it says we are, which is something that doesn’t exist. What the external template tells us we are is merely a phantom thrown up by the mechanical workings of the system, a phantom that only seems real when we stay within the confines of the simulated reality that is created by that system. If I want to go on believing that the generic identity-construct which is who the system says I am is real, and is really ‘who I am’, then I have to swallow everything the rule-based mind tells me whole. I have to implicitly believe that the simulated reality it provides me with is the only reality. But to say that the life of this generic identity-construct (which is the same for everybody even though we don’t know it) is painfully limited (and therefore endlessly repetitive) is to understate the matter. The life that this external mind-created standard provides me doesn’t exist, is unreal, is a fantasy. How can the life lead by a generic unity which isn’t who I really am (because I am not generic, am not a rule-based product of a mechanical system) be said to be ‘real’. Who is living this life? Who is it for? What’s the point of it? Who does it ‘benefit’? To paraphrase Gurdjieff, life is real only when you can say “I am” (i.e. NOT when the person in the dream imagines or says, in the dream, that he or she ‘is’. Life is real only when we have being, and this is the one thing that the extrinsic reality or ‘external authority’ cannot give us…
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.