Artwork: The Illusion of the Self (2011) by Theresia Lynch
With every thought we create a self – here is a thought, here is a thought, and here is another thought… So here is a self, here is a self, and here another one! This is what lies behind thought – the covert manufacture of the self…
This is the real reason we think – to create the self. Thought always gestures outwards, pointing here, pointing there. ‘Look at this, look at that’, says thought, and we do. We always look obediently to where thought points. We look there every time, as if our attention were pulled by a string. Thought throws the ball and off we run, panting with enthusiasm, to fetch it.
Thought is a trick, therefore. We look where we’re supposed to look, we see what we’re supposed to see, and at the same time we miss what is going on behind the scenes. We don’t see the sleight of hand that goes on here because we’re too distracted by the gimmick. We don’t see that a self has been created!
This key to this trick is control (or the perceived need for control). Thought gets us to control; thought tells us that there is a need to control. ‘Look here,’ says thought and we turn the steering wheel of our attention that way. ‘Look there,’ says thought and we turn the steering wheel that way instead. In this was the turner of the wheel, the steersman is born. In this way the controller (or rather the illusion of the controller) is born. Or as we could also say, as soon as we think then the illusion of the thinker is born.
Thought tells us that there is something that we want and so we do want it, and in this way the wanter comes into the picture. Or thought says ‘here is something that you need to get away from’ and because we identify with this voice the avoider is born, the one who flees is born. Wanting and fleeing are both the same – wanting and fleeing are the two faces of the self.
Control is a two-headed arrow, it works both ways, but we only see it going the one way. We only ever see it going in the direction we’re supposed to see it going. Control doesn’t just work in the one direction however – it always works both ways. We control so that we can get things to be the way that we want them to be, so that we can gain what we want to gain and avoid what we want to avoid, but at the same time we are being controlled. We are being controlled by our need to control; we are being controlled by our desire or by our fear.
This is how blind the self is! The self is being driven by desire, by fear. It has no choice in the matter and yet it experiences itself as being the one who seeks to control, or the one who is in control. But how can I control, how can I be ‘the controller’, if I am being controlled? To be both the controller and the controlled at the same time is a perfect contradiction in terms – a contradiction that we never see.
The self isn’t really the controller. It is the controlled; it is a puppet being operated in everything it does by strings, and when it ‘successfully obeys the rules’ it obtains as a reward the comforting illusion that it is the controller, that it is the boss. It is only if it can’t obey, if it can’t ‘successfully obey the rules’ that the self starts to glimpse the unpleasant truth. The unpalatable truth is that the rule is the boss; the truth is that if I don’t obey the rule then it is going to whip my ass! It is going to whop my ass good and proper…
The self’s ultimate dream is always to be ‘totally in control’. We hear this phrase so often; it is like a mantra – the mantra of delusion! The self’s dream is to be the successful pursuer of its goals, be they goals of obtaining or goals of avoiding. But this dream is an utter absurdity – this dream is a symptom of the self’s complete blindness. We can only believe in this dream in the way that we do when we are totally blind, totally one-sided in our attention. We can hold to this dream when we are only seeing things the one way, when we can only see one side of the ‘double-headed arrow of control’.
How can conforming completely to the compulsion that is acting on us result in us ‘being the one who is in control’? How can obeying rules set us free? We could only be genuinely free if we didn’t feel the need to control; if we are obeying the need to control then we’re a miserable slave, not a ‘successful controller’! The only way this can work for us (the only way we can get to avoid the contradiction) is if we turn a blind eye to the fact that we are being told to want this or want that, or to avoid this or avoid that, and focus exclusively on the question of how best to do whatever it is that thought is telling us to do. That way we get to feel that that is us who wants to do whatever it is that we are trying to do; that it is us who are ‘in control’…
This is what the self is – it is one-sidedness, it is a form of blindness. It is a ridiculous illusion – it is the illusion of freedom where there is none. Thought doesn’t just tell us what to do, it tells us what to do and then tells us that it is us who wants to do it! As David Bohm says,
But you don’t decide what to do with the info. Thought runs you. Thought, however, gives false info that you are running it, that you are the one who controls thought. Whereas actually thought is the one which controls each one of us.
If there is no thought then there is no self, and if there is no self there is no illusion of freedom where there is none. No self is portrayed by the system of thought as the greatest disaster, which is to say, thought automatically presents the self as being ‘the most important thing in the world’, as being ‘the only thing in the world that truly matters’. Thought creates the self and the self is ‘the prison of compulsive narcissism’!! We fear the loss of the self more than anything else, even though the loss of the self is the loss of the system of illusion that traps and controls us. The self is nothing other than a state of abject slavery which has somehow been glorified. And if we don’t understand this, then we don’t understand anything!
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.