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The Phantom Doer

Everything that happens is just what happens – no one does it, no one makes it happen. There’s no real ‘doer’ whose responsibility it is to ‘get it right’. Causality is a myth – this is the ‘spontaneous universe’, this is the ‘non-causal world’. So what a funny world this is, this world where everything just happens and yet where we go around either praising people or blaming them for their role as ‘the one who either did it or failed to do it’! This really is a funny sort of thing, this ‘praising and blaming game’…

 

 

The praising / blaming game (which is the game of the self) is the game where we take credit (either negatively or positively) for stuff that we can’t really take credit for, not when come down to it. To talk about this game is strictly taboo – even the slightest suggestion that there might be such a thing as this game going on is taboo. We can never even allude to it, no matter how indirectly. This game is as we have just said ‘the game of agency’; the game where we get to imagine – however fancifully – that we are actual effective agents.

 

 

All games crucially involve this illusion, of course. How could there ever be a game without someone to play it? As soon as I start to play the game I have put myself in the place of the ‘player of the game’. I’m playing the game that there is a player of the game! This of course sounds like a contradiction in terms since if I am starting to play the game then this implies that there is already an ‘I’ there waiting to play it. It implies that there is an actual agent ‘waiting in the wings’. This is however a contradiction or paradox only because of the inbuilt bias in the English language – where we say ‘running’ it is automatically implied that there is a runner doing the running (just as when we say ‘playing’ we automatically assume that there is a player doing the playing). As Alan Watts says, this is a convention of thought as well as a convention of language – we say ‘it is raining’ because of this convention but we all know that there is no ‘it’ which is doing the raining. It would be more accurate simply to say ‘raining is happening’ because there has been no spurious reification of a thing that is doing the raining (and which is responsible for the raining).

 

 

We can see this in the case of rain but not in the so-called ‘purposeful’ activity of human beings – we see linear chains of cause and effect and we see a ‘starting-off point’ to this chain which is the causal agent. This starting-off point, this agent can then be targeted for interventions – we can encourage or discourage, we can praise or blame. But any action that comes out of a person – which the exception of purely spontaneous or creative activity – has its roots a long way back, not just in a supposed ‘decision’ made by that specific person at that specific point in time! Purposeful behaviour has its roots in our thinking, in the system of thought, and as Krishnamurti says thought is always old. There’s no choice going on, merely the illusion of choice. How can there be such a thing as choice when we are living our lives on the basis of a system of thought that operates through us and – at the same time – produces the compelling illusion that we are doing the thinking (rather than it being the case that the thinking is doing us)? Our thinking is based upon a set of assumptions that we cannot ever be aware of just as long as we are thinking, so in this case any talk of choice is utterly meaningless. Our choices are meaningful within the assumed context of the system of thought (and the world that thought has created), but because the system of thought is only an arbitrary construct (and not therefore the real world at all), these so-called choices are only apparently real. They are ‘constructs of the system’, not manifestations of our own inherent freedom…

 

 

The idea of agency in inherent in the nature of logic itself; in logic, we say that one thing causes another, thus giving rise not just to the illusion of causality but also to the illusion there are these two separate things – ‘the causer’ and ‘the result that has been caused’. But the point here (as Alan Watts says) is that if say that X causes Y then X is Y and so this way of thinking is merely confusing things. A whole level of confusion has now been created that we simply have no way of (logically) seeing through. This ‘level of confusion’ is the world that thought creates for us! It’s not just that the convention of looking at the world in terms of causality confuses things therefore – this convention of seeing things is confusion. If X truly were different from Y then how could it cause it? What would the relationship be? What would be the connection between the two? And if we say that there is a logical connection or relationship between X and Y (between the causer and the caused) then this is simply another way of saying that they are the same thing. The rule and what the rule causes are not two different things – the latter is simply the extension of the former. Everything that the rule causes is already contained in the rule – if this were not so then the rule wouldn’t be a rule, it wouldn’t be producing absolutely predictable results. Causality isn’t a becoming therefore; it isn’t an ‘unfolding of the new’ it is on the contrary ‘a restatement of the old’. Everything that comes out of thought is a restatement of the old.

 

 

I have a notion of myself as ‘a doer’ and society supports this notion to the hilt. It reinforces the sacred notion of the doer to the very maximum. I see myself as the doer, the causer, and this perception is what lies behind the notion of the self that we all take so much for granted. The self is nothing if it cannot do anything, if it cannot produce at will desired outcomes. The notion of an ‘effective’ person means someone who can produce the desired effects, it means someone who can reliably bring about desired outcomes. And yet everything the self does is only really ‘itself restated’ and so nothing is being done. It doesn’t ‘cause’ anything: the self – with this purposeful activity – is simply reiterating itself, restating itself, repeating itself. The purposeful only concern is to extend itself – when it is able to extend itself this is counted as success, not being able to do so is counted as ‘failure’.

 

 

My goals and purposes are simply ‘me’ – they serve me and so they are me. The self extends itself through its goals; this is how it promotes and perpetuates itself. Just as the self is ‘nothing new’, neither are its goals. My purposes and aims are how I get me own way and ‘me getting my own way’ is me promoting myself. ‘Me being in control’ is me importing myself wholesale into every situation – control (i.e. striving after goals) is simply the self trying its best to make everything about itself. If I were to give rise to something genuinely new then this would be creativity not causality and creativity is not something that we deliberately (or purposefully) do. Not only is creativity not something that I can deliberately do, it also does not involve or support the notion of self or ‘agent’. If I am not the effective executor of the creativity then clearly I have no basis for inferring the existence or importance of myself as an agent. The notion is weakened rather than being reinforced. The self isn’t being reiterated or restated here, and if the self isn’t being reiterated or restated then it can’t continue to exist! The self only gets to be the self by playing ‘the game of self’; it only gets to be the self by controlling, and the crucial point here is that there is no controlling in creativity.

 

 

‘Controlling’ (or ‘game playing’) is the way in which we construct a self where otherwise there would not be one. It’s the only way to construct the self. Our unquestioned and unquestionable assumption that there is this thing called causality is the way in which we get to believe in the ‘causal agent’ which is the self. This belief can be seen as the hidden gain, the unacknowledged advantage that comes from playing the game. There is always a hidden gain to a game and the hidden gain that we are talking about here is the belief in the game-player.  Of all the taken-for-granted beliefs in the world this takes the biscuit – this is the granddaddy of them all! ‘The game’ equals ‘controlling’ (i.e. the process of effective causation) and controlling (or the attempt to control) is what gives rise to the (deluded) perception of the concrete self. Playing the game creates the believable illusion of the game-player in other words and this is what we are really playing for, even though we can’t admit this to ourselves without blowing the game…

 

 

Wherever there’s a hidden gain there’s always going to be a hidden cost, as any psychotherapist could tell you and the hidden cost here is that our perception of reality is entirely illusory. This is a ‘hidden’ cost because we can’t of course see that what we perceive as being reality is an illusion. This is one way of talking about the hidden cost in playing the game of self. Another way of talking about the down-side, the flip-side of the deal is to say the price we pay is the invisible hole that we have unwittingly created that exists at the centre of our (illusory) existence. This hole is an abyss into which the whole world can be thrown without leaving any trace – this is the very same abyss that Tony Parsons is referring to in his story of the ‘the Bottomless Bowl of Separation’. When our perception of ‘who we are’ is of something that is quintessentially separate (or different) from the world that we live in (as it is when we are playing the game of self) then we can obtain all the riches of the world for ourselves and they will vanish in the ‘bottomless bowl’ without a trace. These riches will disappear for a very good reason – they will disappear because the separate self doesn’t exist.

 

 

The down-side of the game of self is therefore that it is endlessly frustrating, unrelentingly frustrating, infinitely frustrating. We keep on throwing stuff into the bottomless bowl (because we want to possess it, because we want to have it for ourselves) but as soon as we throw in there it disappears forever into the hole. We might feel for a while that we still do have it (that we have secured whatever it was we wanted to secure) and experience as a result the flush of satisfaction and triumph that comes with this successful acquisition but this good feeling always fades away. It always fades away because it isn’t real, because it was only ever a mind-generated illusion. The unpalatable truth is that the hole we are trying to fill never can be filled. It never can be filled because it is ‘the hole of unreality’ – as we keep saying, even if we engulf the whole world it will not be enough. Nothing can ever be enough. What happens to the stuff that we throw into the bottomless bowl of separation is that it becomes unreal, it gets translated lock, stock and barrel into the terms of the game we are playing and the game isn’t real.

 

 

The hole I’m throwing everything into is the ‘hole of unreality’ because the essential, all-determining relationship that everything is based on is the relationship between the world and me and the ‘me’ part of the equation doesn’t really exist. Nothing is worth anything unless it can be related to me, and yet ultimately there is no me there to relate it to. I’m trying to hang everything on a hook that isn’t there so it’s no surprise that it all keeps falling on the floor! And yet I never learn – I keep on trying to hang the world on this imaginary hook. Nothing’s going to work out for me because the one I want it to work out for never existed in the first place. The purposeful self (the causal agent) is unreal and so all the objects it sees in terms of itself are also going to be unreal. They’re going to be every bit as unreal as it is. Whatever objects I see in terms of me are me, and I – when I perceive myself as ‘an agent’, as a ‘purposeful doer’ – doesn’t exist, isn’t there. As we have said, the concrete doer is a convention not a real thing; we live in a world where everything is a verb, where everything is a movement – there is movement alright but there is no ‘mover’! So what we’ve done is that we’ve made the error of mistaking a convention for an actual reality; we’ve made this fundamental mistake without realizing in the least what we have down and then – following on from this invisible mistake – we never look back. Without ever a backwards glance at our mistake, we keep on thinking that we can ‘make it work’…

 

 

The concrete self or ‘doer’ which we are so in love with is an abstraction and so what this means is that our attempt to ‘control successfully’ is actually – even though we can’t come anywhere close to seeing it – the attempt to make the whole world into an abstraction too. When we’ve done this – we unconsciously assume – then everything will be hunky dory. This situation equates to the ultimate success, the ultimate win – reality becomes obedient to our understanding of it, reality becomes identical to our picture or description of it. What else does ‘controlling’ mean if not this? When we try to control we are ‘trying to get stuff to be the same as our ideas for how it should be’ and this is the same thing as ‘trying to get reality to be what we think it is’. Success in this endeavour means converting reality itself into an abstraction, therefore. On a ‘nominal’ level this is counted as a very good thing and this is why we are constantly trying to control more effectively; what it really means however is making everything unreal, just as the abstraction I call ‘me’ is unreal. So it’s a success on the nominal level but at the same time it’s a total disaster, even though when I am playing the game I am constitutionally unable to see why this should be the case. I’m trying to nullify reality the whole time and I think this is a good thing. I’m aiming at converting the marvellously elusive colours of life into a handful of uninspiring shades of dull bureaucratic grey, and I think that everything’s somehow going to be super-wonderful when I achieve this! I think this because I believe the rational mind in everything it tells me, but what I don’t realize is that the rational mind is only an abstraction…

 

 

When I see the world in terms of myself (or in terms of the self the thinking mind tells me I am) then the world I see is unreal. To act in life from this basis, in service of this ‘ideal’ is as we have been saying ‘the kiss of death’. It is the kiss of death to everything I hold dear. If we wanted to know why it is that we always destroy the thing we love then this is why. It’s because we’re doing everything on the basis of a separation that doesn’t exist. If I want to have the satisfaction of feeling that I have ‘successfully caused the correct effect’ (i.e. the satisfaction of being an effective controller) then I have to believe myself to be separate from what I am controlling. I have to exist outside the world in the form of some abstract ‘mover’ or ‘controller’ – then and only then can I experience the euphoria of having ‘got it right’ (in whatever way I might be framing this). Or to put this another way, if I wish to enjoy the addictive glow of satisfaction that comes with winning at the game then I have perceive myself as being the doer, the causal agent (even if this isn’t actually true). That’s a ‘necessary fiction’ – without it this type of enjoyment can’t exist. But I am also of course – at the very same time – putting myself in line for the negative enjoyment that is going to come my way when I lose at the game, when I fail to ‘get it right’. The pain I experience when this happens might be based upon an illusory premise, but it is pain nevertheless! The game of praise and blame balances itself out in the end and the balance reflects something very important that we never ever see – it faithfully reflects the essential unreality of what we are doing! The fact that the satisfaction of getting it right is always perfectly balanced by the dissatisfaction of getting it wrong reveals – for those who wish to see it – the true nature of this self that we have identified with. For those who aren’t afraid to see it, the balance of praise and blame, euphoria and dysphoria very clearly reveals the true nature of ‘the phantom doer’…

 

 

 

 

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.

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