Society is nothing but a systematic form of reality-avoidance – it is a fully automated endlessly intricate, endlessly deceptive, endlessly convoluted system of seamless distractions! Not only that but engagement in this system of distraction is compulsory; severe sanctions are used against anyone who refuses to play the game. Not playing the game is punishable, in other words. We are not given the option of not playing. So we can define society by saying that it is a form of reality-avoidance that is both systematic AND compulsory. Put like this, of course, society doesn’t sound as positive a thing as we generally take it to be…
In this highly perverse kind of a set-up, the more distracting something is the more it is valued. Anything that doesn’t have the capability to distract us is universally shunned; anything that has the potential to redirect our attention away from our games and back to the real is not just shunned but prohibited. Distraction is the order of the day – distraction is our god and we take this business of ‘being diverted away from reality’ very seriously indeed. We have therefore put all our resources and intelligence into this task and we have as a result got very good indeed at it. We have excelled at it, as Sogyal Rinpoche says. As far as creating a seamless world of distractions for ourselves to get lost in, we have shown true genius.
Some people will agree with this analysis, most of course will not! But even when we say this (even when we say that society is a system of compulsory distractions) we are still not getting to the nub of the matter. We are still missing the point. It’s not just that society (which is to say, our collectively validated way of being in the world) is at root nothing more than a systematic way of avoiding reality, but rather that it is a system for the maintenance and nurturing of the false self.
This is the other way of looking at it – the complementary way. Instead of saying that the system is distracting us, that society is distracting us, we can say that it is feeding the false sense of who we are that it itself has engendered and promoted. What else are we being distracted from if not the truth of who we are? If we are avoiding reality then we are avoiding ourselves. So it is not that society is ‘distracting the false self’ therefore – it is rewarding it, nourishing it, pampering it. Society is feeding the false sense of who we are so that it grows fat and complacent. Society is a state of distraction; it is ‘the state of being distracted from who we really are’ and when we are safely distracted in this way then the false self (the self who we aren’t) can thrive and get on with whatever pointless games it wants to play.
Society – we might say – is a life support system for this false self and so from this perspective we can see that the set up we see around us isn’t ‘perverse’ at all; on the contrary, it all makes perfect sense! It’s very logical – the system looks after its own. The social system that we assume to be our friend and protector is our friend and protector alright but only if we are one hundred percent committed to the game of hiding from ourselves and pointlessly pretending to be someone else! In one way this way of stating things seems very extreme, very radical, but in another way it’s pretty much what we knew anyway. We all know how groups work – we only get accepted into them when we agree to look at the world in the way that everyone else in the group does. When we adhere to the group norms then we are rewarded with acceptance and approval and when we don’t we aren’t. This is just how groups work – the more enthusiastically we conform the more we are rewarded and the more stubbornly we refuse the play the game the more we are penalized. There’s nothing controversial or far-fetched about saying this!
Society is of course just a big group and it functions just as any group does. But it is also more than ‘just a group’ – it is also a complete environment in its own right. Society functions as a world because we don’t ever have to go outside it if we don’t want to, and generally we don’t want to. Most of us never will go outside of the complete environment that is the social system – if we were told that we had to this would constitute the ultimate punishment. The social system supplies us with everything – it supplies us with our reality. And it’s not ‘our’ reality that it is supplying us with either but its own and because it supplies us with our only way of understanding not only the world but ourselves it effectively OWNS us. It controls both how we see reality and ourselves and so of course it owns us – there’s no freedom here at all. When we start to wake up a bit we notice that society is biased in the way it looks at things and we might then be motivated to try to expose this bias and free ourselves from it; it’s not just that society contains unacknowledged prejudice or bias however but rather than the entire system is a bias. Society is a game that is played for the benefit of the false or mind-created self and there is no possibility of reforming this game – either we wake up to it or we don’t. The only possible way to regain our freedom is to stop identifying with ‘the self that we think we are’, in other words, not try to make things fairer or better for it.
This is not something that we can easily see, needless to say. Suppose I identify completely with the false or adapted self. Is there any freedom possible for me then, I might ask? Society provides us with certain freedoms on this basis, after all, so can we not say that when I adapt successfully to the system there will be freedom for me within the terms of that system? What we are asking here therefore is ‘Is there any freedom for the false self?’ We are of course sold the idea that there is going to be freedom for us when we conform to the system that portrays itself as the world, but this isn’t freedom at all really but a kind of peculiar analogue. It would be the only sort of freedom we could hope for if the system we were adapting to actually were ‘the whole of everything’ but given that this isn’t the case our so-called freedom is jinxed because it’s ‘freedom on a false basis’. The only type of freedom the false self can have is false freedom, in other words, and the situation where we have ‘false freedom for the false self’ is no substitute for the real thing. Or rather it is a substitute, but a vastly inferior one!
What the false freedom of the false self consists of is ‘the freedom to avail of the benefits or rewards provided by the system’. It couldn’t really be anything else seeing as how the system can’t offer us anything outside of itself! If the system doesn’t acknowledge that there is anything outside of itself then we have to make do with what it does have on the menu which is always just ‘more of the same’. The benefits or rewards offered by the system all boil down to the same thing and that is the validation of the false self, the validation of the socially-constructed persona. So the ‘freedom’ that we have when we adapt to the socially-constructed world is the freedom to compete for the validation of the self which this system says we are. When we put it like this then it doesn’t sound like quite such a great deal after all. Actually, what we’re talking about here is without any doubt ‘the worst of all possible deals’. This isn’t ‘a deal’, this is an unholy mockery!
The set-up can however work ‘after a fashion’ and this is what gives us the leeway we need to make do with it. If we throw ourselves 100% into the game and unreservedly identify with the false self (as we do) then when we are successful at completing the tasks that the system sets us then we can obtain the much-desired validation. The false self can be fed and this will feel very good to us – we will say that we are ‘happy’. We will have the freedom to pursue that which feels rewarding for us, therefore. This is taking a very superficial view of the matter however because we’re completely ignoring what’s going on in the background to facilitate this good feeling; we’re paying no heed to the trickery that’s going on behind the scenes, in other words. The crux of this ‘trickery’ has to do with the way in which we can only feel good to the extent that we believe ourselves to be who we’re not. We are being rewarded with the euphoria, with the feeling we like so much, only to the extent that we can turn our backs on our true nature…
It is a very suspicious type of freedom that we’re talking about here, therefore. It’s the freedom to make idiots of ourselves, the freedom to be fooled over and over again forever and ever without seeing what’s really happening. Actually, of course, the system is validating itself and we’re just going along for the ride. Because we’re forgetting ourselves by identifying completely with the system we get to feel good about the system’s self-validating. We have identified with our captor and so his triumph is our triumph. There’s a problem here however and that problem is that ‘self-validation’ isn’t a legitimate act. It’s an impossible action, a thing that can never be done – a statement can never demonstrate its own truth by reference to itself. A system can never meaningfully evaluate itself by comparing itself to itself! A system can never meaningfully validate itself therefore and when it tries to all that will happen is that it will be caught up in paradoxes, caught up in endless self-contradictions…
Paradoxes agree and disagree at the same time; they say YES to the extent that they also say No. When we adapt to the system then the more we get it right the more we also get it wrong! The system that we have adapted to praises us to the same extent that it blames us and it – when it comes down to it – it is praising is and blaming us for the very same thing. In societal terms self-contradiction is known as a double-bind and a double-bind is where we are going to screw up no matter what we do, even though we are under pressure to make what is supposedly ‘the right choice’. The paradoxicality inherent in the self-referential system doesn’t rebound on us instantaneously, however – if it did then we would have no ‘leeway’ and if we had no leeway then we would never be able to adapt to the system. The ‘impossibility’ that we are speaking about would be manifested straightaway and that would be an end to the matter. There is a time-lag in the system however and that time-lag makes all the difference. It is the time-lag in the system that allows us to fool ourselves about what is going on!
The self-contradiction inherent in the social system is that positive validation is only ever achieved at the expense of what we might call ‘negative’ validation – positive validation being where we get to feel good about ourselves on the basis of what the mind is showing us whilst negative validation is where we get to feel correspondingly bad, also on the basis of what the mind is showing us. Both validation and de-validation are equally possible within what David Bohm calls ‘the system of thought’, which is the same thing as the social system. Wrong’ is every bit the result of a rule as ‘right’ is; that is in fact a good definition of a rule – a rule is ‘right/wrong’, we might say. It is a boundary, in other words. A good way to illustrate how the thinking mind both validates and de-validates us on an entirely arbitrary basis, such that the one can flip over to the other at the drop of the hat, is to look at what is often called ‘positive versus negative self-talk’. The conventional view is (or was) that positive self-talk is helpful, needful, healthy and so on, whilst the negative variety is perverse and pathological. If however we’re in the habit of engaging in PST in order to comfort or support ourselves when we’re going through a difficult time then the one thing we know for sure (if we wanted to, that is) is that the effort expended is always going to backfire on us later on when it manifests as involuntary negative self talk.
The pendulum has been displaced to one side and so now there’s only one way for it to go! The swing has been pushed out as far as it will go and so it is now only a matter of time before it turns around and heads right back at us with exactly the same energy that we have put into it. PLUS has turned to MINUS, for the very simple reason that PLUS is MINUS! We always ask why there should be this tendency for our own thoughts to turn against us and persecute us, either by being critical or judgemental or constantly telling us that the worst possible thing is about to happen. We are genuinely baffled by this tendency –why does thought have this damnable inclination to turn negative on us and show us the glass half empty? The answer to this question is very simple indeed – thought is always rebounding on us in this way because we are constantly using it to illegitimately support and comfort ourselves. We don’t notice all the times we comfort (or validate) ourselves with our thinking because it’s an automatic and highly unconscious sort of a thing – we start to feel upset or uncomfortable in some way and so we cleverly reframe what is going on and straightway feel better! This happens so smoothly that we never see ourselves doing it but when it starts to work the other way on us – and cause us to feel worse rather than better then we notice it for sure. We both notice it and complain about it…
This isn’t a particularly difficult principle to grasp but the problem is that we don’t want to. This is something we don’t want to know about and the reason we don’t want to know about it is of course because any insight in this area would jeopardize the whole game. We don’t want to know about the trickery that is going on behind the scenes – if we see how this trickery is backfiring on us and making us feel bad then we would also have to see how we are availing of it to feel good in the first place! This type of unconscious positive self-talk isn’t just a matter of cheering ourselves up or consoling ourselves when things are getting to us – it goes a lot deeper than that. Our ‘unconscious positive self-talk’ is how we create and maintain the self-image, which is the ‘false self’ that is validated (and devalidated) by the social system. So the ‘trick’ we are going on about here isn’t just to do with how we get the world to take on the meaning that we want it to take on – the trick is that we get to believe that we are this self, the self that the thinking mind (or society) says we are. When we create the image that we have of the world (without acknowledging that we have any hand in this), then at the same time, by an act of ‘backwards-reference’, we are creating the one who believes in this image as an actual reality. The view and the one who takes that view seriously are inseparable, in other words.
We can say therefore that the reason for the rational mind’s apparently perverse behaviour in attacking ‘our idea of ourselves’ is the way in which we are using that mind (or letting it use us, rather) – when we engage in ‘positive self talk’ we are utilizing the mind for an illegitimate purpose, the purpose in question being ‘validating the self-image’. This is an illegitimate use of the thinking mind because we cannot use the mind to validate or in any way support one of its own constructs. We can try to use the thinking mind to validate one of its own constructs of course (we do so all the time) but when we do this we walk straight into the painful ‘ricochet effect’ of having this same mind de-validating and undermining our idea of ourselves. We’re locked into a vicious positive / minus oscillation therefore and rather than see what the problem is with our so-called solution, we just carry on disconnecting the two sides of the equation so that we see positive self talk as good and wholesome and the negative rebound of this strategy as being perverse and unhealthy. Because we cannot ever bring ourselves to see that self-image  is not who we are and  is a non-existent thing, we are condemned to live a life that is at no time any more than a constant vibration between pointlessly pleased on the one hand and equally pointlessly displeased on the other.
Another way of looking at the dilemma which we have saddled ourselves with is to say that the PLUS / MINUS vibration of euphoria and dysphoria, pleasure and pain is the result of us availing of the services of the system or mechanism that enables us to be distracted from reality on a full-time basis. We CAN be distracted from reality on a full-time basis but there is a price to be paid here – the price simply being that we have to be pleasantly distracted for half of the time and unpleasantly distracted for the other half of the time. Fifty percent of our distractions are going to be of the pleasure-inducing (or euphoric) variety, and the other fifty percent are going to have to be distractions of the pain-inducing (or dysphoric) type. This is the only way that it’s ever going to work! ‘Pleasant versus unpleasant dreams’ is what the socially-created pseudo-reality is made up of, and it is also what samsara itself is made up of. Society – our society especially – is nothing more than an agent for samsara. It’s a super-salesman with a dazzling smile and an immaculately pressed suit. It’s there to sell us the illusion realm, to trick us into buying into it even more than we already are doing, and it’s doing a supremely accomplished job at it!
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.