It is interesting to notice what our attention is stuck to during the course of the day. One thing that is very interesting straightaway is to notice the way in which we don’t notice what our attention is stuck to! We don’t really notice what our attention is stuck to and we don’t notice that it is stuck. It’s a curious thing to see this – to see that having our attention stuck to something means not to be aware that it is. This means that we’re unconscious. We’re ‘unconscious’ because all we know is what the object of our attention presents itself as being, which is not the same thing as what it actually is. It’s very far from being the same thing. In order to see what the object of our attention really is we have to be not stuck to it. Instead of being ‘the passive unconscious host’, we have to be alert and wary, like an investigative journalist who never takes what he or she is told at face value. In short, we have to be actually awake.
We will probably say that our attention isn’t stuck to anything, that this is the wrong word to use. We will probably say that we are aware of things, rather than being ‘helplessly stuck to our mental objects’, in some kind of a foolish or gullible way. When we go to the trouble of actually noticing what is happening to our attention however we see that ‘to be aware of our mental objects as they themselves present themselves’ as being is to be aware of nothing. That’s a null act, a null situation. To be stuck to our mental objects is to be ‘blind to the world as it is in itself’ and if we’re blind to the world as it is in itself then we’re blind full stop! To perceive one’s own prejudiced perceptions without seeing that they are prejudiced is to see nothing – this is not awareness at all. This is as far away from ‘being aware’ as it is possible to get!
So what goes on in the course of the day is that we jump from one thought to another, one mental object to another, without there hardly ever being a break. We can see this happening just as soon as we take an interest in observing ourselves but the point is that we don’t take an interest – we could very easily go from day to day, month to month, year to year without ever being aware of our absorption in the mind-created world. Who isn’t to say that we couldn’t spend our whole life like this, stuck to our own thoughts, unaware of anything outside of them? What’s to stop this happening? In practice breaks (or bardos) do occur – as Sogyal Rinpoche notes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying – but we very quickly fall right back into the hypnotic flow of our thoughts again. We fall back asleep and when we’re asleep we forget everything. We forget the whole world….
The mind-created world is a Great Forgetting – it’s a Great Forgetting because when we’re immersed in our thinking we have no time for anything else. There is a kind of ‘momentum’ to the train of thought that we’re caught on that won’t let us off. It’s hurrying along and hurrying along and there’s no end to this hurrying. There’s no end to the hurrying because it isn’t actually going anywhere – it’s ‘hurrying for the sake of hurrying’. There is no natural end or break to the continuum of thought because one thing always leads to another. There is never a time when one thing doesn’t lead to another. It’s all a continuum and it all goes around in circles. The one thing that thought doesn’t lead to is reality; this is one ‘stop’ that the train never pulls up at!
There is an indescribable banality to this business of being serially stuck in our own thoughts, our own ever-multiplying mental objects. There is nothing more banal than this – this is banality itself. Imagine the most boring friend you could ever have and multiply this by ten billion times and then you are getting close. So another fascinating thing we notice is that we somehow just don’t see how terribly banal the productions of thought are – we don’t see it because thought imposes its own game, its own polarities on us. Thought causes us to be excited and interested in what it says is exciting and interesting. It defines reality for us – it tells us when we’re having a good time and when we’re not. The System of Thought tells us what is important and what we should care about and we passively go along with this. We unquestioningly buy into the narrative that we are being provided with, we jump on board the train and off we go…
The way this works is very simple – we have been set up to buy into the mind-created narrative by having our perspective robbed. With no perspective we have no way of seeing that the reality we are being provided with is a hoax. We can also look at this in terms of pain – when we are in the world that thought has created then we are being squeezed, we are being squeezed into a very narrow space and this causes us pain. The pain that we are talking about here is so very ubiquitous as to be entirely invisible; we don’t see that there is any pain there and so we have no way of knowing that we have been confined. What happens with this ‘invisible pain’ however is that it gets split into a polarity with PLUS at one end and MINUS at the other. So whilst the pain itself isn’t perceptible to us, the +/- polarity is. Another way of putting this is to say that the pain is converted into a compulsion. The difference between pain and a compulsion is that compulsion is directional whereas pain isn’t; a compulsion (by its very nature) ‘points us in a particular direction’ – it gives us somewhere to go and as well as giving us somewhere to go it also provides us with the promise (however illusory) of relief when we get there.
When we are in pain the promise of potential relief (if we do all the things we’re supposed to do) is a very attractive prospect indeed – the degree to which the prospect of relief is attractive is the degree to which we find the pain we want relief from unattractive (obviously enough!) and pain is maximally unattractive, maximally unappealing to us. As many times as thought throws this mirage at us we will go for it; we will jump on board just as enthusiastically the ten billionth time as we did the first! The reason we never grow weary of the Empire of Thought and its endless banal productions is because we are always keen to buy into the illusion of potential relief that our thoughts provides us with and – as we have just said – the reason we are so keen to ‘buy into the illusion of relief’ is because we are so fundamentally averse to experiencing the challenge of existential pain. The one is the reflection of the other – because of our infinite reluctance to feel the existential pain that is legitimately ours (as a result of allowing ourselves to be contained and constrained by thought) we are endlessly susceptible to ‘the illusion of escape’.
If we were to develop a greater willingness to feel the type of existential pain that we are talking about here (which is the ubiquitous pain of being contained within the System of Thought) then the illusion of escape would of course become less attractive to us and because that illusion is no longer so powerful we would then start to notice the terrible unrelenting banality of thought’s offerings, of the thought-created world. The ‘minus pole’ of the duality that we have been sold is the pain that we need to escape from and the ‘positive pole’ is the relief, the escape, and between the two there is no time or incentive to take any interest in anything else; once we do see the bigger picture however we reality that the duality which previously we found so endlessly entrancing is actually utterly sterile – we realize that we have been hypnotized by the two poles of an illusion. Freed from the magnetic bottle of the mind-created duality, our attention can now alight on the bigger picture, which is actual reality itself – the ‘world beyond good and bad’.
Freedom from the world that thought creates comes about as a result of our equanimity with regard to pain therefore, and pain here can be seen in terms of any ‘existential challenge’, which is any difficulty that does not lend itself to any immediate solution (or indeed, any solution at all). Anything real is an existential challenge; it’s only the hollow / superficial productions of the thinking mind that lend themselves to possible solution and which are on this account ‘interesting’ to us. To be estranged from reality (as we are when we’re subsumed within the mind-created hallucination of PLUS and MINUS) is pain and yet it is not pain that we are directly aware of, as we have said. We become aware of this pain only when we can’t quickly and efficiently solve whatever difficulty it is that is facing us and then we see it as something outside of us (rather than being something that is actually intrinsic to our situation). Because we see the pain as being extrinsic rather than intrinsic (i.e. because we have displaced it onto the ongoing drama of what’s ‘going on for us’) we regard it as manipulable, and we are therefore drawn into the egoic drama even more. The mind-created self is trying to solve the problem that is itself, therefore!
The existential pain that we are talking about comes about because of our ‘absence’, therefore (or we could also say that the pain IS our absence). Absence equals pain – how could the absence of who we really are not equal pain? When something real comes along then this aggravates and makes painfully visible our ‘absent status’ because it challenges us in a way that we can’t respond to. We have no solution, we have no ‘angle’ that can help us; something has come along that we don’t like and that we can’t manipulate – we’re not able to change it in some way to make it less disagreeable to us. What existential pain does to us therefore is then is that challenges us to be, it challenges us to be present instead of absent. When we are absent (without of course knowing that we are absent) and we are called upon to be present this is hugely painful, hugely disagreeable to us. We’re being called upon to pull something out of the bag and there simply isn’t anything there to pull out. We’re being called upon to use a muscle that we don’t even know we have; a muscle that we have never used and which as a result we have never developed. This is the ‘muscle’ of being present, if we may put it like this.
Existential challenges are seen to be as hugely disagreeable as they are because they are challenging us to wake up out of our comfortable sleep. Waking is very bitter, as G. I. Gurdjieff says. And at the same time what causes us to be absent rather than present, asleep rather than awake, is thought. Thought presents us with a false world in which everything is appearance – it presents us with (and immerses us in) a world which is made up of ‘coercion but no content’. Within the terms of the system, there is a solution (or at least the possibility of one) and so all we have to do is engage with it on the terms which it presents itself to us and we stand a chance of being able to reach a solution. When there is a difficulty we fall back on the system, in other words, we rely on it even more, even though it is the reliance on the system that has created all our problems in the first place. We keep on ‘skimming superficially along the surface’ of the two-dimensional mind-created world therefore and we never fall back on ourselves instead, and look to the world of being as opposed to doing. Actual ‘depth’ remains an alien concept, a colour we have no name for, a quality we have no comprehension or appreciation of.
The way things work in everyday life is – as we started off by saying – is that we skim along from one thought to another, with never a break in-between. We’re moving at a tangent to depth. It is as if we have been handed a puzzle book and we’re going from page to page, completing one puzzle after another. Every time we solve a puzzle we obtain a transient feeling of accomplishment, this feeling doesn’t last very long however (because it’s not based on anything real) and so we keep on having to go from puzzle to puzzle, thought to thought. We’re chasing a ‘final relief’ that we can never have; as G. I. Gurdjieff has said, we’re frantically rowing around the ocean in a rowing boat in search of a spot where we don’t have to row any more. We’re pursuing an escape that thought can never provide us with but which it nevertheless keeps on promising us, and so we’re tied into the pain-producing (and false relief-producing) thinking-game forever.
The thought world is thus both the cause of our pain and the temporary escape from it. The thought world somehow manages to be a temporary escape from itself (although this so-called ‘escape’ comes at a price that definitely isn’t worth it). The type of escape we’re talking about here isn’t really an escape at all therefore – it’s more of an ongoing itch! There is the promise of relief that comes from scratching the itch but no sooner have we stopped scratching than we have to start all over again. We’re forever scratching, forever thinking. We’re stuck like glue to the surface of the two-dimensional representations because the only way we can ‘act out’ the pressure that we’re under (without knowing that we’re under) is by operating solely within the terms of this system. As we just said, the system throws us little bits of relief from time to time to keep us hooked in (just like a slot machine arcade will throw us the odd little win to keep us playing) but the whole time we’re just getting more and more addicted to it, more and more dependent on it. The whole time we’re losing more and more freedom…
When we’re adapted to the System of Thought this is the only world we know, the only world we’re capable of knowing, and so the only way for us to deal with difficulties that arise is by utilizing the system even more. The only way to deal with difficulties in this realm is by actively solving them. No other possibility exists within the world that has been created by thought – there is only the possibility of solving the problem, or not solving it. These are the only two ways to go – the ‘good way’ and the ‘bad’ way. Neither of these are real possibilities though, no matter how brutally convincing they might seem to us at the time. They’re only real within the terms of the game that’s being played and when we see this then we have discovered the third possibility which is to transcend the problem. ‘Transcending the problem’ may sound all fancy and metaphysical but all it really means is seeing that the problem is a problem only within the terms which it itself assumes. The problem is only a problem when we agree for it to be a problem, in other words. It’s only a problem if we buy into the idea that we ‘have to do something about it’…
Our predicament doesn’t just manifest itself on the inside, as we might (possibly) naively imagine, it also manifests in full force on the outside. The train we can’t get off (the train that won’t ever stop for us and which is taking us to a bad place) isn’t just inside of us, in our heads, it’s on the outside too. On the inside it’s our thoughts, it’s the never-ending flow of sticky mental objects which our attention is permanently stuck to, and on the outside it is society, it is the artificial world that we have made for ourselves. This artificial world demands our full attention, just like our thoughts do; it too is terribly banal (or ‘hollow’), just as our thoughts are. This should come as no surprise – the artificial world is made up of our thoughts, after all. Just as David Bohm says, the System of Thought is inside of us as well as outside of us. The Designed World is simply our thoughts made concrete – all the better to trap us with…
We’re sandwiched between the system on the inside and the system on the outside therefore, and we don’t see either for what they are! On the inside our thoughts demand that we give them our complete attention, no matter how stupid they may be, and on the outside society keeps coming up with task after task for us to complete, no matter how pointlessly trivial and time-wasting they might be. The world that we have ingeniously created for ourselves is a faithful extension of the ‘lack of freedom’ that we have on the inside. It couldn’t really be anything else. We’re pushing our blindness ahead of us wherever we go and we’re calling it ‘progress’.
The point is always to keep us busy engaging with the system on the terms which the system itself presents to us, to keep us trapped in ‘busyness for the sake of busyness’, to keep us trapped in ‘control for the sake of control’. That is the essence of the game we’re playing. This way we never get to learn that there is such a thing as ‘DEPTH’! This way, it never dawns on us that there might be something outside of the system’s endless mechanical iterations! ‘Busyness for the sake of busyness’ means therefore that we NEVER have to get off the train…
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.