When we’re living in the ‘continuity of thought’ then we’re constantly moving from one thing to another, one thought to another. It never happens that we don’t move on from one thing to another, one thought to another. If we were to watch ourselves carefully we would see that this never happens. Our life is made up of ‘one thing after another’ and what this means is that we’re always ‘skimming along on the surface of things’ without ever seeing what it is that we’re skimming over so perfunctorily. Needless to say, if we could see this then our mode of living would seem both extraordinarily limited and extraordinarily unsatisfactory. The point is however that we simply don’t see it! We don’t see that we’re stuck on the circular conveyor belt of thought and that as a result we’re getting nowhere fast…
When we move from one thing to another in the way that we do when we’re in the rational mode then there’s very little in the way of actual ‘content’ – when we’re 100% in rational mode then we would have to say that there’s nothing at all in the way of actual ‘content’. Content isn’t what it is about! Thought doesn’t concern itself with content, that’s not its domain at all. It concerns itself with pragmatic utility – pragmatic utility is its proper domain. Thought is concerned with how it might use things, in other words. We aren’t engaging in a moral judgement or criticism of thought here – this is simply how thought works.
Instead of ‘content’ we could talk in terms of quality – thought has to do with measuring and identifying features of the world and then considering how what we have measured (or identified) can be related to our over-all goals (or to the abstract framework we have for cataloguing things). Both ‘measuring’ and ‘identifying’ come down to exactly the same thing in the end because both involve this basic action whereby an incoming datum is compared to a set of criteria which is itself not subjected to scrutiny. We actually can’t scrutinize our evaluative criteria because the process of rational scrutiny relies on having a set of rules or criteria that themselves do not need to be checked up on; if this weren’t the case then we’d get locked into an infinite regress every time we tried to perform an act of evaluation!
Evaluating (i.e. measuring/identifying) has nothing to do with the quality of whatever it is that we are investigating. What we are calling ‘quality’ can’t be measured because it has no relationship with whatever framework of reference we are using to do the measuring- quality isn’t established by an act of ‘comparison-making’, in other words. If we look at thought as a type of ‘measuring stick’ we can say that it functions by comparing what it is has just measured (or identified) with its framework of reference to see whether it is useful or not useful, advantageous in the bigger scheme of things or not advantageous. Or in a more basic way, we can say that though compares the object of its investigation with its ‘inventory of possible things’ to see whether this potential object exists or doesn’t exist. This is still a utilitarian consideration because ‘exists’ essentially means that the datum being queried is of ‘use to the framework’ whilst ‘doesn’t exist’ means that is of no use (i.e. relevance) to the FW.
Once we see the nature of thought and how it works then it becomes very clear why we are always going to be hopping from one thing to the other in the way that we are. This is inherent in the nature of the job it is doing. It is like a mechanic going around testing the bolts in some kind of a metal structure – once the act of testing or checking has been carried out there is no longer any point in hanging around because the job has been done and it’s time to move on to the next one. In the same way, once the act of ‘identification’ has been carried out by the thinking mind then there is no point in hanging around the scene – there’s no more to see, any interest that there might have been in the situation is there no more. It’s time to move on…
‘Interest’ is a dubious word to use in this connection, however. Just as there’s nothing interesting about having to go around testing the tightness of whole bunch of bolts in a structure (because it’s essentially the same operation repeated over and over again) there is also nothing inherently interesting about having to go around measuring or identifying a whole bunch off objects in relation to the frame of reference that we use to make sense of the world. It’s a tedious routine – if you do it once you’ve done it a million times! Everything thought does is tedious when it comes down to it; we just don’t see that it is because we’ve always got our eye on the prize. Either we’ve got our eye on the prize that is to be gained or we’ve got our eye on the threat that is to be avoided and either way we’re too driven to notice how dry and mechanical everything that thought does is. Thought cannot ever be anything else other than tedious.
Again, this isn’t a criticism of thought – thought does what it is supposed to do, it deals with the quantitative rather than the qualitative and the quantitative is always going to be dull. Thought’s job is to deal with the utilitarian side of things, to do what needs to be done with things if something does need to be done. If the bolts need to be tested then thought will do this and it will do this well; thought – as is often said – is an excellent servant! The problem lies not in the nature of thought however but in the way we use it. Put simply, we use thought for everything and because we use it for everything it ends up using us. It’s left in charge of things it never should have been left in charge of and the responsibility for this lies not with thought but with us.
We experience our lives almost entirely through the blanket of thought, which essentially means that we think about life rather than living it. We plan to live but we never do! The thinking mind has its role to play but – without realizing it – we have allowed it to go well beyond the point at which it ceases to be useful, and becomes instead actively harmful. We could use something as simple as the act of making a cup of tea to illustrate how this works. Thought’s role here is to do all the organizational stuff – it carries out all the various goal-orientated steps that are needed until we can get to the point where we put the cup to our lips and actually drink the tea. At this point thought helps us most by gracefully stepping aside and leaving us free to enjoy the taste of the tea, without having to be giving our attention to procedural or analytical matters instead. ‘Taste’ is after all a quality and an not an act of measurement or identification (if for example I take a drink of fresh orange juice the enjoyment does not lie in me identifying the orange juice as such or working out exactly how much of it I am drinking or should drink). Going back to the tea-drinking example again: we can ‘boil the kettle’ and ‘throw the teabag in the cup’ on purpose but we cannot enjoy the tea on purpose since there is no task to be carried out. Enjoyment exists in the present moment rather than being an outcome in the future that we are working towards. We’re not enjoying the taste of the tea for some reason either, because some logical end is being served by it. We’ve actually left the realm of logic!
We don’t actually live for a logical reason, and that’s the one thing thought can’t understand. When the logical mind takes over then – naturally enough – everything we do is for a reason. At this point life has become entirely ‘procedural’ and when life is entirely it is no longer life! Thought never steps aside, it never gracefully ‘bows out’ when it is no longer needed and so that thing we call ‘life’ never gets a chance to happen. Somehow we never notice however because instead of life we have our ideas of it, our models of it, our simulations of it, and we can’t tell the difference. What happens then is that everything – without any exception – occurs within a rational context, so even when we raise the cup of tea to our lips and take a sip we’re still operating in ‘purposeful mode’. There’s no gap, no break, no discontinuity between the thought patterns that came before that moment and those that follow it. How often do we have the experience of doing something during the day and having thought ‘come to a radical end’ whilst we do it? This can of course happen but it is an extraordinarily rare thing when it does…
The usual way to see this ‘lack of being present’ in the moment (or ‘lack of a gap’ in our mind-meditated experience) is to say that we are busy thinking about this, that and the other but this – whilst of course being perfectly true – only represents ‘the tip of the iceberg’ as regards our on-going mental activity. That’s not the half of it! The constant mental chatter that we are prone to engaging in as a result of the very considerable momentum that has built up in our thought processes is the most superficial aspect of what we are talking about here. Underlying whatever conscious or semi-conscious thoughts we might be having at the time there is this ‘Big Thought-Created Assumption’ that we have going about who we are and what life is all about. This BTCA is essentially a time-orientated thing’ – we might say that it is the belief that we have that the activity which we are engaging in at the moment will (or could) result in some kind of a beneficial outcome in the future.
What we’re talking about here is nothing other than ‘basic purposefulness’ and as such it is of course deeply familiar to us. Not only is it a deeply familiar mental operation for us, it is also our only mental operation. All activities of the thinking mind are purposeful, or ‘time-orientated’ – we don’t do anything, rationally-speaking, that isn’t directed towards some sort of useful outcome in the future. The observation that all thought-processes are time-orientated in the their basic nature may not seem like such a big deal to us but it is – the point being that all activities that are directed towards some sort of a useful outcome in the future (as normal and therefore innocuous as this concept might seem to us) are activities that are disconnected from reality. And saying that our purposeful activities are ‘activities that are disconnected from reality’ is just a polite way of saying that these activities themselves are not real…
What we are essentially assuming with our goal-orientated activities is that ‘the good stuff is not here, the good stuff is in the future’. How could we not be saying this with our purposeful activity? In one very particular way this assumption is of course true – the cup of tea that I am making doesn’t exist now, it exists in the future. If it already existed now then I wouldn’t have to make it! And not only does the outcome I want not exist now but only in the future, but it is also the case that this outcome only exists in the future if I manage to carry out my tea-making procedures correctly. Again, this observation is so obvious to us that we are very unlikely to see it as being worth spelling out so specifically. But the BMCA isn’t about ‘particulars’, it’s about everything; because it is an unconscious sort of a thing it necessarily subsumes everything – that’s how unconscious processes work. This nebulous / unconscious BMCA that we’re talking about reflects our attitude to life as a whole, not towards any specific thing. When we are thinking about some specific outcome it can very easily happen that our attitude to this outcome will be contaminated by our ‘unconscious attitude to life as a whole’, but all that is happening here is that the particular case is representing the bigger picture for us without us knowing that it is, and so what this means is that we are not dealing with the specific case at all, even though we think that we are!
Our ‘unconscious or unexamined attitude towards life’ is essentially this: ‘Life is not happening now, life is going to happen in the future’. Moreover, our unconscious belief is not just that ‘life is going to happen in the future’ but rather that life is not going to happen for us in the future unless we can put into action the correct type of procedures and carry them out successfully’. Life has thus become something we win or gain as a result of successful manipulation, therefore. This – unbeknownst to us – has put us completely at odds with life because our basic assumption is completely wrong – life isn’t going to happen for us as a result of our successful controlling, it’s only going to happen when we cease trying to control it! Life isn’t obedient to our demands, no matter how forceful (or how skilful) we get in our demanding – actually, the more forceful we get in our demanding, the less it responds to us. Life only happens when we don’t strain for it to happen. Consciously, we know this with perfect clarity – unconsciously however, we couldn’t be further away from knowing it!
There are therefore two types of motivation, not just the one, and these two types of motivation tend to get totally mixed up in everyday life. On the one hand there is the conscious (and therefore ‘appropriate’) type of motivation that relates to specific practical goals, and on the other hand there is the deeply unconscious (or ‘automatic’) motivation which tends to hijack everything else and which is ‘the counterproductive motivation to get life to happen’. The drive to obtain a particular pragmatic goal (such as make a cup of tea, or put some clothes on in the morning) is ‘appropriate’ because it actually does the job it is supposed to do. Without this motivation the job won’t get done. The automatic motivation to try to ‘achieve life’ (or ‘achieve being’ is however not ‘appropriate’ – it is not appropriate (so to speak) because  It’s not really our motivation at all but an external force that is imposed on us, and  not only does it ‘not achieve anything’ it thoroughly undermines us.
As we have said, what happens with these two types of motivation is that they get all mixed up. More accurately, the second type of motivation loads onto the first type and contaminates it, without us being aware that this has happened. This ‘contamination’ (or ‘loading’) can happen a little, a lot or not at all – when it becomes particularly prominent it is called greed (or fear, if it operates the other way around). It can also show itself in the form of anxiety, which is where we seem – both to ourselves and others – to be obsessed by the prospect of negative (or undesired) outcomes in the future and to be – therefore – under the sway of dread with regard to the possibilities of these negative outcomes (even though we may not know what they are) coming to pass. It is not really the stated or defined outcomes that we are concerned about here however – the crippling sense of dread that we are experiencing derives from the second type of motivation that we have mentioned, we are automatically striving to achieve life, or achieve being, but along with this striving there is a very strong feeling that this is just not going to work out. In this premonition we are of course correct because in striving to achieve ‘being’ we are guaranteed to lose it…
Trying to ‘make life happen’ via our effective goal-orientated behaviour is the same thing as ‘grasping’. That’s what we are essentially trying to do – we’re clutching desperately at life and our desperation is fuelled by our unconscious (and therefore unexamined) conviction that unless we grasp at life effectively enough then we’re going to miss out. Our feeling is that unless we ‘do something about it’ then we’re going to miss the boat and life is going to sail without us. The thing about this however is (as we have already said) that the more desperately we strive for being the more it eludes us. The more we grasp at ‘the good stuff’, the more it runs away from us. It’s as if we’re in deep water and we’re thrashing around in a panic trying desperately to stay afloat; we’d float easily if we trusted the water and didn’t try to save ourselves but we don’t – we’ve taken matters into our own hands and as a result we’re actually drowning…
This unconscious current of motivation (which is ‘the urge to gain’) isn’t very helpful, therefore! It is constantly demanding that we strive ‘to get there’ and by striving in this way we are ensuring that we never do. In small things, as we have said, it is helpful and appropriate to ‘strain to get things down’ but when our whole life becomes an extended act of ‘grasping’ – as it invariably does when we fall into unconsciousness – then this tendency is not merely ‘unhelpful’, it is the source of all our suffering! This is why – as the mystics say – unconscious living means nothing else apart from suffering. The unconscious life – which is at root the attempt to avoid suffering – is itself suffering.
‘Being unconscious’, ‘existing completely within an all-defining rational context’, ‘operating in the time-orientated / purposeful mode’ are all perfectly equivalent terms. They all mean exactly the same thing – what they mean is that we are being run by the automatic / extrinsic motivation of ‘trying to achieve the desired outcome via ‘force’ or ‘controlling’. We are trying to bully life into happening; we’re operating on the basis of fear / greed. Essentially, we have confused life (or ‘reality’) with one of our own mental objects and we think  that it exists outside of ourselves, and  that we can obtain it if we strain enough, or control enough. Very basically, we perceive reality to exist outside of ourselves and we greedy to obtain it (or fearful of not obtaining it). We perceive ourselves – in an unexamined way, or course – to have no actually being, and this means that being (or ‘happiness’) has to be won. This is gives rise to what Alan watts refers to as ‘the vicious circle’.
It should come as no surprise therefore that we are only ever – when we have been subsumed within the realm of thought – dealing with the world in a perfunctory (and therefore essentially insincere) way. It should come as no surprise that when we’re in the grip of extrinsic motivation we see the world (and other people) as being ‘merely something to be controlled or exploited’. We’ve always got our eyes on something else – whatever that ‘something else might be’! We’re blinded by greed – we’ve got ‘dollar signs in our eyes’ so we’re always missing what’s right in front of us! We’re constantly manipulating or exploiting reality in order to ‘get our hands the prize’ – the curious thing is however that we never stop to ask ourselves what exactly this ‘so-called prize’ might be!
Image taken from: eyesonthestreet.com
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.