Most of what we do in our waking life (and in our sleeping life too) comes down to the acting out of pointless automatisms.
This is the default situation and to get out of this default situation takes a tremendous amount of a particular type of work, along with some kind of actual insight regarding what this work is actually all about.
To change the default situation simply takes far too much of this particular type of work as far as we are generally concerned and so we are stuck with this business of ‘acting out the pointless automatisms’. Of course, to see that what we are doing in life is merely enacting, in a perfectly mechanical way, a whole bunch of pointless automatisms is itself very hard work – this seeing is itself something that takes a huge amount of conscious effort, and so the cure for this is simply to go along with not seeing it, which doesn’t take any effort at all.
If we go along with the default mode, if we go along with the convenient ‘cover-story’ of what the automatism is telling us is happening (instead of seeing what is really happening) then as far as we are concerned everything is just fine, everything is hunky-dory, and so we obtain what is in effect an ‘easy version’ of life – a dumbed-down version of the real thing, a kind of ‘life for dummies’ which does not require any sustained conscious effort (because sustained conscious effort is not what we want). I can just ‘coast along’, so to speak, without – for the most part – any major difficulties or upsets.
When I opt for the ‘default’ or ‘easy mode’ of life the automatisms which I am passively enacting automatically validate themselves so that what I am doing doesn’t seem like ‘passively enacting the automatisms’. Instead, what I am doing gets to seem fully volitional (possibly even creative), and eminently meaningful to me. And if there are lots and lots of us enacting the same automatisms, then what I am doing seems very meaningful indeed – in fact, more than just ‘meaningful’ it seems like ‘the right thing to do’. Anyone else who isn’t doing what I am doing then appears to be entirely reprehensible in the sense that they are not doing the right thing. Because these other people are not doing what has been collectively validated (by the mechanism of the mass acting-out of the automatism) it is plain to me that they are in fact doing the wrong thing, which puts them in line for whatever censure I can bring to bear on them. This ‘mass-acting out of common (or uniform) automatisms’ is – needless to say – what we usually called ‘culture’ or ‘society’.
Straightway we can see how much the package has going for it – I get to settle for the easy version of life (the version without sustained conscious effort) and at the same time I get to feel personally validated, I get to feel that I am ‘on the right path’. If I buy into this package then all I have to do is jump on board the bus and take a free ride to wherever the bus driver is taking me. All that is required of me is that I go along passively with whatever stuff it is that everyone else is passively ‘going along with’, and what could be easier or less challenging than this?
At the very same time as being passively taken for a ride by the collective vehicle I also get to feel that I am a genuine individual, I get to feel that I am making my own choices in life. I get to feel that I am ‘paddling my own canoe’, that I am a unique individual – possibly even a bit of a rebel. The automatic validation process means that I feel personally empowered as being ‘the individual that I truly am’, and yet that the same time as being empowered in this way I am also being socially validated (as ‘doing the right thing in life’) because I am doing what everyone else is doing. This – needless to say – doesn’t make any sense at all!
In an incredibly superficial sort of a way, the ‘life-for-dummies’ package that we are talking about here does sound very attractive – it’s a kind of ‘have your cake and eat it’ package because I get to avoid the huge amount of work that would be needed in order to free myself from a life of life of pointless servitude to whatever automatisms happen to have taken up residence in my head, and yet at the same time feel that I am already free, and that I am doing meaningful (or even laudable) stuff. On this basis, it does look good: something in me straightway grabs a pen and asks, ‘Where do I sign?’ But if we look at the deal in any sort of a way that isn’t ‘infinitely superficial’ then it doesn’t look so great at all. If we actually think about the terms of the deal in any depth at all we can see that what it is offering is a state of abject slavery, very thinly covered over with what can only be described as a thoroughly derisory ‘token offering’ of what is insultingly supposed to be freedom. We are expected to embrace this ‘mock freedom’ with both arms, and act as if we honestly believe it to be the real thing. We are supposed to put on a big old cheesy smile as we salute the flag of ‘false freedom’ every morning…
So we can say that the ‘drawback’ to the deal is that the automatism is secretly driving us in just about everything we do, determining the way we see and think about the world. This sounds bad enough, but we could also go further and point out that what the automatism is actually doing is living out its automatic ‘pseudo-life’ through us, using us a passively compliant vehicle to this end. In this case, the various automatisms that we have picked up along the way are more like parasites than anything else since they operate by exploiting us (basically by hijacking our awareness) for their own purposes. We go along with this hijacking because – as we have said – we get something out of it. It’s a deal: we get to think that purposes of the parasitic automatisms are our purposes, we get to think that the motivation which is engendered by these ‘mind-programs’ is our own motivation (our own volition) and so we are using these automatisms, this conditioning, to provide us with a convenient structure (or ‘rationale’) in life. The automatisms in question are using us so that they can live out their mechanical lives through us, and we are using the automatisms so that we don’t have to ‘think for ourselves’!
The pseudo-volitional quality of our lives when we are conditioned by whatever mental programs it is that are running the show for us (which is what Colin Wilson refers to as the ‘internal robot’) might only be a thin veneer, a flimsy bit of window dressing, but it suffices – it does the job. Who – after all –asks themselves whether they genuinely have free will or not? Whoever sits down and makes a genuine effort to find out whether they are not perhaps fooling themselves in everything they think, everything they believe? This is practically unheard of – we’re all far too busy running around not questioning ourselves, we’re all far too busy running around automatically agreeing with ourselves about everything we think. It never occurs to us that ‘automatically agreeing with ourselves about everything’ might not be a good policy, that it might be leading us – ultimately – to a ‘bad place’. This is equivalent to automatically voting for politicians just because they seem to be saying the right things – if there is one thing we ought to know for sure (on the basis of long experience) it is that the end result of such unquestioning compliance is not going to be of any benefit to us.
The machinery of conditioning creates a phantom form of freedom, a kind of hallucinatory perception of authenticity and autonomy, an image which is projected onto the screen of the mind for me to watch, just as if I were sitting there relaxing in my living room sprawled on a comfy chair eating a pizza and watching a film or show on TV. As long as I keep on looking at the screen and don’t pay attention to anything else, then the illusion is complete. As long as I keep on thinking what I’m supposed to be thinking the illusion is complete. As long as I stay ‘in the box’ – and at the same time strongly censure anyone else who doesn’t stay in the box – then the illusion is complete.
But we could also say that at the same time the machinery of conditioning creates a phantom world, it also creates highly convincing phantom image of a self-determining agent who is autonomously operating in this virtual world. We could say that the automatism, when I go along with it, provides me with two illusions:  The illusion that I authentically am this mind-produced self and  The illusion that this mind-produced self possesses a genuinely free (volitional) nature. Or as David Bohm puts it in Thought as a System, “…the system contains a reflex which produces the thought that it is I who is doing everything”. Bohm (1992, P 91) goes on to say,
Many of our intentions are reflexive; they just come out automatically. They’re coming from reflexes, whose basis is thought. The intention is implicit in the thought. You will be impelled to do something if something is ‘necessary’. If someone says, ‘you must do it, it is necessary to do it’, or ‘doing this will give you something you really want’ then from that thought you will get the intention to do it.
We have the picture that there is ‘somebody’ inside us who is given all this information and then decides to have the intention to do something based on that. I am suggesting, however, that that is not so.
Krishnamurti refers to this ‘reflexive self’ (the self that is an automatic reflex of the system of thought) as the self-image, and Wei Wu Wei calls it the “I-concept”. This hypnotically compelling idea of ‘who we are’ is purely a mental production (or ‘mental projection’), and as such it is completely and utterly lacking in any actual substance. Because it is lacking in substance it only works when we don’t look at it, when we direct our attention outwards towards whatever show or drama is being projected onto the screen, and for this reason the life of the self-image is devoid of what is sometimes called interiority. There is no space for there to be any interiority in a two-dimensional mental image, in an abstract construct of the mind, in a mere concept, and so we are forced to live in our projections, in our extrapolations of the system of thought that we cannot see as such and which we take therefore to be the actual reality.
In this world there cannot be any such thing as ‘free will’ since free will is a function of interiority, or ‘presence’. Instead of genuine volition what we have is mere reactivity, which is a reflex response arising out of the structure of thought that is activated whenever the appropriate trigger comes along. This mental reflex, as Bohm says, comes equipped with a pre-programmed ‘intention’, and because we do not have enough actual presence (or interiority) to see that the intention is part of the structure of the thought we identify with it and experience it as being our own intention, our own free volition. In this way I can go along with the machinery of my conditioning and never have the slightest clue that my thinking is making choices for me, that it is intending things ‘on my behalf’. But it is not just that the thinking is making choices for me; it is also busily interpreting reality for me – it is continuously telling me what the world is, and it is equally continuously telling me what I am. And in all of this I am merely the helpless passenger, going along for the ride.
Reactivity is a function of our ‘inability to do otherwise’. Because the self-image is only a fiction, only an abstraction, it has no resources to deal with any actual difficulty, any genuine challenge (which is to say, a challenge that cannot be ‘solved’ by the application of some handy off-the-shelf method or technique). Whenever I am faced with an irresolvably difficult situation therefore – a situation for which there is no appropriate reflex response – then I am no longer able ‘to cope’. I’m not able to cope with the situation and – as a consequence – I am no longer able to ‘manage my emotions’ (or ‘manage my anxiety’) in relation to this eventuality. What I do then of course is that I ‘freak out’ – I lose the plot, I crack up, I go crazy, I go ape-shit, I lose my head, and so on. This sort of behaviour is therefore a sure-fire indication of my lack of interiority, a sure-fire indication that if I seemed to be present and composed and confident and all the rest of it before the challenge came along, that was only ‘my internal robot’ – that was only my trustworthy system of mental reflexes running the show for me.
‘Freaking out’ might seem chaotic and out-of-control but it is actually a pretty smart strategy in itself, a fail-safe strategy, the strategy of ‘self-distraction’ or ‘exteriorization’. So when the self-image is faced with a situation that it can’t handle what it does is to ‘flap-about’ in one way or another and create thereby an instant drama to get excited about, to get distracted with. The most basic form of drama is where I don’t like something (because it is difficult or painful for me) and so what I do – rather than attending to it – I keep on saying to myself (or to anyone I can find to act as an audience) how terrible it is, how awful it is, how much I hate it, how it should never have been allowed to happen, how it was wrong or unfair that it happened, and so on and so forth, over and over again, ad nauseam. When I do this it sounds as if I am having a hard time, it seems as if I am legitimately suffering, but this is not at all the case. In reality it is all just a big drama – I am simply deflecting the pain, I am simply displacing it all over the place.
Ideally, there will be people around me so that I can suck them into my drama, which means that I will be able to get them to feel the pain rather than me (i.e. I will be able to pass it on to them), but even if I haven’t got anyone else there to get involved in my drama the tactic of exteriorization still works because I am distracting myself from the pain by focussing on my running commentary on it, my negative evaluations of it, my complaints about it. By allowing my attention to get totally caught up in my thinking, in my continuous statements about how terrible it all is, I get to live in the exteriorization (or ‘objectification’) of my pain rather than the pain itself. In short, I put on a good show and then get caught up in this show. Getting caught up in the external show of suffering might look like the real thing but it is of course just an evasion; whilst it might seem as if I am suffering I am not – I have avoided the whole thing without allowing myself to realize that I have avoided anything, and so my strategy is entirely successful.
The self-image has no choice in this – it cannot legitimately suffer, it can only avoid and that is where its ‘strength’ lies. The self-image cannot suffer because there is no one there to suffer – presence is needed before there can be legitimate suffering (or conversely, we may say that if there is genuine sadness or suffering, then there must be presence). The self-image, we may say, is ‘an absence disguised as a presence’. What the self-image does when it is ‘caught out’ therefore is to deflect madly, like a wet dog shaking itself dry after getting caught in the rain. I am unconsciously suffering, just as I am unconsciously doing everything else. I’m not actually capable of suffering whilst I am in the unconscious mode of living – a mere mental image or concept cannot suffer legitimately because it has to do everything via the system of thought. Nothing is real for it unless it can think it first. This is another way of saying that it always functions by distracting itself with its automatic reactions – only genuine being (which does not need to automatically ‘react’) can feel pain or sadness.
What is true for sadness or pain is just as true for joy or happiness – just as the two-dimensional self-image cannot honestly or legitimately suffer, neither can it be happy. It simply doesn’t have the capacity; it doesn’t have any sort of capacity. It can only react automatically to situations that it has evaluated in a ‘definite’ way. So just as the theatrical self creates a drama when something happens which it doesn’t like, and can’t effectively deal with, it does the very same thing when it finds itself in a situation that it does like. What it does in this case – the ‘wished for’ or ‘desirable’ case – is to distract itself by saying how great and wonderful it is that whatever it is happened, how marvellous and splendid it is, how fantastic it is and so on. The satisfaction in this comes not from the situation itself therefore but from our positive affirmation of it as being good rather than bad. Our happiness comes out of our thinking on the matter, in other words.
Without this thinking – which is the internal voice-over telling us how great the situation is – we cannot enjoy the theatrical happiness that we want to enjoy, which is not so much ‘happiness’ therefore as pleasure (or satisfaction), which can be defined as ‘the celebration of happiness as opposed to the thing itself’. Celebrating this, that or the other doesn’t seem to do any harm to us – in fact we see it as being pretty much indispensable to any worth-while occasion – but this is because we fail to see that way in which the celebration of the event ends up not just being more important that the event itself, but actually as a replacement for it. In essence the description is being valued over what is being described, and so the system of thought is covertly glorifying itself.
Alan Watts is talking about the same thing when he says that no happy occasion is right unless we have photographs of it, no accomplishment is worth anything unless it comes with a certificate, no event really happened unless we can read about it in the newspaper, and so on. The thinking (or description) of the event is essential to the self-image, and the reason for this is that we don’t actually live life, but rather we live our description of it. This gives us a good definition of what it means to be in the ‘unconscious’ modality – we can say that unconscious living is scripted living, that it is a business that takes place wholly within the realm of the known, within the realm of what can be both documented and authenticated. So whilst unconscious suffering is where we ‘suffer from our descriptions’, unconscious happiness (i.e. euphoria) is where we enjoy and luxuriate in our descriptions’. We are in other words the victims of our pleasing thoughts just as much as we are victims of our displeasing thoughts, and the reason why we are ‘victims’ is because in all this business of ‘living in our thoughts about what is going on’ we never actually connect with the genuine reality of our experiences. Because we live wholly within the simulation we never know ‘the thing itself’.
‘The thing itself’ is not actually a very agreeable proposition for the self-image or I-concept – it isn’t a very agreeable proposition for the simple reason that it cannot survive actual exposure to reality itself. After all, what happens when a concept meets with the reality? What should happen – in the natural course of things – is of course that the concept gives way to the reality just as – in a restaurant – the menu gives way to the meal. But the self-image does not take very kindly to this idea of ‘giving way’; relinquishing itself in favour of something better is not in the least bit appealing to it – in fact far from being ‘appealing’ the necessity to give way constitutes the ‘worst case scenario’, the most unacceptable outcome ever. We could say that for the self-image or I-concept to voluntarily relinquish itself is a very big challenge, but this would not be making the point correctly at all – it is not a challenge, it is a flat-out impossibility.
The self-image just can’t do this: ‘letting go of itself’ is the one thing the self-image or I-concept can never do.
The reason the self can’t let go of itself is because everything it does is an automatic reflex (or reaction), and – contrariwise – all of its reflexes (or reactions) are itself. This being so, what we have is a circle with no beginning and no end, a closed loop with no entrance and no exit. There is no way for the conditioned (or defined) self to ‘undo’ itself because everything it ‘does’ is itself.
Because the everyday or defined self can’t, by its own accord, by its volition, let go of itself, it comes up with a way around the problem, it adopts a strategy, and the ‘strategy’ we are talking about here is the replacing of the actual territory by the map of the territory. In Baudrillard’s terms, the strategy that the system comes up with is to replace the real with the hyperreal, to replace the actual with the ‘simulation’. Within the simulation everything is ‘purposeful’ – everything is there because it has been instructed to be there, everything is the way it is because it has been described or defined as being that way. Or to put it another way, everything that happens in the simulation happens because there was a logical cause (or rule) that made it happen. Everything is purposeful, everything is a ‘positive act’. For this reason, therefore, genuine unconditional ‘letting go’ is replaced or substituted for by the purposeful analogue of letting go, a tokenized form of letting go that is actually a disguised form of ‘holding on’.
Thus, we can say that the simulation contains the possibility of dissimulation, only the dissimulation in question is actually a simulation. It is as if I am playing a role within the simulation, and then when I get tired of the role I step out of it, I let go of it, I take off the mask and be my true self. The thing is, however, that within the simulation when I take off the mask and ‘become my real self’ this so-called ‘real self’ is really just another level of the simulation. It is just another layer of the onion. It is therefore possible to repeat this process as often as I want – I can get tired of my so-called real self’, realize that it is in fact just another act, just another pretence, and ‘let go’ of it. This feels good because in the giving up of the act or pretence there is a relief, there is an easing of tension, but really all that has happened is that I have perpetrated another level of deception upon myself because this letting go is every bit as false as the one that preceded it. The system does not contain the possibility of genuine letting go, but to make up for this deficiency what it does contain is the possibility of an infinite regress of illusory (or ‘apparent’) letting go’s.
A simpler way of talking about this is to say the system of thought can think about transcending itself, going beyond itself, etc, but when it does this all that is happening is that it is creating another level of itself. It is creating another level of itself which is pretending to be ‘not itself’. I can imagine what it is like to go outside of the closed box that is the system of thought, but when I go off on this magical journey of the imagination it is my thinking that is taking me there. I am thinking about what if feels like to be not thinking, I am imagining what it might be like to stop imagining things, I am dreaming about the world that might (perhaps!) lie outside of the dream. My attempt to escape the system of thought involves me therefore in a paradox. Any attempt to escape the system of thought involves me in a paradox – I am jumping head-first into the paradox of ‘thinking about how I may stop thinking’, the paradox of ‘wondering how I might stop wondering’, the paradox of ‘intending not to intend’.
This paradox (or regress) is why the self-image cannot deliberately let go of itself. Genuine ‘letting go’ is the one thing the system of thought cannot simulate because everything it does it brings itself into it. The known cannot simulate the unknown because when it does the unknown becomes the known. The old cannot causally give rise to the new because anything the old causally gives rise to (or ‘logically produces’) is the old.
For the self-image or I-concept to give way to the underlying reality of ‘radical selflessness’ the known must give way to the unknown and the old must give way to the new. But this is precisely where the glitch lies – the known cannot bear to give way to the unknown, and the old cannot bring itself to give way to the new.
As we have said, it is this ‘inability’ that necessitates the ‘key strategy’ of the system of thought, which is ‘the simulation of the new’, or ‘the production of the falsely new’.
This ‘phoney new’ is what we encounter every single day of our lives under the guise of so-called ‘reality’ – we deal with the ‘simulated new’ every day and at no time do we even suspect that it isn’t new, that it is in fact just ‘more of the same’. We do business with this impostor on a daily basis and we never suspect a thing.
The phoney new, the simulated new, the pseudo-new, is the only world we know. It is the only world we can know just so long as we are firmly identified with the self-image. The self-image is – as we have said – constitutionally unable to perceive or register anything that isn’t one of its own projections. If it did perceive or register something that wasn’t one of its own projections then this would be the same thing as perceiving its own unreality.
If the self-image or I-concept were to perceive its own unreality then – naturally enough – this would be the same thing as it ‘ceasing to exist’. So there is simply no way that the self-concept can perceive the genuinely new…
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.