To live in the world, and fundamentally not to know what that world is (or not to know what it means to live in it) is existential pain, is existential discomfort. Not really knowing what’s going on is an existential irritant to us (to put it mildly) – it niggles at us (or irritates us) because it can’t ever be smoothed over, it irritates us because it’s ‘a pain that can’t ever be cured’.
It could be said therefore that this particular type of pain or discomfort comes about because of a deep-down need that we have – the deep-down need for the existential security of knowing what the world is. This isn’t a ‘need’ like the need for food or shelter or companionship – it isn’t a need like that because it can’t ever be satisfied, because it can’t ever be met. There’s no way to know what the world ‘is’ and so this means that it isn’t really a legitimate need. If we were to call it anything we would have to say that it is something along the lines of ‘an addiction to a fantasy’!
Food, shelter, companionship, and so on are clear biological needs and as such no one can argue about their legitimacy; equally, we clearly need to be able to make sense of our environment, and interpret it accurately so to predict (as best we can) what is going to happen next, but this is not at all the same thing as ‘knowing what the world IS‘. If I see a brightly coloured snake on the path in front of me I can predict what’s going to happen if I let it bite me and so I know that the thing to do here is to take immediate avoiding action. There is no arguing with the validity of the identification of the danger that my environment is preventing me with in this instance – to be bitten means either to live or to die or to be very seriously affected health-wise. This is ‘pragmatic’ type of knowing therefore and it has nothing to do with any sort of ‘absolute knowledge’ regarding what the world IS, and what it means to live in it. We cannot conflate the ‘two type of knowing’ here!
And yet, having said this, we have to acknowledge that they nearly every person you will ever meet is going convinced to the very bottom of their shoes that they do have this ‘absolute knowledge’ regarding the nature of what the world ‘IS’. Very nearly all of us go around unshakeably convinced that we know ‘what it’s all about’ and this is just another way of saying that very nearly all of us go around our daily business every day that a mind that is fundamentally closed. Whether we can see it or not therefore, this makes complete fools of us!
As we have just said, no other need is served in having a fundamentally closed mind other than the need to avoid the existential discomfort that comes from realising that we don’t (and can’t) really know what’s going on. We don’t at all ‘know what’s going on’ and yet it matters very much to us that we believe we do we do! This is very clear to see, we can see it just by looking around us – there is a type of comfortableness both on ours and other people’s faces, a rather stark ‘lack of fundamental questioning’, if we may put it like that. This is the look of ‘an adapted human being’; it is the look of a person who has become 100% adapted to the idea of the world that they have been provided with (either by their own minds or by society as a whole). We all have this look and – whether we like to admit it or not – it betokens some kind of rather sinister deficiency within us. Something has been taken away from us and we don’t know it…
Although this is a look that we all have it isn’t really a look that is ‘natural’ to us – it’s actually a type of blankness, a rather disturbing type of ‘shutdown-ness’ that we have acquired along the way. We’ve stopped being fundamentally curious about the nature of the world that we live in and that has ‘taken the shine off us’ (so to speak. We’ve lost our shine (or ‘our spark’) even though we might still consider ourselves to be doing perfectly well. We might say that we are ‘living life fully’ in other words, but clearly we are not – this is a parody of life, not the thing itself. ‘Comfort’ is one thing and there’s no harm in it, but when we’re ‘comfortable’ with a made-up story of what the world is, and who we are, then it is clear that a better word for our ‘comfortableness’ would be foolishness. We’re comfortable in taking our illusions for reality and this isn’t a great thing. We might share this type of foolishness with millions of other people on the planet but this doesn’t make the charade any less preposterous! For sure it will make us feel a good deal better about ourselves as we continue in our folly, but that is clearly only make things worse for us in the long run…
There is no genuine adaptive value to believing that we have absolute knowledge with regard to the question as to ‘what the world actually IS’. On the contrary, this is setting ourselves up for sure and certain disaster. So why – we might ask – do we do it? Why do we entertain this particular illusion, pernicious and harmful as it is? We could content ourselves with saying – as we already have done – that we bury our heads in the sand in the way that we do for the sake of ‘evading existential discomfort’ (or for the sake of ‘obtaining a sense of ontological security’), but what does this really mean? It’s a familiar formula for sure but what does it tell us? What’s really going on here in this desperate attempt of ours to find this hallucinatory commodity called ontological security’?
It turns out that there is a more precise way of talking about this matter, the only proviso being that we may not be too comfortable with it. When we said that ‘to be in the world and at the same time fundamentally not know what the world is or what it means to be in it equals existential pain or discomfort’ this statement needs to be qualified. To be strictly accurate, what we should have said is that ‘for the self to exist in a world that it cannot understand equals existential pain or discomfort’. Alternatively, we could say that it equals fear, which is perhaps a formulation that we can understand better. But even more accurately, we could say that the self can’t actually exist in a world that it fundamentally doesn’t understand!
This is the crux of the matter and it is a crux that we are light-years away from being able to understand. The self can only understand exist in a world that it understands and the snag – as we have already said a number of times – is that the world can never be understood. The world (or ‘reality’) is quintessentially insusceptible to being understood. It’s like a surd in mathematics – it can’t be reduced to terms that we can logically comprehend. When we say that ‘the self can only have existence in the world that it understands’ what we are actually saying therefore is that the self could only exist in a made-up world! The self can only exist in terms of its own groundless fantasies.
The self gets to be the self by making up its own world within which it can exist, in other words. It makes up ‘a world’ by projecting its unexamined ideas of ‘what reality is’ onto the world, which is something that we are all obviously very good at! We are in fact superlatively good at this ‘art of projection’ – we do it as easily as we breathe, without him being in the least bit aware of what we’re doing. What could be easier than to project ideas about reality onto the world? What could come more naturally to us than this? If we were ever to wonder why people love having inflexible belief systems as much as they plainly do, then straightaway we can now see the answer! If you were to meet a person who has very strong, very emphatic beliefs regarding what life is all about (and what else are beliefs ever about?) then straightaway you would know that it is not the model or picture or theory of the world that they care about so much as the fact that believing uncritically in it provides them with a very strong, very emphatic ‘sense of self’.
This is very ironic of course because if I happen to be a person who has a strong concrete belief about how God created the world and what plan He has for us in His Creation then the implication is of course that I have a lot of regard for God, that I put Him first, that He is ‘Number One’ and not myself. Quite the reverse is true however since my belief is all for me; I believe as fervently as I do in my picture of the world and God because that is how I get to have a strongly defined sense of self. As Krishnamurti says, I’m not worshipping God, I’m worshipping my own idea of God, and this means that I’m actually worshipping myself. Seeing things like this puts a rather different perspective on matters, obviously! And similarly, with someone who has a very strong and very particular political belief we might think that such a person, by virtue of their obvious idealism, cares a lot about the world and has a lot of interest in it, but the converse of this is true – they care a lot about themselves and the ‘ontological security’ that they are obtaining for themselves by their emphatic beliefs.
It’s not just those individuals who have a very dogmatic view of the world that we are talking about here however. These extreme examples just make the principle much clearer to understand. Everyone (with the possible exception of a few poets and mystics!) has a concrete picture of the world; every one of us believes that – in a fundamental sense – we know what the world is! Just as the out-and-out zealot is profoundly incurious about the actual nature of the truth that they are proclaiming so loudly, so too are we profoundly incurious about the concrete nature of the world that we have assumed. We have to have zero curiosity about our fundamental assumptions regarding life (or the world) – if we didn’t then we would run the risk of losing our own ‘concrete identity’!
The only type of activity we are interested in (when we are ‘orientated towards unconsciousness’) is activity that ‘boosts the believability of our beliefs’. This is one hell of a thing to get to grips with; it is absolutely staggering. We would be able to make sense of so much of human psychology and human behaviour if only we could understand this – we would immediately stop having unrealistic expectations about our fellow human beings, which is something that Anthony de Mello talks about in his book Awareness. We get disgruntled and upset the whole time because other people don’t behave with the nobility that we unconsciously expect them to, even though we ourselves aren’t any more ‘noble’ in our behaviours than they are! Or to use Tony de Mello’s terminology, we feel let down and disappointed when other people behave selfishly, even though we are every bit as selfish as they are!
Instead of talking about ‘acting selfishly’ we are going to talk about ‘acting or thinking so as to get the world to precisely match our ideas for it’ – which comes down to the very same thing. Getting the world to ‘match our ideas for it’ is how we get to create the self, after all! When we manage to get things to accord with our unexamined ideas for them this produces the good feeling that we call euphoria, and when we don’t manage to do this we experience the reverse of this good feeling, which is dysphoria. The staggering thing is therefore that we allow this crude motivational system to determine everything we do – it constitutes our ‘total economy’! Seeking euphoria and shunning dysphoria is absolutely all we care about, in other words, and this is what it means to be ‘addicted to the fantasy’…
Art: Hong Kuang, coolvibe.com