Life is a risk but when we try to avoid this risk all we are doing is creating a perfectly sterile situation for ourselves – a situation which is – of itself – quite irredeemable. If we were to understand this then we would at one stroke understand all the ‘psychology’ we will ever need to understand! Anything else is beside the point. Anything else is codology…
The automatic tendency we all have in us is the tendency to ‘shut down risk’ wherever we come across it. This is the default response to all risk. The most straightforward example of shutting down risk is where we try to realize our goals, where we try to achieve a desired outcome. The urgency we feel to ‘close it all down’ so that the only possible outcome on the table is the outcome we have already decided upon is nothing other – at root – than this same automatic impulse to avoid risk. We don’t of course see it like this – the drive we experience to obtain our goals has been thoroughly legitimized, thoroughly sanctified in the eyes of one and all. What could be more admirable than the heroic struggle of a man or woman to realize their cherished dreams? Our whole society is founded upon this virtue – the virtue of working hard in the face of adversity to obtain clearly defined goals. Or as we could also say, the virtue we most admire as a culture is ‘the virtue of successful control’ or ‘the virtue of being able to successfully get what we want’.
Another way in which we ‘automatically shut down risk’ is by identifying elements in our environment as being whatever it is that our system of reference says they are. Again, this is not something that we would ever see as ‘risk avoidance’ – we would simply see it as the act of cognition or perception. We would see this as recognizing or seeing what is out there in the world, not any form of avoidance (which of course strongly implies not wanting to be aware of what is out there). The main thrust of what we call the ‘educational process’ is the business of identifying all the elements or objects that make up our world. We ‘learn what things are,’ in other words. We accumulate positive knowledge. ‘Knowing what things are’ is a highly valued thing in our society – if you ‘know what everything is’ then you will be deferred to as an accredited expert, you will be acclaimed as a scholar or general wise person. No one sees being highly educated in this way as ‘risk avoidance’ either but it is – whenever we arrange things so cleverly that the world at large ends up agreeing 100% with our mental categories then we have successfully avoided risk. We have avoided the risk of seeing anything that disagrees with the way we wanted to see the world, we have avoided seeing anything that will upset our expectations regarding what does and does not constitute reality! By applying our model or theory across the board (without actually bothering to pay attention to the fact that this is what we are doing) we successfully manage to avoid seeing any aspect of reality that fails to accord with our information-processing filters…
Our basic way of seeing the world is totally skewed in that we see our wholesale avoidance of risk as being something perfectly legitimate, perfectly normal, perfectly right and proper. More than just normal, we see the wholesale avoidance of risk as being a noble sort of a thing – something we should admire in our fellows and aspire towards ourselves. We celebrate it. The way we end up in this curious situation (i.e. the situation of perversely valuing a thoroughly avoidant way of life) is by ‘identifying with an arbitrary bias’. We take our ‘angle’ (whatever that angle might be) absolutely for granted so that anything that agrees with it or supports automatically becomes right and anything that doesn’t is automatically wrong. There is no questioning in this because ‘questioning’ goes completely against the grain of ‘taking the bias for granted’. Once we have adopted this basic orientation then the resultant view of the world is just ‘the way things are’ and there’s simply no arguing with it. The narrow orientation of ‘identifying with the bias’ has become too big to argue with – our ‘angle’ has become synonymous with reality itself and it is fruitless to argue with reality. Once we orientate ourselves to an arbitrary bias then the arbitrary bias straightaway becomes ‘the rule’ and the rule gets to be the rule by virtue of that fact that there is no possibility of negotiation, no possibility of ‘creative re-interpretation’. Rules are rules, after all. The ‘face value’ of things in the positive world is that there is no arguing, no questioning (what’s to question when everything is black and white, after all) but this whole polarization business is only there because we have decided that some particular angle isn’t actually ‘an angle’ at all but simply the way things are. Before we made the decision there was all the questioning in the world (because all biases, all angles, all positive statements are without exception arbitrary) but after we made it there is absolutely no questioning at all. When we decide to identify with the bias therefore (when we decide to turn the arbitrary bias into a rule) we are in effect deciding that there will be no more questioning and this is avoidance pure and simple.
Once we see this then that gives us a whole new way of understanding ‘risk’ – ‘risk’ in a psychological sense really refers to anything that would compromise our avoidant way of relating to reality (or our way of not relating to reality, if we wanted to put it like that). The essential risk we’re trying to avoid is the risk of seeing reality full-on, without any safety mechanisms to side-track or distract us. ‘Zero risk’ means that we’re going to stay true to our biased way of seeing the world that we can’t perceive to be biased (i.e. it means we’re going to stay true to the bias without knowing it to be a bias) whilst ‘risk’ on the other hand is anything that compromises the integrity of this illusion. So we set up a particular way of seeing things, a particular way of relating to the world, and then we decide that there can’t be any way of seeing the world / relating to the world that is better than this, that surpasses this. At this point our interaction stops being playful and becomes serious, and this is just another way of saying that at this point reality itself has become ‘the risk’.
When we’re being playful in our approach to life (or open-ended in our interactions with the world) then there is – of course – no such thing as risk. Risk doesn’t exist! When things turn serious however (i.e. when we perceive there to be something that we don’t want to lose) then ‘risk’ straightaway becomes a very real and worrying possibility. As soon as there is something that we are afraid of losing then everything becomes all about avoiding risk. This of course sounds so obvious as to be not worth the effort in coming out with it but the point that we are making here is that was nothing to lose until we decided that there could be nothing better than the way of seeing things (or way of interacting with the world) that we have just hit upon then everything wasn’t polarized into right versus wrong, good versus bad, safety versus risk. Before we decided that nothing could surpass our way of seeing things there was all the freedom in the world – there was nothing that was denied us, no perception of reality that was off-limits to us; afterwards – on the other hand – everything is starkly polarized into right and wrong, safety and risk, win and lose. The way reality is presented to us is that everything will be absolutely wonderful if we get it right and absolutely terribly if we don’t but this is ridiculously superficial. After all, no matter how well we do at avoiding risk, no matter how many times we ‘get it right’ we’re still bound by the same decision to see the world in this particular way and no other. No matter how many times we win we’re still as stuck as we ever were; we’re just as stuck as if we had lost instead of won and so the whole thing is more than just a bit of a farce. The idea that one way is fantastically great and the other way completely terrible is a total farce because winning and losing are only two superficially different ways of looking at the very same thing.
When we’re stuck with a ceiling which is the result of us deciding that our way of looking at the world is ‘the ultimate way’ then we aren’t just somewhat limited, we are entirely limited. We are like a prehistoric fruit-fly or mosquito trapped in a block of amber; we’re frozen forever in a moment of time, unable to continue the movement that we were involved in. Fixing a reference point that we can’t ever question changes everything – it changes everything because now everything we think and do exists only in relation to that immutable reference point. When we ‘put the lid on things’ by deciding that there can’t be any way of seeing the world that surpasses the one that we already have (which is the same as deciding that there is something there that we can’t afford to lose because there will never be anything to equal it) then straightaway everything comes to a halt. This is when consciousness vanishing and the dreaming starts. Nothing can ever really happen from this point. How can anything be allowed to happen when we have decided that whatever it is that has already happened is definitively IT and that nothing else can ever live up to the precedent that has been set?
One way of talking about this process of freezing or solidification of possibilities is to say that the risk that we’re too afraid to take is the risk of trusting that the next unfolding moment will be as good as the present one (or that it will exist at all). The risk that we’re afraid to take has to do with our great fear of letting go, in other words. Who is to know what will happen next? What guarantees do we have that everything will be OK if we let go control? We’d rather stick with what we already have than take the risk of ‘going bust’, rather than taking the risk of losing everything. We’d rather stick with the known because the known is safe, because the known ISN’T a risk!
From the POV of the counting, measuring mind there can never be any question of there being this sort of trust. From the POV of the counting, measuring mind this sort of trust doesn’t exist. For the thinking mind the only commodity that is worth anything is certainty and certainty can be obtained in only the one way – by comparing the incoming information (the thing that is to be tested) with the inviolable ‘gold standard’ which are the assumptions that the thinking mind is founded upon. If the thing which is to be tested measures up (i.e. if the incoming data fits our evaluative criteria) then it becomes part of our positive knowledge system; it then becomes something that we can say ‘definitely exists’, is ‘definitely real’, etc. Our trust in what we call ‘certainty’ is therefore nothing else than our trust in the assumptions that underlie the truth-telling engine of the everyday thinking mind, and these assumptions themselves can never be called into question because we have no way of testing them. We can’t use the everyday mind to test them after all because the operation of that mind is predicated upon them being ‘right’!
The thinking mind trusts itself and nothing else, in other words. It only trusts in what it itself says is true, in what it itself says is certain. Earlier on we said that we only really trust what we already know and are familiar with; we also said something to the effect that we only trust the present moment (which we feel that we know about), not what might unfold in the future. This isn’t quite true however – it’s not the present moment that we trust in but our mind’s version of ‘the present moment’. We only trust the type of ‘present moment’ that makes sense to the rules that go to make up our system of evaluation and that isn’t actually the present moment at all because the present moment isn’t based on rules! The now isn’t just another ‘generic product of the thinking mind’, in other words! We trust the mind’s version of the present just as we trust the mind’s version of the past and future because the thinking mind’s version of the past, present and future are of course all the same generic product. Our history is the mind’s construct just as our projected future is and this construct is ultimately nothing other than itself, which extends seamlessly in all directions. This whole seamless construct (or narrative) could be said to be an exercise in risk avoidance, therefore. Logic itself (i.e. causality) may be said to be an exercise in risk avoidance. And yet the question that we are faced with here (which is the question we never ask ourselves) is “What exactly is it that we are protecting?” Or as we could also say, “What exactly is it that we are so afraid of losing?”
The most essential way of answering this question is to say that the risk associated with any positive assertion is that it shall be shown to be untrue. As soon as we make any positive statement, any positive assertion, risk comes into being. We can fight against the associated risk for all we’re worth, we can struggle night and day to try to secure it, to reduce the risk to zero, but this simply isn’t going to get us anywhere. Far from getting us somewhere, fighting to protect ourselves from risk is going to get us nowhere; the more we struggle to protect ourselves against risk the more we have to buy into the positive structure, the more we have to buy into the insecure assumptions that are propping up the whole show. And the more we buy into the positive structure (the more we buy into the unreliable assumptions) the more potentiated the risk becomes. All of our purposeful or goal-orientated behaviour ultimately comes down therefore to trying to validate the assumptions that gave rise to these purposes, these goals. So what this means is that all of our purposeful doing (and rational thinking) simply feeds back into (and therefore exacerbates) the unconscious need to carry on doing, carry on thinking. The whole thing is simply a self-fuelling loop, therefore.
The basic principle here is so very easy to understand – the only thing being that we’re not at all interested in doing so! The point is that any positive assertion we make, any positive knowledge-structure that we create, is automatically a lie. Anything definite, anything certain, is always going to be a lie. There never was a chance that it wouldn’t be! And the risk that is associated with a lie is of course that we will be found out. The reason all positive (or literal) assertions are untrue is not hard to explain – any definite or positive assertion is always going to present itself as ‘the final word’ and it isn’t… This is of course what it means for a definite statement to be definite – it means that the statement in question is the final word on the subject, it means that the meaning which has been given is the meaning that stands. And yet there aren’t any ‘final’ words on the subject; there isn’t any ‘final’ anywhere and there never was. Any ‘cut-off point’ that we come up with is always going to represent nothing more than an arbitrary choice or decision on our part and if we say (or imply) that it isn’t (as we have to if we are going to make a definite statement) then we are engaging in a deception. We are from this point onwards involved in perpetrating and protecting what is never going to be any more than a bare-faced lie.
This brings us back to what we were saying right at the beginning of this discussion – that when we successfully solve the ‘risk’ that we are faced with in life (which is the risk of having our cherished illusions falsified) then we are going to end up in a perfectly sterile situation. If our ‘basis for everything’ is a lie that we cannot admit as such (this being the Big Taboo) then where do we expect this to get us? There’s nothing we can do – on this basis – that will ever mean anything. Whatever we do will only ever be an extension of ‘the original lie’; anything we do or think on this basis will only ever be another loop of self-deception for us to get side-tracked in. And – finally – we can sum up everything that we have said so far by stating that the ultimate risk that we are trying so very hard to avoid in everything we do is the risk of seeing through that particular illusion, construct or positive assertion that we call ‘the self’…
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.