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The Backlash

The most basic ‘psychological movement’ there is is the movement of pushing away mental pain or discomfort. This response is so ingrained that it happens all by itself! This is none other than the ‘neurotic response’ that was elucidated so thoroughly by Sigmund Freud at the beginning of the last century – a resistance to unwelcome mental content that is “comparable only to the flight reflex in reaction to painful stimuli...” It is a kind of a muscle that we have and because we use it so very much it’s a very big muscle. On the face of it we might think that having such a well-developed ‘muscle’ is a good thing – we might imagine this highly-developed mental muscle (or ‘tendency to resist’) as being roughly analogous to a top-ranking professional tennis player who is superlatively good as spotting the incoming mental pain, reacting deftly to it, and then returning it over the net with tremendous speed and strength. This facility or capability might seem like a good thing but actually it isn’t at all. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s the very antithesis of a good thing…

 

 

The reason why ‘pushing away the pain’ is not such a great thing at all is very easy to explain – it’s not a great thing in the way that we think it is because all that happens as a result of this action is that the pain comes right back at us again, only with added top-spin! It comes back with all the force we have put into it, plus something extra. This – needless to say – is not what we are looking for when we push the pain away. Very clearly, we’re not pushing the pain away in order to get it back again, only worse! If we were, then there would be no problem. So going back to the tennis analogy, if I happen to be the equivalent of a world class tennis player with regard to batting the pain back over the net at supersonic speeds then my own facility at ‘returning the shot’ is the problem itself rather than the ‘solution to the problem’, which is what I take it to be…

 

THE EXTRAPOLATION OF A FIXED POINT EQUALS ‘AN OSCILLATION’

 

The thing here is that we can’t for the life of us see how it is that the pain ends up coming back at us when we push it away so determinedly. This doesn’t make any sense to us. If someone told us we wouldn’t believe it. It’s actually contrary to common sense: after all, if I push something away strongly enough, then surely it stays away? If I throw a stone away it doesn’t come right back and hit me in the head – that only happens with boomerangs. If we stopped to think about it a minute or two however we’d realize that this isn’t always the case, even in the world of external objects. For example, if I push a swing away from me as hard as I can it isn’t going to ‘go away’ – it’s going to go away in the first instance, and then it’s going to come straight back to me again just as soon as it reaches the limit of its swing. That’s the way swings work. That’s what it means to ‘swing’. I can push the swing as hard as I like and it’s not going to make any difference – pushing the swing away isn’t the way to make it go away, it’s the way to make it come back! We all know this…

 

 

What makes a swing a swing is the fact that there are two elements to it – there is some ‘give’ (or elasticity) in it but at the same time there is also a fixed point, an unmoving fulcrum around which the system can turn. Pain is just like this (particularly emotional or mental pain): there is generally a degree of ‘give’ in the system but again – at the same time – there is a fixed point, there is an anchor which ensures that the only type of movement that can be introduced into the system is movement of the circular type, movement of the ‘returning’ type. The fixed point – we might say – is our static idea of who we are (which is the very same thing as the fixed standpoint from which we look at the world). This fixed viewpoint is the unmoving fulcrum around which everything else moves. When I push the pain away I push it away from me and when it returns, it returns – with the extra energy I have given it – to me.

 

 

From the standard ‘psychotherapeutic’ point of view, we would say that the reason the denied pain always comes back to us is because it is legitimately ours – no matter how much we might want to pin in on someone (or something) else it is always going to come back to us, like homing pigeons which will always find their way home in the end. If a painful event befalls me then the pain associated with this event belongs to me and no one else. No matter how much I ignore it, or blame someone else, it is always going to be me that has to experience it in the end – no one else (no other experiencer) will do! We can also say (and this is a less familiar way of putting it) that the pain is ours because it derives from our particular way of looking at the world.  The pain rebounds on us when we push it away because we are always acting out of the same fixed standpoint. This explanation tends not to make much sense when first heard because we’re so very used to thinking of ourselves as a fixed point, as a static ‘observation platform’ that we never give it a thought. We can’t see that there could be any other way for us to relate to the world, other than from a permanently fixed point of reference, a point of reference that is never questioned, and yet there is an open-ended supply of possible views that are potentially available to us, a truly inexhaustible supply…

 

ACTIONS OCCURRING IN A CLOSED SYSTEM ARE ALWAYS SELF-CONTRADICTORY

 

When we ‘close things down’ so much that is seems as if there is only one possible reference point, only the one way of looking at the world  then we pay a price and the price is that everything is going to rebound on us. It’s like playing squash – we can hit the ball as hard as we like but it’s only ever going come right back at us again. This is a consequence of what we have done – we have taken a closed view of the world and then treated it is as if it were the whole shebang, and so what has actually happened here (since the intrinsic nature of reality is open rather than closed) is that we have substituted a closed-off illusion world for the real thing. This is fine as far as it goes (it is fine as far as short-term appearances are concerned) but the essential unreality of the situation is of course always going to come out one way or another and the way it comes out is in the way that all actions (all changes) taking place in a closed system are always inherently self-contradictory – which is to say, self-cancelling. The short-term advantage of living in a closed world is that we have the security of a context which is made up entirely of ‘literal surfaces’ – this is a world where things are what they are described as being and nothing else. There is only the one level of meaning, in other words, and this ‘level of meaning’ is a literal one. The long-term disadvantage with this set-up is that (as we have been saying) no change can ever take place in a world that is made up entirely of literal descriptors. There is no scope for change since it is only through the window of uncertainty that change can ever take place – we have to go beyond the assumed framework in order to change. A closed world is an illusory world therefore – it’s a world with no actual reality in it! It’s simply a game we play, and the thing about games is that all the changes that seem to take place in them don’t really take place at all. Any change or progression that we might think is occurring is only a cheap gimmick, is only a trick worked by mirrors…

 

 

The root of this unreality is – as we have just said – the way in which we have taken our point of reference, our way of looking at things (i.e. the nominal level of description) as the only possible reference point, the only possible way of looking at things. What we have been saying in this discussion is that every time I react to push pain away (which is as we have said a ‘basic psychological movement or reflex’, or a basic expression of what we could ironically call ‘mechanical volition’) the pain inevitably comes right back at me. The reason this happens is because every time I react automatically to push pain away what I am actually doing is redefining myself as this fixed or unquestionable point of reference. Every time I push the pain away I am in other words reaffirming the basic assumption that I am this fixed viewpoint and so this is what keeps me very effectively trapped in the ongoing vibration of YES versus NO.

 

SELF-REFERENTIALITY

 

The fixed point is itself a self-contradiction – anything that is 100% defined or 100% certain is self-contradictory since to be 100% defined / certain is to be unreal, since reality cannot cease to be undefined or uncertain and yet still be ‘reality’ any more than it can cease to be open, as we said earlier. Anything that is definite is self-contradictory – this is the price we pay for certainty! The corresponding principle in mathematics or logic is that self-referentiality always gives rise paradoxicality since a statement that is defined in terms of itself is always true to the same extent that it is false. This is the well-known liar-paradox. We can extend this principle to cover all concrete definitions or literal truths for the simple reason that all concrete definitions / literal truths are derived from self-reference. How can I say that any literal statement is ‘definitely true’ unless I take a particular POV for granted and exclude all others? And yet if we do this we immediately get involved in a self-referential act since ‘the definitely true statement’ and ‘the framework of reference it makes sense in relation to’ are one and the same thing!

 

 

Because a fixed point is self-contradictory therefore so too will all actions that occur on this basis be self-contradictory, and the sine wave of alternate YES and NO is simply what we could call ‘the graphical representation’ of self-contradiction (i.e. it is a manifestation of the identity of the opposites, the identity of YES and NO expressed on the X axis, expressed in linear time). To ‘react’ in a mechanical way (as we always do) is therefore to perpetuate this basic denial – the basic denial that says YES is different to NO when actually both are expressions of the very same POV, the very same framework of reference…

 

 

So when I deliberately and forcefully push some painful mental content away I necessarily do so from the standpoint of this fixed self that I am assuming myself to be. The nature of the movement that I have initiated is all to do with this standpoint – it is defined by the standpoint. Clearly it is since there is nothing else informing the movement other than this POV, this FOR. When I push the pain away from me then everything about the resultant trajectory of that pain is defined by the fixed point which it is moving away from (which is me) and so what this means is that this movement can never get away from me. Movement way from a fixed point can never get away from that fixed point, and movement away from ‘me’ can never get away from me;  I shove the pain away from me precisely because I want it to go away from me, and yet this is the one thing that is not going to happen!

 

 

Saying that the movement which proceeds from a fixed point can never depart from that fixed point is highly counter-intuitive to us, given that – as we have just said – the whole point of the exercise is to get it to ‘go away’. And yet everything about that movement is ‘about me’ and so clearly the one thing it can never do is ‘NOT be about me’. ‘Any movement away from what I am strengthens what I am’, says Krishnamurti. As soon as we understand this then everything is immediately clarified. Light is now shed on this whole business of the backlash! There is a basic self-contradictoriness going on in this pushing away of pain – a self-contradictoriness that we are utterly blind to. Pushing away the pain reaffirms that the pain belongs to me; more than this, it reaffirms the notion that there is a definite (or concrete) ‘me’ to whom the pain belongs.

 

 

Pushing away the pain reaffirms the definite ‘me’ that has the relationship with the pain – with this action I reaffirm the boundary that gives rise to the ‘me’. I reify (or solidify) the very definite ‘me’ / ‘not me’ divide and this means that I have got caught up in a game that I cannot win. Or rather I can win at this game – briefly, temporarily (in that I can push the pain away for a while) – but only to the extent that I will lose later on. Self-referential statements are ‘true only to the extent that they are false’, after all! What I have done by solidifying the boundary between ‘self’ and ‘not self’ is therefore to enmesh myself very thoroughly in a situation characterized by interminable suffering and frustration. This is the game of ‘conditioned existence’ – the game of trying to be something we’re not, and couldn’t ever possibly be, the game of trying to be something that it isn’t possible to be…

 

PURPOSEFUL ACTION EQUALS ATTACHMENT

 

Although we have started off this discussion talking about the highly developed tendency or reflex (Freud’s neurotic reflex) that we have to ‘push mental pain away’, we can generalize this principle to refer to all purposeful behaviour and say therefore something like purposeful action always rebounds on us. It is the very same principle: very evidently, all purposeful behaviour – without exception – reaffirms the fixed basis or position from which it arose. Or as we could also say, purposeful behaviour strengthens the validity of the standpoint, the ‘me’, which conceived that purpose in the first place. This is clearly true – whose purpose is it after all? The purposeful action that I have initiated can never be divorced from its origin – it can never be divorced from its origin because its very nature is defined in terms of its relevance to me. Without me, it doesn’t make any sense. My goals are in other words extensions of me, projections of me. They are ‘me thrown out into the world’, so to speak. As we have been saying, movement from a fixed point can never depart from this fixed point – linear movement is an extension of the fixed point which is its origin, no matter how ‘far’ it travels. We can extend it forever and it’s still going to be the same thing! This is another way of saying that why ‘linear change’ is in reality no change at all, despite convincing appearances to the contrary…

 

 

There are two basic forms of purposeful behaviour – one is where we are trying to escape (or get rid of) from something we don’t like, and the other is where we are trying to catch or acquire something that we do like. No other forms of purposeful behaviour are possible! It might be said that I could have the altruistic purpose of ‘helping someone else’ but it’s still my purpose and so it’s still me that I’m doing it for therefore, behind it all. With regard to the first type of behaviour, it comes as a surprise (as we have indicated) to learn that by trying to get rid of something (some mental content) we remain forever attached to it. It clearly comes as a very unwelcome surprise to learn (if we do learn, that is!) that ‘by trying to run away from something we bring it along with us’. That obviously isn’t what we want at all. That wasn’t part of the plan. But with regard to the other type of purposeful activity, the idea that when we are positively attached to something (when we are seeking to obtain it for ourselves) we are going to be stuck with it as a result of being positively attached naturally does not seem so objectionable to us. That’s OK. That’s what we wanted in the first place, after all! What is objectionable in the first case is highly desirable in the second. But the only reason we don’t see anything problematical about ‘being stuck with what we want’ (or ‘getting what we desire’) is because we take the standpoint, the reference point, so much for granted. Taking this framework of reference for granted induces a special type of blindness in us – it induces the type of blindness that stops us seeing that YES equals NO…

 

 

The point is (as we have been saying) that both the ‘YES’ and the ‘NO’ type of purposeful activity (the type that affirms some object in the outside world and the type that denies it) reaffirm the reality of the one who is saying ‘YES’ or ‘NO’, the one who is either affirming or denying. The standpoint is always equally affirmed by the action of pushing away or grasping. Both actions are reflections of the same fixed point of reference. So what this means is that the pain we are trying to get rid of (with the first type of purposeful behaviour) and the pleasure we are trying to secure for ourselves (with the second) are both defined in terms of me. The idea that ‘the pleasure is mine’ is not a disagreeable one – it is of course as agreeable to me as the idea that the pain belongs to me is disagreeable. I like and desire the pleasure just as much as I hate and reject the pain. And yet both the pleasure and the pain are projections of me, reflections of me, just as ‘going away from’ and ‘coming back towards’ a fixed point are projections or reflections of that fixed point. They are the same thing, they are the same movement. As Heraclitus says, “The road up is the same as the road down”.

 

PLEASURE EQUALS PAIN

 

No wonder there is a ‘backlash’ in this case! How could there not be a backlash, if pleasure is the same thing as pain, if ‘going away’ is the same as ‘coming back’? Every time we go for the pleasure the pain comes right back and hits us in the face like a rubber band that has been stretched to its limit and then released. And who can say that this is not a deeply familiar sort of a scenario, despite the fact that we would never in a million years turn around and admit that pleasure is the same thing as pain? We know it but we won’t admit it. We love pleasure far too much to admit that! And yet though our love for pleasure is beyond measure in its magnitude, our loathing for pain is every bit as immeasurable. Our craving for pleasure is every bit as absolute as our fear of pain, and so where does this leave us? We started off this discussion by saying that the most basic psychological movement is the movement of pushing away pain – we could equally well have said that the most basic psychological movement is the movement of ‘grasping at pleasure’. It is just as true to say this. It is just as true to say this because the two movements (or two actions) of ‘pushing away pain’ and ‘grasping at pleasure’ are one and the same thing.

 

CREATURES OF REFLEX

 

Pleasure and pain (and the movement of approaching the one and fleeing the other) are the same – as we have said – because both are expressions of the same fixed outlook, the same fixed point of reference. Neither pleasure nor pain (win or lose, gain or lose) have any meaning at all without this point of reference. Pleasure is about ‘me’ and so is ‘pain’ – the ‘me’ can’t separate itself from either because both are it! The self is pleasure/pain or pain/pleasure and its defining activity involves seeking the one and fleeing the other, even though this means forever travelling around and around in a very tight circle. Even though this means running slap-bang into the brick wall which is the ‘backlash principle’ every single time…

 

 

Although in one way this ‘backlash principle’ is fairly easy to explain, in another way it is of course utterly confounding. In practical terms it’s confounding. The problem is that we are so used to taking the ‘fixed reference point’ that we have been talking about so very much for granted that we have become profoundly blind with regard to it. Anything we take for granted we lose sight of and the fixed frame of reference which is the ‘me’ is no exception. We are so very used to looking at things in the way that we do that we have become flatly incapable of seeing that there could be another way; we have become flatly incapable of seeing that the narrow viewpoint which we are habitually utilizing is not REALLY the be-all and the end-all, the alpha and the omega. We just pretend that it is, and then forget that we are pretending. Life for us is predicated upon this taken-for-granted viewpoint being the only possible way of seeing things – any other possibility is just never mentioned, any other possibility is buried beneath a million tons of disregard, a million tons of ‘we’re not even going think about it’. Our adaptation to the fixed viewpoint has caused us to become terminally incurious therefore – it has caused us to become nothing more than extensions of that mechanical point of reference. We are who we are because of our automatic denial of all other possibilities other than the one that we have latched onto and this posture of ‘automatic denial’ has turned us into mere creatures of reflex.

 

 

The inability to conceive of any other possible ways of looking at the world (or even to be interested in perhaps doing so) constitutes a tremendous blind-spot – a blind-spot which is for all practical purposes pretty much insurmountable. This defining blind-spot prevents us from seeing something that is very clear indeed, something that would otherwise be laughably obvious. The truth that would be laughably obvious to us (if it were not for the ‘amnesia’ that is imposed upon us by the blind-spot) is that this fixed point of reference which we keep taking for granted is not who we are at all. It feels like ‘me’ – but ‘me’ is simply a construct, nothing more.

 

THE ‘ALIENATED BASIS’

 

Any philosophy that states that ‘pleasure is the same as pain’ is going to be profoundly unacceptable to us. We fall over ourselves trying to find ways to refute it, ways to deny it, ways to ridicule it. Before we even start off we have twenty different conclusive arguments presenting themselves to us. That’s how desperate we are to keep on believing that pleasure and pain are two entirely different things. That’s how desperate we are to keep them in separate conceptual boxes. That’s how keen we are to rubbish the suggestion that to pursue the former is to pursue the latter. It’s the same thing when we hear about ‘non-attachment’ – we argue that it is a cop-out to be non-attached, an evasion, a protection against getting hurt if things don’t work out for us. So that we can then turn around and say “Ah well it didn’t really matter to me”. We say that it is a fear of commitment, in other words, disguised as something ‘spiritual’. But non-attachment doesn’t mean that you don’t engage with life –that’s just our distorted Western perception. ‘Non-attachment’ simply means that we don’t engage on the basis of who we aren’t. It means that we don’t relate to reality on the basis of our rational minds – in the kind of weirdly dissociated or alienated way that we usually relate in. It means that we engage with life itself, not our humourless idea of it.

 

 

Our normal ‘purposeful’ or goal-driven’ way of engaging with life is fundamentally alienated, fundamentally insincere. We’re not engaged at all! We don’t care about life. We’re not interested in life. We’re only interested in our idea of life. We’re only interested in what life means to us. We’re only interested in life in terms of ‘what it means to us’, in terms of ‘what it means from the narrow perspective of the fixed framework of reference’ and this is a very qualified type of an interest. This constitutes what we could call a ‘fundamental form of alienation’, a ‘fundamental form of dissociation’. When I am engaging in life from the basis of a fixed framework or reference the world is immediately split into two categories – the outcomes that agree with what I want, and the outcomes that don’t. It’s all about the stuff that I like and the stuff that I don’t like. Stuff that is advantageous to me and stuff that is not advantageous to me (i.e the attractive possibility of  gaining versus the frightening possibility of losing). It’s all about me in other words! And yet we have the astonishing audacity, the outrageous temerity to call this pathologically alienated attitude ‘engaging with life’!

 

 

We don’t want to give up pleasure because the prospect of life without any pleasure sounds very bleak, very grey. Pleasure seems pretty much like the point of life. What’s life without it? What kind of a dull existence would this be? The problem with our thinking here however is that we are confusing pleasure with happiness – we confuse pleasure with joy, but joy is nothing like pleasure. Joy – we might say – is an appreciation of life for its own sake, not for our sake. It is an appreciation of the world for what it means it itself, rather than for what it means to us. It’s an appreciation of other people for their sake, not for ours. Just as long as we’re looking at everything from the taken-for-granted viewpoint of the self we’re never going to be happy or joyful, no matter how hard or how determinedly we work at it! We’re jinxed right from the very start…

 

THE ULTIMATE DEAD-END

 

The bottom-line is that this framework of reference that we take so much for granted is a dead-end. It’s the archetypal dead-end. It’s the great grand-daddy of all dead-ends. It is dead-end to end all dead-ends! There never was a deader dead-end than this. The reason that the assumed standpoint, the assumed FOR is a dead-end is simply because it is unreal. It’s an ‘abstract basis’ and because it is an abstract basis it can never connect up with the real world. It can’t connect with the real world any more than a record of your weight, height, eye-colour, blood group, and social security number can connect with the real person behind these statistics. An abstract basis can only ever lead to further abstractions, and as long as its only abstractions we are looking for that is OK but if we were hoping for more than that then we’re in for a disappointment. Just as rules can lead only to other rules (and not to freedom from rules), abstractions can only ever lead to more abstractions – such as the abstract notion of freedom, for example!

 

 

What’s to be expected when we start off from an unreal basis? Obviously we expect a great deal but the lesson we are so resolutely determined to avoid here is that whatever it is we expect, it’s never going to happen. We keep getting the message loud and clear – in terms of the backlash that we keep running into – but we just never listen. We’re trying to win out by sheer persistence, and when it comes down to persistence we’ve got a lot of it! We’re as persistent as hell in trying to get our own way in this regard and part of this persistence is our obliviousness to this thing that we have been calling ‘the backlash principle’. If we ever did allow ourselves to understand this principle, then this awareness would prove too much for us. How could we continue in the face of this awareness? We just wouldn’t be able to keep up what we’re doing any more – we’d just have to see the dead-end for a dead-end in this case…

 

 

A dead-end is fine as a dead-end, we might say, but when we see it as a route to something else (when we see it as the route to life itself, in this case) then there is a problem inasmuch as we have set our hearts on something that can never happen for us. We have set our hearts on the abstract self obtaining fulfilment and happiness in life, which from its point of view can only happen when it gets what it wants, when it succeeds in obtaining the outcomes it desires. Even when we take this viewpoint as being a valid one (which it isn’t) this can never happen – it can never happen because winning and losing are the two sides of the same coin, so that to attain the former is to set oneself up for the latter. And from outside of this assumed framework of reference it’s never going to happen either – it’s never going to happen because the abstract notion of the ‘self’ simply isn’t real in the first place.

 

 

We might therefore say that there are two antithetical ways of looking at life. On the one hand we can say that life is all about the self trying its best to find fulfilment (even though this fulfilment – unbeknownst to us – is never going to be more than a fantasy projection); and on the other hand we could say that the journey of life is all about us discovering that our starting-off position (the cherished I-concept) is actually a dead-end that is only going to bring us pain and frustration and that our habitual way of seeing things is actually back-to-front. The first view of life sounds wonderfully positive in a ‘Hollywood’ kind of a way but then when it comes down to it we find that it isn’t wonderful at all but simply a recipe for unending suffering and confusion. The second view sounds outrageously negative and nihilistic to us when we first hear it expressed, but in practice it actually turns out to be the most ‘positive’ experience that there could ever be…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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