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Barking Up The Wrong Tree

The most essential form of ‘psychological misinformation’ (or ‘unwisdom’) that we suffer from in our culture is the endemic misunderstanding of what ‘me-ness’ is – what we mean by ‘me-ness’ simply being the overwhelming and unquestionable sense that we have of being a ‘me’. A psychologist might talk about many things but he or she will not talk about this. The perception that we each have of being a me is a given, we don’t see anything odd or remarkable about this. Each one of us will in our lives experience various degrees of curiosity about various things but we will never experience curiosity about the phenomenon that we are calling me-ness. We assume that we already know everything about it and that’s why we’re not curious. We act on the basis of it, we don’t question it. The phenomenon of me-ness is where our curiosity ends and so this element of ‘cognitive closure’ is present in the mix right from the very beginning!

 

 

Me-ness as a phenomenon is actually an easy thing to explain – it is simply clinging. When we unreflectively cling to something then this gives rise to the sense of being ‘a me’! There’s a bit more we can say about it than just this however; we can also point out that what exactly it is that we’re clinging to doesn’t matter – it’s the clinging itself that creates the feeling of me-ness, not what is being clung to. When we look into it we see that what we actually clinging to (or rather what we imagine we’re clinging to) doesn’t actually exist. What we imagine that we’re clinging to is also an artefact of the clinging, just as the sense of being a clinger is! This business of ‘clinging’ (or ‘striving’) necessarily involves a narrowing down of perspective and this ‘narrowing down of perspective’ results in reification, which is where concrete appearances come into existence which don’t actually have their origin in anything other than the narrowing of focus of our awareness. This is really just a loop of logic:

 

It is impossible to strive without having a goal, and it is impossible to have a goal without narrowing our awareness and it is this narrowing of awareness that makes both the goal we’re striving for, and the striver itself, seem real!

 

 

Me-ness, therefore, is essentially a clinging to nothing. It’s an empty thing, and yet we base so much on it. We base everything on it – we hang everything on this hook. There is so very little that we do which isn’t done for the sake of this illusion of me-ness, this sense of me-ness that is created by holding on very tightly to nothing. We don’t know that we’re clinging to nothing of course – we would say (if we were going to say anything) that we’re clinging to something real, something good, something worth clinging to. We would say perhaps that we’re upholding an important value and heroically defending it against dangerous enemies. Furthermore, if we were going to say anything on the subject – and for the most part we don’t because we cling without knowing that we are doing so – we would say it is the self that is clinging, not that the clinging is creating the self. We’ve got everything exactly backwards, in other words!

 

 

This is not some dry academic argument that we are going on about here – it is something that we can readily see for ourselves if we happened to be interested enough to look into it. What we always see when we relax our clinging enough to actually see anything is that the sense of ‘being a me’ is actually dependent upon this clinging, such that the less we cling the less prominent this sense of self becomes. This happens every time we meditate – in meditation we notice our clinging rather than automatically identifying with it and it is this which allows the gap to open (the gap between stimulus and response) which then allows consciousness to come into the picture. If there is no gap then there is no consciousness – there is only the clockwork rational mind running through from A to B in the prescribed fashion, in the same prescribed fashion that it always does. When we simply notice the clinging (or ‘reacting’ / ‘striving’, depending on what we want to call it) then something comes into the picture which is NOT clinging / striving / reacting and that ‘something’ – we may say – is who we really are. No striving is needed in noticing because we’re not trying to change anything or control anything – we’re taking a break from all that and simply seeing what is there. When we don’t identify so quickly and so fervently with our clinging, our striving, our likes and dislikes then – naturally enough! – we feel more peaceful and in this sense of peace there ISN’T a sense of ‘me’ being there! That’s what peace is – it’s the absence of a striving controlling self. What else would it be, after all? Did we imagine that peace was some kind of emergent property of the self, something that naturally belongs to the self or can be acquired by it?

 

 

The reverse of what we have just said here is also true, although it is not so easy to notice – when we grasp or strive particularly hard then there is an enhanced or amplified sense of there being a ‘me’ which is crucially involved in the drama (the ‘drama’ simply being the ongoing uncertainty regarding the question of whether what we are grasping for or striving for is going to be realized or not). The sense of me-ness involved in the situation increases exponentially the more we invest in the drama – it rapidly shoots off to infinity! This explains why clinging and striving and liking and disliking (exercising our prejudices, in other words) is such an addictive business – it’s the addictive business that it is because it’s the business of creating the self!

 

 

What Sogyal Rinpoche calls ‘the afflictive emotions’ are a very good example of this – when we are in the grip of intense anger, jealousy, envy etc then the sense of being a me is massively amplified, it eclipses everything else in the world like a dark shadow. When we are suffering from the sense of ‘having been hard done by’ then the sense of there being someone there who HAS been hard done by or treated unfairly is – naturally enough – magnified to the nth degree. All the afflictive emotions (or ‘passions’) do this – they work by ‘exacerbating the sense of self’, which is both gratifying and pain-producing, just like an itch that gets more and more painful the more we scratch it. When the self is exacerbated (or inflamed!) as a result of being in the grip of an afflictive emotion then we’re forever reaching out for the intoxicating sweetness of ego-gratification and then instantaneously reaping pain and frustration in the very same movement. This isn’t anything new however – it’s what the self does all the time! It just becomes greatly magnified with the onset of the emotional state and so – if we wanted – we could see what is happening here much more plainly. Intensified attachment means intensified suffering, and ‘attachment’ is another way of talking about the sense of me-ness that we have been talking about.

 

 

This then is why we like to take against people or things – it’s because when we take against something or someone (when we ‘become polarized’) then this gives us a strong sense of self. The stronger my views on a subject – whether for or against – the more accentuated my sense of myself becomes as a result, and this is intensely validating. Why do we human beings always tend to have such strong (if unreasonable) opinions, such strongly held beliefs as to things being either right or wrong? Because it is this that enables us to cultivate a strong sense of identity, a strong sense of me-ness. This business of adhering to strongly held opinions and beliefs, no matter how preposterous they might be, isn’t such a great idea really however because what we’re actually doing here is setting up a state of permanent conflict and conflict – as we all know – means misery. We imagine that the way out from this misery, the resolution of this conflict, is for us to win out over the opposition because then we will experience glorious triumph rather than painful defeat. In practice of course this never works out – painful defeat is always going to be just as much as glorious success. In fact the false euphoria of the success is only setting us up for the reversal of defeat – the complacency of believing that we have ‘made it’ is a necessary step for the proper experiencing of the bitter disillusionment that follows, that’s how we get to properly experience the pain of polarity. The more polarized the situation the more this is intensified, as we said earlier – we can then plainly see – if we wanted to, which we don’t – that one extreme is just the other extreme waiting to happen!

 

 

Conflict is simply conflict, in other words, and it is never going to lead to peace. The sales pitch that conflict is somehow going to lead to peace convinces us over and over again but – very obviously – it’s never going to pan out this way. Pursuing conflict is only ever going to result in exacerbated conflict, as we really ought to have learned by now. The point is however that we don’t really want to learn it – we’re not in the business learning stuff, we’re in the business of ‘creating the self’ and this goes quite in the opposite direction to wisdom. Polarized situations, situations where we have to struggle against something or fight for something, facilitate the creation of the sense of me-ness and that’s what it’s really all about. That’s the be-all and the end-all, the beginning and end of our aspirations. Creating the reified self is our ‘secret agenda’ – it’s the only thing we really care about, under all the stories that we tell ourselves. The ‘quintessential story’ that we tell ourselves is the story that we want to be happy, and that we want everyone else to be happy too. We don’t – that simply isn’t true. We don’t value happiness – we can’t serve two masters at the same time after all and the master we are busy serving is the master of the false self.

 

 

How can we be happy when all we ever do is create conflicts, create polarities? How can we be happy when all we care about is creating the sense of me-ness that we are addicted to? We aren’t interested in creating a world full of happiness AT ALL – we may say that we are, we may believe (for the most part, at least) that this is our sincere motivation but it isn’t. What we really want to do is to create a world that is full of polarities, a world that is full of conflicts and struggles because that is the only type of world that the controlling or desiring self can continue to exist in. So instead of peace we have opted for the rotating duality of ‘triumph/despair’, ‘pleasure/pain’, ‘euphoria/depression’. This analogue of peace (or happiness) is an ongoing vibration, an oscillating polarity that keeps on flipping over from head to tail the whole time. Peace is the ending of this vibration and that of course is the one thing that we DON’T want!

 

 

No amount of ‘civilizing’ can change this basic situation of ours either. No matter how ‘refined’ or ‘educated’ or ‘uncultured’ our basic sense of me-ness is it’s still nothing more than a glorified mass of clinging, a conglomerate of mechanical reflexes. No matter how much this ‘sense of me-ness’ tries to improve itself it can never be interested in anything that cannot be related to its biases, its preferences. And it’s not just that the sense of me-ness that we have thrown our lot in with isn’t going to be interested in anything that doesn’t strictly correlate with its inbuilt biases or preferences, it CAN’T perceive anything else. It doesn’t have the capacity to perceive or register anything else and it also doesn’t have to capacity to be curious about the fact that it doesn’t have the capacity to be interested in anything else. The world which the reified self lives in is made up of nothing else other than its positive and negative projections, which is to say, ‘what it likes and what it doesn’t like’. A more succinct way of putting this is to say that we are seeing the world in terms of ourselves and when we see the world in terms of ourselves we aren’t really seeing anything!

 

 

The implications of seeing the true nature of me-ness couldn’t be bigger. To say that it’s a lot to take on board doesn’t really do it justice. The upshot of everything we have said, quite simply, is that we are barking up the wrong tree at a tremendous pace! There could be a more extreme example of ‘barking up the wrong tree’. We’re putting so much effort, so much care into creating and maintaining this ‘artificial sense of ourselves’ which is characterized by having ‘zero sensitivity to anything real’. We’re directing all our efforts towards the task of creating and maintaining a version of ourselves which is so dumbed-down as to have absolutely no relationship with our true (or unmodified) nature. The world, we might somewhat gauchely say, is ‘full of things to appreciate’ but we have made ourselves incapable of appreciating any of them. Actually, there isn’t anything in the world that isn’t going to repay our unbiased attention a thousandfold, a millionfold, a billionfold – there isn’t anything in the world that doesn’t open up (like a flower with a thousand petals) to reveal the Great Mystery, but we’re guaranteed to be permanently blind to anything of this sort because we don’t have any ‘unbiased attention’. Nothing is going to ‘open up’ to us just as long as we are looking out at the world from the POV of the sense of me-ness that is generated by our ‘habitual tensing up’. All we’re ever going to see from the ‘POV of the me’ are our own issues reflected faithfully back at us. We’re never going to see what’s really there – we’re too uptight, too self-obsessed (or self-absorbed) for that.

 

 

All we can ever ‘appreciate’ – as the conditioned self – are our own constructs, our own projections, and the thing about this is that there’s nothing in them. They are totally barren, totally sterile – the only way we  can possibly get any use out of them is to use them as a system of distraction, i.e. something to keep us permanently preoccupied so that we don’t ever have to find out just how barren or sterile the system we are relying on actually is. This of course is a tautological argument – if we weren’t in the business of distracting ourselves from reality on a full-time basis then we wouldn’t need to prevent ourselves from seeing how terribly sterile this ‘world of distractions’ actually is! Once in the tautological loop however no way out presents itself and so all of our resources get mobilized into the cause, which – for obvious reasons – is never going to honestly portray itself for what it really is. The only thing that could help us in our predicament is the cultivation of wisdom, and yet – hard to accept as it may be – our whole culture is geared towards the industrial propagation of unwisdom, not wisdom. Our culture doesn’t value wisdom – an increase in the amount of wisdom in the world wouldn’t be good news for the false sense of self, after all.  We seriously don’t want to learn that we’ve all been barking up the wrong tree…

 

 

Art: Shirlington Dog Park Mural

 

 

 

 

 

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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