Our concepts, our ways of seeing the world, control us. The cruder the concept, the more confined and manipulated we are by it. This is counter-intuitive because we imagine that our concepts are there to serve us rather than vice versa. We imagine that they are there to help us not enslave us…
Freedom comes from refining our way of understanding the world, therefore. Only it isn’t ‘refining’ in the sense of adding more and more detail that we are talking about here but refining in the sense of poetizing our language rather than concretizing it. We loosen our grasp rather than tighten it – which goes against the way we think it should work. Our natural tendency is to ask how we can refine our concepts, how we can refine our understanding of the world, but ‘how’ closes down our language even more. Getting technical about it makes everything more black and white, more concrete, not less. There simply is no ‘how’ when it comes to poetizing our language. The rules of grammar will not save us, as Sri Shankaracharya says in the Bhaja Govindam.
There is a kind of an answer to the question as to how we refine our way of understanding the world however and that answer has to do with getting back in touch with the essential relativity of our concepts and models. The sense that we have of our way of understanding the world being ‘only provisionally true’ is of course something that we very quickly lose sight of when we get caught up in using language (or models and concepts) to describe things. To use a concept is almost inevitably to lose all sight of its relativity; to communicate with a formal language is almost invariably to be trapped in the concrete world-view assumed by that language.
The world very easily gets over-simplified by our descriptions of it and as we over-simplify it we get trapped in these oversimplifications. A description is always an oversimplification of reality and when we forget this, when we lose sight of this, we end up living in the oversimplification instead of the original reality. The reason we get trapped is because the process of oversimplification is necessarily one of ‘irreversible information loss’ – as we oversimplify we throw information away, we unceremoniously dump it. When we lose sight of the Complex Whole in favour of the fragment that doesn’t know itself to be a fragment, how are we to find our way back?
To find our way back to complexity from the barren monoculture of the concrete world that has been created by the rational mind is an extraordinarily challenging task, therefore. On the face of it, the endeavour seems quite hopeless. What have we to go on? What is left to us once the rational-conceptual mind takes a grip?
It’s not even that we remain a little bit open to the possibility that there might be more to life than our philosophies. It’s not even that we can see that there just possibly could be something else, something important beyond what we already ‘know to be the case’; on the contrary, we are possessed by a very deep conviction that there isn’t. And even if we did want to believe that ‘there is more’ (which we do from time to time) we can’t overcome the environment of toxic doubt (or cynicism) that runaway rationality always engenders. The spark within our breast is almost always crushed just as soon as it is born – if it isn’t crushed then this constitutes something of a miracle! The rational mind is a jealous god and it will tolerate no other contenders when it comes to the job of ‘explaining or describing reality’…
As we have said, there is no ‘how’ when it comes to the task of refining our concepts, our models, our theories of the world. ‘How’ is a very crudely concrete kind of a thing and it cannot help to bring much-needed relativity back to our descriptions of reality. ‘How’ means that there is a method, an algorithm, and what could be cruder than this? Methods are concrete just as the goals they are aimed at are; the truth of the matter is that we neither know where we are going nor how we are to get there. Both the destination and the road that takes us there are obscure to us – even assuming that we do have some faint intuition that there is something beyond our concrete understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.
We’re reaching out, but it is to the unknown that we reach for not the known. The known is no use to us; only the unknown is interesting. When we ‘reach for the known’ we are actually collapsing in on ourselves, not expanding outwards. Goals and methods have nothing to do with broadening our horizons, only with ‘securing the perimeter’. There is no expansion of consciousness here, only the easy descent into the underworld!
The key thing in all of this is our ‘inner orientation’, so to speak. It is as if there is a compass deep down inside of us, its arrow pointing in one of two directions. One of these directions (we might say) is the direction of exploring and the other is the direction of ‘hiding’ or ‘retreating’. One way we are expanding our world, the other way we are collapsing or contracting it. These are the only two types of movement that are possible for us; these are the only two real directions (no matter where we might think we are we are going). Because everything comes down to this basic orientation it doesn’t really matter what methods or tactics we apply – if, deep down, I am locked on to the direction of hiding from reality, or running away from it, then this is what I am really going to be interested in, no matter what else I might be choosing to believe. I will say that I am using my language, my concepts, my thinking in order to find out more about the real world but the reverse of this is true – I am using my concrete language and concepts in order to escape reality.
If on the other hand my deep-down orientation is towards ‘exploring’ then it actually doesn’t matter what I do because whatever I do is going to be in the spirit of exploring. Even if I go into reverse and start retreating, start trying to hide from reality, what I learn from this experience will expand my horizons rather than contract them. Even the backwards steps are steps forwards, in other words. Even the restrictions that I am operating under will free me – if I am open to learning from them. Even my self-imprisoning habits become liberating, once I attend to them in an open-minded or ‘curious’ way. As Ram Dass says, once we are on the path then everything becomes ‘grist for the mill’:
As long as you are attached to your separateness, you can’t help but perpetuate fear, because there is a subtle fear in you of losing your separate identity.
When you acknowledge that your life is a vehicle for your liberation it becomes clear that all of your life experiences are the optimum experience you need in order to awaken. And the minute you perceive them that way they are useful within that domain. The minute you ignore that perception, they won’t work that way.
Everything comes down to whether or not we attend to ourselves and the world with genuine open-hearted curiosity, rather than just trying to exploit everything we come across as a matter of course, and this is of course where the big stumbling block comes in. As Ram Dass says in the quote given above, how things work for us (or don’t work for us) depends on our basic perception of life. The experience we are having can be either one way or the other – either everything is helping us or everything is against us! Generally speaking, we aren’t open-hearted and curious towards everything that happens – in the unconscious (fear-based) modality we either like or we don’t like, we’re either in favour or we’re against. Being either for or against means that what we’re interested in is exploiting our environment, exploiting our situation, and the desire to exploit is the antithesis of curiosity. It is actually fear.
We’re not open therefore, we’re closed. We’re closed but we have convinced ourselves that we are open – no one ever admits to having a closed mind, after all! That would be like admitting to being a bigot. We’re not open-minded and curious about the world we live in because we only ever see that world through our concepts. It could perhaps be said that we’re ‘curious about how the world appears when it is seen through the filter of our concepts’, but that wouldn’t really wash. That wouldn’t be true – it isn’t curiosity in this case but something entirely different. We’re generally interested in how the world appears to us when we look at it through our conceptual filter but this type of interest has nothing to do with curiosity – the type of interest we have then is ‘interest with an agenda’ and curiosity never has an agenda.
We’re actually playing a game here. Whenever we get interested in a situation that has been constricted on the basis of a whole bunch of assumptions that we have tacitly agreed not to question then we have moved away from honest curiosity into something else. We have moved into a dishonest realm, a devious realm. We’re not doing what we say we’re doing; we don’t hold the values we say we hold. We say that our allegiance is to ‘seeing reality as it is’ but that just plain isn’t true. Our allegiance is to our concepts, our models of reality. Our allegiance is to proving to ourselves that our way of looking at the world is the right one, the only one. Our allegiance is to ‘preserving the status quo’, in other words, and the thing about this is that we don’t even care what that status quo is. We couldn’t care less. We don’t in the least bit care what the status quo that we’re preserving is, we just care about preserving it! We’re not curious at all therefore; we are – on the contrary – fundamentally incurious. To have our allegiance to our concepts, our established way of seeing the world is (as we keep saying) the complete antithesis of the honest desire to find out the truth, whatever that truth may be. It is the ‘inverted analogue’ of curiosity.
So what happens as a result of this inversion is that our concepts control us rather than vice versa. We imagine that our concepts serve us but really it’s the other way around. The consequences of this reversal (a reversal the existence of which we have absolutely no awareness of) are of course immense. We aren’t engaged with reality but rather we are in a state of profound disengagement, and it shows! When we are profoundly disengaged with reality it shows on our faces – we don’t look interested, we don’t look as if we care. Our disengagement makes itself known in everything we do. What we are calling ‘disengagement with reality’ is really just another way of talking about unhappiness – to be fundamentally disengaged (i.e. ‘shut down’) is to be fundamentally unhappy.
We run around in life, we run from A to B and then from B to C, and we do so in a fundamentally disengaged way because we imagine that we already know what we want. We’re ‘engaged’ with our concepts, we’re engaged with our preconceptions of what we think life is, in other words. We can’t rest until we have ‘realized’ these preconceptions (i.e. our goals) in the outside world; we’re kept nicely ‘on the hop’ – we’re ‘obeying our concepts’. But the irony here is that these concepts or preconceptions don’t actually exist in reality. They aren’t real. The goals that we are chasing are pure phantoms – they don’t exist anywhere and yet we spend our lives chasing them! There is of course no problem with our concepts or goals not being real – that is absolutely fine. What is problematic is when we make our happiness (or ‘so-called happiness’) entirely dependent upon this concepts being somehow realized. I will be happy when X happens, I say; I will be content when I realize my goal. So what I’m really doing here is hanging my well-being on a coat-hanger that doesn’t exist…
So what’s happening is that we’re ‘waiting to be happy’. We’re ‘playing the waiting game’. We’re waiting to be happy but it just never happens. Sometimes we are hopefully waiting and then we will feel good, we will have a ‘version’ of happiness, and then at other times we will be waiting in an anxious or despairing way and then this – of course – we will understand as unhappiness. We will understand this to be a wholly and irredeemably ‘bad’ state of affairs. It is a total disaster, an ‘absolute negative’, and that is all you can say of it. But it wouldn’t be seen as an ‘absolute negative’ if we could see that the thing that we’re waiting for, and placing such store in, isn’t actually a real thing. We are however profoundly unwilling to see this and so we’re trapped. We’re trapped in the illusion, trapped in duality, trapped in our crude black-and-white models of reality.
What traps us therefore is our unwillingness to know about the relativity of our concepts, the relativity of our language. Knowing that would fatally erode the integrity of the game we are playing. It would seriously jeopardize the stability of the thing that is most precious to us – the unwarranted sense of ontological security that comes from playing a game but not letting on to ourselves that we are playing it. Our love of this (spurious) security is what traps us; our love of ontological security is – needless to say – the same thing as our allegiance to our concepts, our loyalty to our theories, our models, our beliefs.
We’re waiting for things to work out for us on the basis of us ‘never questioning our assumptions’ but things are of course never going to work out for us on this basis! The only way things would work out is if what we are taking for granted (or never examining) happens to be genuinely true, and that’s simply a non-starter. There is no way that our concepts or models can ever be true, no way that our language can ever ‘literally describe reality’. Our ‘waiting for things to work out on the basis of our crude oversimplifications of reality’ is what gives rise to the barrenness of samsara. So just to summarize what we have been saying here, what keeps us trapped in this samsara is our obstinate refusal to let go of our fistful of peanuts (the peanuts in question being our crude ‘black and white’ descriptions of both ourselves and the world around us).
Not wanting to let go of the peanuts is why we don’t want to develop a subtler or more refined way of understanding the world – there is a pay-off for being as crass and crude as we are in our approach and that pay-off is that we get to carry on believing in the solidity of the conditioned self or ego. I get to carry on believing in me, in other words.
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.