When we say that we can’t be in the world without thinking about being in the world at the same time then this is just another way of saying that we’re always under pressure. To be in the world in the defined or regulated way that we are in the world necessarily involves pressure and that’s where the thinking comes in – the continuous thinking is the attempt to ‘resolve’ the pressure, even though it never can be resolved because the problem we’ve been set isn’t actually a solvable one. To be in the world in the way that we’re trying to be in it just isn’t ever going to work, in other words!
The pressure we’re under is ‘the pressure to construct and maintain a self’. This is the pressure that we’re always under and it’s the pressure that’s never going to be taken off us. It’s also the pressure we are never going to be able to resolve, no matter how hard we try or how clever we get at it. It seems – when we’re in the thick of it – to be the most important task in the world (the only task that really matters in fact) and yet at the same time it’s a dead-end, an exercise in wasted effort, a pointlessly frustrating endeavour to do something that can never be done, and which wouldn’t be a good idea even if we could do it! Our ordinary everyday perception of the task is of something which, in our imaginations, takes the form of a straightforward linear progression (or rather something which ideally should take the form of a straightforward linear progression) whilst actually it is a cyclical thing, like pushing a wheel around and around. The task looks linear and progressive, but really it’s repetitive and cyclical!
A ‘cyclical task’ is a curious sort of a business when we look into it closely. When we look into it closely (or even at all) we can see that it isn’t a task at all – it isn’t a task because it doesn’t go anywhere. A task – in our normal way of understanding it – has a beginning and an end. It has a proper resolution, in other words, if we can find it, but a circular task (needless to say) has no resolution because it always brings us right back to where we started. So the point that we’re making is that the construction and maintenance of the self is a ‘cyclical task’ rather than a nice straightforward linear one, which is what we of course assume it to be. We’re actually constitutionally unable to see to the self as a wheel that we have to keep pushing around whilst actually getting nowhere – that’s not how the thinking mind presents the situation to us at all.
It’s pretty obvious that the mind doesn’t present the construction and maintenance of the self to us as a cyclical (i.e. inherently futile) task – we wouldn’t exactly be able to muster up any enthusiasm for it if we did see things this way, and the construction and maintenance of the self is a task that we usually (unless we happen to be depressed or anxious) have lots and lots of enthusiasm for. We have lots and lots of enthusiasm for this particular ‘task’ because we see it as a classic linear progression; because we see ourselves as continually developing and improving ourselves. We see ourselves as being on a journey to some ‘ultimately marvellous situation’, some fantastically great ‘end goal’. In religion this idea finds expression in the form of ‘heaven’ or ‘paradise’, or possibly we might have a more Eastern approach and see ourselves as heading along the path towards Nirvana or enlightenment! It is this perception of a linear progression towards a marvellous goal (in whatever way we might see that goal) which provides us with our apparently inexhaustible enthusiasm for the endless (and ultimately futile) task of ‘constructing and maintaining a self’.
The negative motivation would of course be the reverse of this, which is to say, the fear of us failing at the task and going backwards instead of forwards. What happens then – needless to say – is that we end up in ‘the bad place rather than the good place’, and nobody wants that! The negative motivation of ‘not wanting to move towards the bad outcome’ is the same thing as the positive motivation of wanting to get to the good outcome’ – these are the two aspects of the same motivation, not two different sorts of motivation. So we could be under pressure to keep on moving towards a good situation, to keep on progressing, or it could be to fight against moving towards a bad situation, and failing rather than succeeding at the task. It comes to the same thing either way, obviously.
Even though fear of the negative and desire for the positive are one and the same motivational force, there is (needless to say) a tremendous subjective difference between ‘obeying the desire for a positive outcome and believing that we are either succeeding or that we have a chance of succeeding’ and ‘being under the power of the fear of inadvertently obtaining the negative rather than the positive and feeling that we are powerless to prevent this happening, even though we are trying our best’. We’re under pressure both ways (and it’s the same pressure) but in the first case we feel that we have a chance of successfully ‘obeying the imperative’, whilst in the second case we don’t. It’s the same rule (or compulsion) in both cases, but our belief in our ability to ‘successfully obey’ is there in the former and lacking in the latter and this makes all the (subjective) difference in the world. In Scenario 1what we’re talking about is euphoria (which we like a lot), and in the Scenario 2 what we’re looking at is dysphoria (which we dislike more than anything else in the whole wide world).
In the first scenario we’re ‘building the self’ and this is the euphoric phase – the phase of the cycle that we like and enjoy – whilst in the second case we’re witness the disintegration (or ‘cracking up’) of the self and this is of course the dysphoric phase. What could be more unpleasant or undesirable than the breaking up / cracking up of the self, after all? We’re falling apart, we’re slipping inexorably downhill to the ultimate misadventure, and the pressure is of course to resist this threatened eventuality with every atom of our being! In the dysphoric phase of the cyclical task however there is nothing we can do to avoid this fate – the movement of the wheel towards the feared outcome is the very same thing as the movement of that wheel towards the desired one. How could we imagine that we could enjoy the first half of the rotation and yet not have to suffer the horrors of the second half? How could we see the two movements as being essentially different and therefore ‘separable’?
Because it cannot ever deviate from its path there is no free will in the turning of the wheel but the euphoric phase of the cycle we very much feel that ‘we are doing it’ and this feels gratifying – naturally enough, it feels great to be making progress as a result of our own volition! We obtain a good opinion of ourselves as a result of this illusion. In the dysphoric phase the illusion manifests itself in reverse form and so whilst we very much feel that we oughtn’t to be moving in the reverse direction to progress (i.e. that we ought to be able move in the positive direction if only we put enough effort and determination into it) we can’t do anything about it. As a result of this ‘failure’ we of course feel bad about ourselves; the perception that we ought in theory be perfectly able to turn things around and ‘do the right thing’ (if for example we think positively instead of negatively, as the mantra has it) results in us developing a corresponding poor opinion of ourselves – which is an opinion or judgement others are very likely to secretly share!
When we identify with ‘the pressure to move forward’ in the positive phase of the cycle this enhances the ego and causes us to feel good about ourselves and when we identify with the pressure to move in a positive direction when we’re actually going in reverse this undermines our illusory sense of ourselves and we develop a negative (or dysphoric) sense of self instead. One way we’re confident and the other way we’re eaten up by self-doubt and self-criticism but both ways are the result of an ‘illusory identification’ with the wheel! Another way of putting this is to say that both the confidence and the pride of the positive sense of self and the self-doubt/self criticism of the negative sense of self arise as a result of us thinking that we have free will when we don’t. Whether we’re moving in a positive ego-constructing direction or a negative ego-destructing direction it is mere the result of the wheel turning and we don’t help it turn in the positive direction any more than we can prevent it turning in the reverse direction to this in the dysphoric phase of the cycle. In both the euphoric and the dysphoric phase the wheel is merely turning and we are merely ‘going along with it’, as we have no choice in doing. The whole thing has ‘nothing to do with us’ and yet we make it have something to do with us, and this false identification cause both euphoria (pleasure and pride) on the one hand and dysphoria (pain, despair and self-denigration) on the other.
This is why esotericists speak of ‘the absence of free will in everyday existence’ – the wheel of the mechanical self is simply turning and we are passively going along with it (hitching a ride, as it were), experiencing imaginary glory as it turns in the self-constructing direction and experiencing equally imaginary disgrace and ignominy as it moves in the complementary negative or self-deconstructing direction. Our lives consist in both in equal measure therefore – both the euphoria and the dysphoria, both the imaginary glory and the equally imaginary disgrace and ignominy. These are the two complementary elements that make up the shallow drama of the conditioned life…
The absence of free will that we’re talking about isn’t by any means a sad thing or an unfortunate thing – the self we are trying to progress (or trying to prevent from repressing) doesn’t exist in the first place so how on earth could we imagine ourselves to have ‘free will’ with respect to either movement? We’re ‘hitching a ride’ on an illusory wheel so how could we hope to somehow bring this thing called ‘free will’ into the picture? What type of free will could an illusion have anyway? Even supposing (just for the sake of the argument) that this erroneous perception of ‘self’ did have free will, what type of things would it be trying to obtain? What type of outcomes would it be interested in?
The only type of outcomes this illusory reflexive perception of self would have the slightest interest in would be benefits that somehow support the illusion that is it. It would of course be interested in outcomes that are ‘to its advantage’ but seeing as how it is nothing more than a ‘mistaken perception’ in the first place what type of ‘advantage’ are we really looking at here? What type of free will could an illusion have with regard to perusing advantages that support its illusory view of itself – sure the illusion of self is deterministically obliged to look for outcomes that support its illusory or false view of itself? What choice does it actually have in the matter, when it comes down to it? The question is therefore – what ‘free will’ does an illusion have in relation to its greed or fear-driven attempts to either obtain or avoid its own unrecognized projections? The notion that we should want to dignify this farce by talking in terms of ‘freedom’ or ‘free will’ is absolutely staggering…
So our situation – as we started off this discussion by saying – is that we are constantly subject to pressure of two sorts – one enjoyable and the other painful. Either I’m constantly under pressure to obtain the goal and I feel empowered to be able to go ahead and do this, and the experience is enjoyable, or I’m constantly under pressure to obtain the goal but I can’t help feeling that I’m not going to be able to obtain it and the experience is very disagreeable. The ‘pressure’ is therefore providing me with pleasure in the first instance and pain in the second! The cause of my suffering or dysphoria is the very same thing that is the cause of my pleasure / euphoria – it is at root the false belief or perception that the mechanical (or ‘externally-originated’) motivation that is constantly being imposed on me is nothing other than my own true will.
When we’re in the positive phase of the self-cycle we’re as content as content can be and so we’re not going to question what is going on, and then – when we’re in the negative phase – we’re going to be too appalled and distressed by what’s going on (too ‘reactive’ in a negative way) to have any time to take any interest in it. But the ‘positive’ phase and the ‘negative’ one are all that exists in the self-cycle – there’s nothing else there – and so we’re never ever going to being looking any deeper into the actual self-cancelling mechanics of the situation. We’re not actually going to be looking into the ‘mechanics of the situation’ at all – to do that is foreign to our (conditioned) nature. All that’s happening in the self-cycle is that we’re going from one form of ‘not being interested’ to another, therefore! We are either engrossed in feeling good without looking into what this means, or engrossed in feeling bad without looking into what this means – we’re ‘engrossed in the shallow drama’, in other words.
Being ‘engrossed in the shallow drama of surface-level appearnces’ is a remarkably unsatisfactory state of affairs, by anyone’s reckoning, but the rub is of course that we’re never going to see, or be interested in seeing it. We oscillate between the two poles of celebrating pleasure that isn’t ours (because it’s affirming a self who we’re not) and bewailing pain that isn’t ours (because it’s denying a self that we’re not) and we’re so preoccupied by both that we’re never going to see the Bigger Picture at all. What keeps us so preoccupied is the ‘pressure’ we’re constantly under – or rather, what keeps us preoccupied is our unreflective attempt to obey the pressure at any cost, which is actually something that we can never ultimately do. There’s nothing as preoccupying or engrossing as trying to succeed at a task which is flatly impossible to succeed at, and yet which we cannot see to be so…
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.