The apparent problem of ‘not knowing how to do conscious work’ can be explained in terms of ‘looking’ versus ‘seeing’. Normally I look, which is purposeful, since before I look I must have some sort of idea where to look and what to look for. This idea of ‘where’ and ‘what’, we might say, is my assumption, my starting-off point. What I am looking for and where I might find it is my basic premise, the solid foundation for the whole exercise – the fixed point of reference which is ‘what I have to go on’.
This is like looking for a set of keys that I have lost: in order to start searching for them I have to assume that I know something about where they might be (aside from the fact that I know what they are, which is so basic that I don’t even think about this assumption, or see it as such). For example, I have to decide whether they are in the house, or in the car, or whether I left them behind at work. Once I have narrowed down the field, then I can start the business of searching. Needless to say, if my assumptions are wrong then I never get to find the keys – I am looking in the wrong place, I am barking up the wrong tree. But if my guess is right then I stand a very good chance of finding them because I have narrowed the field down enough to make the search practicable.
Saying that ‘looking’ is purposeful means therefore that it is an act whereby we exclude a whole range of information without knowing what it is that we have excluded, without giving it any consideration at all. Looking is purposeful because as we have said it means that I already have a basic idea of what I am looking for, and where I am going to find it – the overall idea or theory or map is there and all I have to do is fill in the details.
Switching from the scenario of ‘remembering where we put something’ to the thorny problem of ‘the deliberate perception of Reality’, we can say that the situation is different in one important way. The difference where ‘looking for Reality’ is concerned is that there is no correct assumption I can make with regard to where to look; any assumption that I make is guaranteed to be the wrong assumption. As soon as I narrow the field at all, I lose Reality, I lose it all. I lose it all since Reality is the Whole Thing. With Reality I neither know what I am looking for nor where to find it!
As soon as I pick a specific direction to look in, I miss the bus. As soon as I assume that Reality is such-and-such a thing, I miss the bus. As we have said, purposefulness means that I automatically exclude a huge amount of information, without having a clue about what it is that I am excluding, without caring what I have excluded, without giving even the most cursory thought for what has been excluded, and so clearly this is not going to get me anywhere. If I am looking for my keys then I don’t – obviously – care about the whereabouts of any other items, any more than I am interested in searching for them in places where I know they cannot be! There is no way, therefore, that looking is ever going to help me see reality – it is not going to get me anywhere near reality. It is a complete non-starter.
We can also consider this matter in terms of strangeness. Reality – we might say – is necessarily strange. That is just the same as saying that Reality is always what it is rather than being our own patented idea of it. It owns itself. Reality never fits in with our conception of it, our theory or picture of it, in other words. We don’t have any clue whatsoever as to which direction in lies in – if we knew the direction in which to approach Reality (or which format to use in order to conceive of it), then Reality would not be strange. It would not take us by surprise us, it would – on the contrary – be pretty much as we expected it to be.
If our assumptions were in any way correct, then Reality would come as the confirmation of our thinking and not as a surprise. But the one thing which we know for sure is that Reality is never confirmation. This is a testable fact – anytime Reality is seen, it always falsifies our ideas and preconceptions about it as being wholly and utterly irrelevant. It is always infinitely bigger than our limited preconceptions of it, our assumptions about it. Wanting to know Reality by thinking about it is absurd – it is like getting to know someone by ignoring them, by turning our back on them. To think about Reality is to be outside Reality, whereas to be in Reality is to see it directly, and this means perceiving Reality on its terms, not on our terms.
The question of whose terms the perception takes place (i.e. ‘who calls the shots’) is all-important here. Looking is as we have said a purposeful act – I want to find whatever it is I am looking for some reason or other. I am looking for it because it will suit me to find it. But in the case of Reality, what is the reason? Why would it suit me to find Reality, to see Reality? What’s my angle in all this?
Clearly, I think that it will be to my advantage to see Reality as it really is – this is after all the only reason anyone ever looks for anything! The bottom line is that the reason I am searching for Reality is because I think that it is better to find it than it is to not find it; there is an inequality here – one way is good and the other bad. I have a preference in the matter, a bias.
This type of motivation is extrinsic in nature therefore – which is to say, it doesn’t arise out of non-dual (i.e. undifferentiated) reality itself, but rather it arises out of a thought-produced duality. Because my motivation is based upon duality, I can never leave duality – because my starting-off point is that ‘one outcome is better than the other’ (that one outcome is ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’) it can never happen that I will find out anything that will contradict this premise. The reason for this impossibility is easy to understand. It is basic mechanics. The whole idea of purposeful action is that whatever happens is at all times guided by my purposes – my purposes are why I do anything, after all. My purposes lie behind everything I do.
So when I have a purpose the way this works is that I go forward on the basis of this purpose (or goal) and all my attention is directed onto the all-important question of how I am to achieve the purpose or goal and none at all is allocated to reflect on the question of why it is so important. All my attention goes outwards, in the manner of an unreflective pragmatist and none inwards in the manner of a philosopher or mystic. In this arrangement the goal is the supreme value therefore – everything is about ‘serving the rule’ and this is what orders all of our thinking, all of our behaviour.
Another way of explaining this is to say that purposeful motivation is conditional – I am willing to put the effort in, but only on the condition that I get something back from it. This is the very essence of ‘goal-orientated motivation’ which arises out of a state of mind that is attached to its goals, a state of mind that is fundamentally unwilling to give up or let go of its goals. This non-negotiable attachment to specified goals is of course only a displaced (or disguised) manifestation of the attachment that the conditioned self has for itself, since the only reason it wants to obtain the goal in question is to benefit itself! The conditioned self is devoted to its goals because it is devoted to itself; it is obsessed with its goals because it is obsessed with itself…
If we turn from considering the mechanics of ‘ordinary work’ (which is where we want to change the outside world in some way but at the same time keep ourselves the same) to non-mechanical psychological (or ‘conscious’) work (which is where we are working towards changing ourselves), we can therefore see that extrinsic motivation – which is as we have said all about attachment – is guaranteed to be the wrong man for the job. Extrinsic motivation means that I want to work because I have my eye on some advantage that I am to gain from doing so. I am serving some purpose, some goal, some agenda that I cannot question – I am serving some ‘rule’ that I am fundamentally not interested in questioning. This is the case whenever the rational mind is concerned because that’s how the rational mind functions. It operates by ‘assuming a context,’ by ‘taking a framework for granted’, and then proceeding unreflectively on the basis of this context, on the basis of this framework.
When I have a ‘reason’ for doing work then that reason is, we might say, the clause that I insist upon inserting into the deal. I say that I will work as long there is a chance that the desired outcome might get to happen as a result of that work. The outcome is all I really care about. There are therefore strings attached to my proposed ‘work’ and these strings are – from the point of view of psychological work – my undoing. They are my undoing since if there is an attachment to a certain outcome then this means that I am trapped within my frame of reference (the frame of reference within the outcome makes sense), and genuine psychological work means going beyond my frame of reference. So because I am attached to my fixed and unquestionable frame of reference (which is the same thing as being attached to my fixed and unquestionable idea of myself) I am always going to be frustrated in my attempt to engage in genuine psychological work.
If I am frustrated because I am looking for Reality, but cannot ever find it, then what this means is that I am taking on some sort of responsibility for seeing it. The hidden assumption here is therefore that the perception of Reality is somehow dependent on something that I do. In this way I have sneakily inserted myself into the equation in the furtive attempt to make myself indispensable or crucial to the whole business. It is this unnecessary ‘self-insertion’ which is frustrating all my efforts and preventing me from ever seeing Reality.
“So how do I stop assuming responsibility?” I then ask. The trouble is, by asking this question I have again assumed responsibility! It is not my responsibility to stop myself assuming responsibility – doing this is bringing my purposeful activity (i.e. my ‘attachment’) back into the equation again. It is not my responsibility to free myself from the tangle, since by re-introducing the supposed necessity for my ‘corrective’ action I have only made the tangle worse. On whose behalf am I correcting after all – on Reality’s behalf or on my own? Clearly Reality does not need any corrections to be made on its behalf – it is only the conditioned self that is forever wanting to make corrections.
The crux of the matter is that through looking for Reality I am sneakily trying to make Reality serve my purposes. But what are these purposes? Suppose for example I say that I want to be free, that I am doing psychological work because I want to be free. Why? Why do I want to be free? For what purpose do I want to be free? If I have a purpose to be free, then freedom must be subservient to that purpose. But if there is an agenda behind my wish to be free, then that can never result in freedom because freedom is slave to no agenda. I do not get free for a purpose, I get free from purpose!
I want to see Reality. Why? For what purpose do I wish to see Reality? What advantage is there in it for me? The secret agenda here is that I wish to see Reality because that would imply that there is a relationship between me and Reality. I want to put ‘myself’ and ‘Reality’ on an equal footing. Then, I get to see Reality, but also – and most importantly – my way of looking for Reality (or thinking about it) still gets to be important. ‘Me’ (which is to say, my particular ‘angle’ on things, my precious assumptions, my cherished view-point) doesn’t get left out of the picture.
In essence, I want to see Reality in order to prop up my idea of myself. I am seeking confirmation of myself, which is the same thing as ‘seeking the confirmation of my habitual way of looking at things’. On the face of it, I have the noble desire to see the ultimate Reality, but the hidden clause is that I only want to see it if I can go on believing in the reality of my conditioned viewpoint. This is of course split-sincerity, and it is my unacknowledged split-sincerity that keeps me tied up in knots. I want to solve the problem, and yet, it is me that is the problem. I am the knot. It is ‘me wanting to solve the problem’ that is the problem. The essential knot is that I am doing it all for ‘me’, but ‘me’ is merely a projection of the thinking mind, and therefore nothing to do with Reality at all…
The awareness of this paradox is profoundly frustrating and profoundly demoralizing. It gives me nowhere to start, and yet I can find no peace where I am. When I did not see the paradox, then I had a false type of contentment or well-being which is the euphoria that comes from non-work, the euphoria that comes from lazily ‘taking things for granted’. This euphoria is all very well and we won’t complain about it but it inevitably switches over into dysphoria in time, which is when the work that I have up to now successfully managed to avoid jumps back out of the box again, rebounds on me, and causes me to feel ill-at-ease instead of content, uncomfortable instead of comfortable. The pendulum swings back from the ‘positive displacement phase’ into the ‘negative displacement phase’ and this is our cue to start complaining, and yet we can’t have one without the other.
If we want not to do psychological work (which is to say, if we want to always take things for granted, and never question our own way of looking at things) then this is the deal – we will spend half of our time euphoric and the other half of our time dysphoric! We will spend half our time feeling good because of our unexamined belief in our illusions, and half our time feeling bad because of our unexamined belief in our illusions. We will spend half our time being attracted to things that aren’t real, and half our time being afraid of things that aren’t real! This is the deal, this is the story.
Awareness of the paradox of the rational mind is discomfort, the discomfort of a problem that can never be fixed. If I think I can fix it, then that is non-work, because then I have an imaginary direction to move into, from ‘discomfort’ to ‘comfort’. When I clearly see that I cannot ‘fix it’ (when I clearly see that I am only fooling myself if I think I can) then this however is work, because I am not trying to escape the reality of the situation.
Whenever I experience discomfort without clinging onto the goal of ‘escaping the discomfort’ then the pain that I am experiencing inevitably turns into a lessening of attachment. It has to, because I am not investing in a delusory system within which I believe that it is possible. I am not investing in ‘fooling myself’.
Pain and frustration are symptoms of attachment. As the Buddha has said, all suffering has its root in attachment! When the attachment that I have to particular outcomes (to obtaining the advantage rather than the disadvantage, to obtaining what I like rather than what I don’t like) dissolves, then so too does my discomfort, my frustration. It is impossible that it will not do. Pain and frustration then gives way to the bliss of ‘letting go’, which is when I stop taking on responsibility for the way that Reality should be. I am no longer invested in correcting stuff in accordance with the way that my viewpoint says it should be and so my whole life isn’t all around feeling good when things are ‘right’ and bad when things aren’t right. My life isn’t all about struggling and fighting to win a battle that there isn’t even any point to winning – even if I could win it (which I can’t).
At this point, I discover that my capacity to feel pain and frustration is also my capacity to feel joy, and this capacity (which is ‘my capacity to do psychological work’, or ‘my sincere willingness to perceive the actual reality of my situation’) is at the same time my capacity to be in Reality.
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.