The everyday self is really our way of shutting down, our way of terminally distracting ourselves, our way of what William James spoke of in The Varieties of Religious Experience as ‘closing our accounts with reality’. And what a fantastically effective way of shutting down it is! What an astonishingly efficient way of distracting ourselves from reality it is! As a strategy it is practically failsafe, practically irreversible. Once we adopt this strategy there’s nothing we can hear, nothing we can see, that can jog our memory – everything gets reinterpreted in terms of the self, everything gets seen from the point of view of the self. And from the self’s point of view, there’s nothing that we’re going to hear, nothing we’re going to see, that’s going to cause us to see through the self.
The idea that the self is no more than a gimmick that we use to facilitate our shutting down, to facilitate our unconsciousness is probably the most indigestible idea that you could ever come up with. To our normal (i.e. self-orientated) way of thinking, this suggestion is just pure insanity. It’s nonsensical. It doesn’t make any sense at all. For us, the self is the thing that possesses consciousness, not the thing that blocks it.
How the self obstructs consciousness isn’t hard to understand however. The self acts as a kind of super-powerful ‘magnet’ or ‘sponge’ for our attention, such that every single thing that we are aware of has to be seen in relation to this central reference point. I don’t see anything at all for what it ‘is in itself’ – I see it only in terms of what it means to me. If I become aware of something, I am aware of it only in terms of what it means to the self, and if it doesn’t mean anything to the self, if it has no logical relationship to the self, no bearing on the self, then I am simply not aware of it. Everything has to be run past this reference point before I get to see it, and so – as a result of this automatic self-referencing process – everything is see, everything I know, is only my own ‘take’, only my own ‘angle’ reflected back at me.
This self-referentiality is invisible to us. I see everything only in terms of what it means to me, and yet I am practically never aware of this fact. I think that I’m perceiving what’s really out there, I think that I’m relating to an objective reality. This is my delusion. The truth is that I’m only ever relating to myself, that I’m only relating to my own projections, my own fears and hopes, reflected back at me wherever I look. I see the world in terms of my prejudices, and so I see these prejudices reflected back at me as objective truth. I think that I’m actually seeing whatever is out there in an objective way, I think that I’m actually seeing reality as it is ‘in itself’ whereas actually I’m only relating to myself. I’m everywhere I look, I’m everything I see, but somehow my ‘over-involvement’ with the world, my ‘automatic engulfment’ of the world, is invisible to me.
If we say that I am in practical terms ‘my way of looking at the world’, that I am ‘my fixed and limited perspective on the world’ (i.e. that I am my map or theory of the world) then the truth of what we have just asserted becomes undeniable. Of course it’s true that if I have a specific theory or map of the world then what I see when I look out at the world will be this theory or map reflected back at me. This is obvious – what else would I see? What is not necessarily quite so obvious however is that I myself should be the same thing as the mental map I am using to understand the world. And yet if we consider that that everything I know, everything I am allowed to be aware of, is only what this theory, this mental map, permits me to be aware of (since this is my way of understanding anything) then it inevitably follows that my understanding of myself, my perception of my self, must also be a function of my fixed and unquestionable modality of understanding things. How could it be otherwise? Everything I understand through the mediation of my rational viewpoint (which is my mind) is a function of that viewpoint, is a function of that mind, and there are no exceptions. That particular rational construct known to us as ‘the self’ is certainly not an exception! The self is a function of my thinking process.
The mental stumbling block that we can’t get around is the assumption that there actually is an objectively existing self, the assumption that there really is – of course! – such an entity, that there really is such a thing. This is the assumption that we are guaranteed never to question! It’s too big to question. This being the foundation for just about everything we think and do, of course we aren’t going to question it. It’s ‘who we are’! Just as someone born in America will almost certainty see themselves as being ‘an American’ and someone born in Ireland will see themselves as being ‘Irish’, we see ourselves as being who we conventionally represent ourselves as being. We adopt the convention as if it weren’t a convention, as if it were actually a real thing, as if it actually meant something! Just because we use this idea of there being a genuinely existing entity called the self as a reference point for all our activities doesn’t make it real it is true, but it does make it pragmatically real. It does make it real to us. The personal self is such a deeply familiar kind of an idea, after all – we’d be quite lost without it. We wouldn’t know ourselves….
The obvious fact that if I use an assumed reference point to check everything against, to test everything against, this reference point is immediately going to become un-testable itself is one point that we can make here when talking about the illusion of the self-concept, but there is something else we need to take into consideration here and that is the readily-observable psychological fact that we don’t want to test it. The first rule of the game is that you don’t question the game. The last thing we want to do is question this super-familiar convention. Once the reference point, the foundation stone, the assumed yardstick is in place then everything just happens automatically from this point on. The ‘conditioned life’ begins here. When the foundation is set up for us we build on it and we build on it and we don’t stop building on it. As Wei Wu Wei says in Ask the Awakened –
As busy little bees, gathering honey here and there, and adding it to their stock in their hive, we are wasting our time, and worse, for we are building up that very persona whose illusory existence stands between our phenomenal selves and the truth of what we are, and which is what the urge in us is seeking.
We certainly don’t want to look back and start questioning the foundation – from the perspective of the ‘busy bee’ that would be pure insanity, from the POV of the committed game-player that wouldn’t make any sense at all! Who on earth would ever want to undermine their own basis? Once the thing is set up and running then we just go along with the run-away momentum of it all. Once the business starts up at all then there’s nothing for it to do but keep on rolling, building up momentum, building up momentum, building up momentum the whole time. Of its own accord, the mechanism will never do anything different because, from its perspective, it simply doesn’t make any sense for it to do anything different.
What we’re talking about here therefore is the ‘life of the conditioned self,’ which has all the inertial, mechanical quality of a boulder rolling down a hill. There is, perhaps, the appearance of energy, the appearance of drive, the appearance of genuine volition, but really its all just ‘equilibrium-seeking,’ it’s all just a boulder rolling down the hill! We might say that the boulder wants to get to the bottom of the hill but this is just a figure of speech – the boulder doesn’t have any choice in the matter. It has to roll down the hill (unless some external force stops it) and because it is only happening because of the complete lack of freedom for it to do otherwise this isn’t actual volition. It’s not free will.
In the same way, everything the everyday self does comes down to equilibrium-seeking activity. The everyday self tries as best it can (on pretty much a full-time basis) to obey its own wants, its own desires, its own needs and it naively calls this compulsion to obey ‘volition’. ‘Equilibrium point’ for the self is when its wants and desires and needs are satisfied, and this is what we call ‘successful controlling’. Successful controlling means bringing my situation into alignment or agreement with whatever rules (or conditioning) it is that happen to be driving my wants, desires and needs. When the rule has been successfully obeyed (such that the outcome obtained equals the outcome specified by the rule) then this is ‘the equilibrium state’, this is ‘the bottom of the hill’. When the equilibrium state has been reached then all activity comes to an abrupt end because this was the only reason for the activity in the first place.
We almost always claim that our wants, our desires, and our needs are authentic expressions of our true, unadulterated volition. We also claim that we think on purpose – i.e. because we want to, not because we have to! Yet when we can’t get what we want, when our desires are thwarted, when our needs aren’t met, we feel bad, we feel frustrated or angry, which clearly shows (to anyone with psychological eyes) that the only reason we’re obeying the desire is because we are afraid of feeling bad if we fail, because we’re afraid of feeling pain if we don’t. We are driven forward by the fear of being punished by the compulsive motivation that is biting us from behind. We know very well indeed that we if don’t obey we will feel the lash instead of the sweetness of the carrot! If the motivation behind our wanting was truly our own then we would be able to choose not to desire whatever it is that we are desiring and as a result there would be no frustration. There would be no unpleasant scenes! This however is simply not possible! No one chooses not to feel desire; no one chooses ‘not to want’. This doesn’t happen. Wanting is an unfree system of motivation not a free one – it only seems volitional when we go along with it, when we don’t bother to challenge it. We don’t choose to go along with our desires, our conditioning, we are compelled to do so.
All ‘extrinsic’ motivation comes down to the compulsion of fear-and-greed when we look into it, no matter what illusions we might have to the contrary. We fear the stick and we are greedy for the carrot, and that’s all there is to it. Fear and greed are the two ends of the very same stick, the two manifestations of the very same motivation, but with greed (or positive attachment) we are less likely to see the unfree nature of the motivation, for the simple reason that it feels so good to go along with it! With fear it is easier to see that we don’t have any choice because sometimes we might try to go against it, and then we discover that we can’t. We discover that our so-called ‘autonomy’ has fled us. When total terror strikes it is very clear (if I am paying any attention, which is of course not necessarily the case!) that the fear is possessing me, controlling me. I can see, if I care to, that I am the puppet of the fear. I am left in no doubt that I have zero choice in the matter – fear tells me to run and I run. The only freedom I have is the freedom to try very hard indeed to obey the fear successfully and so what we’re talking about here isn’t actually any sort of freedom at all!
There is of course another type of motivation apart than the purely compulsive type but this is not a motivation that belongs to the self (the self has no freedom in anything and it never can do, this being its nature). This ‘non-selfish’ motivation is not mechanical and heavily ‘inertial’ in its nature, and it does not seek equilibrium (i.e. agreement with what I think, agreement with whatever ideas or beliefs I might happen to have in my head). If I have a goal, an ‘end’ in mind, then this is E-seeking motivation because all I want to do is achieve that goal – once I have ‘ticked that box’ then that’s all I care about. That’s all I’m worried about. After that there’s relief. After I’ve safely ticked the box then I can go back to sleep. So in mechanical motivation what happens is that something disturbs me, some trigger or other pushes my button and makes me uncomfortable, and then I have to do whatever it takes to fix the problem and make me feel comfortable again. This is compulsive motivation in a nutshell.
Intrinsic (or spontaneous) motivation is not like this however – I don’t do stuff to ease the discomfort I’m in, so that I can go right back to sleep again. I don’t conceive and carry out actions so I can have the pleasure of returning to the blank, narcotic equilibrium state that I am so helplessly addicted to! On the contrary, I do stuff because it actually matters to me, I do stuff because I genuinely want to do it. This is the biggest difference in the world – one sort of motivation comes from my thoughts, my conditioning, the rules or habits I have in my head, and the other sort of motivation comes from a higher source altogether. It comes from a ‘non-mechanical’ source.
Not just our actions, but our mental activity is generally of the mechanical (which is to say, the equilibrium-seeking) type. When I have a thought I am fitting my perception of the world, my understanding of the world, into a ready-made, mechanical category. I am establishing a ‘state of agreement’ between my perception and the rules that govern how my perceptions should be organized. Similarly, when I want to express myself I have to fit in whatever it is I want to say into the ready-made formulae that exist in language to convey meanings. I squeeze the meaning of my communication into the required compartments, the required semantic categories, and as a result what I am saying never departs from what the rules regulating the standardized system of communication that I am using permit me to say.
When ‘what I want to say’ exactly fits in with ‘what I am allowed by the system’ then this is the equilibrium point! When the meaning of ‘what I am thinking’ matches ‘the template that has been laid down by the system of thought’ then this is the boulder coming to rest at the bottom of the hill. But when this happens then we have a situation where [Actual] = [Expected] and so the information content of the system is now ZERO – it has to be zero because there is total agreement with a fixed template, and total agreement with a given template means ‘no information’. Agreement with a static template or framework is the very essence of zero information content because from this point on the one thing we know absolutely for sure is that there are going to be no more surprises.
This is no radically new or challenging idea, of course. Mechanical systems always chase after the state of Maximum entropy (i.e. zero information) – that’s how they work, that’s what they do! That’s what a mechanical system is! This is what the second law of thermodynamics says, in very plain terms. What is more challenging is the suggestion that thought (or the rational mind) is a mechanical system too and that it is always chasing after the state of Maximum entropy just like all other mechanical systems do. Seeing the thinking mind as an equilibrium-seeking system like a pair of socks being dropped on the floor or red ball being sent on its linear way across a pool table isn’t exactly very inspirational – it doesn’t exactly fit in with how we’d like to see things. There’s not much to feel proud about in this. Inasmuch as we identify with the thinking mind, we like to believe that there is something pretty amazing about it, something special about it. Saying that it is just an E-seeking system punctures the illusion. What’s so great about always having to be chasing after the state of maximized entropy, after all? Maximized entropy [Max S] is when nothing new ever happens ever again, it is when the only type of change left is predictable change, the sort of change that isn’t actually change at all.
Obtaining our goals is generally thought to be a great thing, it is widely reckoned to be just about the best and most rewarding thing we can do! Obtaining our goals equals ‘winning’ and things don’t get any better than winning. Winning is the best possibility we can conceive of – winning is synonymous with everything that is great. But when we attain our goals then what this means – by definition! – is that [Actual] equals [Expected] and when [A] = [E], when reality matches our pre-established template for it, then the entropy of the system has reached a maximum! Winning equals maximized entropy, therefore, since no one can be said to have won, or be said to have succeeded, unless what they have done matches a prescribed set of specifications somewhere!
We’re led to believe that being in control of our lives is the optimum state of affairs, yet when I am ‘in control’ all that this means is that I’ve got my situation to agree with my thoughts or beliefs about how that situation should be and what this means is that reality itself (which is the unforeseen, the unexpected) is thoroughly excluded. The state of maximum entropy has been attained, stasis has been attained, the state of ‘blank nullification’ has been attained. When the self gets its own way then [A] is made to equal [E] and we enter into the world of Zero information which is the Equilibrium State. This is the only time the self is truly happy – when it can ‘switch off’, when it can ‘close down’, when it is thoroughly distracted from reality. This state of ‘Non-Being’ is the everyday self’s Holy Grail – it’s the only thing the self cares about (although such a statement makes no sense at all to the everyday mind).
Consciousness and our everyday experience are very, very far apart indeed. They are more than just far apart, they are worlds apart. They are incommensurable. The reason for this is because our everyday experience is all about the self and the self is a mere construct, a mere thing. The self is a mind-created abstraction, which means that it doesn’t actually exist. The world, when it is looked at from the POV of a mechanical construct, is itself no more than a mechanical construct. The world is therefore no more than a ‘thing’ to the self because the self that we use as a reference point for our perceptions is itself ‘only a thing,’ even though it can’t see this. The self can’t see that it is only a thing because it projects its ‘thing-ness’ outwards, onto the world, and relates to it there instead. It is unconsciously assuming that the world is like it is and is therefore relating to itself in projected form.
The self is never going to notice the world for what it is, and we’re never going to be anywhere close to actual consciousness just as long as we are obsessively preoccupied with the self, just as long as we’re wholly identified with the self. The self is the burial ground for consciousness. It is the blotting paper which soaks up every last trace of consciousness. It is the annihilation of consciousness, which is the same thing as the annihilation of reality! Every thought that I think is a burial ground for consciousness. The self (which is a construct of its own thought process) is the supreme way of shutting down, the supreme way of ‘closing our accounts with 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.