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Conscious Work

The more conscious (or more aware) we are the more we understand what it means to be unconscious, and the less conscious (the less aware we are), the less we understand it. This is very obviously the case! When we are thoroughly unconscious – which is the usual way – then we have no understanding at all of what it means to be psychologically unconscious. We don’t even know that there is such a thing. We will deny that there is such a thing…

 

 

When we are ‘unconscious’ what is happening to us is that we are being controlled (or being ‘determined’) by factors outside of us, factors which we have zero insight into, zero awareness of. These external factors determine everything about us and we have no say in what they do at all. We cannot influence them at all, but they can (and do) influence us – the influence is all the one way. We don’t even know of the controlling influence that the mechanical external factors have on us – we don’t even suspect that they are there. And not only do we ‘not know that they are there’, we don’t care either. We haven’t the remotest interest. When we’re ‘unconscious’ we’re only interested in the stuff that the external determining factors tell us to be interested in and they don’t tell us to be interested in what they are doing – these factors do not draw attention to themselves and their activity, but rather they divert or deflect our attention elsewhere. The universal principle being of course that ‘the most effective control requires that those who are being controlled do not know that they’re being controlled’ – for those that are being controlled to gain this insight would naturally constitute a failure in control and so in the same way for us to be allowed any awareness about (or interest in) the mechanical factors that are determining our reality would necessarily undermine their power over us. Thus, we are ‘operated’ by the factors without knowing that we are being operated…

 

 

The truth of the matter is that when we are under the power of the external all-determining mechanical factors we have no interest in anything, no actual curiosity about anything. How can we? Having genuine interest in (or curiosity about) the world would require that we have actual autonomy and when we are in the unconscious state this is the one thing that we don’t have. I can’t be made to be interested. I can’t be controlled to be curious, obviously! This has to come naturally or not at all and when we are in the unconscious mode nothing comes naturally. In the unconscious mode there’s no such thing as ‘natural’, there’s no such thing as ‘spontaneous’. It’s all managed, it’s all directed. The bottom line is that when we are in the unconscious mode we are the unconscious slaves to the external determining factors – we are aware only of what they tell us to be aware of, we think only what they tell us to think, we do only what they tell us to do. What the external factors tell us to do we do, and what they don’t tell us to do we don’t do…

 

 

In a certain context this is of course a very familiar sort of an idea – the unfamiliar thing is to apply it to our own psychology, to apply it to ourselves. We could think for example about a software engineer writing a programme for a computer – when we install a programme in a computer that computer does exactly what we tell it to do. It does exactly what it is programmed to do – if we tell it to do something it does it, and if we don’t then it doesn’t. A computer doesn’t care what we tell it to do – any logically-consistent set of instructions that comes its way, it will obey. Paper does not refuse ink, as it is said!

 

 

So when we are in the unconscious modality we are like a sheet of writing paper, we will accept whatever is written upon us! We are the passive facilitators of whatever instructions are given to us. When we are in the unconscious state we are like computers – we will do whatever we are programmed to do, without reflection. There is nothing that stands between the programme, the set of instructions, and the enactment of the programme, the enactment of the instructions. The two are synonymous – the rule is followed by the obeying of the rule without any gap, without any hesitation, without any possibility of questioning. Just as the computer does not belong to itself but to the programmes that are operating it, when we are psychologically unconscious we do not belong to ourselves but to whatever external mechanical factors it is that are operating through us… 

 

 

The analogy with computers breaks down at a certain point however. It is – we might say – perfectly OK for a computer to be controlled by the programmes that have been put in it because if it didn’t have any programmes in it then it wouldn’t do anything! But in a sense that we cannot overlook (although we do our level best to over-look it) it is not OK for us to be totally controlled by whatever external all-determining mechanical factors it is that happen to be running the show from behind the scenes when we are unconscious. In a another, deeper sense we can say that it is OK because it is all part of the play, because its all part of the cosmic dance, but at the same time that it’s OK it also clearly isn’t OK because the situation where we have handed over our autonomy to a bunch of rules, a set of external determining factors (i.e. a logical system) causes us tremendous suffering, tremendous pain and distress. If it doesn’t cause conscious pain then it causes pain that we’re unconscious of. The pain we’re suffering from (consciously or otherwise) clearly indicates that everything isn’t right with us – even though when we’re safely adapted to a logical system our way of thinking (which is the logical system) will be telling us very persuasively that everything is right. Our ‘way of thinking’ will never identify itself as the source of the problem, not in a million years!

 

 

The reason we eventually end up experiencing tremendous pain and distress (whether we acknowledge it or not) when we hand over our autonomy to the ‘external determining factors’  is because ‘handing over autonomy’ means betraying our own true selves. The external determining factors operate by taking away all our space – they take away the space that we inherently have to be ourselves, so to speak. They take away the space to be who we are and give us to understand that this space doesn’t exist! When these factors (these rules) are controlling us there is therefore no space left to us, which means that ‘we are not allowed to be who we are’. Instead, we have to be what the controlling factors tell us we are. That’s the only space left to us, and actually this isn’t any space at all because space means leeway, space means that nothing is determined, space means that nothing is certain! Space equals uncertainty just as rules equal certainty, and so rules function by taking away space. Since ‘who we are’ is inseparable from space (is the very same thing as space) we can therefore say that rules prevent us from being who we really are and at the same time that they do this they ‘recreate us in their own image’.

 

 

What we are talking about here therefore is an uncompromising act of violence (however veiled it might be) which is being carried out by the mechanical agency against our own true (non-mechanical) nature. If I am only allowed to be what the controlling factors (i.e. the rules) say I am, then what I am (as a result of being controlled) is these controlling factors. They permit me only to exist on their own terms, and this means that they permit me to exist only as a reflection of themselves. The controlling factors only allow what agrees with them, and as is always the case with rules, the only thing they agree with is themselves!  I therefore don’t come into the picture at all – there’s no room for me, no allowances for me, no specification for me. I’m not on the guest list. As a result of adapting to the rules therefore I have been eliminated as I truly am and recreated (or ‘simulated’) as I am not…

 

 

Being aggressively but surreptitiously eliminated (which is to say, being aggressively eliminated without having this act of elimination acknowledged in any way) is an act of violence by anyone’s standards, the only thing here being that, as Jean Baudrillard says, there are no witnesses to the act, no witnesses to the murder that has taken place. There are no witnesses to the murder because what is being eliminated (or rejected) by the process of adaptation to the mechanical system is never acknowledged as having any existence in the first place. It was never admitted to be a possibility in the first place and so the whole process of ‘rejecting what doesn’t fit’ goes ahead unnoticed. We ourselves don’t see the violence because identifying with the template that we have been given by the system means rejecting and disowning what doesn’t happen to match the template, and – as we’ve said – anything that doesn’t happen to match the template doesn’t officially exist! Adapting to the template means betraying our true selves but because the very fact that we have adapted to the template means that we can only ‘recognize as real’ that which the template tells us is real, we are incapable of seeing that we have betrayed ourselves, incapable of seeing that we have allowed ourselves to be ‘murdered’ as a result of handing over our autonomy to the logical framework of understanding. This is Baudrillard’s Perfect Crime, which can either be seen (as he portrays it) as ‘the crime of utterly disposing of reality’, or ‘the crime of utterly disposing of ourselves’…

 

 

The big question here is, “What’s in it for us?” What do we get as a result of this act of self-betrayal? Why would we assent, even unconsciously, to being controlled so much that we ‘no longer have the space to be who we are’? Why do we seem so willing to give away all our freedom, all our autonomy? The answer would seem to be that we assent to be controlled (or rather totally determined) because we get a good feeling out of it – the good feeling that comes with maximizing our ‘ontological security’. We could say therefore that the ‘pay-off’ that comes with being totally externally determined is that it facilitates our love of ‘being secure’, our love of ‘knowing exactly what the story is’. Or even more to the point, we could say that the pay-off for being totally controlled by an unquestionable external authority is the pay-off of facilitating our immense, incorrigible laziness. We don’t want to think for ourselves, we don’t want to work things out for ourselves, we don’t want to question stuff that we have previously taken for granted. We don’t want to run the risk of discovering that the universe which we thought we knew contains ‘new and hitherto unsuspected territory’! When it comes down to it, we just want to be provided with a structure which we can safely adapt to, a game that we can play. We just want to be ‘told what to do’ (and also to be told that what we are being told to do is ‘the RIGHT thing to do’, ‘the RESPONSIBLE thing to do’, etc), and then we’re happy. Once we have been convinced of this – and we don’t really take much convincing – then we are ‘free’ to just get on with it…

 

 

If we say – just for the sake of the argument – that when we are in the common-or-garden everyday state of being ‘psychologically unconscious’ then what this means in practice is that we are actually infinitely lazy, then it can be seen that to be provided with an all-determining template or framework for seeing reality is an absolutely ideal solution. You couldn’t get anything better! This is exactly what we want. To be provided with a set of clearly defined contours (or ‘surfaces’) which we are required to adhere to (or follow) exactly, so that we will be rewarded for correctly adhering to and punished for deviated from, is the perfect answer. This is the perfect solution to the problem – everything is done for us, everything is set out for us, everything is explained for us and so all we have to do is fall in with what we’re being unambiguously told and all will be well. Ontological security is guaranteed. So – just to make the point again – from the point of view of our profound (and entirely unexamined) unwillingness to embrace – or in anyway entertain – existential uncertainty – being totally controlled by external determining factors by being in the ubiquitous state of psychological unconsciousness is the ideal answer.

 

 

It might seem that we are being unnecessarily judgemental in suggesting that being in the everyday state of psychological unconsciousness (being in the state of ‘passive identification’) is synonymous with being ‘infinitely lazy’. It sounds like a condemnation. This however is not a moral judgement or condemnation but simply an impartial description of a certain state of affairs – it is an impartial description of the state of affairs in which we yearn for reality to be ‘exhaustively defined’ for us. It is a description of what lies behind the state of affairs in which we yearn to be told what reality definitively is so that we can then get on with the (relatively) undemanding business of adapting ourselves to this restrictive and non-revisable scheme of things. We want to make ourselves dependent upon the logical structure, “You tell me what to do…” is what we are saying to this all-determining framework, “You do it because I don’t want to…” We could also say that this is an infantile (or dependent) state – we don’t want to grow up, we don’t want to find our own authority within us, but rather we want to be ruled over by some dogmatic all-powerful and all-knowing external father-figure.

 

 

Another way of talking about this state of ‘infinite laziness’ (which equals ‘concrete thinking’) is to say that it comes about because we are fleeing from ontological terror. ‘Infinite laziness’ and ‘hiding from ontological terror’ are two ways of talking about the same thing. When we are infinitely lazy we want absolutely everything to be spelled out for us, we want the external authority to do everything and for us to do nothing. We want the external authority to be absolutely authoritative in all things, to be absolutely authoritative across the board, so that we can just go along with what it says. When we ‘go along with it’ then there is nothing left for us to be uncertain about – there is no space left and if there is no space left then there can be no possibility of there being anything that we don’t know about. We have our fixed itinerary or list of things that are there and if something isn’t on the list then it isn’t there. This exhaustive list is our protection against the fear that we are repressing, i.e. ‘the fear that we dare not admit to ourselves’. If we were in an open situation then there would be no guarantee that we would not stumble across this fear (or something that might lead on to it) and so what we do is block up all the windows and doors and then make out that we didn’t block up all the windows and doors. We make out that there aren’t any windows and door and that in fact the claustrophobically limited little room is the whole of what is possible in reality. It’s not a claustrophobically closed little room at all but the whole world. This gimmick is how we flee from ontological terror.

 

 

The closed situation only contains what it is specified as containing and so we know for sure that it can’t contain anything that might remind us of the thing that we are so very afraid of, the thing that we don’t want to know about. So wanting a determinate structure (i.e. wanting the exhaustive description of reality that is provided by the literal mind) is a way of protecting us from fear by making sure that the only contents we will ever know about or come in contact with are contents that are ‘officially approved’, contents that are ‘guaranteed safe’. We have retreated into concrete thinking. ‘Concrete thinking’ means that we stick like glue to the defined surfaces that have been given to us, to the known objects that have been given to us, and take absolutely zero interest in anything else. We retreat into a world which has no space in it, no real ‘possibilities’ in it. We have closed down from reality and this closing down – which is nothing other than our normal, everyday state of being – is what happens (or has happened) in the face of the ‘fear that we are too afraid to address’, the fear that none of us know we are hiding from…

 

 

So there is absolute security in being totally controlled, totally determined in the way that we are in the everyday unconscious state. ‘Security’ in this context means that we don’t ever have to do any work. This is a particular use of the word ‘work’ – what we are talking about here could be called conscious work (as opposed to unconscious or mechanical work) and it involves us making an effort in the direction of uncertainty rather than certainty. We’re working, but we don’t know what we’re working for, or how we are to go about it. Nothing is set out for us, nothing is marked out. We are given no directions, no instructions. We don’t know how we are to make this effort in consciousness, this reaching out into the unknown, but we nevertheless know when we are doing so. Consciousness work is like life – just as no one can live life for us, so too it is the case that no one can do conscious work for us. Conscious work isn’t just ‘like’ life – it is life!

 

 

M. Scott Peck refers to conscious work as ‘extending oneself’ and equates it with love; in The Road Less Travelled he talks about love as ‘the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.’ The thing about conscious effort is that no one can tell us how to do it or directly show us how to do it; no one can tell us to do it – as Scott Peck says “We do not have to love”. The only thing another person can do is to possibly inspire us to do conscious work, and this is an indirect (or unintentional) influence rather than a direct and intentional one. Thus, in the Dhammapada we read,

 

No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path. Buddhas only show the way.

 

 

With unconscious work however, we CAN be told what to do – with unconscious work we are in fact ALWAYS told to what to do! Very obviously, ‘being told what to do’ is what mechanical activity essentially entails! We have to be provided with a template, a standard, a method, a procedure, a programme, etc. Unconscious work means trying to ‘correctly enacting whatever programme it is that we have lodged in our heads – there is the ‘ideal’ (which is precisely and unambiguously defined for us) and then we have to do our level best to actualize this ideal in the world around us. This is why mechanical (or unconscious) work is essentially repetitive – it’s not about ‘allowing the new to unfold’ but controlling the situation in order to ‘make the old repeat’!

 

 

There is the fixed ideal and our job is to faithfully copy it. We have the fixed ideal and it is our job is to work away at perfecting its enactment. When we succeed in this task then this – we may say – is what James Carse calls ‘the triumph of the old over the new’ and once we express things in this way it can be seen that the clearest and most illuminating definition of mechanical work of all is simply to say that mechanical work is when we strive as hard as we can to obey the iron rule of FEAR…

 

 

Conscious work is thus work against fear – which means courageously moving out from the safe and sterile cocoon of our minds (and our egoic selves) into reality (or into what James Carse calls ‘the Other’). Or as Rodney Collin has said (quote taken from the Gurdjieff – Becoming Conscious Facebook page),

 

Work begins when we learn to separate what we are from what we are not.

 

Mechanical effort is therefore always the ultimately futile and self-defeating struggle to perpetuate the restrictive and pain-creating illusion ‘that we are what we’re not’, whilst conscious effort is the letting go of what we’re not – even though this means letting go of everything we know.  Mechanical effort – we might say – is geared to reproducing (or perpetuating) the old on the basis that ‘the old is who we are’. This is of course the essence of conservatism. But the old is not who we are – not only is the old not who we are, the old doesn’t even exist! So what we are striving to do in the unconscious state is to perpetuate an illusion whose actual function is to distract us from seeing who we really are, which is the new, the unique, the unconditioned. Conscious effort constitutes a rebellion against this hoax, a revolution against ‘the established order’. This rebellion, this revolution, is however achieved not by purposeful action but by not-doing

 

 

Going back to what we said earlier about ‘no one being able to live our life for us’, we can try to explain conscious work by saying that it essentially involves the ‘effortfulness’ (to use Scott Peck’s word) of living our own life rather than someone else’s idea of what our life should be. And it isn’t even this – it isn’t even ‘someone else’s idea of what our life should be’ because that other person, whose idea we are buying into, isn’t acting or thinking autonomously anyway. If they were then they wouldn’t have expectations of us that we should live life in a particular way – they wouldn’t place any such demands on us! They wouldn’t try to control us in this way because the need to control other people (or oneself) only comes out of unconsciousness.

 

 

So to rephrase what we have just said, conscious work involves the ‘effortfulness’ of living our own life rather than merely living the life that the mechanical system which we have all bought into says we should be living…

 

 

No one has ever lived our life before and no one ever will. It is unique, it stands alone. If we don’t live it no one will. The life that the mechanical system has given us, on the other hand, has nothing new, nothing unique about it at all – it is the same for everyone who has conformed to it. It is ‘one size fits all’. It’s a factory-made garment. It is an inauthentic life, a sham life.

 

 

Conscious work means therefore seeing that the life we have been given to live is inauthentic, a mere mass-produced, automatically-enacted reproduction of a standard pattern or template, and finding the courage to live the life that is genuinely ours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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