Consciousness is the absence of self – where the self is there is no consciousness, and where there is consciousness there is no self! The simplest way to explain why this should be so is to say that consciousness is an open system, whilst the self is necessarily a closed one. Consciousness is open because there is no intentionality in it – it is an open state of affairs in other words because it hasn’t already decided what it is that it is going to be conscious of!
Another way of putting this is to say that consciousness is open because it is unbiased, because it is intrinsically unprejudiced. In Illusions Richard Bach says that reality is ‘divinely indifferent’, which means precisely this – that it is not more favourably disposed to some possibilities than others. If reality were to favour some possibilities more than others then reality would be closed to everything that is not on the ‘guest list,’ so to speak, and so this wouldn’t be reality at but merely a game, merely a finite set that has been abstracted from reality. Reality would then be a static fixture, and reality isn’t a static fixture because it always contains within itself the possibility of new or unforeseen developments. In the same way if consciousness were to be more favourably inclined to see some things than others, then this wouldn’t be consciousness at all but mere self-deception! Consciousness would in this case be a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’: it would never show us anything new, and so there is no way that we could call this state of affairs ‘consciousness’. It would be a ‘static fixture’ – it would be a reflection of a particular limited and static viewpoint, and nothing more.
Consciousness is not geared up in advance to see anything in particular – it has no aim, no agenda, no game plan. The self, on the other hand, always does have an aim, an agenda, a game-plan! This is what being a self is all about! The self is not just ‘predisposed’ to seeing the world in a particular way – it has to see the world in a particular way! If any given self stops seeing the world in the way that is characteristic of it, then it stops being that self. We could say that the self is always biased, always partisan, always prejudiced and this would be perfectly true – but even more to the point would be to say that the self is a bias, is a prejudice, is a partisan way of seeing the world. The self is its own agenda, and so if ever the time came that it didn’t have an agenda then it would promptly cease to exist! It would disappear in a puff of smoke!
‘The self is its own agenda’ is another way of saying that no matter what it thinks or does, it always has itself in mind! In practical terms, we could say that the agenda of the self (the agenda from which it cannot ever separate itself!) is that it should be the beneficiary in every situation. The self is always looking for its own advantage; as Alan Watts says, it is always playing the game of ‘one-upmanship’. This doesn’t sound right to us because although we know we’re selfish sometimes we have the idea that there’re also times when can be unselfish or altruistic. If I give money to charity for example I might think that this is being unselfish. But as Anthony de Mello laughingly points out everything we do is selfish – I give money to charity because I think that makes me unselfish, because it makes me feel like a generous kind of person. Any sort of ‘deliberate morality’ is like this. If I feel that I’m selfish sort of a person then this is uncomfortable, and so I act to assuage this discomfort by doing something that isn’t selfish. But the only reason I’m carrying out this so-called unselfish action is to make myself feel better, and therefore this is the ‘advantage’ that I’m chasing!
There really is no way out of this from the point of view of the self, it can’t stop being selfish and start being unselfish any more than a zebra can decide on a whim to stop being a zebra and become a hippopotamus instead! A zebra is stuck being a zebra and the self is stuck being the self! If for example I observe that I am always doing something with an agenda in mind, and that this agenda always has to do with benefiting me – since it is my agenda, and fulfilling it will always by definition be to my advantage since I am thereby getting things to work out the way I want them to – then I might come to the conclusion that the only way out from this fix is for me to have no agenda! I might come to the conclusion that having no agenda is a good thing. But then as soon as I have this thought then I have a new agenda, which is ‘the agenda to have no agenda’, and so I am caught again…
I am caught no matter which way I turn because I have run into the paradox of ‘wanting not to wanting’ or ‘trying not to try’ or ‘intending not to intend’. For the self, there is simply no way out of this paradox because everything it does, it does because it wants to. If everything I do is my own intention (i.e. as a result of a goal that I have made) then I am forever trapped in this paradox whether I realize it or not: no matter which way I twist and turn, I can’t stop having goals since having the intention to have no goal is every bit as much of a goal as any other. I can’t stop controlling on purpose because <STOP> is controlling just as much as <START> is; <NO> is just as much controlling as <YES> is, and <YES> and <NO> are the only two options the self has to play about with. Everything the self does is on purpose, and because everything it does is on purpose everything it does is itself! The paradox thus gets resolved into the ‘impossibility of the self ever escaping itself’.
For the self everything is either seen in terms of an advantage or a disadvantage and both of these terms ‘advantage’ and ‘disadvantage’ have everything to do with it, and nothing to do with anything else! These terms relate to my narrow agenda – they have no connection whatsoever with any wider view of things. This narrow agenda causes me to see the world in a very personalized way, which is to say, it’s always about me! The self’s outlook is for this reason a strictly dualistic one: everything is about ‘good versus bad’, ‘better versus worse,’ ‘success versus failure’, ‘pleasure versus pain’ and although the two poles of these dualities always seem very far apart from each other to me (having as they do meanings that are totally the opposite of each other) they only ever mean the same thing. They only ever mean ‘my narrow agenda’. My agenda equals both good and bad, better and worse, advantage and disadvantage, pleasure and pain because all of these ‘opposites’ arise out of the very same narrow viewpoint, which is the viewpoint that we are calling – for the sake of convenience – ‘the self’.
Looking at this from a slightly different angle, we can equivalently say that it is the very fact that I am always chasing the former and fleeing the latter that causes my perception (or experience) of myself as ‘a self’! If I am hot on the trail of success then this defines me positively as ‘the one who is to be successful’, and if I am slipping inexorably into ignominious failure then it is the taint of this failure than defines me as the one who isn’t a success, the one who has missed the boat, etc. Success and failure both ‘say who I am’, in other words, even though neither of these terms means anything at all outside of the game that is being played, which is ‘the game of the self’.
Very obviously, there is no success without the one who is to be successful, and there is no failure without the one who fails! What is equally true (but less easy to see) however, is that without any prospect of success or failure, advantage or disadvantage, doing better or doing worse, then there can be no such thing as ‘the self’. Even though this might seem peculiar, the self is dependent upon the polar framework of good versus bad, better versus worse in order to construct itself. It is inseparable from this mind-created framework – it actually is the mind-created framework and so no polarity (or no duality) means no self….
Another way of putting this is to say that there is ‘no such thing’ as a self that has no desires, a self that is not constantly subject either to fear or greed. We could say that it is a perfect impossibility for there to be such a thing as self that is free from desire, free from attraction and aversion (free from ‘attachment’). This is a frank impossibility because the conditioned self is in its essence not a substantial entity – as it imagines itself to be – but a function of the compulsive mechanical forces that are constantly operating on it. The self is not – in other words – an independently existing ‘thing in itself’ but more of a perambulating pocket of need, a perambulating pocket of pain-filled deficit. Deficit isn’t an actual thing in itself; it is – needless to say – a lack of something, an absence of something! What we could say – in order to try to make this a bit clearer – is that the conditioned self is the painful absence of who we really are…
So in the conditioned (or unconscious) life, instead of ‘presence’ we have ‘absence’ and yet we do not experience this absence as an absence, but rather as an actual positive or substantial basis for living our life. By a trick of inverted perception therefore, I experience a hole (a deficit) as a positive, self-existent entity, and I see this imaginary ‘self-existent entity’ as ‘myself’. Just to reiterate this highly unfamiliar viewpoint – what we are saying here is that the self of our everyday experience is ‘an absence that mistakenly imagines itself to be a presence’!
Suppose that we say – just to explore this idea further – that the self isn’t constantly chasing improvement and running away from disimprovement (which, we have suggested, is the game that defines it). Just for the sake of the argument, let us suppose there is a self which isn’t subject to anxiety and hope and which doesn’t orientate or define itself in terms of its goals, its plans, its projections. Let us suppose, in other words, that there is a self which is ‘sufficient unto itself,’ a self that lacks nothing, needs nothing, wants nothing. If this were the case then we would straightaway see that what we have here is a self that is no longer driven by what Abraham Maslow calls D-type motivation (deficit-motivation) but by B-type motivation – Being-motivation. If I am operating on the basis of B-motivation then this is simply another way of saying I am not doing stuff because I am being compelled by my wants and needs, but because it is my free volition to either do whatever it is that I am doing, or not do what I am not doing. I am acting freely, not out of an agenda. This is just another way of saying that with B-motivation I am being ‘true to my innermost nature’ rather than just ‘obeying my conditioning’ (which is of course the usual way of things).
So if this is the case then this is great news! All is well with me. I am Whole again, I am no longer in a state of ‘lack’. I am actually ‘present in myself’, rather than being ‘lost to myself’! A condition that was predicated upon a painful inner deficiency has been transformed into a condition of joyful inner sufficiency; a perennially hungry and never-satisfied lack of being has been replaced by authentic being, being that naturally gives rise to spontaneous (or agenda-free) activity. This is undoubtedly very good news, the best possible news, but the ‘transformation’ in question has been more profound, more radical than I might have thought it would be! The thing about this radical transformation from lack into being is that in regaining my Wholeness I have at the same time lost my identity! The moment I become Whole again is the moment that I lose my actual definition of myself, and this is the same thing as losing the self, since ‘the self’ and its definition are one and the same thing.
This is the point that is so hard to see: we can either be Whole (i.e. be who we really are) or we can have a separate, defined existence – and as a consequence operate on the basis of D-type motivation (or need). It’s one or the other – either I am ‘present’ and undefined, or I am ‘absent’ and defined! This doesn’t accord with our normal way of thinking about things. From our usual point of view this seems totally back-to-front since we think that the only time we can be sure of actually having something is when we lay hold of it and securely define it for ourselves. As far as we are concerned, definition is an act of possession, just as control is. The contrary is true however – the closed fist invariably loses what it grasps at! As it says in the Tao Te Ching:
If you try to grasp Tao, you cannot reach It. This is why It is called hard-to-be-caught.
When we go to grab hold of something we lose what we’re grabbing at, and when we wisely refrain from grabbing, refrain from defining, then everything is gained. As Zhuangzi says,
To a mind that is still, the entire universe surrenders.
Through grasping comes impoverishment, through letting go comes enrichment. Or we could say that through letting go comes re-unification with Everything (or we could also say, with the Tao). In order to see this truth however (which is as we have just said contrary to common sense) we need to be conscious; mechanically, we can’t understand it at all, and will on this account have no time for this ancient principle. If I am not conscious, if I have no actual unconditioned awareness, then all I can do in life is react automatically, by pure mechanical reflex, and try as best I can to seize hold of ‘the good stuff’. The conditioned (or deficit-based) mind gives rise to wanting and the wanting gives rise to grasping, and all of this is just the one ‘mechanical reflex’. There is no actual consciousness in this process at all – neither at the beginning nor at the end.
So it is inevitable that when I am in the unconscious (or deficit-based) modality of existence I am going to be trying to improve my situation by grasping and grabbing at everything, that I am going to be trying to control everything and define everything – including myself. This is what being unconscious means. The one thing that is for sure is that I will never benefit myself in any real sense by mechanically reacting in this way (since a deficit can never be benefited!) but in a very narrow sense it could be said that I will by this Deficit-driven behaviour ‘benefit’ the game that I am playing, in the sense that this grasping and defining and controlling re-affirms the false perception of self that I have mistakenly identified with.
Thus, when we react in this way – and define ourselves and our world tightly in the process – we are absolutely guaranteeing ourselves a ‘deficit-driven existence’. And then if we’re caught up in a deficit-driven existence, and suffering from the pain of such an existence, then it is also guaranteed that we will try to cure ourselves of the pain of our inner deficit by either grasping for apparent advantage or running away from apparent disadvantage. Unconsciousness is thus a ‘self-fuelling, self-perpetuating state of affairs’. A good way to understand unconsciousness therefore (which is all about identifying with a false self and then perpetuating this illusion by acting on Deficit-based motivation) is by thinking in terms of a wave. A wave is made up of two parts, both of which are needed if the wave is to be a wave: a positive displacement and a negative displacement (i.e. a PLUS phase and a MINUS phase). With regard to the self, we can say that the PLUS (or euphoric) phase is when I am getting my agenda met, when I am getting what I want, and the MINUS (or dysphoric) phase is when I’m not getting my agenda met, when I’m getting what I don’t want! From my point of view the one situation is as far removed from the other as it is possible to be, but looking at it from the outside (from outside of the self’s narrow frame-of-reference) we can see that advantage and disadvantage, success and failure are simply the crest and trough of the same wave, and that they aren’t two separate things at all.
If I fail then this feeds into the momentum or energy of the wave, and if I succeed then this reinforces the wave just as much since ‘fail’ and ‘succeed’ both equal the wave. Thus, because YES and NO, ADVANTAGE and DISADVANTAGE, UP and DOWN, WIN and LOSE are the only two options that I as a conditioned self know about or can conceive of there is nothing that I can do that can ever get me out of this self-perpetuating ‘vibratory’ (or ‘oscillatory’) pattern of existence!
I’m never going to experience consciousness when I am stuck in the never-ending static vibration which is the self: when I am in the positive displacement phase, the euphoric or feel-good phase, then I am seeing the world in a fundamentally deluded way, and when I am in the dysphoric or feel-bad phase I am also seeing the world in a fundamentally deluded way. I may like one delusion more than the other, but this does not make it any more real! When I’m in the euphoric phase I’m defined in terms of success (or attainment) and when I’m in the dysphoric phase I’m defined in terms of failure (or loss) – in the first case I deludedly think that I am gaining something and in the second case I deludedly think that I am losing something. Either way I am identified with the defined self which gains or loses and am as a consequence always seeing the world from this narrow (and therefore unreal!) point of view. What I see from the conditioned viewpoint which is the self is simply this narrow and unreal basis reflected back at me in disguised or unrecognizable form….
Seeing my own arbitrarily-limited viewpoint reflected back at me and automatically mistaking what I see as reality is a very good definition of what it means to be unconscious. The only possible way that I could be aware of reality (rather than being aware only of my own projections which I naively imagine to be reality) would be if I were not defined in this arbitrary way! The removal of the self from the picture is the key. Seeing however that the wave which is the conditioned self consists of two parts, the positive displacement and the negative, and seeing that both phases involve being trapped in a defined format of identity, it can be seen that I simply don’t get any opportunity to see unconditioned reality.
This isn’t quite true however: every time the oscillation (or wave) passes from positive to the negative displacement phase there is a fleeting moment of Zero Displacement, and at this point in time I am not defined in any way, shape or form. Because I’m not defined (because I’m not constrained to perceive myself as some arbitrary limited self) I am free to see reality. Therefore, when I am undefined I am conscious rather than unconscious!
The only problem with this is that I’m not actually interested in being undefined; I’m not actually interested in being conscious! Consciousness doesn’t mean a thing to me! What I’m interested in is playing the game – when I’m in the euphoric phase I couldn’t give a damn about anything else (because all I care about is the pleasure that I’m experiencing), and when I’m in the dysphoric phase all I want to do is get back into the euphoric phase again. The energy I put into ‘getting back into the euphoric phase’ simply causes me to bounce back all the more strongly into the dysphoric phase later on, just as if I were hitting a ball tethered to a post with a length of elastic cord, and so the game is perpetuated. The harder I bat it away, the harder it comes back! Or to put it another way, NO equals YES, ADVANTAGE equals DISADVANTAGE, WIN equals LOSE, PLEASURE equals PAIN…
When it comes down to it the self doesn’t want to become conscious – it just wants to play its game, the game which is it. The self doesn’t want to become conscious because consciousness is the absence of self…
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.