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CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE MACHINE

Our basic psychological understanding of ourselves would be enormously clarified if we could see ourselves (as we are in our normal, everyday mode of being) as being composed of two distinct elements – ‘consciousness’ and ‘the machine’.

 

 

The machine part of ourselves is the easiest to talk about or describe – everyone knows what a machine is like!  We can define a machine by saying that it is something that is very, very good at doing what it is supposed to do, and completely useless at doing anything else. Machines are specific, in other words – they have a specific domain of applicability. Another thing we could say about a machine is that whilst it is generally very good at doing whatever it is that it is designed to do, it is not very good at asking why it should be doing it. In fact its not just that machines are rather poor at asking why they should do whatever it is that they are designed to do, they are flatly incapable of it.  Machines don’t question the tasks that are given to them – they aren’t bothered about the “Why?”, their only concern is the “How?”

 

 

Machines are very narrow in their focus and they simply don’t care about anything that lies outside of their specified area of concern. They are actually incapable of addressing anything that lies outside of this closed domain – anything outside of their ordained remit simply doesn’t exist for them. Machines are therefore by their very nature rigid and repetitive – they just do whatever it is that they do and that is the end of the matter! Anything else just doesn’t get discussed. Because they are so rigid and inflexible, machines have a particular view of the world; they have, we might say, a very ‘black and white view’ of the world.  We can think of a spanner – either it fits the bolt it is to turn or it doesn’t, these are the only two alternatives. Either it’s a YES or it’s a NO, either its right or its wrong. Machines are always like this – they don’t cut you any slack.  They aren’t very forgiving this way – in fact they aren’t forgiving at all. They have – we might say – ‘zero tolerance’…

 

 

So with a machine it’s either one way or the other. Either you’re in or you’re out, accepted or rejected, allowed or disallowed. Either you’re allowed through customs or you’re not. Either you get passed by security or you’re out on your ear. This type of ‘exclusive’ either/or logic is of course very familiar to us. We deal with it every day and our general way of thinking about it is to say that it’s wonderful news if we we’re ‘in’ and terrible news if we’re ‘out’. If we get accepted and therefore validated by the machine we feel great, and if we get rejected, dismissed and therefore de-validated it’s a disaster. This is what we call winning and losing, respectively and our cultural understanding is that winning is completely marvellous and losing irredeemably bad. This black-and-white viewpoint is deeply ingrained us and it underpins the type of interaction we have with the world, an interaction which is a thoroughly mechanical one.

 

 

So our attitude is usually that if we can make the grade vis-a-vis the machine logic that we are operating by then this is great news. If we get summarily rejected and dismissed and devalued by the machine this is a raw deal but if we get given the ‘stamp of approval’ then of course we have it made. The problem with this attitude is however that it is fantastically short-sighted: admittedly being accepted is the best possible outcome from the perspective of the machine logic that we are buying into, just as being failed is the worst possible outcome, but this is only meaningful from this tremendously over-simplified viewpoint. It’s not real, it’s just a game. We adopt the black and white, ‘either/or’ viewpoint without giving the matter a second thought, and then as soon as we have done so we become incapable of seeing what it is that we have just done. So what happens then is that this very narrow ‘either/or’ viewpoint absolutely controls how we understand the world – it governs our thinking and our behaviour and also our emotional life, since how we feel about ourselves now depends absolutely upon whether we manage to get passed by the system or not, whether we win in the game or not…

 

 

Being validated by the machine isn’t really a great thing, it’s only a great thing as far as the machine is concerned. It’s only a meaningful thing in terms of the machine, and the machine itself is only a very limited kind of a thing. A machine is really only a ‘one trick pony’; it can only – as we have said – do the thing that is has been specifically designed to do, and so all it can do is keep on doing it, over and over again. The machine has a template for ‘how things ought to be’ and so it simply does its level best to get things to be this way, rather than any other way. When it has succeeded in this then it is free to move on to the next job, and the next, and the next.  Such is the life of the machine! Inasmuch as we have tied our fortunes to that of the machine, and are using its black-and-white logic to orientate ourselves, then this becomes our life too. As far as we are concerned life presents itself as a problem to be solved (i.e. something that needs to be controlled or manipulated) and so we treat it as such and do our best to get it to be the way we think it should be (whatever way that is). When we are successful in this we experience the euphoria that comes with obtaining the desired situation, and when we are not successful we experience the dysphoria that comes with not obtaining it. The ongoing drama in our lives is therefore all about how well we are doing in this perennial struggle – do we get our own way or not? This crude way of relating to life seems perfectly normal to us and most of the time we simply don’t have any other way of seeing things. Life equals an ongoing procession of problems that we can either solve or fail to solve and the struggle to get it to be the one way and not the other is pretty much a full-time occupation.

 

 

Even when there is no obvious task we still have a task: we now have a new task, which is, as Eric Berne noted in Games People Play, how to get through the unstructured time that we have on our hands, i.e. how to cope when we don’t have something that we ‘have’ to do. Our task is ‘how to get by when there are no tasks’. With the machine-mind it is ‘tasks, tasks, tasks all the way’ because the absence of any task, the absence of any job to do or problem to solve creates a kind of ‘existential crisis’. Without a convenient structure at hand to orientate ourselves with we are thrown back on ourselves, philosophically speaking; without an external distraction to divert us we find ourselves wondering what it’s all about. Without a demanding “How?” to preoccupy us and absorb all our attention our attention comes back to the “Why?” and this is a challenge that we just don’t know how to deal with. “How?” we can live with, “Why?” is something else again…

 

 

As long as there is a steady stream of routine tasks for us to perform then we can just ‘get on with it’. Even if we are heartily sick of having to engage in the same old routines over and over again, there is a tremendous security in preformatted existence. Structure means comfort and lack of structure spells terror! In every task or routine there is as we have said a basic asymmetry – things are one way and our job is to get them to be another way. It starts off uncomfortable and it gets to be comfortable when we sort it out. This lack of symmetry is what provides us with our basic motivation – we are starting off with a painful absence of what we want or need and through diligent action we are able to rectify this lack. And even if there is no major biological lack (i.e. for food or for companionship or for shelter) we can make up lacks for ourselves by arbitrarily saying that we want this, that or the other and then getting annoyed or fed up if we can’t manage to get it. There is always some sort of a task at hand, and because the mechanical modality of being cannot function in the absence of tasks, it will always make sure to create some sort of a task or other. Every rational thought that we have is a task when it comes down to it because every rational thought comes about as a result of a ‘lack of equanimity’ with regard to our situation – something or other isn’t right, something or other needs fixing or solving or analyzing. Every thought that comes along is a task of some sort. If I was perfectly at peace then I wouldn’t be having these thoughts because every rational thought is at root an attempt to change something. Every rational thought – without exception – arises out of the uncompromising dissymmetry of “Things aren’t 100% right just yet but if I could only change X, Y or Z then they would be…”

 

 

The routine tasks created by the machine for us to get caught up in are games just like the sort of games that we might play on a smart phone or tablet when we’re at a loose end and have nothing pressing to do. In these games there’s a task or job to do and when we eventually manage to complete it we are told that we have ‘won’ and there is a suitably rewarding visual image and sound. Then we have to do the next task! The trouble with this is that after doing this over and over again it all starts to get rather monotonous and tedious – the buzz from winning becomes ever more diminished, until it becomes more or less meaningless. It’s like chewing gum that we have been chewing for too long. So ‘winning’ is the best possible news, it is an outcome so highly valued that it goes right off the scale, it is so great to win that we’re supposed to cheer and shout “hurrah!” and throw our hats up in the air, and yet at the same time it quickly all becomes quite meaningless! The reason the ‘greatest possible outcome’, the cause for unlimited triumphant celebration, can so quickly become so hollow is because the frame of reference which is assumed by the machine is so very, very small. The whole business is really only a type of a conjuring trick – the machine is trying to make out that its going to come out with something marvellous but the truth is that it can only do what it can do, and its ‘capacity to do’ is strictly limited. It can never go beyond its own narrow repertoire (it can never go beyond itself) and yet at the same time it needs to create the impression that it is going to pull something wonderful out of the hat. This conjuring trick is great the first few times but of course it quickly gets thin – it gets thinner the more often it is repeated, and it gets repeated one hell of a lot! This ‘law of diminishing returns’ is always the way with mechanical affairs, as on one level we all know very well.

 

 

The only way that the machine’s activities can get to be genuinely ‘not meaningless’ is if it is serving some sort of function or purpose that goes beyond itself, goes beyond its own frame of reference. Then there is no law of diminishing returns. It is in ‘self-referentiality’ that all meaning disappears (like the water running out of a bath when the plug is pulled) and because all machines without exception demonstrate a tremendous (or rather infinite) tendency to flatly ignore the wider reality it is always the case that, when left to their own devices, they become self-referential. Machines are self-referential by their very nature – they need to be made to serve a wider reality or else they will simply switch into their default mode of serving themselves. Machines are self-referential because they are defined and the whole game of ‘definition’ requires a closed system in order for it to work – after all, if any genuinely new element were to be suddenly brought into play (any element that has not already been recognized by the system, built into the system) then this would inevitably throw everything out of whack and nothing would be defined any more! The only way is therefore – if we want our definitions to remain good – to make very sure that the system remains closed.

 

 

Machines, as we have said, only recognize as worthwhile stuff that they have already been designed to find to be worthwhile. Anything other than this is automatically dismissed as being of no interest or value whatsoever. If some element of reality doesn’t reflect what is already codified into the machine (i.e. if it doesn’t reflect back its own assumptions to it) then the machine couldn’t be less interested, and this is ‘self-referentiality’ in a nutshell. We can therefore say to round this all up that because a machine only recognizes itself (or only recognizes its projections) as being of value, as being in any way worthwhile, it will when left to its own devices unfailingly enter a world that is made up exclusively of itself! In order for this descent into a world of infinite redundancy (or infinite absurdity) not to happen what is needed is that there should be some source of authority that exists outside of the machine, which is independent of the machine. If this is the case then we have a situation where there is ‘someone operating the machine’ rather than a situation where ‘the machine is operating itself’, and so the whole thing does not disappear into a morass of empty self-referentiality. The ‘higher authority’ which operates the machine is of course consciousness. Our usual way of understanding consciousness is to put it in a subsidiary position: when we say that consciousness ‘is a property of’ or that it exists ‘as a function of’ the brain (or that living creatures ‘have’ consciousness) then this straightaway denotes consciousness as a type of second-order phenomenon, something that exists as a result of something else, some physical substrate which itself isn’t conscious. We’ve put the cart before the horse. To take another example of this type of thinking – it is often suggested in the field of artificial intelligence or consciousness research that if we designed a computational system that was complex enough then this system may be able to become conscious. We are therefore theorizing that consciousness as a side-effect of complex computational processes, which again indicates our tendency to think that it is something that must necessarily be caused by something else – something of course which is not it…

 

 

The trouble with this line of thinking is however that – when it comes right down to it – we are assuming that consciousness, which we don’t understand, can be seen as a development of stuff that we do understand. This was, consciousness becomes something that we understand, just as we understand everything else. So what was a genuine topic for investigations, a genuine challenge, now becomes just the same old stuff as everything else in our conceptual world. Our whole idea of understanding stuff is really just making it like everything else that we already know! Like a giant all-consuming amoeba, we engulf the new and we incorporate it, we make it us. We use it to bolster up our established position, instead of allowing it to pull us out of this position, which is really just a hole we fell down a long time ago and are too damn lazy to try to get out of. Being as lazy as we are, we make a virtue of being stuck at the bottom of the hole, and try to drag the whole world down there with us to make us feel better!

 

 

The amoeba that we are talking about here (or the hole, if we want to use that metaphor) is the mechanical mind. Seeing that there is this thing called consciousness, which is pretty amazing, we want to engulf it. We want to make it into part of the machine. We want to make everything ‘part of the machine’! Or we could say, seeing that there is this amazing thing which we have called consciousness, and which we do not seem to be immediately capable of understanding, we want to drag it right down to the bottom of the hole, which happens to be where we are stuck! That seems to us like a good thing to do. That seems like a laudable endeavour.  But the point that we’re making here is consciousness equals not being in that hole!  Consciousness equals ‘not being stuck in that wretched old hole’ and that’s the only definition we need!

 

 

Instead of saying that consciousness is a function of the machine, or a product of the machine, what we’re saying is that it is something which is entirely independent of the machine. If consciousness were a side-effect of some sort of a machine (or logic-structure) then how could it possibly guide (or operate) that machine, how could it possibly serve as a ‘higher authority’ for the machine, for the logic-structure? In this case the machine would be guiding itself, operating itself, and so the term ‘consciousness’ would actually mean nothing at all. What we are saying is that consciousness, far from being a ‘second order phenomenon’, is the primary reality – the reality which enables the activities of the machine to actually become meaningful. If there is a thread of connection to this wider reality then the machine has meaning, without this connection it has none…

 

 

Talking about consciousness in this way might seem a little obscure, it might seem as if we are evading the issue in a way and refusing to get down to brass tacks, but in another way what we’re saying is very straightforward – we’re saying that consciousness is not a mechanical type of thing, that it has no basis in mechanical logic. Just as imagining that the instrument precedes in importance the operator of the instrument is frankly nonsensical, so too imagining that the either/or logic of the rational mind can tell us something about consciousness is frankly perverse! And yet every time we try to think about consciousness (or try to define consciousness) this is what we are doing – we are making the assumption that the tool can serve to define the one who uses the tool, we are making the assumption that consciousness is ‘like’ the tool of the rational mind, in some fundamental way.

 

 

It is possible to understand what the difference between consciousness and the rational mind is by understanding the machine better, and thereby understanding clearly what it ‘is not’. The machine – or the ‘mechanical mind’ – constructs itself in relation to certain fixed reference points which it is incapable of questioning. This arrangement is what allows the machine to function as a machine – it is also what gives the machine its characteristic qualities of being rigid, repetitive, compartmentalized and essentially ‘contained’. For the machine everything is all about comparing, therefore. We know where we are and how we’re doing by referencing ourselves to certain key standards or templates, just as we know ‘where we stand’ by referencing ourselves towards other people – to what other people think, to what other people have said, to what other people expect, and so on. The machine loves comparing; it loves comparing and referencing and evaluating because this is how it makes itself solid. The machine loves ‘fitting everything into the framework’ because fitting everything into the framework is it makes itself solid. Fitting everything into the framework makes the machine more solid because actually the machine is the framework!

 

 

Consciousness, on the other hand, does not compare and it does not evaluate. It is not a framework and so it doesn’t need to anchor itself. It is not constructed in relation to certain key, fixed points of reference because there are no fixed points of reference. There never were such points and there never could be! There are no handy hooks to hang anything by – which is why the machine has to work so hard to make them up! So for consciousness there is no rigidity, no repetition, no referencing, no judging and categorizing, no pressure to be ‘this way rather than that way’. For consciousness there is no ‘containment’. There is no ‘above’ and no ‘below’, no ‘in’ and no ‘out’, no ‘better’ and no ‘worse’, no ‘right’ and no ‘wrong’. There is no framework, no basis for comparison and evaluation. There are none of the imprisoning dualities that the mechanical mind loves so much! The machine is predicated upon the principle of limitation, we might therefore say, just as consciousness is inseparable from the Principle of Freedom (or the Principle of Connectedness)

 

 

We can try to throw some light on the relationship between ‘consciousness’ on the one hand and ‘the machine’ on the other by turning to mathematics and looking at how the rule (or the definite statement) is related to the Universal Set from which all possible rules or definite statements are taken. The definite statement is ‘definite’ simply because it allows one possibility and one possibility alone – that possibility being itself. All else is denied, ignored as being irrelevant. The Universal Set, on the other hand, specifies nothing and allows everything! U equally allows or facilitates all possible elements, without prejudice, without favourites, just as a blank page will receive equally and without prejudice or favouritism anything that is written upon it. So just as the medium has perfect equanimity with regard to whatever messages are conveyed or transmitted through it, and just as space has perfect equanimity with regard to whatever structures or objects exist within it, so too consciousness has perfect equanimity with regard to whatever thoughts pass through it, with regard to whatever concepts or ideas or images might happen to be formed in it…

 

 

The mechanical thought is a limited thing, just as consciousness is an unlimited thing. The mechanical thought or idea is limited to itself, is limited to ‘just the one possibility’. The machine, as we have said, only gets to be the machine by virtue of the fact that it is rigorously specific, only by virtue of the fact that it always limits itself to the one defined possibility. Logic itself – the operating system for all machines – only gets to operate because of the way in which only the one possibility is permitted, because of the way that one possibility is allowed or recognized at a time. If all possibilities are allowed or recognized, then this blows the ship of logic out of the water! This would banjax the operating system, fatally injure the operating system. Consciousness, therefore, is complete anathema to logic; consciousness is the annihilation of logic because it limits nothing, excludes nothing.

 

 

All of this might sound at first rather abstract and rather lacking in any recognizable relationship to or applicability to everyday experience. This is however – as a moment’s reflection would show – not true at all. If you meet someone who happens to be (at that point in time at least) judgemental and narrow in their attitude, who happens to be conservative in outlook and resistant to new ideas or ways of seeing the world, then this means that you are encountering ‘the machine’. And if you meet someone who surprises you and delights you by being compassionate, non-judgemental, open-minded and humorous, then this is because consciousness is manifesting itself through them rather than any mechanical programmes (consciousness being everyone’s true unspoiled nature, no matter what the division-loving thinking mind might have to say on the matter!) then this is because the machine element has been relegated to its proper position in this person. In a consistently happy, peaceful and non-judgemental person the machine has the status of being ‘the obedient instrument’ rather than ‘the tyrannical master’, which is of course a much happier state of affairs for all concerned!

 

 

These two elements, consciousness and the machine, manifest themselves in daily life all the time, albeit the latter more often than the former! If we are not encountering one then we are encountering the other – and the two, we might say, are ‘chalk and cheese’ with regard to how they come across. When we find ourselves judging this and judging that, thinking that there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ the whole time, putting pressure on ourselves (or others) the whole time, feeling good when we find ourselves in circumstances which are ‘right’ and bad when we find ourselves in a situation which we feel to be ‘wrong’, then this shows very clearly indeed that the machine is in control, that the machine is in the dominant position. This shows that we are simply being dragged along helpless by the machine, forced to see life in its uncompromising black and white terms. When we find ourselves at peace, with no thoughts of right versus wrong, success versus failure, advantage versus disadvantage, and when we’re not busy the whole time doing this and doing that, thinking this and thinking that, when we’re not feeling isolated and compartmentalized in ourselves, then this means that we have escaped the deadly and deadening grip of the machine (however temporarily), it means that we are delightfully and splendidly free from the machine…

 

 

Our usual situation, needless to say, is not to be splendidly free from the machine but to be dismally trapped in the machine without really understanding that we are. We might feel that we are trapped or confined or hemmed in, or that there is some kind of pressure on us, or we might experience a nagging sense that we haven’t done something as well as we should have done, or that we’ve messed up (or that we’re going to mess up) and these are all very characteristic symptoms of being trapped in the machine. We might go around with feeling that we’re not good enough until we do X,Y or Z, until we prove ourselves in some sort of way; we might find ourselves constantly comparing ourselves with other people, perceiving ourselves to be falling short in relation to other people (or perhaps doing better) and this is a sure sign of the machine up to its old tricks as well. Sometimes the oppressive and life-denying sensation of being imprisoned in ourselves or imprisoned in our own minds can become extremely explicit (and extremely vicious) and there is just no mistaking it – at such times we get the feeling that there is actually some kind of wall between us and the carefree life that we can see going on all around us.  It make for example make us feel like being trapped behind thick glass, able to see but not touch, able to observe from the outside but not ever participate.  We’re sealed off in some sort of sterile container, isolated and alienated from the rich flow of life. This is the clearest experience of what it feels like to be trapped in the mechanical mind!

 

 

For the most part however we don’t experience our essential ‘unfreeness’ anywhere nearly so clearly. We don’t even feel that we trapped at all! This oughtn’t to be surprising since we are unlikely to miss what we have never known. As Cristof, the writer and director of The Truman Show (in the film of the same name!) says – “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” The fact that for the most part we share a communal version of reality (which is just another way of saying that ‘we live in the same machine’, or that ‘we live in various Virtual Reality programmes created by this same machine’) reinforces this illusion that the world we understand and routinely interact with is the only possible reality, rather than being the arbitrarily limited artefact that it is. Generally speaking we don’t have the ability to perceive the nature of the machine that is defining our lives for us for the simple reason that in order to see it we would have to have some actual perspective, and actual perspective is the one thing that the machine does not provide.

 

 

Generally speaking, we just ‘make do’ – we just ‘get on with it’. We go along with the ride: we don’t really know why we’re going through what we’re going through, but rather we accept the machine’s explanation of it, and act and think accordingly, which just makes matters worse… When we are able to obey the machine’s rules we feel good and when we aren’t then we feel bad. Our emotional state oscillates up and down in accordance with how well we’re doing with regard to the task of doing whatever it is that the machine wants us to do at any given point in time. Our perception of our situation, and thus our perception of our own well-being, is determined by the machine and so – without realizing that this is what we are doing – we constantly have to please our mechanical overlord, the collection of dumb rules that govern whether we feel good or bad. And with the passing of time the constant ‘up and down’ of conditioned existence inevitably becomes more and more petty, more and more divorced from reality, more and more ridiculous, more and more meaningless. Our lives become smaller and smaller, because the machine-mind we are conforming to is small – so small in fact that it can’t really be said to occupy any space in reality whatsoever. Inasmuch as our loyalty is to ‘doing well within the game’, no matter how hollow and pointless that game may be, we are in this way denying and betraying our own true inherent nature, which is that of unbound consciousness. This state of affairs can therefore be said to be the root-source of all sorts of suffering. We don’t as a rule see that it is the source but it is. That this is so becomes ever clearer – as we have suggested earlier – as the suffering in question becomes more and more acute, and we might say that when the suffering escalates into fully-fledged neurosis then the game is really given away.

 

 

What is called ‘neurotic mental illness’ is unmistakeably a manifestation of what happens to our false mechanical nature when it gets too divorced from reality, when it gains so much power over us that the absurdity of the way in which we find ourselves thinking and behaving becomes too obvious to ignore any more, to obvious to rationalize any more. OCD is probably the most straightforward example of this – when OCD gets a grip on us it is as if it wants to make us into a machine! In obsessive compulsive disorder everything is about repeating rituals, repeating routines, with no regard whatsoever to what sense they might make, or how much suffering they might cause us. All I know is that my mind is telling me that something very bad, some sort of extreme calamity, is going to happen if I don’t do everything it wants me to do, down to the very last detail. And no matter how assiduously I obey it in its dictates I never get any reward for my compliance – all that happens is that it continually ‘ups the ante’ and gives me even more meaningless chores to complete, even more pointless hoops to jump through…

 

 

Then there is anxiety, in which the machine ‘goes for broke’ trying to achieve its dream of ‘total control’ (total control being what the machine likes more than anything else in the whole world) even though this is simply not a possibility in the ‘open-ended’ reality which we live in. As with OCD, the mind motivates us by threatening us mercilessly with all sorts of awful catastrophic outcomes, either of the specified or unspecified variety, which it assures us are going to befall us if we fail to establish control in the way that it demands we do. Given that control is an absolute impossibility in the real world (as we have said) all we can do is endure all these threats and do our level best to comply, even though it is a foregone conclusion that we will never succeed. So the machine-mind puts more and more pressure on us and we struggle harder and harder to do obey its orders, only because there isn’t a hope in hell that we’ll ever be able to do what it wants us to do because it was a ‘jinxed task’ right from the start. This is a 100% guaranteed recipe four pure, unmitigated suffering, therefore…

 

 

Perfectionism is pretty much the same sort of thing as anxiety only we don’t have this terrible paralysing dread that we aren’t going to be able to complete the tasks that we have to do. In perfectionism all task have to be completed to machine-like tolerances of accuracy or correctness and because of this lack of leeway we have to put a degree of energy and time into whatever it is that we’re doing that simply isn’t warranted by the job. We don’t fear that disaster will attend failure as is the case with OCD and anxiety but we will be extremely hard on ourselves if we don’t complete the task to the specification that the machine-mind has given us. Low self-esteem can of course be related to this business of setting ‘unrealistically high standards’ for ourselves and then punishing ourselves if we fall short of them – if I have low self-esteem then the way that this generally works is the machine-mind sets unforgiving standards for me which I need to meet if I am in any way to qualify for the status of a ‘half-way decent human being’! Since these standards are unrealistic (and since my perception of my ‘performance’ is generally distorted into the bargain) I never qualify to make even the most basic grade of being an OK sort of human being and so I consistently evaluate myself negatively. I constantly berate myself and recriminate against myself. I permanently go around under the cloud of being completely useless, a screw-up, a sad loser, a waste of space, etc…

 

 

Another neurotic disturbance of thinking and behaving that fit into this pattern –though it might not at first seem to – is addiction, either addiction to some sort of behaviour or addiction to a drug of some sort. An addictive pattern of behaviour is essentially a highly compulsive game – we start off in a deficit situation where we need whatever it is that we are addicted to, and then if we play our cards right (if we go about things in the right way and acquire what we need to acquire) we can correct this deficit, make good this deficit. Not correcting the deficit feels very bad, very painful, and successfully correcting it (which equals ‘winning at the game’) feels very pleasurable, very euphoric, and so this adds up to an extremely compulsive situation – a situation from which it is very hard to escape.

 

 

As a result of being caught up in the addiction my behaviour will degenerate or degrade into an extremely predictable (or mechanical) pattern – essentially I will just keep repeating the same basic routine over and over again, to the exclusion of anything more interesting, in a phenomenally persistent and awesomely tireless fashion, until some factor which is out of my control (like death) intervenes to stop me…

 

 

The state of manic elation is another mental health disturbance which does not at first seem to lend itself to the format we have been looking at. For one thing, it is usually a rather chaotic and confused sort a state and does not tend to produce the type of highly predictable ‘routine behaviours’ (‘stereotyped patterns of thinking and behaving’) that we have just been looking at. There is all the same an unmistakeably ‘machine-like’ element at work here – the main thrust of energy in manic elation goes not so much into the actual efficient execution of tasks but more into the planning of them, the thinking about them, the talking about them, and into generally going on ad nauseam about how great it’s going to be when it all happens. So it’s the process of formulating goals and ascribing tremendous value and importance to them, of putting immense belief in them (as if they are going to solve everything) that constitutes the main thrust of manic elation, rather than all the energy going into making sure that the specified outcome is correctly attained (as in perfectionism), or all the emphasis being put on how terrible the consequences will be if we somehow don’t get it right (which is anxiety).

 

 

Manic elation can be seen therefore as type of ‘reversed anxiety’ in that instead of being extremely lacking in confidence and suffering from negative anticipation with regard to the eventual outcome of our efforts, we are absurdly full of confidence and brimming over with the most preposterously unrealistic expectations about how great our powers are, and what we can achieve with them. Instead of grinding dysphoria, we experience extravagantly overflowing euphoria – but really the one experience is just the mirror-image (or inverse) of the other…

 

 

Finally, we could look at depression, and see how this condition fits into our scheme of things. Again, acute depression doesn’t at first seem to be a particularly ‘machine-like’ state of mind – it is after all characteristically passive – there are no typical behaviours as such, apart for the ‘withdrawal from all previous behaviours’. There are no stereotyped and frequently repeated patterns of thinking. It is true that with the onset of depression we tend to exhibit the behaviour of looking at things in a pessimistic, ‘glass-half-empty’ type of a way, and entertain crushingly negative evaluations of ourselves and our situation, but in acute clinical depression the negativity has a ‘felt’ quality rather than a merely rational one. I don’t so much keep telling myself that everything is terrible as much as I actually feel it.

 

 

Certain schools of thought do insist it is true that depression is prefigured by depressogenic schema (thought-patterns or beliefs) the actual experience of the thing is that the painful feelings well up from a very deep level, a level much deeper than that of our ideas and beliefs. Rational thought is just the icing on the cake really. We could therefore say that in the throes of deep depression we actually get pulled out of the numb little box of our rational mind into another realm entirely – a realm which until now our chattering rationality has allowed us to successfully avoid. We will almost certainly still adhere to fixed negative beliefs about ourselves, which will be articulated from time to time (less frequently as the depression sets in), but the most noticeable characteristic of acute depression is that the suffering can often be experienced by a sensitive observer (if one can be found) as a tangible field of emotional pain which is being radiated by the sufferer like heat from an electric bar heater. It can be felt by others, in other words. In other cases the sufferer simply shuts down and the feeling is one of profound blankness or withdrawal. In both cases depression is a still or quiet kind of affair, completely different from anxiety where there is a constant buzz of superficial mental activity which is actually creating the suffering.

 

 

But if this is the case – i.e. that depression is not a state of mind which is maintained by constant ‘depressogenic thinking’, a state of mind which is in fact ‘still’ rather than ‘busy’ – then how can we say that it is a manifestation (like all the other conditions we have been talking about) of the ‘machine’ subjugating and denying consciousness, reducing consciousness to the status of a very badly-treated slave? One interesting angle that we could take here in answering this question is to follow all the clues that the symptomology of the condition itself throws up, and which are to be found written up in any psychiatric text-book. Certain very characteristic ideas and feelings keep coming up – I might typically feel that I am a total phoney, a fraud, not a true human being at all. I might perceive myself to be a hollow shell of a person, utterly lacking in any genuine qualities. I might feel like an impostor or charlatan. I might feel that there is nothing good in me, or that what it in me is bad or rotten. I might experience, in a hugely painful way, my own smallness and unworthiness, I might experience the appalling narrowness of my concerns and interests, the utter lack of any genuine connectedness or participation in my life. I might feel that life has passed me by, that life has gone elsewhere…

 

 

Any rational-minded mental healthcare professional is bound to see all of this sort of stuff as being a pure ‘aberration of good sense’ – as a symptom of a disease, as a symptom of a malfunctioning brain. This is after all the prevailing medical paradigm, and aside from the fact that it is the prevailing paradigm, it is only natural for us to react by assuring the sufferer that none of these experiences are ‘true’ since we are likely to put ourselves in his or her position and, doing this, this we wouldn’t believe that these terrible ‘pseudo-insights’ could be true for us either. But the point we are making here is that all of these supposedly illness-driven insights are absolutely spot-on accurate for the mind-created self!  The conditioned self which is a construct of the machine-mind is fraudulent, is a hollow sham, is a mere empty futile shell. How can this be denied? The rational image that I have of myself is such a ridiculously limited sort of a thing that there is scarcely any more to it than a cheap advertising jingle that has been read off the back of a packet of breakfast cereal. It’s just as corny! It has absolutely nothing to do with who I really am, any more than a formulaic account of the Himalayas that we might read in the travel supplement of a Sunday newspaper has something to do with the real genuine mountain range! We might think that the two are related but they are not – the former is a ‘non-representative token’ of the latter, if we may put it like this. And in exactly the same way – as Alan Watts points out – the conventional mental picture or understanding that I have of myself is only an abstract token of who I really I am. This could not possibly be otherwise! The fact that I very rarely, if ever, see beyond this conventional understanding – and in fact use it as the exclusive basis for how I interact with others and with the world in general – constitutes therefore a truly astonishing limitation – a limitation that is entirely due to me tamely living my life within the abstract parameters that the machine-mind has created for me.

 

 

The inevitable consequence of falling for the story that the rational mind has told me (or that society has told me, which is the same thing) is that I have pretty much only ever been interested in, and concerned with, those crappy, unendingly trivial matters that the machine told me to be interested in, told me to be concerned with, and have hardly ever spent any time with those matters that really and truly do matter to me. Because of my enslavement by the machine, in other words, I have neglected what it truly important in my life! This is therefore an act of self-betrayal on a truly cosmic scale – to live the conditioned life is to deny the true self, and there are no two ways about this. This being the case therefore, why wouldn’t I feel bad about it? And if this is the case, how helpful is it in being told by ‘professionals’ that all of my painful feelings are purely the result of my brain not working correctly? If I listen to this sort of ‘reasonable talk’ am I not simply denying and betraying myself a second time?

 

 

We are not a psychologically subtle culture! On the contrary, we are from a psychological point of view extraordinarily obtuse – we suffer greatly from the inescapable side-effects of living life almost entirely on a rational basis and our response to this epidemic of neurosis is to bring even more rationality to bear on the ‘problem’. We try to use the machine to cure the mental malaise that the unwise over-use of the machine caused in the first place!

 

 

It is as if we are overly dependent on the use of pharmaceutical drugs to moderate our moods and feelings and these drugs themselves prove to have the unwanted side-effect of causing additional unpleasant states of mind for us, which we then try to remedy with ‘new improved’ forms of medication! The cure for disturbances that are caused by interfering too much with ourselves is clearly not to interfere even more, but to cease the pestilential and ill-advised interference altogether…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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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