The sense of familiarity which we experience about things (about ourselves, or about the world) is an artefact which is created by the way in which we control or regulate our perception and understanding of the world without any acknowledgement of the fact that there is any control or regulation taking place.
If we didn’t covertly control how we perceive and understand the world, then there wouldn’t be any sense of familiarity, and contrariwise, the undeniable fact that we do experience a sense of familiarity about ourselves and the world shows that we are ‘secretly in control of the ‘reality’ which we are experiencing’, even though we don’t feel this to be the case. In a nutshell, when we ourselves write the script, then there is this ‘sense of familiarity’, and when we do not, then there is not this sense – not even the slightest trace of it…
What this sense of familiarity about ‘being in the world’ – which we have just about all of the time – means is that we must already know all about it. We know all about ‘what it means to be in the world’ – it doesn’t come as a surprise to us. This however cannot possibly be the case – how can we possibly know all about life, how can it possibly be that we aren’t surprised by it? Were we expecting it? Is it all just ‘a matter of course’? How do we possibly manage to be so blasé? The answer is of course that we get to be so familiar with the fact that we are alive, that we are in the world, that there is this thing called ‘being alive’ or ‘being in the world’, by creating a very narrow and limited version of it, which we then substitute for the real thing…
This is an absolutely outrageous idea – too outrageous to be taken seriously. It is like Gurdjieff’s assertion that we are all asleep, that we are all unconscious. As soon as someone says this to us (in the unlikely event that they are going to) we feel instantaneous indignation and incredulity – how could anyone suggest such a ridiculous thing? How could anyone insult us in this way? We immediately check to see if we are asleep, to see if we are ‘unconscious’, and straightaway we find that of course we are not any such thing. We know for sure that we are completely awake, completely conscious, and we also know therefore that the person concerned is talking utter nonsense! The idea that we have – without knowing that we have done so – ‘replaced reality with a tame, toothless version of the same’, something that isn’t reality at all but a poor copy, invites a similar degree of indignation and incredulity. Of course we have done no such thing – of course we are living in ‘the real world’, not in some pale or watered-down simulation thereof…
It is certainly the case that we are not aware of any such substitution having taken place, but then again, if the real world has been replaced by a ‘safe, substitute version’ then we are hardly going to know about it. If all we know is the simulation, then how we going to know that the simulation is only a simulation? What would we have to go on? As the director of the Truman Show Cristof (in the 1998 film The Truman Show) says when asked at the end of the film why Truman Burbank never suspected that his entire life was stage-managed, that his friends and relations were all actors paid to play the roles, that his environment was controlled, and so on, he replies “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.”
Seeing as the world that we are presented with is the only world we know (necessarily so, since the ‘presented world’ excludes any other world because if it didn’t then it couldn’t function as ‘a world’) we do not have any other yardstick to use other than this simulated world, and the yardstick in question is of course going to agree with itself, since all yardsticks, all standards, all templates always agree with themselves. Whoever heard of a standard that didn’t agree with itself? This means that we could be presented with any reality and – on the basis of that reality – we are not going to be able to question that same reality. Even the thought of questioning the reality is going to seem ridiculous to us. So the argument that of course we are not living in a simulated reality just doesn’t hold any water at all – it’s simply a knee-jerk reaction. When we check up to see if the world in which we live is the real thing or simply a simulation we use the world that we live in as the measuring stick or standard by which to carry out this evaluation and the result of this evaluation is therefore always going to come back in the affirmative. We are always going to find out that we are indeed living in the real world!
This is like asking a person who has a very strongly held belief whether their belief is in fact true or not – because they think that what they believe to be true is true (this being the nature of belief!) they are going to compare their belief with their belief and the answer is always going to come back that it is indeed true. The belief always agrees with itself. A prejudiced man is always going to agree with his prejudices – if he didn’t then we could hardly call him prejudiced! If I agree with my biases (which I will do because I’ve got nothing else apart from my biases to go on) then I won’t see my biases to be biases – I won’t actually see them at all since I am using them as the basis for seeing everything. I won’t see my biases, and yet these invisible biases are going to be the basis for everything I know about the world…
This also applies to the question “How do I know that I am awake and not dreaming that I am awake?” Since all we know is the dream-state this is of course what we are going to call ‘being awake’. Since all we know is the dream we are going to take dreaming as the standard, we are naturally going to take dreaming to mean ‘being awake’ and so the question is going to seem stupid. For us, dreaming is being awake. Dreaming is the substitute for being awake – it is the surrogate for being awake, the analogue of being awake. Surrogacy means that ‘it does the same job’, or that ‘it fulfils the same role’, even though it’s not the same thing.
And yet there is – as we have said – a way that we can know that we are having to make do with the surrogate, with the analogue in place of the real thing and that has to do with the fact that we almost always experience a sense of familiarity with regard to this business of being alive, this business of actually ‘existing’. We get out of bed in the morning and go to make ourselves a cup of tea or coffee or whatever, and this doesn’t seem particularly strange to us. We don’t (or at least very, very rarely!) wake up and think “Wow! I exist!!” On the contrary, when we wake up we slip straight into a comfortable (or sometimes uncomfortable) routine – it’s all a ‘repeat performance’, we’ve done it all many, many times. It’s a routine. It’s our morning routine (or our ‘getting up’ routine) and after this routine is done with then there’s plenty more to be getting on with! There’s the next routine after this, and then the next, and the next, and the next, until we finally get to our ‘going to bed’ routine…
It’s not just ‘what we do during the course of the day’ that’s a routine – it is our way of thinking about things that is routine. Because our way of thinking about things (our way of understanding what the world is, our way of understanding what ‘being in the world’ means) is routine (i.e. is ‘a fixed pattern’, or is ‘an established system’) this means that everything that comes out of it is bound to be a routine too. Newness can never come out of a routine, no matter how many times we repeat it! The regular can never give birth to the irregular; the rule can never give rise to something that is not the rule. A logical model or simulation can never give rise to something that is not the model, that is not the simulation. If there was newness, if there was the irregular or the unique, if there was something that was not the tired old rule, then there would be no more ‘sense of familiarity’!
We ought to know that ‘something isn’t right’ just because everything seems so familiar, so normal, so unremarkable. How could everything seem familiar? How could it all seem so unremarkable? This in itself is enough to provide us with a clue that there is some kind of funny business going on. There is absolutely no way that life should seem like a familiar, routine, matter-of-fact kind of a thing to us. That just plain isn’t right! That only goes to show that what we call ‘living’ isn’t living at all. It goes to show that what we call ‘living’ isn’t the real deal – it’s not living, it’s something else that passes for living!
Joseph Campbell speaks of the Hero’s Journey, which essentially consists of moving out of what Campbell calls ‘the playpen’ (which is the safe and secure everyday world that we construct for ourselves, and then normalize so that it seems like the only reality there ever could be) into a world that is not safe and secure, a world that we have not constructed for ourselves. According to Campbell, each one of us receives – at some point in our lives – the call to venture out of this safe ‘consensus reality’ (which is by its very nature standardized and predictable) into the ‘other world’ – the world that doesn’t obey the rules we take for granted, the world that according to official sources doesn’t actually exist. This other world is the world we hear of in myths and fairytales – it is magical, eerie, mysterious, full of both strange wonders and unfamiliar dangers. Whatever we have learned in the everyday world of common experience is no good to us here and so we have to start afresh, not relying on tricks or strategies or knowledge that may have served us in our previous life. Thus, when the devious and lazy daughter in the story of Mother Hulda tries to replicate the magical good fortune of the good-hearted and hard-working step-daughter things don’t work out for her so well at all! The good-hearted step-daughter (who as usual is the mistreated and over-worked one in the story) falls down a well and enters a magical world and encounters the figure of Mother Hulda, and after going through a number of experiences in this world returns covered with gold, whilst the favoured daughter (who tries to scam it and get some gold for herself) enters into the magical world as planned but after trying to trick her way through all the tests she emerges from the well covered by black, sticky pitch instead of gold.
As is always the case in fairy stories, cleverness, cunning and arrogance do not go down well in the magical realm, whereas innocent good-heartedness (which is not a strategy, and cannot be faked) always stands one in good stead in the trials that lie ahead. Spontaneity is the key, not rational calculation! Unfortunately for us however, we have neglected and abused our spontaneity (which is the same thing as our creativity) because it cannot be relied upon to ‘tow the party line’. We could also say that it is the ‘childlike’ part of ourselves that does well in the magical realm (the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ side of us, the ‘Cinderella’ side of us) not the sophisticated adult part, which is always coming at things in the ‘considered’ or ‘calculated’ type of a way that inevitably renders its actions fundamentally insincere. It is the child in us that saves us, even though we have long since abandoned this child…
According to Joseph Campbell then, if we heed the call to adventure and venture out of the safe consensus reality into the perilous unknown, then this constitutes the Hero’s Journey. There are no guarantees that this journey will work out well for us, and this is of course precisely what makes it into the Hero’s Journey, and not a safely predetermined and predictable sort of a journey! If we survive the rigours and tests of this journey then we return (as all the myths and fairy stories tell us) with something very precious – we return with some magical treasure or weapon, or the hand of a Princess (or Prince) in marriage, or with a vial of the Elixir of Immortality, or something like this. Brought back to the everyday world, this treasure has a transformative (or redemptive) property for everyone. Without a hero to bring back this type of treasure or healing elixir there would be no hope for us at all – we would be doomed to stagnate in the midst of all of our much-valued ‘safety’ and eventually perish altogether. The everyday, rule-based world cannot save itself – neither can it produce anyone within it capable of the necessary redeeming action. This redeeming or healing action can only be performed by someone who has made the Hero’s Journey, and not only made it, but returned from it too.
If on the other hand we refuse the call, then as Joseph Campbell relates here the grand adventure is ‘converted into its negative’ –
Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or ‘culture,’ the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless—even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire or renown. Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his minotaur. All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration.
If we refuse the call then by going for the safe option rather than stepping out into a bigger world then it could be said that we have turned our back on what is best in us. More than this, we have turned out back on the chance of genuine growth that this call represented. Without the possibility of such growth, the endeavour of life itself fails – though this is unlikely be apparent to us until much later on. We may not realize that we have missed the opportunity until much later on, or we may not ever be directly aware of it at all. If I turn my back on ‘the hero inside myself’ then it is not just this (potential) hero I have betrayed but my own true self since I am not ‘the one who plays it safe’, ‘the one who sticks to the tried-and-trusted way’, the ‘one who always does what is expected of him’, and so on. I am not that person at all and so the person I truly am doesn’t get to be born. ‘Who I truly am’ is the Hero, and the ‘Hero’s Journey’ that Joseph Campbell is talking about is nothing other than life itself…
E.F. Schumacher talks about the convenient philosophy that regards being an acorn as something glorious and inspirational in itself, and thus an end in itself, which from the point of view of an acorn which fears change (and pretends therefore that it has already arrived at the end of the journey) is a very comforting doctrine. And yet – as we all know very well – an acorn is not ‘an end in itself’ and the ‘acorn’s journey’ is not yet over. In fact that journey hasn’t even begun yet! As Schumacher says:
Our ordinary mind always tries to persuade us that we are nothing but acorns and that our greatest happiness will be to become bigger, fatter, shinier acorns; but that is of interest only to pigs. Our faith gives us knowledge of something better: that we can become oak trees.
Verse 70 from the Gospel of Thomas is also significant in this context. In this verse Jesus says,
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
In the collusion of fear within which we all live, ‘bringing forth what is within you’ is not something that is looked upon very favourably! The truth is that we are all terrified of bringing forth what is within us, and we deal with this fear by pretending that we already have brought it forth! We evade this fear by inventing all sorts of phoney endeavours and complicated pseudo-tasks for ourselves – we get around facing our fear by inventing a plethora of empty games, in other words. These games don’t mean a thing but we act as if they do and we bestow all sorts of prizes and honours for those who do well in them. We base our feeling of well-being on them, our feeling of ‘how well we’re doing in life’. Society is full of such decoys – it is packed full to the brim with diversions and distractions and red-herrings of one sort or another, all of which come with the promise of something good at the end of them if we master the rules of the game. What this all means is that we get rewarded for conforming, rather than for venturing forth into the unknown. We are accorded recognition and status and privileges for towing the party line, not for speaking our own truth – in fact the more we turn our backs on our own truth the better we are going to fare in the fear-based social system!
Joseph Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ of the Hero’s Journey can be understood on many levels. We can think on the level of society as a whole and the way in which our culture has been enriched over the centuries by a small number of mathematicians, scientists, writers, artists, etc who dared to go beyond the bounds of what was considered ‘legitimate territory’ and returned with new ways of looking at the world. Such free thinkers were rarely appreciated during their lifetimes – at the time their contributions to the field would generally be considered perversely wrong-headed, if not actually inspired by the devil himself. Georg Cantor, the father of set theory, ‘the man who tamed infinity,’ was denounced by his fellow mathematicians for (amongst other crimes) ‘being a corruptor of youth’. Theologians castigated him for daring to encroach on infinity, which was the proper province of God alone. And yet the great mathematician David Hillman called Cantor’s work on Set Theory “The finest product of mathematical genius and one of the supreme achievements of purely intellectual human activity”. He also honoured Cantor by saying, “No one shall expel us from the Paradise that Cantor has created”.
Nikolai Tesla, the inventor of the AC power supply, died in poverty and obscurity, despite being spoken as one of the greatest scientists and inventors of all time (and is still widely unheard of, despite the fact that we use AC electricity every day). Charles Darwin was pretty much ignored when he brought out The Origin of Species, and subjected to ridicule later on (and is still ridiculed by Creationists to this day!) Alan Turing, the Father of Computing, was driven to suicide by the establishment. James Joyce had to leave Ireland because of the way he was treated there and live in France, but is now an official national hero whose name is celebrated up and down the country. Vincent van Gogh lived in poverty and sold only one of his paintings during the course of his life, yet now it is necessary be a multimillionaire to even think of buying a van Gogh. As James Gleick reports in his book Chaos, the research of the early pioneers of Chaos Theory (such as Edward Lorenz and Benoit Mandelbrot) was widely ignored or derided by the scientific community and was only reluctantly acknowledged after the weight of evidence grew too great to dismiss.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that most the great ideas or works of art throughout human history came from those who would have been consider eccentrics, misfits, nonconformists or outsiders during their lives and it is not hard to see why this should be so. The way all social systems work is that we trust only those who look like us, talk like us, and think like us, and so how are we ever going to take favourably to those who blatantly deviate from the norm? The only way a social group gets to be a group in the first place is by excluding those who do not adhere to the group norms, by excluding those who are ‘different’, so of course we are going to reject anyone who comes up with something that is not consistent with the official version of reality. The group-mind always operates by ‘agreeing on what is real’ and then rejecting (or punishing) anyone who disagrees with this definition – it has no other way of functioning. By collectively agreeing on what is real (by colluding on a reality tunnel) we reinforce the deadening sense of familiarity pervading everything to the nth degree and at the same time we make ‘the unfamiliar’ more dangerous, more threatening, more suspect, more frightening than ever…
The Hero’s Journey could also be taken to mean any major life-event that takes us outside the range of normal experience, so that we can no longer ‘check in’ with others, compare notes with others, compete with others, commiserate with others, and so on. When something like this happens to us we are suddenly ‘on our own’, we have fallen right off the map as far as consensus reality is concerned and so from this point on we have to go it alone in the face of who knows what dangers or difficulties. The terror we collectively feel in relation to this possibility is made evident by the way in which society has always shunned people who can’t help being different, either physically or mentally, by the way in which we have always tended to stigmatize those who have obviously been barred from leading what is considered a normal life by their illness or condition. Collectively speaking, we experience pure superstitious dread when faced with this possibility and so we all join together in ‘casting out the afflicted’! And yet it is only by being ‘cast out’ – one way or another – that we can begin our own genuine journey, rather than being stuck in the ‘phoney journey’ which is the collectively-validated path of officially-recognized life-experiences. As Gurdjieff says, we have to get off the public transport (which only goes to collectively-validated destinations) and find a vehicle of own to drive about in.
The ‘Hero’s Journey’ could also apply to any time that we step outside of our thinking mind and see what happens when we meet life as it is, rather than experiencing life in the format that our mind presents it to us, which is ‘the way we want it to be’. The Hero’s Journey is life ‘as it is in itself’ and this is the very ground under our feet (it is where we actually are the whole time) and yet at every moment we somehow manage to side-step this essential non-negotiable reality and involve ourselves instead in the mind-created fabrication of reality, the surrogate or analogue version of reality.
We hide within the curtain of false familiarity that is created for us by the thinking mind, even though hiding behind this curtain denies the reality of who we actually are. When we step out from behind this suffocating curtain on the other hand, then this is when our journey truly begins…
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.