The idea of the ‘theatrical triumph’ provides us with an excellent way of understanding the false self. A theatrical triumph, we could say, is where I win a completely inferior replica of the real prize (whatever that is) and at the same time I undergo a ‘loss of consciousness’ which makes this victory seem real to me. A very straightforward way of talking about this process is in terms of a degradation of information: suppose that I am presented with some sort of intractable logical problem – or rather, with a situation which is not actually a problem at all but which I see as a problem because I want to logically analyse it, or manipulate it in some way so that it suits me better. Because I am fundamentally unwilling to see the utterly intractable (or impossible) nature of what I am trying to do, I solve the mess by oversimplifying the whole thing, so that the problem will become something that can in fact be logically understood and solved.
Now it cannot just happen that only the problem is conveniently oversimplified, the solver of the problem also has to be oversimplified at the same time. Both the perceiver and the world that is perceived become degraded in terms of information content – it has to be the case that both are rendered in a correspondingly crude manner since subject and object are the two poles of the very same information-processing system. Because both the perceiver and the perceived are informationally degraded to exactly the same degree, the relationship between the two can continue in a ‘crudely analogous’ manner, and for this reason the loss of information goes completely unnoticed. No matter how cataclysmic is the ‘crash’ (or ‘fall’, to use a more religious and less information processing -orientated term), I will continue about my business just as if nothing had happened, totally unable to spot the difference. This is exactly the same thing as having amnesia but not knowing it, since I cannot (after the event) remember that I have forgotten…
If you have more than a passing familiarity with classical thermodynamics you might at this point start to make a connection with that abstract quantity known as entropy (or S). What do we know about entropy? Well, for a start we know (as the Second Law tells us) that within all closed systems it has a tendency to increase inexorably. Secondly, we know that a change in the entropy content of a system occurs in reciprocal proportion to the change in the information content (W), so that when S increases W decreases. Putting these two together, we see that we have a recipe for an endless series of informationally degraded worlds, and a natural process which moves automatically in this direction. It is well known that when the second law of thermodynamics became widely known at the beginning of the twentieth century, it gave rise to a fair amount of doom-mongering among those who were actively inclined towards pessimism, and dismay amongst those more passively inclined. The concept that got some people worried was known as ‘the heat death of the universe’, which was seen as the terminal goal of all physical processes – the state of absolute predictability. But if folks found that a depressing fate to contemplate, it is just as well that they never got to grips with the corresponding law as it applies to the mental universe as opposed to the physical one. This parallel law predicts an irreversible increase in the entropy content of the subjective ‘inner world’, which is of course a function of how we perceive and construct the supposedly objective ‘outer world’. The law of increasing mental entropy (ψS) indicates our inexorable progress towards a truly grim fate, a sort of terminal but non-terminating mental heat death which exists because I am mentally dead but unable to realize it.
Curiously, it was at more or less the same time that Boltzmann and Carnot gave birth to the science of thermodynamics that George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff started espousing (to those that would listen) his forbiddingly dire view of the basic human predicament. The picture that Gurdjieff wanted us to envisage is extraordinarily appalling, by anyone’s standards: as time goes on, through no particular fault of our own, we are destined to become ever more mechanical and deterministically driven, whilst becoming all the while correspondingly incapable of appreciating our fate. I become an inferior version of myself, and then, as the process continues, I become an inferior version of the inferior version, and so on and so forth, with no actual end to the series in sight. The process of life itself has been hijacked by the psychological equivalent to the law of entropy, because whilst our goal (our final destination) seems good to us, in reality we have left the main road a long time ago and are now heading for thermodynamic ruin. We have lost everything, whilst imagining the whole time – in our stupidity – that we are gaining…
If this general sort of an idea seems strange, we need only consider what happens when, for ‘recreational’ purposes, we use or abuse that most acceptable of social drugs, alcohol. When I get drunk, what I am actually doing is exchanging myself for a cruder (or less subtle) copy of myself. This cruder copy of myself interacts enthusiastically with the cruder copies of my drinking partners, and if all goes well, we all have a laugh. We all have a great time! This is really a sort of ‘virtual party’, therefore – it’s a party that takes place in the crude virtual reality that we have created for ourselves. Because we have over-simplified life (and ourselves) there is going to be a pay-off, and this pay-off comes in the form of euphoria, which can be explained by saying that it is a sort of satisfaction that is not actually based on reality, but our oversimplified version of reality. Another way to put it is to say that euphoria is the good feeling that I get from believing in my own bullshit. Everyone knows that this is the basic deal with alcohol intoxication, because we have all seen the difference between someone we know who is drunk, and the same person when not under the influence. It is for this reason that having a laugh with some mates whilst pissed only works if they too are pissed too – we are all equally drunk and we are all equally ‘informationally degraded’, and so no one spots the difference. In general, wherever we are mindful enough to notice that we are experiencing euphoria, then we know for sure that we have gained in mental (or ‘psychological’) entropy. Needless to say, this is not actually a pleasant thing to know; in fact an accurate insight into what psychological entropy is all about is the ideal antidote to the false equanimity that euphoria induces.
Euphoria is far more built-in to our everyday lives than we might think – it is the basic currency that we all trade in – after all, people do not really value money, they value the euphoria that they get from possessing or spending it. It is not necessary to be an alcoholic or a crack-head in order to be addicted to euphoria because every time we attain a goal, or avoid an anti-goal, we get a little (or not so little) dose of the stuff. In fact, the extent to which we obey extrinsic motivation (fear and desire) is the extent to which we are addicted to euphoria. Saying that we are addicted to euphoria is just another way of saying that we are conditioned; after all, the conditioned state of being is where we obey extrinsic rules without realizing that we are obeying extrinsic rules, and the reason we obey the rules is because we feel comfortable if we do and uncomfortable if we don’t. ‘Comfortable’ equals euphoria – euphoria is the reward we receive when we successfully obey our conditioning, so to speak.
When we follow our conditioning (without of course ever suspecting that this is what we are doing) then we incur psychological entropy, and ‘incurring entropy’ means that we do not know that we are incurring entropy! When we stick to the tracks that are laid down for us then we get the feeling that we are heading somewhere legitimate but the whole time we are heading closer and closer towards a fate the horror of which we are sublimely unable to appreciate. Whilst the projected ‘heat-death of the universe’ was seen to be something that occurred during the course of the lifetime of the universe, the equivalent ‘mental death’ of the individual takes place during the lifetime of that individual, which obviously makes it infinitely more urgent. Worrying about the end of the universe is a complete red herring; that isn’t the problem at all – the real predicament is much more immediate and personal than that. If there is one thing that is clear from the teachings of esoteric psychology, it is that if we obey only the dictates of extrinsic motivation, then we are bound to move downwards on the entropic ‘slippery slope’, becoming in the process more and more diminished, less and less what we really are. Eventually, unless something happens to wake us up with a jolt from our dream journey to nowhere, we become like ghosts, shades of who we were, hollow and futile dwellers in the suburbs of unreality.
CAUGHT UP IN A ‘MODEL UNIVERSE’
We can make the connection to the subject of the extrinsic self, which is the topic of this chapter, by saying that the fundamental ‘gain’ inherent in the theatrical victory is the self. Paradoxically, the self is the result of self-deception – it is what I obtain when I lose information, and also lose the ability to know that anything has been lost. A virtual entity is created, a ‘me’ that doesn’t know it is unreal. It seems like a strange way to put it, but the self is an emblem of psychological entropy, it is the visible mark or insignia of the downward force of ψ S. Psychological entropy, when you get right down to it, is the exact same thing as ‘self-deception’ – I am subject to a loss of perspective (an information collapse) which I cannot see, since the amount of perspective I have lost is the amount I would need in order to see that I have lost it. When I move down the entropic slope, the product of this descent is the illusory self, which seems to us like a positive sort of a thing. From this point onwards what we have is an informationally degraded (or simplified) subject that relates to a world of correspondingly simplified objects, i.e. what we have is a finite self in a finite world.
To repeat a point that we have made a number of times now, where the deception (or ‘unreality’) comes in is because this over-simplification is not acknowledged: the virtual self does not see how small it is, and neither does it perceive how small the virtual world is within which it exists. Therefore, any attainments that are made within this world are not seen for what they are (i.e. essentially null), but as genuinely meaningful gains. For this reason, I am able to feel satisfied with my lot, for a while at least. There are many ways in which we can illustrate this principle but a good, basic one would be as follows. Suppose I have a hobby which involves reconstructing famous historical battles using model soldiers, equipment etc. It goes without saying that to some degree or other I am going to get obsessively absorbed in this pursuit; that is the whole point really – if I didn’t take my replica world seriously then I wouldn’t go to the trouble of constructing it in the first place. The satisfaction that I am getting derives from the fact that I am the master of my miniature universe, I am totally in control and I can get things to be exactly the way I want them to be. I can – if I am willing to put in the effort – get things to be exactly right. Getting things to be exactly the way I want them to be (which means defeating all outside interference’) is the attractor, the promise that leads us on and on. This is ‘the thrill of optimization’.
The ‘ideally optimal state’ is a satisfaction that I definitely cannot obtain from the real universe because it is just too multiplex. In the real universe, a gain in one place is always (in the end) counterbalanced by a corresponding loss somewhere else; in other words if I get one bit ‘right’ then as sure as anything another bit is going to go ‘wrong’ sooner or later. It is all swings and roundabouts. Because I cannot win my battle on this stage then I choose a smaller field on which to fight it, and in the process of sorting out all the details on the small stage I find that I start taking it all very seriously. I don’t have to pretend that it matters, it really does matter, and the reason for this is because I have lost perspective without knowing it.
The force of the compulsion inherent in this can be seen quite readily – if you come along and interfere in some sort of inept way (and when it comes down to it any intervention other than my own is bound to be inept) then I am going to experience a huge amount of irritation with you. The degree of vexation that I feel is a measure of the compulsiveness inherent in my informationally collapsed ‘virtual universe’; the rule here is that extrinsic motivation substitutes for intrinsic motivation. Basically, the unfree force of compulsion substitutes for genuine (or ‘free’) interest, but as long as I am able to act out the compulsion I do not see that my motivation is unfree. This sort of thing happens every time that I get really taken up in some issue, with the result that I effectively forget or ignore all other (irrelevant) considerations. This means that the goal in question becomes brutally and senselessly compulsive because it was those other, irrelevant considerations which gave me perspective on what I was doing. The formula is simple: ‘disconnected’ equals maximized compulsion!
WELCOME TO KEN AND BARBIE LAND
Now it is true that most of us do not indulge in the particular type of deliberately engineered obsessive involvement in model building that we have just discussed. Spending hour after hour painting miniature figures and painstakingly arranging them in intricately designed scenarios probably seems rather eccentric, if not downright nuts. But we should beware of laughing too loud at such anachronistic pursuits because in this modern microelectronic era we do exactly the same thing with PC games and the like. The thrill that leads us on to get better and better at adapting to an unreal fantasy is the same thrill of optimization – the theoretical end point is where we get infinitely skilful at doing something that is infinitely meaningless.
And even if we don’t spend all our time playing computer games, we ought not to be too quick to congratulate ourselves because the fact of the matter is that almost all of us end up being experts at playing some meaningless game (and all games are by definition meaningless outside of their own frame of reference). In order to try to support this bold assertion let us take as an example a hypothetical couple who have met shortly after graduating at college, who have found suitable jobs, have bought a house and are now settling down to make a life together. What could be a nicer and more wholesome story? Wouldn’t we all like to see this happen for our sons or daughters? Yet within this apparently innocuous scenario are hidden the seeds of the ghastly entropic process that we have been talking about in the last few pages. Okay, so we all have to get a job of some sort, and buy or rent a house to live in. Furthermore, there is hardly anything wrong with settling down with a partner and perhaps starting a family. The trouble begins however when we lazily slip into the comfortable way of thinking which says that these steps constitute in themselves the correct and right way to live life. In other words, we assume that if we meet these easily defined (i.e. external) goals then we have cracked the problem and can relax. The all-pervasive social world which we inhabit is of course superlatively good at providing convenient milestones which we can use to measure our progress against, and this is in fact what most of us do, either to our dismay or satisfaction.
In addition to the big milestones there are also innumerable lesser milestones, each one of these, when attained, create a whole range of minor choices that have to be attended to, so-called ‘lifestyle options’ that we can select between. Put all of this together and it can be seen that there is precious little time for anything else, and anyway, even if we did want to do something else the chances are that this would turn out to be another pre-packaged life-style option just like all the rest). The end result of all this is a perfect example of oversimplification – life has been oversimplified so much that it has ended up not so very different (in principle anyway) from the task of filling in a colouring book using an assortment of crayons. Needless to say, no one you talk to is going have much truck with this idea. After all, the impression that we like to give about ‘modern living’ is that is so complicated, so stressful and so demanding (and by implication so much more sophisticated and creative than the old-fashioned type of life) that it is a wonder we are able to keep up with it at all. The irony is that it is this collective sense of our own cleverness that causes us to be so blasé about life as to assume all that we have to do in order to ‘get it’ is to follow a bunch of tawdry social rules and precedents.
The reality of our situation is that we are all colluding in playing a sort of real-life Ken and Barbie game, where all we want is to have the right accessories, the right hair styles, the right curtains, the right friends, and so on and so forth. If we fail at this cruel game we feel bad – we feel ourselves to be failures if we don’t own the right accessories, if we aren’t able to buy the lifestyle we want. ‘Body-fascism’ comes into it as well because I might not be thin enough or beautiful enough to be Barbie and I might not be casually macho enough to be Ken. If I am disabled or perhaps suffering from some incurable illness then I am definitely ‘out’ – whoever heard of a disabled Ken or a terminally ill Barbie? In all such cases I feel the sting of exclusion, the painful pang of ‘not belonging’.
But the real sting comes for those who are able to play the game successfully (to some extent or other) because when we do get the game right then we truly are up shit creek without a paddle. In this case, I really am stitched up like the proverbial kipper because the one thing I am not going to want to do is to doubt my theatrical success, not when I have put so much effort and time into achieving it. Even when in the depths of black depression, I am still loath to see my ‘prize possessions’ for what they are, cheap and banal trinkets obtained at a terrible price. As someone has remarked, when you are on your deathbed, then at that time your expensive stereo system will proceed to mock you, along with your wide-screen TV, your fancy car, and all the rest of the stuff that you have accumulated…
THE NEUROSIS SPECTRUM
Particularly instructive examples of success that is purely ‘theatrical’ are provided by the common neurotic conditions. What is special about these instances of theatricality is that they are much more visible than socially validated theatricality, by virtue of the fact that they are so patently absurd. When face to face with such cases we shake our heads sadly in frank incomprehension. What can one say in the face of madness? We can see that the person concerned is unconsciously indulging in self-deception, in that the reality they are relating to is a grossly distorted version of the reality we can all see. Yet it could be said that socially validated instances of theatricality (or ‘game-playing’) are just as absurd when it comes down to it – we are all playing a game which we do not acknowledge to be a game. When children play cops and robbers they know that it is just a game, but when we play ‘society’ with all its peculiar and nonsensical rules we actually take it very seriously indeed. The difference here therefore is simply that the ‘collective absurdity’ of our endeavour is disguised by sheer force of numbers, i.e. there is a universal collusion going on which makes it very hard to question. There is one more difference that stands out – when we delude ourselves in the way that is demanded of us by society, the game that ensues may be cruel at times, but it is rarely life-threatening.
In the case of neurotic ‘mental illness’ the unacknowledged game-playing (which is to say, the inner conflict) is taken to the extreme, and the result of this is that the suffering escalates to a tremendous degree. To put it another way, in the theatricality of the social game we can still manage to ignore the unwanted consequences of our mental one-sidedness, but the whole point about out-and-out neurosis is that the short-term gain (i.e. the psychological ‘pay-off’) is so obviously not worth it in comparison to the horrendous long-term cost, that we stand a good change of actually seeing this. In the social game (which is a ‘collective neurosis’), we stand very little chance of gaining insight into the way we have been ‘duped by the system’. Our ‘triumph’ is too believable to us, and we consistently manage to avoid seeing the price that we have to pay for it. If what we have just been saying doesn’t make sense, then we can perhaps rectify this by taking an over-view of all the various neurotic states of mind. This will necessary be a very sketchy portrait as regards any one particular condition, but what we are trying to get at here is the idea that there is a basic strand that runs through them all.
PLEASURABLE OBSESSIVE STATES
We can arrange all neurotic conditions in a spectrum starting with mania and pleasurable obsessions and addictions, moving on to unpleasant obsessions, anorexia and obsessive compulsive disorder, and then finally on to anxiety and depression. At the start of this series we encounter conditions which are characterised by activity that is positively goal-orientated – we have a goal which we are fixated upon, which seems perfectly attainable, and which we are very preoccupied with pursuing. In some cases of ‘mania’ we believe in the goal (and the possibility of realizing the goal) so strongly that it is as if we are more or less continuously basking in our success. We feel good even before we achieve our goals; so confident are we that in our heads the goal is already attained as soon we think of it – we are continually wallowing in our sense of success, delighting over and over again in the pleasurable anticipation of our wishes. What we have here is the ‘euphoric zone’ of neurosis where there are no obvious snags or problems; this is like a beautiful lagoon where we can – so it seems – play in perfect safety; there are no painful sea urchins that we might step on, no poisonous jelly-fish to sting us, and no sharks to bite us, only glorious blue water to swim in and clean, fine white sand to walk on.
A distinction can be made between ‘mania’, which can be understood as the state of generalised euphoria (i.e. just thinking about any goal is enough to create excitement or pleasure) and the addictions, which obviously tend to be more specific in nature – which is to say, only certain goals will do the job. What is more, in the case of the addictions it is not enough merely to think about the goal (although this might produce a modicum of titillation), the actual proper ‘hit’ is dependent upon hitting the right spot with the right key. Addiction makes us both very focussed, and very efficient at obtaining whatever it is we are addicted to; when I am in the grip of mania my energy tends to be a lot more dispersed and often I achieve very little in terms of any real practical outcome.
Addictions are positively goal-orientated, to be sure, but already a potential snag has entered the picture, which is the disagreeable prospect of what will happen if the all-important need is not met. This is in contrast to the pure manic state of mind where there is simply no conception of failure. Furthermore, there is always the possibility of serious doubt in the background regarding the legitimacy of what I am doing – this doubt may disappear at times but it is always out there somewhere, waiting in the wings. At these times I have a clear insight into the wretched unfree nature of my way of life, and there is no way at all in which I can feel good about it. Increasing insight is a sure sign that we are moving away from the ‘maximised feel-good’ realm of pure unadulterated euphoria – the power which we have to escape reality with impunity is on the wane.
Anorexia can be fitted into this portion of the neurosis spectrum too since it is in essence an addiction to control, the control in question being the control of weight and calorie intake. Anorexia is a strongly goal-orientated condition in which one is very much under the sway of an obviously false kind of purposefulness, and the rather precarious good feeling that comes with it. The purposeful behaviour associated with anorexia can be said to be ‘obviously false’ because of its grim and lifeless nature – no matter what I engage in it all tends to be part of the all-important ‘supreme goal’, the goal of losing weight. I can undertake all kinds of projects, but the energy behind these endeavours is the energy of denial – a show which exists merely to cover up what is truly going on. I am fighting against some kind of unwanted awareness – I am trying to defend myself against an unknown fear. As in the other addictions, there are times when the power of the belief-system fades, when the false energy ebbs away and I realise that I have been in the grip of some sort of malign self-hypnosis. During such a period of insight a person suffering from anorexia might come close to naming this fear; they might, for example, say that it is ‘fear of life’.
UNPLEASANT OBSESSIVE STATES
Anorexia shares characteristics of both the pleasant and the unpleasant type of obsessions. It straddles both realms, and if we move only a little bit further along the neurosis spectrum it can be seen that straightaway the flavour changes completely from the short-sighted, shallow and totally unfounded confidence of euphoria to the all-pervading uneasiness and self-doubt that characterizes the negatively goal-orientated neurotic states. Here our activity is driven by the need to avoid dimly or not-so dimly glimpsed disasters and any thought of ‘attaining paradise’ recedes into the distance. Life here is not about entering the gates of heaven, but escaping the gates of hell. An example of this sort of thing would be the various types of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I might perhaps be suffering from a variant of OCD in which I am driven by the desire to match up all the labels on the tins of baked beans, tinned tomatoes, processed peas etc in my food cupboard. If I were to be able to do this to my satisfaction then this would constitute positively goal-orientated behaviour and my success in the task would be a theatrical substitute for succeeding in the larger and messier field of what is generally called ‘life’. As it turns out though, in OCD my goal-orientated operations are tainted by fear of failure and a secret doubt in my own ability to do what I believe I must do in order to safeguard my situation. This doesn’t mean that I give up my purposeful activity however, it just means that I am no longer able to enjoy it. The routines and procedures that I am constantly engaged in have the character of a tedious chore that has to be done, and the reason I cannot withdraw from this chore is because I can’t help feeling that something bad will happen if I don’t do my best. Without knowing it, what I am really striving to protect here is the ‘believability’ of the game that I am playing, I am trying to prop up the distorted mind-set of the neurosis in the face of ‘falsifying information’ (i.e. information that tells me that “It can’t be done…”) I am still hooked on the idea of optimization (i.e. perfection within the terms of the game) only now there is a spanner in the works that no amount of cleverness can get rid of. Paradise is glitched, but rather than see this I strive mightily in the futile attempt to win out over the problems.
To sum up this ‘middle region’ of neurosis, we can say that the paradise-state of heedless euphoria has receded into the background so that it is now no more than something we assume to be a possibility; we might in principle believe in it as a realistic target, but in practice our time is taken up in the business of warding off threats of one sort or another. No longer can we wallow contentedly in the blue lagoon of unimpeded dreams – trouble has entered paradise and we are now too busy and too concerned to lie back and enjoy ourselves. The type of activity we engage in here is ‘negative work’ because no matter how hard we struggle, we never enjoy any real feeling of satisfaction. To change our metaphor somewhat – the boat is starting to sink, and our attempts to bail out the water are not reversing the trend.
Only a few steps further into the ‘MINUS’ direction of the neurosis spectrum brings me into the realm of fully fledged theatrical failure where the integrity of game itself starts to visibly decay. The sheltered lagoon paradise is gone altogether and now we find ourselves adrift in the dangerous deeps – we are precarious afloat in the open ocean, subject both to unpredictable storms and deadly underwater predators. What we are talking about here is the state of mind which we call anxiety. If we say that theatrical success (which is the basis of euphoria) is where I manage to attain the goals which I have secretly chosen to be important (or meaningful) to me; then theatrical failure is where I find that I am no longer able to efficiently obtain those goals that matter so very much to me. The false confidence of the elated phase has given way to cruel self-doubt and keen appreciation of just how vulnerable we really are – I am no longer the indestructible hero of my dreams but a craven coward, a man overcome by a sense of his own weakness.
The self-deception implicit in theatricality finally starts to come to the surface here because when I am anxious it is often apparent to me that the things I am worried about are absurdly trivial, and I cannot understand why they should be so important to me. I can frankly acknowledge that my fears are ‘irrational’, which is a step forward in terms of understanding anxiety, but I am still powerless not to react to the compulsion to ‘do something about it’. The insight into the fact that my anxious goals shouldn’t really matter as much as they do represents a breach in the integrity of the game, and whilst my anxiety is apparently linked with the overt agenda, which has to do with mundane ‘situational concerns’, my hidden fear is about the incipient failure of the virtual meaning system.
Another way to put this is to say that what I am really afraid of is discovering that I have been systematically deceiving myself the whole time. Now this is essentially contradictory because the fact that I am anxious means that I have already found out about the ‘trick’ that I am perpetrating on myself, so I am anxious about the possibility of discovering what I already know! Clearly, there is something deeply screwed up about this, but because I am so committed to self-deception as a way of coping what I do in anxiety is to carry on distracting myself from the true source of my fear, even when I find that my tried and trusted avoidance techniques are no longer working. Anxiety means ‘running away from fear’ and having embarked upon this path all I can do is to carry on, even though my ability to run away (i.e. successfully self-distract) is now fatally injured. Now, I have to run away from seeing that I can’t run away…
This is a doomed struggle; it was always a doomed struggle but in the initial phases of my ‘neurotic evolution’ (if we can call it that) I was able to get away with ignoring this unpalatable fact. In anxiety my power to ignore what I do not want to know is shot through, but this does not weaken the strength of my desire to ignore it, and so I desperately embark on a career of ‘unsuccessful trying’. In this there is a modicum of comfort, because just so long as I keep trying, I can continue to blunt the edge of the awareness that is always threatening to hit me, the terrible awareness that what I am trying to do is impossible.
This does not mean that I am not having a horrible time, but in a perverse way I am still succeeding even in my theatrical failure because my preoccupation with my failure (i.e. my continual futile attempts not to fail even when I am evidently failing) serves the function of distracting me from seeing what is really going on. I do not face my doom. It is only when I start to see the true or original fear that the anxiety process comes to its natural end, because at this point the self-deception business becomes redundant. When this happens the doomed struggle finally ceases, and I no longer try to protect what cannot be protected (or protect against what cannot be protected against). It can be easily seen from what we have been saying about the varieties of neurotic distress that it is not the fact of our doom that is so terrible – rather it is our fear-driven refusal to admit it to ourselves. We can say therefore that in anxiety what is going on is that I am making a very grim, last ditch attempt to hold on to my hollow and worthless theatrical prize, which in the ultimate analysis is the same thing as the virtual (or theatrical) self.
THE SUBTLE THIEF
This discussion of anxiety does not bring us to the final phase of the neurosis spectrum, for that we have to make one more jump. The point about anxiety is that we are still prey to the compulsiveness of our theatrical goals, only our relationship to these goals is now aversive in nature. Right at the beginning of it all – back in the realm of euphoria – we were equally in thrall to our goals (which is to say, to our thinking) only we didn’t care because the goals in question were highly desirable ones. Why would anyone want to question success, after all? Later on the pendulum starts to swing back and it is time for the compensatory phase to come into play. The days when I could spend my time in pleasurable anticipation of nice things that are going to happen to me are long gone, and now I live in fear of all sorts of dimly glimpsed horrors. At this point I would dearly love to find some way of not believing so much in the reified realities that I am afraid of, but it is not so easy as that. Mere intellectual understanding is no good at all because, after all, the motivation behind this understanding is just that I want to escape having a bad time. My desire for understanding is really a front for my desire to feel better; any intellectual posturing that I might make is no more than a disguised attempt to run away from fear, which means that it is anxiety pure and simple.
To intellectually understand that I chose for my theatrical goals to matter to me (i.e. to understand that my thinking only seems valid to me because I chose for it to be valid) is not enough to free me from the power of my goal. I cannot simply step out of the trance of psychological unconsciousness, just because I am tired of it, or because I am no longer having a good time. I have invested and so now I have to ‘dis-invest’, which means understanding on a very deep level just what my situation is. As the alchemists said, this involves seeing, in a very direct and personal way, our own ‘barrenness’; we have to taste in full measure the drink that we have unwittingly prepared for ourselves. To put it another way, we have to perceive our own nullity, and this is what people generally call depression.
We can tie in this way of looking at depression with what we have been saying about the phenomenon of ‘downwards transformation’. This, it will be remembered, is basically a process of losing what is marvellous about life, and having it replaced instead with something that is banal and crappy. We can think of this in terms of a thief who creeps into our house whilst we aren’t looking, and makes off with our most precious possession. This thief, however, being very clever at his art, spins a sort of enchantment which causes us to mistake some tawdry object that he left behind for us as the treasure that we no longer have. We fall under the influence of a sinister spell that so degrades our perception of reality that we cannot detect the switch that has been pulled on us. Because of this malign enchantment we bizarrely continue about our business as if nothing at all were the matter. This type of an idea is mentioned by Robert de Ropp in The Master Game in connection with what he calls ‘the Myth of the Mad King’. Another example of this would be Plato’s analogy of the prisoners in the cave. Here De Ropp (1968, P 49-50) elaborates on what the myth means:
This old myth, in its essence, compares man to a king with a sumptuous palace at his command. But the king went mad and insisted in living in a cellar surrounded by rags and bones and other worthless objects which he called his possessions. If any of his ministers reproached him for this behavior and tried to remind him of the palace and its splendours, he indignantly replied that he had never left that place. Such was the nature of his illusions that he saw the wretched cellar as a palace and the rags and bones he had collected as precious jewels. …
…. In psychological language the myth of the mad king means this: Man’s ordinary state of consciousness is not the highest level of consciousness of which he is capable. In fact, it is so defective that the condition has been defined as little better than somnambulism. Man does not really know what he is doing or where he is going. He lives in dreams. He inhabits a world of delusions and, because of these delusions, makes dangers for himself and others.
This same myth (seen from another angle) can also be found in the Lotus Sutra in the story of the son of a King who became a beggar, and the parable of the man who thought himself poor whilst actually being very wealthy the whole time. This story is here related by Daniel Montgomery (1991, P 50) in his study of Nichiren Buddhism Fire In The Lotus:
A young man became drunk after an evening of carousing and passed out. A wealthy friend had to leave him there, but decided first to do him a favour. He took a valuable jewel and placed it in the drunken man’s topknot. Surely, he reasoned, when his friend woke up, he would notice the jewel, use it to pay any expenses, and still have plenty left over for whatever he wanted.
But this did not happen. When the drunken man got up the next day, it never occurred to him that he was now wealthy. First he was thrown out of the inn for not paying his bill. Then things went from bad to worse. He wandered from place to place, doing odd jobs when he could and living from hand to mouth.
Years later, his wealthy friend ran into him and was shocked by his appearance. ‘What happened to you?’ he asked. ‘How did you lose all your money?’
‘What money? I never had any. You know that.’
‘The money from the jewel I left in your topknot. I left it for you so that you could pay your expenses, invest the rest, and go into business for yourself.’
The poor man dug into his topknot and, sure enough, there was the priceless jewel! It had been there all along. He had been a rich man, carrying a fortune with him wherever he went, but he had never known it.
So it is, says the Buddha, with everyone. The priceless jewel, the Buddha nature, lies within us untapped. The only difference between the Buddha and us is that he knows this, has unravelled his topknot, and exposed the jewel of the Buddhahood.
LIFE AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE…
So what does all this have to do with depression, and the ‘spectrum of neurosis’? Well, just to review what we have said so far, the idea that we started off with was the idea that there is a sort of inexorable downward tendency which degrades our experience of life at the same time as it degrades our ability to know that our experience has been degraded. Naturally enough, the existence of such an entropic tendency is not going to be particularly obvious, but the idea makes intuitive sense to us nonetheless. We can use a few scenarios to evoke an awareness of this sort of thing. One example would be the phenomenon of ‘imperceptibly getting used to an inferior product’ – let us suppose (just for the sake of the argument) that the quality of food has been gradually degrading over the course of the last sixty years or so, ever since the introduction of large-scale farming technology, modern food processing, supermarket chains and all the rest. This process is slow enough, and insidious enough, so that no one can actually be sure that it is happening. After all, given that almost all of the food that we come in contact with is mass-produced and over-processed, what have we got to compare it with? It is still possible however that we might chance to eat some vegetables that have been grown in the old-fashioned, chemical-free, small-scale way, or an egg that is genuinely free-range, and then we will be amazed at what we have been missing out on all this time. It is as if our life had been impoverished, without us ever really seeing that this was the case. The shock that we obtain as a result of this discovery is due to the awareness of how very easy it would have been to carry on in complete ignorance of what we have just discovered. We could have gone to our graves none the wiser – not knowing that we were missing out on anything. And if the tendency were to continue on indefinitely, who knows where it would lead? The logical conclusion would be the situation where we are living on food that is totally tasteless, without ever knowing the difference. This would be a perfect example of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ because we would all suspect that something was wrong, but because of the enormity (and absurdity) of what we suspect, no one would want to admit to what they were thinking.
What we are talking about here is of course the time-honoured principle of “Things ain’t what they used to be…” When folks start complaining in this way we tend to think that it is because they are old and deluded and suffering from a pernicious tendency to see the past through rose-tinted glasses. But suppose there really is such a conspiracy! How would we feel then? A moment’s refection is all that is needed to show that we all have some kind of personal experience of the ‘thief of life’. A classic one that people talk about has to do with the ‘craic’ not being as good as it used to be. For example, when I was younger and I went out with my mates for a drink (or whatever) I had a laugh and there was a real buzz going on; now, X years on down the line, I still go out with my mates (perhaps) but now it seems to have become more or less a set routine – I can still get some satisfaction out of having a drink but there doesn’t seem to be any magic to it, my satisfactions are cruder and more mechanical in nature, like automatically scratching an itch in order to feel better. I still go through the motions, but it’s all pretty much meaningless at this stage…
Another classic example has to do with the experience that we can get when we break our routines and go off and do something out of the ordinary. Perhaps we take a year off work and travel the world, or something like that. At such times it is possible to have a real taste of ‘what life is all about’ (or so it seems) and we resolve never to go back to the dull habit-ridden existence that we had gotten used to before. Needless to say, however, this resolution becomes just another comfort zone that I use to feel better about myself – I know that I am going to do something about it some time, I know that I have the intention not to let my life slide into mediocrity, I know that I know better than that, and – thus comforted – I go back to my routine existence. I end up going through the motions, but the real ‘taste’ of life has long-since departed, and I never actually saw it go. The thief strikes again, as he always does if we are not watching out for him…
The thing about the downward or entropic movement is not so much that we do not spot it, but rather that we do not spot it for what it is. The truth of the matter is that we perceive the change that has taken place in a back-to-front sort of a way – we naively take it to be a progression, or an attainment. This is because the downward movement is always (initially) accompanied by an upsurge of euphoria. Euphoria, it will be remembered, can be defined as the good feeling we get when we able to believe that what we want to be true, actually is true; another way to put this would be to say that euphoria is the good feeling that we get when we take the unreal to be real, but we would have to qualify this by pointing out that this opens up the way for despair – which is the counterbalancing bad feeling we get when we take the unreal to be real. And, as we have noted before, just because euphoria and despair are the product of our belief in illusions that does not mean that we can dismiss either as ‘simply an illusion’. Obviously, we are much more likely to want to do this in the case of despair, but inasmuch as we have previously invested in the mind-set that obtained for us the euphoria (which we have), we cannot then turn around and say that we don’t believe in our reified virtual world once the honeymoon period is over and we find ourselves unpleasantly trapped in the marriage. We have made our bed, and we must lie in it.
ILLNESS AS HEALTH
What we are saying, then, is that euphoria is associated with the ‘first stage’ of the process of downward transformation, which is when we get to believe in a comforting or flattering picture of the world. Due to the inherently deceptive nature of the euphoric mind-state we cannot directly see the degradation in the quality of our experience of life – we cannot see the loss of authenticity that has taken place. But there is, nevertheless, a way in which the deception can and will be revealed to us, and this is through the ‘negative’ or painful aspect of neurosis. Shortly after the euphoric stage there comes into play a process consisting of the progressive manifestation of a series of implacable snags which slowly but surely ruins our enjoyment of the over-simplified situation that we have obtained as the result of the downward ‘jump’ we have taken. This whole business can be compared to what happens when a fish takes a bite at a juicy worm that is on an angler’s hook – firstly, there is something tempting in front of our nose, secondly, we greedily take a bite at it, thirdly, we experience very brief moment of ‘triumph’, and fourthly, we find ourselves caught on the painful barb of the hook, and being reeled in by the angler!
Neurosis itself can be defined as the process whereby we unwillingly discover and come to terms with the true nature of the predicament. Here the parallel with the situation of the fish that has been caught on a hook ends because – presumably – the fish does not take very long at all to admit to itself what has befallen it. Unlike the fish, we are very, very slow at doing this, so slow in fact that it could be said that the whole thing about neurosis is that it is a long drawn-out and agonizing exercise in denial. We want to continue enjoying the sense of triumph that we enjoy so much and in order to do this we have to deny that we are on a hook.
To continue with our metaphor of the theatrical or ‘phoney’ prize, we can say that what makes neurosis the intractable problem that it is, is because we struggle so hard to ignore the obvious. We don’t want to know that we’ve been cheated. Because we want so badly to believe that the phoney prize which we have spuriously won is in fact the real thing and that all is well with the world, the tendency is for us to refuse this awareness to the bitter end, and it is our ongoing resistance to the painful information coming our way that we call neurosis. For this reason it can be seen that ‘neurotic mental illness’ is actually a manifestation of health, which is exactly what Professor of Nursing Margaret Newman has said in Health as expanding Consciousness. What really is ‘sick’ is not the painful symptomology associated with neurosis (these symptoms, of course, correspond to what we may refer to as ‘the irreducible snag inherent in all finite games’) but our culturally accepted definition of this healthy process is as a wholly malignant illness that needs to be eradicated. In other words, the pain of neurosis is healthy in that it represents an awareness that facilitates the healing process, but what is not healthy is our collective denial of that pain, of that awareness.
THE INVISIBLE TAUTOLOGY
Another way of looking at the essential over-simplification (or information degradation) that allows us to believe that the theatrical prize is actually the real thing is to say that we fool ourselves by reducing everything to a tautology which we then proceed to get trapped in so that we can’t see that it is a tautology. An invisible tautology – we might say – is useful to us because it allows us to see differences where there are none. Thus, as a result of existing within a tautology that we can’t see as such (which is the rational mind), we get to believe in the meaningfulness of our own creations, our own constructs. Within this tautological loop the self gets to relate to its productions (its mental ‘objects’) as if they were something different to itself when actually they are not – when actually they are only ‘itself in disguise’. It is actually by relating to its own projections in this way (i.e. as if they were ‘independent phenomena with an existence all of their own’) that the theatrical self gets to exist in the first place – it only gets to feel real by relating to its projections as if they were not projections, in other words. What this means is that the self actually creates itself via this invisible tautology – the self is not real but it ‘creates itself’ by splitting off theatrical projections of itself and relating to them as if they are separate entities.
In terms of David Bohm’s system of thought, we can generalize this admittedly bizarre-sounding ‘process of tautological self-creation’ by saying that all possible logical developments of the system are an exercise in ‘self-creation’ (which is by definition a meaningless concept since nothing new is ever actually created) because all logical sequences come down to an endless series of ways in saying the same thing in a different way. A classic example of this is the expansion of an algebraic statement such as X = 3Z3 + 2Y2 + 1. At school we are taught to take expressions such as this and ‘expand’ (or develop) them in a series of logical steps in order to arrive at a new expression, but what is not usually emphasized is the fact that each formulation is saying exactly the same thing in a different way. This is of course implicit – it is implicit in the equals sign which is basic to maths – but the idea that the whole expansion is no more than an exercise in tautology is not mentioned. Any mathematician worthy of the name would know it, but somehow it doesn’t tend to filter down to the rest of us. Possibly we just don’t want to know!
This is definitely a disturbing idea to take on board. Suppose you happened to get interested in maths and you spent all morning deriving a number of mathematical statements from each other in a long and tortuously complicated procedure. Your blackboard is covered in square roots, cube roots, sines and cosines, tangents and cotangents, and all the various mathematical constants. You mop your brow as you try to work out what all these arrows and ‘equals signs’ mean. Yet inasmuch as each statement is logically derived from the preceding statement, each statement is the preceding statement; equals means is and so the information content of the very first statement has not been changed in any way as we move on through the series of subsequent statements. We are still saying the same thing. It is hard to imagine that the person who has just had this insight will feel a little bit disillusioned with the whole business. All this is not to say that mathematics doesn’t ever tell us anything however – the point that we are making is just that the equals sign doesn’t tell us anything. What is more interesting is the fact (as demonstrated by Gödel’s’ Incompleteness Theorem) that there is a sort of a ‘universal discontinuity’ between all genuinely different mathematical statements (and sets of statements). This leads us straight into the idea of irreducible complexity, which can be translated in terms of genuine information rather than the spurious information of the ‘equals’ sign (or of its verbal counterpart, ‘is’).
When everything ‘equals’ everything else (when everything ‘is’ what we say it is), then what we have here is a non-complex (or tautological) world. This is the world generated by the rational-conceptual mind – it is a world where everything is what we take it to be, but at the same time, it is a world where everything is perfectly null because none of it adds up to anything outside of context of meaning within which it makes sense. [This context of meaning, it will be remembered, has provisional validity only, which is to say, it is valid only when I choose for it to be valid.] When nothing equals anything else (when our descriptions have no power to describe) then we are in the complex universe, and although we can’t have the satisfaction of ‘knowing’ what stuff is, and what life is all about, we have the unsurpassed benefit of being in touch with a world that is thoroughly outside of our own sterile mental projections. In this case, the ‘not equals’ sign (which represents discontinuity) means that there is information, that I am actually learning something rather than just endlessly self-deceiving, as usual. Everything is new, rather than being merely the virtually new (or ‘disguised old’) of the tautological development.
THE FREEDOM NOT TO SEE THE TRICK
Just as the expansion of an algebraic expression is strictly tautological, so too is the successive progression of logically related states that go to make up the minute-to-minute operation of the system of thought. Each state is lawful with respect to the rules that govern the information processing system, and so each state is a reflection of these rules. On the face of it, each configuration appears to be different from the others, just as each mathematical statement in the example given above appears to be different from the ones that come before and after, but really there has been no change. (‘Equals’ means ‘the same as’ which means ‘no new information’.) We can say, therefore, that the freedom to believe (or perceive) that each new step in our thinking is new and fresh is in fact what we have been calling negative freedom. When we exercise this negative thinking, the first result is euphoria, which can be defined here as the good feeling that we get from the theatrical triumph afforded us by our mental manoeuvring.
By relying as it does on its theatrical successes, the extrinsic self is able to think that it has freedom; it I able to imagine that it has some sort of genuinely meaningful existence, and this is why it is content. This false comfort is based on negative freedom – it derives from its incapacity to see that its goals are projections of itself, and that it can never ever reach anywhere ‘new’, not even if it laboured night and day for a billion years. All its journeys lead to itself, and they never take it beyond itself, not ever. When the extrinsic self starts to suspect, as it periodically does, that it has nowhere to run to, nowhere to go, then its contentment vanishes and life becomes a grim attempt to find an escape that doesn’t exist. In order to more fully elucidate the principle of compensation as it applies here we can say that the period of ‘freedom’ in which we are able to be in the state in which we do not suspect the trick which we are playing on ourselves is exactly compensated for later on so that the satisfaction or comfort we obtain while in that state is repaid in terms of dissatisfaction or pain later on in the cycle. This cycle can be elaborated within itself, so to speak, because we can then attempt to escape from seeing that we can’t escape, and this ‘second level escaping’ itself has a positive (or successful) phase, and a negative (or failing) phase. Similarly, when we hit the negative phase of the second level escaping, we can always try to escape from seeing that we can’t escape from seeing that we can’t escape, and this too has a period of negative freedom associated with it, in which we are able to believe that we can escape from seeing that we can’t escape from seeing that we can’t escape…
This is really just a way of saying that we all have a tendency to end up totally lost in negative freedom, living within innumerable layers of self-deception which are just like the layers of skin on an onion. Each layer has the function of distorting reality to suit ourselves, to present ourselves with a view that we find comforting. When a layer of ‘spin’ starts to fail, what we do then (naturally enough) is to create a new layer of spin to offset the disagreeably negative manifestation of the old spin, and when that starts to fail, we simply retreat even further from reality behind another ‘neurotic veil’. Each time we ‘retreat a level’ what we are doing is slipping down the entropic slope one more notch – we are undergoing ‘downward transformation’. Another way to look at this process of ‘creating a new level of spin’ is to say that we describe what is happening to us, and then proceed to believe this description. This is of course what ‘thinking’ is all about anyway – we create a mental image and then, by ‘tuning in’ to this image, we lose perspective and as a result the image ends up substituting for the thing that it was supposed to be an image of. This is self-defeating because we lose the only thing that made the whole business worthwhile in the first place – the function of the image was to relate us to (or connect us to) some external reality, but by replacing that external reality, and blocking out our awareness of it, the actual effect of the image is to ‘disconnect’ us from reality. On the short term, however, there does seem to be a benefit because associated with this business of ‘tuning in to the image’ there is an intensely rewarding and enjoyable glow of euphoria. This reward is the short-term pay-off we get for avoiding internal task of psychological growth – we are let off the hook since, as we have said, the internal task makes no compromises and cuts no deals. If there is total integrity, then and only then is the true prize is attained. The price, we might say, is the willingness to sacrifice everything, to give up all security whatsoever. I can however cheat, and this is where negative freedom comes in.
The euphoric phase can be associated with the symbol of tautological self-creation. Jung remarks that self-creation is inescapably linked with self-devouring and so we have the complementary symbol of the dragon or snake which eats itself up, starting with its own tail. We can link the self-generating motif with the euphoric phase of the extrinsic self’s cyclical existence since the formation and maintenance of the self are both euphoric operations, just as the construction and maintenance of structures which arise logically (or purposefully) from the extrinsic self are euphoric operations. In fact we can generalize this to say that any structure, be it physical or mental, that is purposefully generated by the system of thought, is born amidst this intensely rewarding glow of euphoria. Thus, when a definite idea or theory or belief is formed, we obtain the feeling of euphoric well-being.
Where there is birth there must also be death, and so the second half of the cycle is marked by the insidious onset of decay, which is to say, progressive and irrevocable failure to maintain the structure in question. We can link this decay phase (i.e. the anxiety/despair phase) with the bitter motif of ‘self-devouring’. As always, the sweetness of the euphoric phase is perfectly counterbalanced by the bitterness of the dysphoric phase, which means that the ‘life’ of the extrinsic self always sums up to zero when taken as a whole (which of course is how it must be taken). This is just another way of saying that the life of the extrinsic self is ‘null’, i.e. it doesn’t actually exist – it only seems to exist because of a ‘trick’.
This brings us back to the idea we started off with, which is the idea of the ‘theatrical triumph’. Thinking, like the extrinsic self, is a theatrical triumph consisting of two phases, the positive phase which is a step forward, and the negative phase which is a step backwards. Now in this there is not necessarily any neuroticism because if I can allow myself to see the trickery that is going on. In this case the trickery is ‘innocent’, so to speak. But what happens is that the extrinsic self does not want to see through itself, and it does not want to see through the theatrical prize that it has (apparently) gained as a result of its manoeuvre, and so the theatre changes its character and becomes a much darker sort of a business. The truth is resisted every step of the way, it is fought against tooth and nail, and as a result we end up working our way through the spectrum of neurotic distress. On the one hand there is the conscious process of voluntary transformation, and on the other hand there is, as we have been describing it here, the process of involuntary transformation. In the esoteric teachings of Samael Aun Weor, these are referred to as the solar and the lunar paths respectively.
In this section we have been looking at the idea that there is a force – a sort of gravity – which pulls us always in the direction of ‘increasing mental entropy’. Entropy is a ‘one-way street’, or as the Roman poet Virgil puts it,
…easy is the descent to Avernus, night and day the door of gloomy Dis stands open, but to recall thy steps and pass out to the upper air, this is the task, this the toil!
This entropic force can also be explained in terms of the power of deception or illusion; it can be likened to salesman who sells you something that is quite worthless, in exchange for something that is genuinely valuable. The salesman is of course a thief when it comes right down to it, but he is an extraordinarily subtle kind of a thief – a conman rather than a mugger or a bandit. For this reason, we do not spot what is going on at the time, but instead we feel absurdly good about it – we are in fact as pleased as Punch because we think we have got something for nothing. I think that I am the clever one – I think that it is me that has come out ahead!
There are two ways in which we can envisage how entropic decay or degeneration occurs within the psychological context. One way is to say that the ‘downward transformation’ is like having a huge chunk bitten out of me by a shark: one moment I am proceeding along minding my own business with all my limbs intact, perfectly whole and healthy, and the next moment there is a big part of me missing. The incongruous thing about this is that I carry on exactly as if nothing had happened, in fact as far as I am concerned nothing has happened. I am caught up in this or that, wholly concerned with various trivial affairs, grotesquely oblivious to the terrible thing that has happened to me. This is like the characters in Beckett’s play who choose to ignore the overwhelmingly obvious fact that they are buried in sand up to their necks, and absorb themselves in the stream of nonsensical absurdities which make up their day-to-day life. This condition of being resolutely determined to ignore the shockingly neglected reality of one’s life, without ever admitting to oneself that one is doing anything of the sort, is what we have been calling ‘psychological unconsciousness’. As De Mello says, we are firmly asleep and the plain fact of the matter is that we most definitely do not want to wake up.
The other way to envisage the process is as a slow-motion sort of degeneration, just as the chassis of a car gently gets eaten away by rust, day-by-day, month-by-month, and year-by-year, until it is only the paint that is holding it together. Whether it is a series of disastrous ‘information crashes’ or a long slow gradual decay that I am subject to, the point is that I am almost always unaware the true nature of the catastrophe; there might be the occasion flash of awareness, but such unpleasant insights are generally repressed. We have said that it is quite possible for me to have a huge ‘chunk’ taken out of me, so that I am no longer a whole person at all. The missing chunk is a kind of ‘mental blind-spot’ – a blind-spot that is ‘useful’ to us because it provides us with an unquestionable positive reality that we can totally believe in. Having a belief in an ‘unquestionable positive reality’ is another way of saying that we do not have the capacity to suspect that we are mentally restricted. But along with the giant undetectable mental blind-spot that I have now incurred there comes the new and highly unpleasant element of compulsivity, which is a manifestation of my true status. Compulsivity is invisible as long as we are able to obey its dictates, but when we can no longer obey, then the result is mental pain which is a visible indication of my lack of freedom. Inasmuch as we have enjoyed that false freedom of euphoria, we must pay back in the coin of ‘dysphoria’ for what we have borrowed. This is John Bennett’s ‘Law of Compensation’.
If we were able to see this law or principle, and accept the fact that it can never be violated, that there has never been any exception to it and that there never could be, then we would unconditionally accept the pain that comes our way. We would pay our debt and then be on our way without a backwards glance. Our nature is such however, that we are fundamentally opposed to seeing this particular law as it operates in our lives. Therefore, we are constantly striving to ‘beat the house’, to come out on top, to hit the jackpot and walk away with it safely in our pocket. We look back longingly at what we think we had obtained and we cannot bear to think about what it might be like if we had to relinquish this prize. This state of affairs is what Hinduism and Buddhism call attachment. Having an attachment doesn’t just mean that we are rather fond of something, it means that we cannot even for a fraction of a second contemplate doing without it. If I am partial to Cuban cigars then this is one thing – if you say I cannot smoke one ever again then I may grumble, but I will be able to live with it. Basically, I can ‘take it or leave it’. Attachment is different to this. Unlike everyday specific likes and dislikes attachment is unconscious, it is a need which is so absolute that it is frightening; were I to see how absolute my need is, then this would necessarily make me think about the possibility of not being able to get what I need, and that would bring about a terror that I cannot dare face. Rather than face this fear, I repress the knowledge of my addiction, and proceed to pretend to myself that everything is just fine. If I live in a ‘shallow’ (or ‘superficial’) sort of a way, with my attention always safely distracted in a harmless direction, then I am completely unaware of the possibility of this terrible fear, the fear of being utterly dependent on something that can be taken away at any minute. But comfort zones automatically create anxiety – it is from comfort that the idea of discomfort is born. Because the sense of security I obtain by utilizing a comfort zone is unfounded, the principle of compensation is incurred – the amount of time I spend happily ‘believing the lie’ is going to be exactly counterbalanced by the amount of time that I will spend experiencing the ‘falsification’ of this cosy and unrealistically reassuring belief.
Believing in my comfort zone is euphoric, and having that belief taken away from me is dysphoric. Because of my attachment to my belief, I feel as if I cannot accept the pain of seeing it falsified, and so I fight this process, I oppose it with everything I have got. This ‘fight against reality’ (which Alan Watts calls ‘the war in the soul’) constitutes what we call neurosis. The object of my attachment has two aspects – firstly, we can say that I am attached to the positive world in which I exist. I am attached to certainty. In this case, the positive knowledge which I have created with my thoughts is the ‘theatrical prize’. Because the physical world that I conceptually perceive and purposefully interact with is the same thing as the system of though which mediates this interaction, we might just as well say that the world we inhabit is the theatrical prize. Of course, the ‘world’ that we are referring to here is not ‘the world as it is in itself’ (which is the world that a poet or a mystic might experience) but the ‘world-of-our-constructs’ – the ‘known and familiar’ world, which is the dead projection of the system of thought.
THE ALCHEMICAL LAW OF REVERSAL
Because the known and familiar world that we deal with every day is a theatrical prize, this means that it has two opposed (or self-cancelling) aspects: the positive and the negative which rotate constantly around each other, first one and then the other, over and over again. This is what Buddhist literature calls ‘the wheel of samsara’, the endless succession of attractive and repulsive illusions, leading us forever forward and backward on the treadmill of greed/fear. When I am experiencing the positive end of the stick the world is euphorically lit like a giant neon candle to my moth; it is my ‘possession’ – the source of my delight, the treasure which I secretly gloat over. I glory in what I have attained, counting my blessings again and again like a miser with his grubby stash of cash. Then, before I know what is happening, the negative dysphoric phase manifests itself and the world turns black, becoming a source of horror and despair for me rather than a source of delight. The beautiful figure whose feet I worshipped at only moments ago turns into a decaying and macabre corpse which holds me tightly and relentlessly in an embrace of death. According to modern day psychological commentator Johannes Fabricius (1976, p 98), this law of reversal was known to the alchemists as the peripeteia:
At the peak of the Opus Alchymicum the glory of the coniunctio suddenly fades into darkness and despair. This development signifies the onset of a new stage of the work termed by the adepts nigredo (‘blackness’), tenebrositas (darkness’), or mortificatio. In the nigredo the alchemist becomes aware that the power he has gained is Janus-faced and that the stone is capable of exercising both a divine and demonic force. Superhuman in potency, the reborn alchemist suddenly topples from his throne, his universe turned upside-down in the process. Known to the Greeks as peripeteia, or ‘reversal of roles,’ this principle of irony and paradox is overwhelming in its operation in Hermetic science: that which has been worshipped as holy becomes in the twinkling of an eye a monstrous horror; the cup with the elixir of life turns into a deadly poison; …
Fabricius equates the two poles of this cyclical process with the states of manic elation and despair respectfully; what he is talking about is the vicious up-down cycle of what psychiatrists call ‘bipolar affective disorder’. Euphoria, he says, is the same thing as despair because it is at root nothing other than the denial of despair. We can extend this model of neurotic mental illness to include all the other conditions that are known by saying that they represent the various stages of denial that we tend to go through between the two ends of the spectrum. As we have said, my attachment to the prize means that I cannot bring myself to let go of it, and this forces me to retreat deeper and deeper under innumerable neurotic veils as I grimly wage my war against reality, attempting to get my own way in the only way I can – by self-deception. I want the impossible to be true, I want to have the PLUS without the MINUS, and until I see the utter futility of this struggle I cannot leave the wheel upon which I am bound.
When we look at the two opposite poles of the spectrum of mental illness we are generally inclined to be favourably disposed to the sound of the ‘elated’ phase, but the despairing phase sounds absolutely appalling, by any standards. And yet which is the blessing and which is the curse? It is the heedless pleasure of the euphoric phase that is responsible for leading us astray – if we weren’t so preoccupied with enjoying ourselves in our own personal cocoon of rapture we would spot the thief of life at his work, we would catch him at it. As it is, we have to find out the hard way, at the end of a long and bitter road, struggling against the insight every inch of the way. It is not the loss of what is truly precious that is the curse, but our refusal to see that something has been lost. The real tragedy is not that we have lost our connection with reality, but that we do not miss what we have lost, because we still think that we have it. It is the final phase of the process which we call neurotic mental illness that forces us to see the truth of our loss; when this truth finally dawns and we discover how infinitely precious is the thing that we have lost, and how terrible is our plight without it, then this pain – which we have steadfastly resisted – turns out to be the greatest of blessings. To gain the courage to see how much we have lost is to be reconnected to what we have lost.
KING FOR A DAY
One way to explain the glitch inherent in the life of the virtual self is to say that it cannot have the satisfaction that it wants without also incurring the periodical reversal of this satisfaction. We can also understand this glitch in terms of a theatrical victory – I take one step forward and this looks like a fine thing to do, but the second act of the show is that I have to ignobly retreat again back to where I started, and so the bold confidence of my first advance is in fact no more that a futile gesture. This is like the general of an army who is locked in a stalemate with the enemy. He does not have the strength of arms to achieve a lasting victory, but if he throws everything he has into one big effort, he can take a key position from the control of the enemy. The only problem is that if he does this, he is over-reaching himself, and this means that when the next day comes the enemy will inevitably take the position back again. There is therefore absolutely no long-term advantage to be had from this manoeuvre; from a realistic point of view it has to be said that there is no gain to be at all.
If our general decides to go ahead and launch the attack anyway, then it may be said that the victory attained is a ‘theatrical’ one. He is ‘king for the day’ – on that particular day he can cock a snoot at the enemy with complete impunity, he can stand on top of the hill that he has taken and crow to his heart’s content: “I’m the king of the castle!” The very next day, however, he must beat a hasty retreat with his tail between his legs. What is more, his retreat would not be in any way dignified, but wholly ignominious given the fact that he had strutted about so much and made such a meal of his ‘triumph’ the day before. He is now not a king but a ‘dirty rascal’… This is of course the principle behind the well-known children’s game. This story can be used as a metaphor to explain what lies behind the ‘neurotic spectrum’ – the elation phase corresponds to the general at the height of his theatrical victory and the despair phase corresponds to the moment when he has to admit in his heart that he is a dirty rascal – the moment when he has to ‘eat his own words’, so to speak. In-between these two poles we find enacted the various manifestations of denial – a whole gamut of devious delaying tactics for postponing the inevitable. As we have said, if I knew that ‘king of the castle’ was only a game’ then everything would be fine but the fact of the matter is that we take it all very seriously indeed. When I strut and crow in the folly of my arrogance, there is no sense of irony (or play) in this at all. Therefore, when the second phase of the compensatory process swings into action, this is a very bitter pill for me to swallow.
When I am on top of the hill I milk it for all I am worth, I pull out all the stops, and so when the time comes for me to be shoved ignominiously back down again I do not like it at all. I have invested in the ‘false comfort’ of my theatrical triumph in order to make it real, and so I have made my defeat equally real. When it comes to it, I am utterly and completely unwilling to accept losing what I thought I had gained, I am resisting this reversal on a very deep level indeed, and the process is a horrendously painful one. Rather than accept my defeat gracefully, I do it gracelessly, I am dragged along kicking and screaming. This is like when a policeman arrests the perpetrator of a crime, and says to him as he puts on the handcuffs, “Now my lad, we either can do this the easy way or the hard way – which is it going to be?” The gracelessness can take the form of very devious and convoluted ‘cunning’ and although this cleverness of course self-defeating cleverness it may be said to have a certain sort of a remit. I can delay the moment when I have to accept defeat by resorting to more and more vicious forms of self-deception, and although the ‘price’ for this self-deception escalates to an appalling degree, I can choose to ignore the price and carry on just like Macbeth does in Shakespeare’s play. This sort of thing – where one becomes committed to a wrong path – shades into the whole domain of what is generally called ‘evil’, as we indefinitely postpone the moment of retribution by resorting to more and more appalling measures. It can therefore be seen that neurosis and what we call ‘evil’ share this one key characteristic – both are based on intractable psychological denial regarding the operation of the principle of compensation, which says that ‘mind-created’ pleasure always comes at the price of an equal and opposite amount of ‘mind-created’ pain.
THE ‘SELF’ AS A NULLITY
At the beginning of this discussion we said that the idea of the theatrical triumph provides us with a good way of understanding the false self. We then took a look at neurosis in terms of theatricality (or denial). A clinically definable neurosis really only an extreme and highly visible instance of the sort of complaint that the false self is prone to on a daily basis; there is nothing special about neurosis at all, the various manifestations of it are merely exaggerations of the sort of ‘mental problem’ that we are all familiar with in a more minor form. This is why visible neurosis in others tends to annoy us; on a sub-conscious level, we know this sort of thing only too well and, as it is often said, nothing is more irritating in another than a weakness which one has oneself.
What this allows us to see is that the false self is itself a prime example of the ‘king for a day’ principle. Because of the negative freedom which it draws upon, the false self is unassailable during its day; it is the cock that crows to its heart’s content on top of the dung hill, and none can say nay to it during the period of its false triumph. It gets to cock a snoot at Truth itself during this phase of successful denial, but the price it pays for this conceit is quite terrible. If the false self had any inkling of what awaits it in the next phase of the process, it would stop dead in its tracks, for the false self has no courage in it at all, only the foolish phoney courage which comes out of its clever ability to believe in its own lies. But because the false self is the false self, it never allows itself to see the truth, and so as a result it carries on with its folly, time after time. If all the ‘gains’ made by the false self are erased in the compensatory phase, then plainly the net result is nothing at all, and for this reason we can see that the false self is identical to what John Bennett calls ‘the Nullity’ and what the Buddhist sutras speak of as the ‘cyclical mind’.
Thus, when we allow ourselves to be satisfied (or indeed pleased!) with our ‘theatrical triumph’ (or ‘virtual victory’) – when we go out of our way to deceive ourselves into thinking that the hollow theatre we are enacting for ourselves is in fact as real as real can be – then what we end up helplessly identifying with as a result is ‘the false self’ – i.e. ‘the self which thinks it exists but which doesn’t’…
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.