When we are in the everyday, run-of-the-mill state of psychological unconscious then we experience the blessing of existence in inverted form, in terms of what Søren Kierkegaard called anxiety, or dread.
Existence, as the existentialist philosophers say, is a supreme risk. Who knows what might happen if we dare to exist? Who knows what it might entail? Who knows what we might be letting ourselves open to? It’s as if we were emerging from a shell (like an exceptionally wary oyster) that we’ve never before had the courage to emerge from, and so we really don’t know what it’s going to be like. To say that this ‘coming out of the shell’ represents a major challenge is therefore a very great understatement!
If we do take the risk of existing (and gamble all) then what happens is that we ‘get it all back’ – although naturally no one can give us a guarantee of this or else it wouldn’t be a risk! The way ‘risk’ works is that we throw it all away and then it comes back to us, ‘increased a thousand fold’, so to speak. Risking is living, living is risking! This is how life works, but at the same time it’s not how we think it works…
This isn’t just a matter of ‘giving away what we have and getting it back with interest’ though, which is what we seem to be saying. The reason it’s not like this is because we don’t really have anything to start off with! We have everything to gain and nothing to lose, but we can’t see this. We only get to exist by letting it all go and so if we don’t let it all go we don’t actually have anything to ‘let go of’ (although we won’t realize this at the time). So not ‘really having anything to hold onto’ doesn’t stop us hanging onto it – in fact the way it works is that the less we have the more tightly we hang onto it! The less being we have the more afraid we are of losing it, paradoxically enough. The less we have the more reluctant we are to risk it, and the more ‘reluctant to risk’ we become the less we have as a result! Thus – paradoxically – the Buddha says, “You only lose what you cling to”…
So when we’re safely withdrawn into our shell – where there is 100% security, 100% safety – we have nothing at all (because we’re risking nothing) and so as a result we’re hanging on to ‘what we think we’ve got’ very tightly indeed! We’re hanging on like grim death to a completely hollow illusion, and going through all sorts of suffering on account of this illusion into the bargain…
The less actual being we have the more frightening and intimidating the world seems because all we can see is our own inner poverty reflected back at us in the form of hostile or threatening projections. The insecurity that comes about as a result of us having no actual being (no genuine existence) causes us to see threat everywhere, in other words. Everything looks as if it were going to ‘eat us up’ – we fear being ‘engulfed by the world, as R.D. Laing puts it. It’s all too ‘alive,’ too ‘vivid’, too ‘implosive’, and so we feel that we have to defend ourselves in some way. Defending means ‘not risking’ – pretty obviously – and so because we’re ‘not risking’ we are locked into the fearful situation, we’re perpetuating it.
J.G. Bennett talks about exactly this point in The Dramatic Universe – according to Bennett when we are confronted with reality we will experience one of two things, we will either experience awe, or we will experience fear. If we are attached to ourselves (if we are attached to what we think we ‘have’) then we feel fear, and if we’re not attached (if we’re able to let go of ourselves) then we feel awe. This straightforward (if rather unfamiliar) idea is explained by Bennett in the following passage taken from The Dramatic Universe. Vol. 2 (1961. Page 199-200):
Negative identity is ‘essential non-existence’. It is to be what one is not as the imaginary component of a null-triad, of which the other part is being what one is. Being what one is not, confronted with being what one is, is to be threatened with annihilation. This state of the Will is called Fear. The horror of self-destruction is at the root of all fear. The Material Self under the sway of the law of negative identity is constantly reminded of its own nonentity. It half realises that to face Reality is to face its own nothingness. This state of half-realization is the essence of fear. It is the negative aspect of the Cosmic Identity that faces its own finitude before limitless Being. This latter is the state of Awe into which all existing selves – great or small – enter when they contemplate the Ultimate Being. The Material Self is incapable of approaching such a state, and can experience only the divided state of fear of the unknown.
Fear is the root of the self-destructive activities of the Reactional Self. It is closely allied to other negative forms of the mixed triads of identity, such as anxiety, suspicion, jealousy, anger, arrogance and grasping. Fear is the negation of identity and it therefore calls everything by the wrong name. Through fear friends seem to be enemies and enemies seem to be friends. Fear makes good seem evil and evil seem good. The Material Self is perpetually afraid of its own ‘essential non-existence’. It hides behind a mask that is the projection of all its fears.
What we’re talking about here might said to be the situation where we’re ‘looking out at the boundless from the point of view of the bounded’. If I am relating to the unbounded from the precarious perspective of the bounded self then giving up my boundaries is naturally going to appear to me as a ‘loss’ or ‘sacrifice’ since I am of course constructing myself purely in terms of these boundaries. This means – to put it in plain and simple language – that I am going to have to kiss myself goodbye. This is very much like a soap-bubble popping or a droplet of water falling into the sea. Subjectively, there can be no doubt that to the bubble (or the droplet) this is going to feel like extinction, but from an objective point of view we can see that nothing is going to be lost – the air in the bubble isn’t going to be lost when it pops, any more than the water in the droplet is going to be lost when it merges with the sea!
The catch is therefore that we don’t realize that we don’t have to hang onto the air, or hang onto the water and this is what causes us limitless suffering. It is of course not the popping of the bubble or the merging of the droplet that causes the suffering, but thinking about the popping or the merging. From the point of view of our rule-based thinking, the loss of the boundaries is the worst disaster imaginable! This is ‘the ultimately catastrophic outcome’ – this is ‘game over’…
When we do hang on grimly to ourselves, and create thereby a ‘bounded situation’ for ourselves, we obtain as a result the highly-desired outcome that we have called ‘security’ or ‘safety’. Security means that ‘everything’s under control’, it means that ‘nothing can happen unless I want it to happen’, it means ‘all the stuff that I don’t want to happen (and I may not be sure exactly what this stuff is) doesn’t get to happen’. Security – as we all know – means that all the ‘bad stuff’ stays on the outside of the boundary! The good feeling that being secure provides for us is however very, very superficial and what is more, it covers over a bottomless pit of fear…
We have already touched upon the idea that opting for the ‘boon’ of security creates the situation where we cease to have any genuine being, without realizing that this has happened to us (i.e. it creates the situation where we become thoroughly unreal without realizing that we have actually become unreal). The more we risk, the more we are, and the less we risk the less we are, and so if we don’t risk anything, we aren’t anything. As the Persian poet Saadi says,
Deep in the sea there are riches beyond your imagination, but if you seek safety, that is at the shore.
Intuitively, this idea seems to make sense, but we still might want to know why opting for 100% security (which seems to be our way of protecting ourselves) should have the result of causing us to become unreal, or cause us to live a life which is unreal. Why this should be so becomes very clear however just as soon as we consider the fact that what we do in order to get to feel safe and secure is to put up boundaries all around us. Anything within an enclosing boundary is therefore going to exist in a way that is abstracted from (i.e. removed in some way from) everything that is not in the enclosing boundary. This is the whole idea of boundaries, after all – we put boundaries around ourselves because we want to remove ourselves from everything else!
Mathematically speaking, this is the same thing that happens when we specify a class or a set – the way we obtain a set is that everything which matches the criteria used for specifying the set gets to be admitted within the boundary (just like a member of a club gets to be welcomed into the club once they show their membership card), and everything else gets unceremoniously excluded (just like someone who knocks on the door of the clubhouse but isn’t recognized as being a member). Inside the club, we know therefore exactly what we are going to find – we’re going to find members and no one else! In the same way, we know exactly what we’re going to find inside the set but outside of the set we don’t have a clue what we will find because we didn’t ask any questions when we excluded those elements that didn’t match our criteria. We don’t know what’s out there and what’s more we don’t care – we’re not bothered about anything that doesn’t match our criteria. Anything that doesn’t make the grade is just rubbish, as far as we’re concerned…
This is exactly the situation with the everyday mind. The everyday (or rational) mind operates on the basis of an excluding boundary because it only admits stuff that makes sense to it on the basis of its pre-existing criteria. What exists within the world created by the rational mind is ‘the known’, and everything else is ‘the unknown’! If something doesn’t make sense to us, we don’t let it in, we keep on the other side of the boundary that we have made – the boundary which divides what we are to ‘take seriously’ from what we are to dismiss instantly as nonsense, as being irrational, as being unreal. Safe and secure behind this ‘limit’, we don’t care what we have excluded – we only care about the fact that we have excluded it, we only care about the fact that we have labelled it as irrational or nonsensical. We certainly don’t care at all about whatever it is that we have excluded so thoroughly.
The stuff on the inside of the boundary of the rational mind is ‘the known’ and the stuff on the outside is the unknown, and whilst we might be very interested in some of the stuff that we know, we aren’t even remotely interested in the unknown. We couldn’t care less – we conduct our lives entirely in terms of the stuff that is inside our mind-produced bubble, and we never even give a thought to anything else. It never even occurs to us that there is ‘an outside’ to the limit that our rational minds create for us! The ‘excluding process’ takes place automatically or ‘unconsciously’; we don’t pay any attention whatsoever to the fact that we are doing it. When we’re sitting there in the club-room, doing the stuff that we do there (drinking brandy and smoking fine cigars, or whatever) we don’t have any curiosity about those who haven’t been allowed entrance. We might allow ourselves a moment or two to feel relieved that the general ‘riff-raff’ (the ‘lower classes’) have been kept safely out but this is the limit of our concern. We have no interest in the riff-raff.
There is a very good reason why we are so careful about not taking any interest in the ‘selection process’ that the mind is carrying out the whole time – if we allowed ourselves to be concerned about what it is that we have banished to the other side of the boundary (or if we even allowed ourselves to see that we are ‘refusing entry’ to stuff) then this would unavoidably cause us to become aware that there are other possibilities other than the ones we are habitually concerning ourselves with (possibilities which we are turning our back on) and this awareness would constitute a breach in the security of our bubble. We would no longer feel safe, in other word; our ‘ontological security’ would be fatally jeopardized – which is to say, there would no longer be any ontological security!
Our ‘safety bubble’ is the bubble of the known and the known only functions as the known when we don’t have any perception that the whole thing (i.e. the bubble) was arranged in advance by ourselves and that just around the corner – so to speak – lies a huge Unknown (like the proverbial elephant in the living room) that we never pay any heed to. When we spot the elephant and acknowledge that he’s standing there then needless to say the known is no longer ‘the known’ and so there’s no more ontological security in it. When we see that we have engineered a false sense of security for ourselves (when it actually happens to be the case that there isn’t any) this means that we are now aware of ‘ontological risk’. Ontological risk is of course the very thing that we were so cleverly avoiding, and so from the point of view of the avoidance, this is ‘game over’. Looking at this the other way of course, ‘game over’ with respect to the POV of avoidance means that we now become real!
The way that we avoid ontological risk is, as we have said, by tricking ourselves to believe that we ‘know’ stuff when we don’t. We do this in a very simple way by ‘decoding’ all incoming information in terms of our established cognitive template such that when the information matches the template it is accorded the status of ‘signal’, and when it does not match then it is written off as mere ‘noise’ (or ‘error’). Another way of putting this is simply to say that from the perspective of the rational mind to be defined is to be real, whilst to be undefined is to be unreal. That it is the rational mind itself that does the defining is something we tend to overlook – we just focus on the fact that the element in question has been defined, that the element in question is defined, and that is all that we care about! To say that ‘what matches the mind’s template is signal and that all else is noise’ (or to say that ‘what is defined or categorized by the mind is real and that all else is unreal’) is a convention and as a convention it is of course perfectly fine. All conventions are fine – we are perfectly free to adopt whatever convention we want to adopt and then proceed on this basis; however it is also true to say that because of this essential arbitrariness all conventions (or all games) are ‘true only with respect to the rules which they themselves take for granted’. There is more to it than this however. We can go one stage further than saying that the rational mind’s convention for how it understands reality is ‘meaningful only with respect to the framework which it itself assumes’ and say that this artificial scheme of things is actually an inversion of the natural order. When the mind is in charge and gets to determine what is real and what is not real this is of course always an inversion of the natural order.
The rational mind’s scheme of things is very clearly ‘an inversion’ because whilst reality ‘is what it is’ because that’s the way it actually is (of its own accord, so to speak!) the reality we routinely believe in (which is the reality which our rational mind shows us) ‘is what it is’ purely because that is the way we have decided to see it. Conditioned reality is all to do with the arbitrary slant we are taking and nothing to do with reality, which doesn’t have a slant!
The absolutely key point about reality – we might say – is that it is independent of what we want, independent of what we think (i.e. independent of what our biases are with regard to it). The conditioned or mind-produced reality is on the other hand entirely dependent upon our biases. We don’t have to reflect on this point very long to realize that the world which the mind creates for us is a complete inversion of the real world. Reality that is real only because I decide that it is (only because I say that it is) is not reality at all!
This is like me saying that you are ‘free’ to do anything you want just so long as you do what I tell you to do – I’m using the word ‘free’ here but the way in which I’m using it turns it into a complete inversion of what freedom actually is. The way I’m using the word, ‘freedom’ actually means ‘slavery’ and yet I am somehow getting away (in purely linguistic terms at least) with portraying it as a type of freedom! In the same way, when we talk about conditioned ‘reality’ (which is where stuff gets to be real only if I say it is) we are sneakily inverting the true meaning of the world ‘reality’….
The inversion of reality creates very strange situation that we are generally unable to appreciate as being strange. It creates a situation where the lack of information is regarded as actual information, and where actual information is instantly disregarded as being some kind of ‘error in the system’. If I select a particular template or rule and call it ‘information’ when something that I come across matches my assumed standard then what I am actually doing is projecting my own form of meaning on the universe. I am creating the meaning that I see in the world and this automatically involves me in a closed loop! What I am actually doing here is marking my own projections down as ‘information’ and dismissing or ignoring everything else as ‘not being relevant,’ or ‘not being significant,’ or ‘not being real’.
But to see my own projections as being information is pure undiluted craziness! ‘Information’ means that I am learning something new; it means that I am coming across something that I didn’t know about before. It’s not just ‘same old, same old.’ As Gregory Bateson says,
Information is the difference that makes a difference.
Information is that which changes us – when we receive information this changes our viewpoint on things so that from this point onwards we never see the world the same way again. The old world that we used to believe in is gone! ‘Change’ and ‘information’ are inseparable therefore, but if I pay attention only to the stuff that agrees with my pre-existing template (i.e. if I treat my own projections as if they were not my projections, as if they were actual information) then very clearly I’m never going to change! As long as I treat my projections as the only information there is in the world, and treat everything else just as so much background ‘noise’ or static’ then it goes without saying that I’m not ever going to change. I’m proving myself right the whole time, so of course I’m not going to change. On the contrary, I’m going to be stuck like this forever…
So we call what lies within the mind-created, security-producing boundary ‘information’ but this is only the convention that we have adopted. Really, it’s not information at all but the very antithesis of information, just as slavery is the antithesis of freedom. We choose to look at the absence of information as information and whilst in one way this works perfectly well for us (i.e. it works as a flawlessly self-consistent logical system) in another way it doesn’t work very well for us because when we relate to the world on the basis of ‘an absence that calls itself a presence’ we find ourselves having to deal with the inescapable consequences of taking such a perversely ‘inverted position’ on everything, which is that we are now going to be saddled with a fearful, insecure, and fundamentally alienated outlook on life.
There is no way in which this can’t be the case, given the fact that the viewpoint or basis on which we operate is the one provided by the rational mind. Rationality functions by comparing everything to a static framework of reference, and the result of this operation is to create a picture of reality that is essentially an abstraction. As we’ve been saying, when we’re living in this over-simplified model of reality then everything that isn’t part of it is regarded as ‘error’ and since what we’re implicitly calling ‘error’ in this way is nothing other than reality itself (i.e. the ‘non-abstract’) there is absolutely no way that we can’t be fundamentally alienated from the world. The real world is – after all – our enemy since it is constantly deviating from the static framework that the rational mind has laid down for it to follow! We’re constantly fighting to make everything fit our ideas and life – so it seems to us – is constantly thwarting us in everything we set out to do. It’s something that needs to be ‘beaten’ by us, ‘conquered’ by us, ‘controlled’ by us…
Because the abstract realm which is created by the thinking mind is based upon the convention of treating its own projections as real (which is to say, the convention of treating redundancy as information) there is no information in it. This is not simply an ‘attenuated version of reality’ that we’re taking about here (i.e. some sort of ‘simplified-down world’ which is assembled out of a homoeopathically diluted form of information) – the point that we’re insisting on here is that there is absolutely no information (which is to say, absolutely ‘no reality’) in it! at all!
Relating to the real world on the basis of a thoroughly unreal or abstract viewpoint is necessarily going to distort the way it appears to us – as we’ve indicated, this is going to make us feel highly insecure, to say the very least! This can sometimes get to the point where I suffer from outright paranoia: I will in this case start to perceive the outside world as being both ‘all-knowing’ and ‘hostile’ – which is – needless to say – not a good combination! The hostile, highly-intelligent, highly-aware world that I perceive to be out there monitoring and tracking me is actually a ‘reversed projection’ of my own vacuity, my own nonentity. I’m seeing the truth, only in distorted kind of a way…
Of course reality is going to look like some kind of omniscient, super-alert persecutory external intelligence that is planning to engulf (i.e. destroy) me, given the unreal basis from which I am viewing it. Of course this is the feeling I am going to have! My perception of things is entirely accurate apart from the fact that I’m seeing everything ‘skew-ways from an unreal basis’. I’m not seeing my own unreality directly in other words, but rather indirectly, in terms of the hostility of some all-powerful agency ‘out there’ somewhere which is hunting me, or monitoring me. The fate that I feel to be very much ‘on the cards’ (i.e. that this persecutory agency will sooner or later catch up with me and put an end to me) is the best way I can come to understand the truth, which is that that the eventuality that I fear so much (i.e. my non-existence in the face of this super-vivid, super-implosive reality) has already come to pass. It is a foregone conclusion because its already the case…
Fears that seem to come out of nowhere, and which seem to everyone concerned to be ‘irrational’ or ‘unreasonable’ are another manifestation of the same thing: to put it simply, it is life itself that we are frightened of! We are fond of smallness, and we are terrified by the ‘unimaginably big thing’ that is life, which we have blocked out (or reformulated on our own petty terms) but which we can’t help being threatened by all the same. In general terms, what we are talking about here is existential dread, which we have already alluded to. Søren Kierkegaard says,
Learning to know anxiety is an adventure
which every man has to affront if he would not go to perdition
either by not having known anxiety or by sinking under it.
He therefore who has leaned rightly to be in anxiety
has learned the most important thing.
Our automatic way of dealing with anxiety is to retreat from it, to shut it down in some way. It is of course very clear that we don’t go around being constantly aware of this existential dread – nothing could be further from the truth. We’re sublimely unaware! This doesn’t disprove what Kierkegaard says however – it just shows that we have been eminently successful in withdrawing from the reality of the ontological anxiety, it just shows that we have been eminently successful in shutting it down in some way or another. As we have said, the feeling that we’re talking about here is the feeling of being very, very small when faced with something that is Tremendously Big. As a result of this feeling, we want to run away and if we do this (if we successfully evade the situation) then we don’t have to feel so small. We can actually feel quite big, quite solid – we can actually feel ‘important’ and ‘confident’ and ‘substantial’ and all the rest of it.
What we’ve done in order to be able to engineer this turnaround is that we have closed off the ‘Big Reality’ and created a false ‘small reality’ which we have then taken up full-time residence in. We’ve become a big fish in a very small pond, and this works wonders for our self-esteem – so to speak! So when we’re safely ensconced in this small world then of course we don’t have to feel that terrible sense of existential dread any more. We’re comfortable, we’re self-assured – we’re even blandly smug and self-important. This is realm of the everyday trivial ego, the realm of everyday life, and we all know this realm very well indeed. The problem with this ‘solution’ is however – as Kierkegaard points out – is that by evading the challenge we’re consigning ourselves to perdition. By being ‘successful’ in this regard we’re condemning ourselves to the frightening fate of having to live lives that are infinitely petty, infinitely trivial, infinitely inconsequential, etc, without being able to see that this is the case…
What Kierkegaard is saying in the quote given above is that it is the challenge of the ‘existential dread that allows us to grow – it may not be easy, but it’s real! If we evade it then we end up in a situation where the dread, the anxiety, the ontological terror, is the ‘primary reality’ in our lives but where we don’t permit ourselves to see this fact. The unacknowledged sense of dread then determines everything we do; it determines how we see the world and how we see ourselves, it determines what we can allow ourselves to become aware of and what we can’t. It causes us to restrict ourselves to a petty, meaningless little world in which we can never find genuine peace of mind or happiness. It causes us to be constantly striving to be in control of everything, not just ourselves and our environment but all the people around us. The course of action in which we deny existential dread compels us to embrace a mean and unworthy world and then go around telling ourselves and others that ‘this is the way things are’, that ‘this the only world there is and ever could be’!
When we’re safely playing our game then we’re able to be superficially brash, superficially self-assured, superficially confident. We’re actually able to be bored – which in the face of existential dread is really something! This is all very precarious however – it’s like a house of cards that could come tumbling down at any moment. Dread is never very far away – it is separated from us by the thinnest of membranes! Even when we are feeling most secure it could suddenly put a hand on our shoulder and reduce us to what Alan Watts calls ‘the quaking mess’. Paradoxically, as Watts says, it is our attempt to cure the quaking mess of its condition that perpetuates the quaking mess:
The quaking mess is your egoself that you want to cure of its fear, anxiety, sense of separation.
The quaking mess is the result of trying to get away from the quaking
We’re only ever fooling ourselves that we’re secure. We’re coping by ‘pretending that it isn’t happening’; we’re coping by ‘pretending that the fear isn’t real’. We’re coping by ‘pretending that we’re not running away the whole time’. What this means is that we live in a world that is made up of a very thin layer of what we say is ‘real’, but which isn’t. We just say it is. We just make out that it is. We have created this ‘world of nominal appearances’ as a defence, but naturally enough we can’t allow ourselves to know this, and so not only are we ‘hiding from the fear’, we’re conspiring against ourselves to makes ourselves believe that we aren’t hiding from the fear, and this is the miserable type of crappy existence we have created for ourselves…
With only a bit of insight we can see that the whole damn thing, our whole format of existence, is ‘fear in disguise’. The collectively-constructed world within which we live so precariously is based on fear, predicated on fear, driven by fear. Why else would we treat each other so badly? Why else would we be so ‘up tight’? Why else would we be so mean and petty-minded the whole time? We are sure of ourselves (sure of whatever belief or cause it is we are promoting) only because we have to be sure of ourselves, only because we have to be sure of the wretched belief or cause. We have to be certain because it is only by being to implacably certain (about whatever crap it is we are being certain about) that we can keep the fear, the dread, the terror at bay.
But behind the brash confidence of the game we play lies nothing but a dreadfully hollow, fear-filled vacuum – the frightening emptiness that lies behind the over-valued mask. Behind our oh-so-serious purposeful activity, our deliberate posturing, our arrogance, our smugness and self-importance, lies fear itself.
So the invisible irony is that by trying to escape the dread we get to experience it all the more thoroughly – we get to experience it ‘at leisure’, we might say. We get to savour it; we get to experience it on a long-drawn-out (actually an indefinitely drawn out) basis…
And the supreme irony is – as we have said – that what we are afraid of is life itself, and we ourselves are the life that we are afraid of. We’re afraid of life because we have created a separate existence from it. But we aren’t separate from life at all – we just think that we are!
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.