Each thought, each word, is like a crashing great blow – delivered with massive crude force, clumsy and hollow, reverberating dully and emptily as it lands, leaving nothing behind it in its wake but stale air, dust and confusion…
They come again and again, senselessly, with relentlessly pointless brutality, the one following the other with crushing predictability. What they lack in actual content they make up for in terms of sheer indefatigable repetition. What they lack in quality they more than make for in terms of pure inexhaustible quantity.
All thoughts, all words are like this – they are like generic units arriving one-by-one down a never-ending factory belt. They are all exactly the same – they all prove to be empty in the end – but we never cease to get excited by them. We never learn to leave them unopened; we never learn to just let them go on their way.
We talk all the time, and if we don’t talk all the time then we think all the time – we think and talk ceaselessly and as we go through the motions of thinking and talking we invariably miss the point of whatever it was that we were originally trying to say. There was something there, there was some genuine impulse to say something real underneath all the mechanical activity, but it gets lost every time in the banal brutality of the mechanism.
Our thoughts and words are hypnotic – they suck us in, they pull us under, they drag us down, as a faltering swimmer in a storm might be pulled in and dragged down by the undertow of the waves that are assailing him. We get repeatedly sucked in and dragged down under the battering waves of our thoughts until very soon we lose consciousness and become the helpless playthings of the all-powerful ‘thinking machine’. Our thoughts think us, rather than vice versa. Or perhaps we could say that our thoughts think themselves through us, by using us as their passive instrument.
No matter what the apparent content of our mental activity (be it about that or about this), none of it can really help us. None of it can rescue us from the morass we’re stuck in – which is the morass of not having enough perspective to see things properly. No amount of thinking can do this; as the Zen saying puts it ‘blood cannot wash away blood’. This doesn’t stop us trying however; this doesn’t stop us desperately grabbing hold of each thought as it comes along like a drowning man grasping at a straw.
Our thinking and our talking is how we assert our ignorance. When we are engaged in asserting our ignorance, when we are caught up in the effort of it, then it doesn’t feel like ignorance that we are asserting; on the contrary, it feels like good sense – it feels as if we are expressing something that is genuinely significant. It is therefore when we are positively asserting our ignorance that we are furthest away from seeing it for what it really is. The act of vigorous assertion is our way of hiding from this awareness, of keeping it at arm’s length. Asserting itself is ignorance, therefore.
Anything that is asserted as being true is untrue; anything that is being asserted as being right is false. When we assert something as being definitely true it only seems true to us because we are putting so much effort into asserting it to be so. The more strongly we insist on a point the surer we feel about it. And yet this – as Shakespeare says in the quote from Hamlet – means that the only reason we have to insist so hard, push so hard, protest so hard, is because underneath the flurry and commotion of all the effort we know very well that what we are being so emphatic about isn’t true at all… In fact, not only is it not true – the exact opposite is true. This is the nature of the foolishness we are caught up in – asserting one extreme potentiates the other, complementary extreme.
Anything that is asserted as being so is only so because it is asserted as being so. This is like stretching an elastic band, or pushing against a rubber wall: if I put enough force into it I can achieve required degree of distortion, the required degree of displacement, but then again if I hadn’t put that force into it then of course there would have been no displacement from the equilibrium position, the undisturbed position. It’s only the way it is because I wanted for it to be like that. What is more, because I am fighting against the elasticity of the medium I am deforming, the more effort I put in the more of a rebound effect there is going to be just as soon as I stop pushing…
Applying this analogy to the psychological domain, we can say that the degree to which I am able to believe in whatever proposition I am putting forward will not only start to wane just as soon as I run out of the energy needed to assert, it will viciously rebound on me, it will swing back into ‘negative territory’. This means that the satisfaction I had from being so ‘sure of myself’ will become inverted, it come back to me in the form of ‘negative satisfaction’ – which is to say, dysphoria or pain. To the same extent I gained I will lose, to the same extent I succeed I fail, and so inevitably it must be true that to the same extent that I get to feel good about things being the way I want them to be, I will also get to feel bad later on when the reverse phase happens, when the pendulum swings back the other way. The one cancels out the other.
So the only reason we make positive statements is because we want for them to be true and the only way we can get to feel that they are true is by actively asserting that they are. And what is even stranger is that is that (when it comes right down to it) we don’t even care what statements we make about the world just so long we get to make some sort of a statement, just so long as we get to take some definite stance about things. Really, it is obtaining the satisfying feeling that comes with having a definite stance or angle that counts, not what that stance is. It is therefore because we want above all to have the security of being sure about something that the terribly heavy mill-wheel of thought keeps on turning, grinding out its positive statements about the world as it does so.
The mill-wheel of thought’s ‘covert purpose’ is to provide us with this sense of security, this feeling of satisfaction, as it keeps on generating statements about this, statements about that, thrown together haphazardly by the principle of random association. I am caught up on this wheel because I want more than anything else to have the secure feeling that comes with being able to make literally-true statements about the world – I might switch one idea for another, one thought for another, one belief or opinion for another but the one thing I will never do is let go of the whole tiresome business of thinking things, having beliefs about things, having opinions on things. I keep getting sucked up by thoughts because I want to be sucked up by them; I am permanently hypnotized by the tremendously, stupendously, crushingly dull predictability of my ideas, my opinions, my beliefs, my definite statements about the world because I want to be hypnotized. That’s the whole point of the exercise.
The positive assertion I want to believe in most of all is of course the positive assertion known as the self. It is by thinking and saying the same old things over and over again that the familiar, comforting sense of self is generated. It is in other words by being thoroughly hypnotized by the ever-repeating activity of my rational mind that I get to have a sense of being a self, a sense of being ‘me’. ‘Me’ is the fixed point of reference: this ‘me’ is the embodiment of sameness – it is the very archetype of sameness. Whatever happens it is always the same old me that it is happening to, whatever I (purposefully) do it is always the same old me that is doing it, whatever I (rationally) think it is always the same old me that is thinking it…
This is so very normal for us that we never see anything strange in it, we never see anything peculiar that we should be in this ever-changing world, and yet at the same time that we ourselves should never change. This seems eminently reasonable to us – why shouldn’t the self be a fixed point of reference? Why shouldn’t ‘the-self that-I-experience-myself-to-be’ always stay the same, no matter else changes? Isn’t that the whole point of the self, that it is consistent – that it is a constant that always stays the same, no matter what else is going on?
In order to explore this assumption we can conduct a thought-experiment – the thought-experiment of imagining that we live in a universe where change is always secondary to an unchanging framework. We may term such a universe a Parmenidean Universe in honour of the Greek philosopher Parmenides who held that ‘all change is an illusion’. In a P-Type universe it is unquestionably legitimate for the self to be a fixed and immutable entity – just as in orthodox Christian teachings the soul is regarded as being a fixed and immutable entity. There is nothing ‘out of step’ in the self being a permanent fixture since the supreme governing principle of a P-Type universe is stasis rather than flux. If, on the other hand, we were talking about a Heraclitian Universe (which is a world where, as Heraclitus said, ‘all is flux’) then a self that never changes could not be a reality, and would be condemned on this account to the shadowy existence of a hallucinatory phantom. Its wishes and desires would merely be the wishes and desires of a phantom, and therefore unattainable. But if stasis is the supreme principle rather than flux then of course the unchanging ‘me’ gets to be as real and substantial as anything else. This is the possibility that we are now imagining.
The ideal situation for the static self (i.e. the situation which provides it with a feeling of ‘rightness’, satisfaction, security, and so on) would naturally be one where the world accords with its preferences, goals and plans and so the motivation of the static self is always going to be directed to achieving this state of affairs. Its efforts, its plans, its activities, are always going to be aimed at the ultimate goal of bringing about this accord. Achieving the goal is good, failing to achieve it is bad. But there is a serious snag here, albeit a snag that the rational or goal-orientated mind is utterly incapable of understanding. If it is the case that we live in a stasis-orientated P-Type rather than a flux-based H-Type universe then we are as a result faced with an insoluble paradox and that paradox arises out of the fact that even in a P-Type we are still exclusively concerned with change.
After all, the only reason behind all our purposeful activity is our need to change things so that they become the way we want them to be. And the only reason we think is because we are assuming that thinking might give us a way of changing the world – of improving it, fixing it, getting rid of aspects or elements about it we don’t like, adding aspects or elements that we do like. ‘Thinking’ is how we scrabble to get an angle on things, and the only reason we to want to get an angle on things is because we want to change them. Why else would we bother?
Even if our situation is a certain way and there is really nothing we can do change it (or if something happened and there is absolutely nothing we can do to alter the fact that it has happened) we still think, very often we drive ourselves around the bend with our thinking, and this is still all about change. Even if the very reason we are thinking so much is because we have been confronted with the implacable immutable fact of ‘the way things are’, our mental activity is still about change because we want very much to change our situation, all the more so because we can’t. It is our desire for change that is the force (or charge) behind our ceaseless mental activity, no matter how futile, and this is a battery that never runs down.
The paradox inherent in the Parmenidean universe can be stated as follows: if the universe were a fixed thing then it ought to be possible (in theory, at least) to have a world which agrees with the way I want it to be. So in this – admittedly unlikely – case, I would have things exactly the way I want them to be and so there would be no more reason for me to be thinking, no more reason for goal-orientated doing, no more reason for my constant striving to find an angle. I don’t need to hustle any more because I’ve already hit the jackpot. In this hypothetical case, reality would be my goal and my goal would be reality. This of course sounds fantastic, it sounds completely wonderful – it is what we all want, it’s what we all dream of – but there is a problem nevertheless. The problem comes out of what James Carse calls the ‘contradictoriness of finite play’ – the reason for all my striving (pretty obviously) is to obtain what I am striving for, which means that what I have been striving for is ‘an end to my striving’. I have been struggling to change the world so that I can reach the point where I no longer have to struggle, where I no longer have to try to change it. But what do I do then? What happens next?
The problem is that the self is defined through its resistance to reality, not by its unconditional acceptance of it. The real reason I am looking for an angle is because that is what the self is – ‘the self is an angle’, the self is a specific approach to the world. I search for the correct angle, the correct approach, because having this definite perspective will – I hope – give me the opportunity of obtaining the definite goals or outcomes that I seek. This is ‘the game of the self’ – the self is defined by its goals. But if I no longer need an angle, if I no longer need to have the correct perspective on things, then there will no longer be a self there is enjoy its well-earned holiday from its constant goal-orientated striving. After all, as Alan Watts says, the ego is in essence no more than an habitual knot of tension or straining and so when there is no more need for straining then this ‘knot of tension’ can release or let go, which it does not want to do. The self is the struggle, the self is the striving – the self is the reaching ahead for the next limited bit of relief from the straining, and the next, and the next, and the next… This is the contradictoriness of finite play.
Thus, although the goal-orientated or purposeful self struggles on in the way that it does in the hope of one day not having to struggle and fight any more, this is really the last thing it wants. It is OK to have the theatrical idea of ‘the final goal’, therefore, (i.e. the ‘ultimate release’) but this is really just a convenient lie, a kind of a made-up story like Santa Claus, a fiction to make us feel better about things and keep us motivated. It was never meant to be an actual reality for the simple reason that the self can’t let go of itself without ceasing to be there. The busy-bee ‘me’ never seriously wanted to reach the blessed state of peace in which there is rest from all the goal-orientated striving because this would also be a rest from the heavy-hanged, literal-minded, blinkered old self which does all the striving.
The self doesn’t really want to grasp hold of the Totality, the Wholeness of things. It might think that it does but it doesn’t. What it is really trying to seize hold of is a rational analogue of the Whole – a definite statement about the Whole, a fixed or defined token of the Whole. It is limited to this because of its literal nature – it can only think in terms of definite statements and so it can never go beyond literal images or conceptions. When I conceive a goal of this, that or the other, this goal is a definite one – I want to obtain exactly what I say I want, and nothing else. If I say I want a cup of tea I don’t mean that I want a walk in the park, if I say that I want a new pair of shoes I won’t want to get an egg mayonnaise sandwich instead. If I say I want a brand new top-of-the-range Mercedes car to drive around in then this is exactly what I do want – I don’t want you to come along and tell me that the Mercedes is merely a symbol of a wholeness that is lacking in my life, a literal analogue for a quality that my rational mind is constitutionally incapable of grasping hold of. I just want the ignition key in my hand.
Thought can only grasp at its own categories – it’s not just that it doesn’t take any aspect of reality seriously unless it matches one of its categories, but rather that is has no way of even registering anything that isn’t a direct, one-to-one match with its rational-conceptual compartments. So when I think or say anything using rational thought as my guide, I am grasping at abstractions. An abstraction is grasping at an abstraction; the fixed self is trying to seize hold of a fixed image or picture of things.
This is all very well and the abstraction which is ‘me’ is of course perfectly at liberty to do this – the only thing being that when I do assert a definite statement then (as we have already said) I have put myself directly in line for the back-lash, for the reverse-swing of the pendulum. Reality as it is in itself corresponds to the situation where the pendulum has not been disturbed or displaced. This is the unbiased, unprejudiced, unmodified, unmanipulated situation – the situation where no definite assertion regarding the nature of that reality has been made. In this case, because we have not grasped at the world with our mind, we have not entered into any game of PLUS and MINUS, YES and NO, ASSERT and DENY. This being the case, there is no need for the fixed position from which definite assertions can be made (seeing as how definite statements can only come from a fixed position or stance), and so there is simply no need for the one who says YES or NO, the one who asserts or denies. The asserter is redundant, unnecessary.
In the unbiased or unmodified state, then, there is no definite stance and because there is no definite stance there is no defined self. The defined self has no reason to find this state of affairs at all attractive or rewarding and so Wholeness (or Unity) is something it simply has no interest in. Instead of having any truck with Wholeness, it fixes its attention upon some literal token of this unmentionable Wholeness, this indefinable state of Unity, and pursues this limited token instead. Pursuing the literal analogue of Wholeness involves us in a reciprocating action, like the piston in an engine going back and forth, because just as soon as we have secured the literal object (or rather the ‘literally-understood idea of the object’) we are already poised for the return-swing of the pendulum. ‘At the very moment of victory, defeat is born’, because – within the terms of the game – there is now nowhere else to go. If I definitely obtain a thing, then what else is left for me but to lose it?
Suppose I state that a certain proposition is true. Because I have stated it so positively, so emphatically, this means that I see it as being very important that it is true. I am biased towards seeing it as true. But the problem here is that I have unwittingly created my own enemy, my own nemesis, because if it is of the utmost importance that the proposition should be true, then it has also got to be of the utmost importance that it should not be false.So as hard as I push to assert that it is true, that it is right, the more resistance there is in the opposite direction. In Michel de Montaigne’s words,
We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.
A classic example of this sort of thing is the out-and-out religious fanatic who has to ram his beliefs down everyone else’s throat the whole time and is at the same time completely intolerant of any other point of view. The reason for this intolerance is of course because he feels that he has to fight as hard as he can to promote his religion because he is aware – on some level – that there is an equal and opposite force fighting back at him which he needs to win out over. What he can’t see is that this resistance is not an external force but an internal one – i.e. he himself is the enemy he is fighting against.
A definite statement is like a specified number – it always has its opposite. So any defined truth always has its antithesis (its ‘opposite number’) which it has to fight against. But if are talking about the Whole of Everything, the Universal Set of All Possible Statements, then there is – needless to say – no such thing as ‘an opposite to push against’. If everything is included then nothing is excluded and so there can’t be anything ‘out there’ to push against, to fight against.
The Whole of Everything is of course undefined since the only way to define something is to say what it isn’t, and since the Whole of Everything necessarily includes everything there is simply no way to define it. The Universal Set can’t be stated and so the insurmountable problem that faces us is that we can’t state it, we can’t assert it. This is a much bigger problem than it might first seem because if I can’t assert it then I don’t come into it. I don’t have a role to play, a part to play. If I have the role of asserting something very important then this affirms me, it makes me important – I get a share in the glory, but if on the other hand there is nothing for me to assert, and no need for me to assert it, then there is zero affirmation in it for me, no pay-back at all. If there is no ‘asserted truth’ then there is no need for an asserter, no need for a champion to come into the ring with fists flying. For this reason the Whole of Everything is of no interest to me, and I have to – instead – settle for championing the cause of rational (or ‘literal’) analogue of Wholeness, no matter what the long-term drawbacks of this game might be.
Another way of looking at this is to say that the positive sense of self comes about as a result of me being able to make relevant statements about reality, and in this way creating a relationship with reality. So if I am able to establish a meaningful relationship with reality by making relevant statements about it, then the one who is making the relevant statements gets to exist. And contrariwise, if I am not able to think or say relevant stuff, then I don’t get to exist. This shows us very clearly what the pay-off is for non-stop thinking – just as the pay-off for continual purposeful ‘doing’ is the validation of the ‘doer’, the pay-off for continuous thinking is the reification of the thinker.
It doesn’t matter whether I am ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in what I say just so long as it is relevant; a NO answer confirms the validity of my statement just as much as a YES response does because I am obviously still in the right ball-park. In the same way it could be said that losing in the game confirms the existence of the game-player just as much as winning does, or that failing to attain the goal is as validating for the purposeful doer just as much as succeeding is. Pleasure and pain both confirm the existence of the one who is experiencing the pleasure or pain. What doesn’t confirm my existence is when I am neither right nor wrong, when the statements I make about the world simply fail to connect one way or another, when ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ are both equally meaningless concepts. If it is the case that my viewpoint is irrelevant then so am I, and ‘being irrelevant with respect to the real’ is just another way of talking about being unreal.
So all the thinking, all the talking, all the mental agitation, is just a big smokescreen for the abstract (or phantom) self to hide behind. I am thinking, thinking, thinking and just so long as attention is being neatly displaced (or deflected) onto the products of the thinking process, no one will notice that the thinker isn’t real. If on the other hand the thinking doesn’t get taken seriously, then it no longer serves as a decoy to distract the attention away from the thinker, who then comes under scrutiny. This is not good news for the thinker because then he is then revealed to be bogus – like Oz the Great and Terrible is revealed to be bogus in the well-known scene from The Wizard of Oz. He is revealed as a fake, a hoax, a phantom appearance. The self who hides behind the non-stop barrage of thinking is revealed as a being no more than a resounding empty barrel – an empty barrel that is continually being belted by a stick, over and over again. There might be an awful lot of noise produced as a result, but this does not mean that there is anything in the barrel…
The positively asserted self is like a blank stare – there is force in it, there is some kind of indication or implication of there being an actual presence behind it, but actually there is no one home. It is like a man who blusters to cover up the fact that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. The positively asserted self is how we assert our lack of presence, our absence. The less presence we have, the more aggressively we assert ourselves, the more violently we bluster and blunder about. The more unsure of ourselves we are, the louder and more brazen we are, and the more of a deal we make of whatever nonsense it is that we are saying.
The much-emphasized ‘self’ is therefore the mechanical pattern of ignorance that is being pointlessly asserted, over and over again, to the detriment of anything less crude, to the detriment of anything less loud-mouthed, less ostentatiously pushy. It is ignorance put on a throne, ignorance placed on a pedestal, ignorance exalted over actual awareness.
This is inevitably going to be the story just as long as we are in the state of ‘psychological unconsciousness’, which can be defined as the state in which the only thing that matters is ‘security’ or ‘comfort’. When the only thing that matters is security then everything gets inverted – brash, unreflective confidence gets to be valued over vulnerability, wilfully stubborn belief or opinion gets to be valued over open-mindedness, brute force gets to be valued over sensitivity and lies gets to be valued over the truth.
Everything in this psychological modality is about surface-level appearances, even if, underneath these blandly reassuring appearances, there is simply nothing there – nothing but the ubiquitous all-consuming blankness of unconsciousness.
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.