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In the Face of the Great Unknown

In the face of the Great Unknown, what do we do? The Great Unknown is after all a pretty tall order – it is not exactly the easiest thing in the world to respond to. How are we to respond to such an unanswerable challenge? How are we to relate to it?



The way that we actually do respond is with fear. We respond with terror. And because our terror is so absolute, because we are so unable to look at it, we are compelled to disguise it, to cover it over. We are driven by the fear to hide from the fear – we retreat/shut off/close down and the way in which we ‘shut off’ or ‘close down’ is by performing whatever randomly meaningless actions occur to us to perform, and then saying to ourselves that they are meaningful, so that we can lose ourselves in them. We react to the Great Terror by frantically repeating some pointless random mechanical routine and then by investing this mechanical routine with a meaning that it just doesn’t have, so that we don’t need to concern ourselves with anything apart from the pointless mechanical routine. This way we don’t have to relate to the Great Mystery! Problem solved!



What we’re talking about here is the process of ‘concretization’ (or ‘literalization’) which is how we escape from open space by defining everything in a very closed and banal way, and then sticking to this banal ‘made-up’ meaning like glue. It’s not in any way ‘true’ at all – it’s just our private fiction – but we hypnotize ourselves by sheer force of repetition into believing that it is. In this way – by grasping for all we’re worth at made-up concrete banalities – we create a solid edifice out of them that we can shelter behind. In this way we construct a fortified dwelling that we can retreat into, that we can ‘hole up’ in like a bandit on the run.



In our fear we grasp – in true desperation – at whatever nonsense we can come up with, and then we proceed to ‘make something of it’ – we make a virtue of whatever it is we have come up with, we treat it as something that is actually worthwhile in itself, rather than just being ‘a means of escape’ from something that we don’t want to know about. This is how the process of running away from ontological terror always works – by retreating from spaciousness into petty confinement, and then reiterating to ourselves that this pettiness is all that there is – that it isn’t ‘pettiness’ at all but – on the contrary – ‘the right and proper way to be’! This is cowardly self-justification taken to the logical extreme.



As we have said, what we seize hold of in our terror are mechanical behavioural reiterations of one sort or another. The mechanical repetitions could be physical actions, they could be thoughts, or they could be things that we say to ourselves. Whatever the ‘mechanical behavioural units’ are, the point is that we repeat them and repeat them; the point is that we reiterate them and reiterate them over and over again so as to block out anything else, anything that isn’t the dumb old thing that is being reiterated! The ‘dumb old thing’ might be dumb and stupid to the nth degree but it’s saving our skin, so we have to learn to love it, we have to somehow learn to pretend to ourselves that it isn’t ‘dumb and stupid’ at all!



This is a very straightforward idea – anyone who can clearly bring to mind what it feels like to be totally terrified will be able to understand the basic ‘concretization tactic’ that we’re talking about here. A trivial example of the mechanism in question might be when we blabber a lot of nonsense as a result of being nervous – nonsense which we will probably regret immediately afterwards. And if we’re really terrified we might close down, we might stop making sense altogether, and go into a so-called ‘safe space’ where we keep on repeating some kind of self-comforting formula to ourselves. Children sometimes show a type of behaviour where they rock back and forth for a while before going to sleep at night and this too is at root a ‘fear-avoiding’ kind of a thing – a repetition that is familiar and reassuring, and which offers therefore some kind of basic comfort. Routines are always comforting in this way: all everyday ‘stereotyped’ activities (little habits or routine) are essentially self-comforting in nature – the very fact that the activity is the same under all circumstances (when other aspects of what is going on may not be) provides us with a sense of reassuring constancy. Formulaic chit-chat in social situations might also be said to be an example of ‘fear avoidance’ – a safe pathway (like a row of stepping stones) through a challenging territory is provided for us in the form of ‘stereotyped things that we say to break the ice’, and ‘the stereotyped things that people say back to us when we come out with them’!



Eric Berne says that the reason we play these social games is to ‘avoid intimacy’ – i.e. we avoid meeting the other person as they really are, and instead we meet them in the socially-prescribed fashion, which is infinitely predictable (i.e. rule-based) and therefore fundamentally unchallenging (or at it is least for anyone who isn’t suffering from social anxiety). We never need to meet the person at all therefore – we need only meet the ‘unchallenging social mask’, we need only meet the ‘safe social persona’. Social games are therefore a perfect example of strategies that we employ in order to avoid having to encounter the unknown – the unknown in this case being the other person. There is of course a down-side to ‘playing it safe’ like this and the down-side is that there is no genuine, honest-to-goodness interaction: because I have substituted the ‘known social image’, the ‘standardized rule-based presentation’ for the unknown (but real!) person behind the mask, I am only encountering the formulaic representation not the real person!



And even saying this doesn’t make the point strongly enough – it is not that I am meeting a formulaic representation of whoever it is I am talking to: a standardized or formulaic representation of ‘who I really am’ is chatting to a standardized or formulaic representation of ‘who you really are’! A clichéd social mask is chatting to another clichéd social mask. ‘Who I’m not’ is relating to ‘who you’re not’, and so this is an infinitely redundant situation…



In general, then, we avoid the unthinkable challenge of the Great Unknown by eliminating it entirely, and creating a formulaic simulation of it which we can then relate to quite safely. And because we too are the Great Mystery that we wish to avoid we create formulaic simulations of ourselves as well, so that there isn’t even the slightest trace of reality left in what is going on! Everything is safe and unchallenging, and everything is also unreal…



The simulation is made up of our terror-induced ‘nonsensical routines’ – in themselves these basic routines are meaningless, but with regard to our all-important agenda of ‘avoiding reality’ they are very meaningful, albeit not in a sense that we can admit to ourselves without giving the game away. This is the ‘covert level of meaning’ – the level of meaning that we have to make sure to conceal from ourselves at all costs. The ‘overt level of meaning’ on the other hand is the level of meaning that we use to distract ourselves with and preoccupy ourselves with and this is what we call reality, although it is nothing of the sort. If we ever took a good hard look at the overt level of meaning we would unfailingly see that it is made up of nothing more than ‘nauseatingly repetitive nonsense’ – but we never do take a good, hard look at it. We aren’t in the business of reflecting deeply on things – we’re in the business of going along with whatever we’re told to go along with and not ever wondering what it’s all about. We’re in the business of not being challenged.



We call this unexamined repetitive nonsense our culture; we call it our values, our religion, our philosophy, our way of life, and we will defend it to the last. We will defend it viciously – without really knowing what we are defending, and without really knowing why we are doing so. We say we’re defending it because it’s the truth and because someone is attacking the truth. We think we’re defending our way of seeing things, our modality of being in the world, because we are ‘champions of the truth’ but really we’re defending it because we’re scared to see the truth. This of course is not nearly as heroic a sort of a thing as we like to imagine – in fact it’s the very antithesis of ‘heroic’.



If someone comes along and says that our way of looking at the world is an empty or nonsensical formula that we are clinging to like limpets because we’re afraid, we will in all probability be insulted. We think that we are clinging to whatever beliefs or outlooks we’re clinging to because of the inherent value of the belief, because of the objective truth of the outlook, which would validate our ‘clinging’, our partisan nature’. If what I am prejudiced to see as being true actually is true then I’m not prejudiced; in this case there is no prejudice there. On the contrary – I am on the side of the angels and I can sleep the sleep of the justified! To actually see that I am prejudiced, so actually see that I am ‘addicted to self-serving lies’ – that is the hard thing. This is the supreme test of integrity and there are very few who can pass it!



Even what we are pleased to call ‘the rational or scientific world view’ is no more than a prejudice. All views are prejudices! What we call the rational viewpoint is no more than a clever dodge: wouldn’t we be overjoyed if science could explain everything ‘once and for all’, as we had once imagined that religion could? Our only interest in science is that we hope it will reduce reality to a safe formula – we aren’t motivated by wonder, or by the urge to expand our horizons. On the contrary, we are motivated by the urge to shut the door tight, to close down our horizons forever. We want the box nailed shut, and then thrown in a secure storage facility somewhere. Only then will we be happy – when everything is sure and certain and everything is written down in text book somewhere! It’s not even that we want to read the wretched text book – we couldn’t give a damn. We just want to know that it’s all been written down, that its all been explained away, and that some expert knows all about it…


The uncomfortable truth is that there is no rational formula to sum up reality. There is no scientific description of ultimate reality – how can there be a so-called ‘scientific description’ of the Illimitable when all descriptions are limitations? How can there be a handy categorization of the Whole when the Whole is beyond all categories? How can we pin down ‘the movement from an unknown source to an unknown destination’, when whatever certainties we fabricate always have to be held up to this Great, All-encompassing Unknown in the end? As Nagarjuna says,


All philosophies are mental fabrications. There has never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things.


We are affronted to hear that the thoughts and beliefs we cling to so tenaciously are no more than fear-induced babble. We like to take our fear-induced babble seriously – that way we don’t get to feel that we’re afraid! That way we get to feel that everything’s actually OK, that way we get to feel that everything’s just fine. That way we get to turn everything around so that instead of instead of being terrified we get to feel that everything is hunky-dory. How clever a trick is this?



All fixed (or finite) meanings are empty nonsense – mere froth – and these are the only types of meanings we concern ourselves with. Fixed or literal signifiers are the only type of signifiers we know. Everything we routinely understand, everything that makes sense to us on a regular everyday basis – this is finite meaning. Finite meaning is the meaning that things have when we look at them from within a predetermined frame of reference, it is meaning that has been allocated or assigned within the terms of the game we are playing. My thoughts are little packets of finite meaning and it is out of my thoughts that I make the world.  Finite meaning is the only sort of meaning that the everyday rational mind deals in and this mind is the author of everything we know – not only of the world but of ourselves…



What we are saying here therefore is that when we are confronted with the Great Unknown (which we can’t really escape being confronted with since the Great Unknown is all there is!) what we do is to retreat full-scale into a type of madness, and then – having done this – we proceed to adapt to this madness and say that the madness is in fact the very pinnacle of sanity! In one way this assertion seems reasonable enough – it is a matter of common experience, as we have said, that we generally react to fear by preoccupying ourselves with repetitive (or ‘stereotyped’) behaviours. We might perform some simple mechanical action over and over again, or we might repeat some kind of a comforting phrase to ourselves – either out loud or internally – like a mantra designed to anaesthetize rather than awaken us!



This is how we ward off fear – by using repetitive mechanical activity, by thoroughly immersing ourselves in the reassuringly concrete nature of stereotyped (or ‘generic’) behaviour. This is not hard to see. What is hard to see however is that our whole routine existence (which includes all our thoughts and perceptions) is in its essence nothing more than a thorough-going escape from ontological terror. Our whole world is an escape. It is exactly this idea that Carlos Castaneda articulates in A Separate Reality:


The world is such-and-such or so-and-so only because we tell ourselves that that is the way it is. If we stop telling ourselves that the world is so-and-so, the world will stop being so-and-so. You must start slowly to undo the world.


Your problem is that you confuse the world with what people do. The things people do are the shields against the forces that surround us; what we do as people gives us comfort and makes us feel safe; what people do is rightfully very important, but only as a shield. We never learn that the things we do as people are only shields and we let them dominate and topple our lives. In fact I could say that for mankind, what people do is greater and more important than the world itself.


The world is all that is encased here; life, death, people, the allies, and everything else that surrounds us. The world is incomprehensible. We won’t ever understand it; we won’t ever unravel its secrets. Thus we must treat it as it is, a sheer mystery!


An average man doesn’t do this, though. The world is never a mystery for him, and when he arrives at old age he is convinced he has nothing more to live for. An old man has not exhausted the world. He has exhausted only what people do. But in his stupid confusion he believes that the world has no more mysteries for him. What a wretched price to pay for our shields!


A warrior is aware of this confusion and learns to treat things properly. The things that people do cannot under any conditions be more important than the world. And thus a warrior treats the world as an endless mystery and what people do as an endless folly.



Society itself, in other words, is an armoury of ‘doings’ that we use to create a bland substitute for the vast mysterious world that surrounds us, and keep it safely at bay. Needless to say, the logic of this substitution business means that we can’t allow ourselves to see that the social system exists solely for the purpose of protecting us from the Immeasurable, any more than we can allow ourselves to see that our socially-sanctified routines and rituals aren’t actually meaningful in the way that we say they are, but only meaningful in terms of giving ourselves something to absorb ourselves in (or preoccupy ourselves with) so that we don’t run any risk of stumbling across the Unknowable! In themselves, the goals that we preoccupy ourselves with are all just so much tinsel – they are instantly forgettable candyfloss for all that we take them so seriously. They only exist for the sake of keeping our attention constantly tied up with trivialities, where we are guaranteed never to come across anything actually profound. If the truth were told we are hopelessly in love with the trivial and the inconsequential, the banal and the petty, the dull and the tedious, and it would be quite absurd for anyone to deny it!



Of course it is true that not everything we do or say is a mere social stereotype. Of course it is true that not all of our precious attention gets squandered on virulently proliferating memes. Of course it is true that there are in life many moments of genuine humour, light-heartedness, kindness, profundity, creativity, insight, and intelligence. It is also true however that none of these originate in the social system! The individual alone is the ‘carrier’ of virtue, as Jung says, and to the extent that the individual is repressed so too are all these ‘virtues’. The social system deals only in reproducible formulae that can be copied (or learned) on a mass basic if needed; formulae that enable it to produces simulations of humour, simulations of light-heartedness, simulations of kindness, simulations of profundity and so on. Anything that isn’t a reproducible formula isn’t taken seriously because for society a thing isn’t real unless it can be validated by the proper authorities, enacted or performed where and when required. “Where is the proof?” and then “show us how you do it?” are the two questions that always get asked and if a thing can’t be proved, can’t be shown, then the system has no further interest in it. In this case it simply doesn’t exist, as far as the collective mind is concerned…



Only the standardized (or the standardizable) is real for us, and yet the standardized is by definition always unoriginal, which is to say, it has been taken from the strictly individual domain and incorporated into the second-hand realm of the collective. This is fine if we’re talking about a process for manufacturing motor cars or antidepressants or face cream or for an industrial method of extracting aluminium from bauxite, but it doesn’t work for any of the qualities that we have mentioned above. Art or poetry isn’t produced by the collective and neither is kindness or compassion – only the individual can give birth to these values and if my individuality has been submerged or buried under the torrent of memes which is society then I just have to make to with the safe substitutes that the consensus world provides me with (just as – to use Ouspensky’s metaphor – a shopper might make do with margarine instead of butter if there is no butter in stock). Original articles are a threat to the collective system precisely because the system can’t validate them; if the system can’t validate them (and reproduce them) and if – as we have suggested – the undisclosed function of the system is to protect us from the immeasurable and the inconceivable, obviously there is no place for the unique or the original, no place for anything that cannot be readily understood and reproduced. Allowing ‘unregulated meaning’ into the picture would defeat the whole object of the exercise…



When something is first-hand there is always the question, “But how do we know that it is true?” After all, it hasn’t been validated, it hasn’t been ‘proved’. But then again if something is second-hand (i.e. if it has been absorbed from the system rather than having its origin in oneself) then the one thing we know absolutely for sure is that it isn’t authentic. It isn’t authentic because it isn’t truly ours. It belongs to the system, not us! It’s like religion (or the so-called scientific world-view, if we aren’t religious) – we are the passive absorber of values that we accept ‘on trust’ rather than owning them ourselves as a result of our own personal insights. So what this means is that by insisting that everything must first be validated by the consensus viewpoint, the mass-mind, we have denied the value of the individual. But then again, why wouldn’t we deny the value of the unregulated individual – the unregulated individual, after all, is not ‘safe’…



It may be said therefore that it is the structures and systems that we have created, and the goal-orientated behaviours that make sense within them, that constitute what Castaneda calls our ‘doings’, but it is also true to say that what we ‘do’ in order to ward off the mysterious is to think. Our routine or everyday thoughts are our doings – it is these thoughts that act as an impenetrable barrier between us and the Nameless Immensity that holds so much terror for us. Our thoughts generate an opaque veil (constructed out of what we have been calling finite meaning) that very effectively covers over the bottomless depths of unconditioned reality. Each and every thought we think ‘is a little packet of finite meaning’ – each and every thought is a packet of finite meaning because it means precisely what it says it means and nothing else! 



Any given thought has the property of never going beyond itself. That’s the way thoughts are. This means that each thought very quickly grows stale so that when we think a thought we have no choice but to immediately move on to the next one in line, and then the next, and then the next, and then the next one after that. If you were to make the experiment of thinking the same thought over and over again the experience would quickly become tortuous – there would be the experience of being caught up in a trapped moment of time, and this is a quintessentially nightmarish sort of a thing. The same phenomenon can be observed, to a less intense extent, if we hear a particular joke or catchphrase repeated too many times – a highly disagreeable feeling of what John Paul Sartre calls nausea is experienced. ‘Nausea’ is a lack of meaning and so what we’re gaining insight into in these instances is the utter sterility of our own thoughts – which is an insight that we normally manage to avoid.



Because we do skip from one literal thought to another so rapidly we don’t get to see this inbuilt redundancy, we don’t get to experience the latent ‘nausea-inducing’ nature of the thinking process. Instead, everything seems perfectly OK. It seems OK in the sense that we feel that we’re getting somewhere, in the sense that we feel we are actually going somewhere different with our thinking. This perception is however no more than an illusion – each thought we think is only nominally different from all the rest and so we’re not really getting anywhere at all! It’s like having a spectacularly big box of chocolates to choose from, only underneath all the enticingly different wrappings there’s only ever the same old basic type of chocolate, whether its orange cream or strawberry or toffee or whatever. In the same way all thoughts are just ‘thoughts’ – all thoughts are mental productions, mental fabrications, mental constructs. A thought is nothing but a ‘mental category’, a kind of compartment or drawer in the filing cabinet of the mind, and these categories are – naturally – only nominally different, which is to say, they are only different because we say that they are.  No matter how each compartment or drawer is labelled, it’s still only ever the same old filing cabinet; similarly, no matter what the official designation for each mental category is, it’s still only ever just the same old mind, the same old cognitive apparatus.



Intentionality – which is where we get to say what things are – is an infinitely superficial form of freedom. On the face of it, this type of freedom (which is the freedom to play games) might seem pretty fantastic, but it really oughtn’t to take us that long to work out that it’s actually quite meaningless. It’s only meaningful because we say it is, after all, and what’s that worth at the end of the day? “If everything can be true, then nothing is true”, as the saying has it. If anything can be true just because it suits me that it is then this terminally devalues the value of truth! It’s like a government printing its own money whenever it gets into an economic hole – in the initial phase of the process there is a lot of euphoria and we really do seem to be getting ‘something for nothing’, but very quickly the so-called ‘money’ becomes more and more worthless, until eventually it isn’t even worth the paper it’s printed on. We can go on printing more and more of the stuff, and we can even try increasing the denomination of the notes exponentially as we do so, but we’re running into ‘the law of diminishing returns’, which means that we’re never going to get anywhere no matter how much effort we put into it.



The same thing happens with games. Initially there is a euphoric stage where we seem to be getting something for nothing, but this is followed by a ‘devaluation of meaning’ which translates as dysphoria, or despair. We get to enjoy the initial period of elation, it’s true – but we pay for it later on, big time. The type of meaning that games have for us (which is the meaning of ‘win versus lose’) is what we’ve called finite meaning – it is finite meaning because it never goes anywhere, because it never takes us beyond itself. Similarly, the game never takes us anywhere; the game never takes us beyond itself. There is only winning and losing, winning and losing, winning and losing, spinning around meaninglessly forever. Winning is losing. No matter whether we win or lose it’s still just the same wretchedly tired old game, repeated ad nauseam



Finite meaning isn’t any sort of meaning at all. Being caught up in this sort of business is to be permanently on a trip to nowhere, stuck forever in an endlessly recycled moment, an endlessly recycled moment that wasn’t even worth the effort the first time around! The point was never that we should get somewhere anyway; the point never was that we should ‘come out on top’; the point never was that we should come out with a net gain. This was never the point. The point is only that we should keep on thinking that we can come out on top. The point is only that we should keep on thinking that we stand a chance of coming out of the fray with a thick roll of dollar bills clutched in our fist! This deluded belief is what keeps us hooked into the game and as long as we’re hooked into the game then we’re safe. The point is therefore that just so long as we’re playing the game we’re ‘protected from reality’! Or we could say that just so long as we’re kept busy ‘chasing the PLUS and running away from the MINUS’ we’re safe – we’re safe because just as long as we’re doing this we’ll never uncover the trail that leads into the Unfathomable!



The whole point of the game isn’t that it should lead us somewhere. The point isn’t (and never was) that we should ‘get somewhere’ as a result of playing the game – on the contrary, the point is that we should be effectively and permanently BLOCKED from ever getting anywhere!!  It’s true that we need to have the plausible perception that we are moving, that we are progressing, that things are changing, otherwise the sense of sterility and stagnation would quickly become absolutely unbearable. No one said however that the sense of progression had to be real! ‘The real’ isn’t what we’re looking for anyway. We aren’t interested in the real.The real’ is – after all – the very thing that we’re so scared of in the first place…






Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

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