We never change, we never get anywhere, because we do not value true well-being but only its inferior substitute, which is ‘the theatrical appearance of well-being’. Or we could also say, ‘the reason we never ever get anywhere is because we value spurious happiness over the real thing’.
But if this is the case, what then is ‘the inferior analogue of well-being’? What is ‘spurious (or false) happiness’? What kind of a thing would this be?
This turns out to be a relatively straightforward question to answer. False happiness (or ‘phoney well-being’, or whatever else we might want to call it) is happiness or well-being that belongs to that construct which Wei We Wei calls the ‘I-concept’, but not to who we really are…
The I-concept wants one thing and one thing only, when it comes down to it. It wants validation. It needs to be validated all the time. The reason the I-concept is hung up on validation, greedy for validation, addicted to validation, desperate for validation is – straightforwardly enough – because it doesn’t exist.
Naturally the I-concept doesn’t exist. Concepts don’t exist. Concepts don’t exist because they are only concepts! They are only constructs of our mind, artifacts, inventions, made-up things. Concepts are in essence over-simplifications of reality. Oversimplifications of reality don’t exist – only reality exists! Or we could say that concepts (like thoughts) are abstractions, and abstractions, rather than having a genuine existence, naturally enough, only have an abstract existence!
Because the I-concept is only an abstraction, because it is only ‘an oversimplification of reality’ (and doesn’t on this account actually exist) it needs to go on proving to itself (and anyone else who’s looking) that it does exist. The I-concept thinks that it exists but it doesn’t really know that it exists, which is where all the problems begin. Essentially, the I-construct is its own construct. It has invented itself. It is the fabrication of its own imagination…
The I-concept asserts to itself (and others) that it exists but this assertion doesn’t really do the trick in the way that it hopes it will. This is because all definite statements are ultimately paradoxical – i.e. they always say two opposite things at once. Thus, the thing about making a definite statement such as “I exist” is that in asserting the one thing I am also asserting the opposite. When I make the definite or positive statement that “I exist” I am automatically and simultaneously making the ‘equal-and-opposite’ statement.
There is no getting out of this – as soon as I formulate a thesis, I am unwittingly forming the antithesis at the same time. If I say – for example – that “God exists” then I have at the same time created the antithetical statement which is that “God doesn’t exist”. By promoting the one defined possibility I invoke its complement. So when I state that “I exist” I am straightaway creating the spectre of my own personal non-existence, which is necessarily every bit as much of a possibility as my existence is!
So the I-concept gets to exist by positively asserting that it does exist, but the snag is that by doing this it also creates its own nemesis, which it then has to do its best to contend with. It has to deal with both thesis and antithesis. Clearly, the I-concept cannot countenance both the thesis and the anti-thesis (the statement and the anti-statement) at the same time so what it does, as a sort of ‘improvised coping strategy,’ is that it focuses narrowly on the one and steadfastly ignores the other. It blocks out all awareness of the antithesis, it represses it. It denies the flip-side of the coin, it denies that the coin has two sides, it denies that all definite statement are inherently paradoxical.
No matter how it chooses to see things however, the I-concept is very much a coin with two faces. One face is an emphatic “I exist”, whilst the other is an equally emphatic “I don’t exist”. By focusing one-sidedly on the positive statement and turning a blind eye to the negative one however the I-concept manages to create the workable illusion that it actually does exist, in a real or ‘unqualified’ sense.
This is an inherently precarious or unstable state of affairs though. The contradiction is still there – it has just been repressed, it has just been pushed out of sight. On the face of things (on the ‘surface-level’) the I-concept thinks that it does exist but just below the surface (on the unconscious level) it thinks that it doesn’t, and this proves to be a highly uncomfortable situation for it to adapt to. It is uncomfortable because the level which is made up of the ‘repressed’ content is not wholly separated or sealed-off from the conscious level; the unwanted or prohibited awareness is only partially separated from the permitted one and it is therefore prone to leaking through from time to time to varying extents. One way or another, via various indirect or back-door means, the antithesis (which has been both created and charged full of energy by our emphasizing of the thesis) makes itself known to the I-concept, despite its best efforts to prevent this from happening.
Because of the highly unstable nature of this set-up the I-concept is driven to validate itself as much as it can, and as often as it can. This ‘non-negotiable need’ is the spring, the motivational force, that drives the conditioned sense of identity, the ‘self-image’ or ‘I-concept’, in all its activity. It is compelled in everything it does to seek to compensate for the insecurity that is always gnawing away at its core. It is always being kept busy, it is always being kept ‘on the hop’. So although the illusion that the I-concept has about itself – the precarious illusion that it does exist in a real or unqualified fashion – is workable, it is not workable in any sort of a pleasant or relaxed way…
Life for the I-concept is a struggle. The idea that it is possible to ‘stay afloat’, the idea that it is possible for it to obtain more validation than de-validation (more confirmation than falsification) is always there, but sometimes it’s hard to believe in it. Sometimes it is very hard to believe, and at other times again we go into negative territory and start believing that we are destined to lose, destined to be always missing the target, destined to reap nothing but failure and the bitterness that comes from failure…
The essential struggle or quest of the I-concept is therefore all about getting more ticks than crosses, more pluses than minuses, more ups than downs. It is all about trying to shift the balance so that we win more times than we lose…
This in itself is fair enough and there is no reason why we shouldn’t give this quest a go, give it our best shot, and all the rest of it. There is no reason why we shouldn’t try to win more often than we lose, and we are – generally speaking – pretty enthusiastic about our chances in this regard. Being enthusiastic that we can get more confirmation than falsification out of life – so that one day we can come out gloriously triumphant – is what is called ‘being positive’ and this resolutely optimistic attitude is highly valued, highly prized, in our society.
This is all very well but the thing to remember is that no one actually ever said that this is possible. No one ever said that this was a real possibility – or if they did, they were lying. In a way we could say that this is rather like flipping a coin. If the I-concept is – as we have said – like a coin with two faces, then every time we rush into the fray trying our best to get things to work out for us, trying to come out on top, trying to win rather than ‘lose’, then this is just like flipping a coin. Sometimes we might come up heads and sometimes we might come up tails. We might get a run of ‘good luck’ – in which case we will feel great, we will feel on top of the world, we will feel invulnerable, and so on. Or at other times we might get a run of what we will call ‘bad luck’ and this will cause us to have a pessimistic view of life – we will start to see ourselves in a negative way, feel that we were born to lose, jinxed, predisposed to screw everything up, etc. But neither view is true, and thus when we switch around from being optimistic in our outlook to being pessimistic or vice versa this isn’t really a meaningful change at all – despite the fact that it seems to us like the biggest, most significant change that is possible.
Continuing with our analogy of somebody throwing a coin, it is obvious that with just a small number of throws we might have grounds for forming the subjective but erroneous impression that we are either ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’, and develop an outlook on life based upon this impression. With a very large number of throws however it is inevitably going to be the case that any difference between the number of heads that land in relation to the number of tails will even out. This is basic probability theory. With a very large number of throws it will be 50:50 – which means that I will inevitably spend an equal amount of time experiencing life in an ego-affirming and ego-denying way. I will spend half the time being euphoric, and the other half of the time being dysphoric, and so there will be no net gain, and no net loss. I am neither lucky, nor unlucky, neither a winner nor a loser…
The truth of the matter is therefore that it is simply not possible to emerge out of the fray as ‘an over-all winner’ – this outcome was never on the table. The condition for the life of the I-concept (which is a condition or qualification that we never bothered to acquaint ourselves with!) is that the validations and the de-validations, the confirmations and the falsifications, the winning and the losing, the pleasure and the pain must always be balanced out in the end. The analogy J.G. Bennett gives is of a man taking out a loan – taking out the loan is fine and we can have a great time spending the cash, but when this euphoric phase is done there inevitably follows the ‘dysphoric’ phase of having to pay back what we borrowed. Borrowing is fine therefore and we can grant ourselves the luxury of imagining (the whole time we’re spending the loan) that it is ours to spend and that we won’t have to pay it all back. It is this act of self-deception that creates the euphoria, therefore. Plainly, if I was clearly aware the whole time that every penny I spend will have to be painfully repaid then this would effectively take the pleasure out of the exercise – the euphoria and the dysphoria will in this case perfectly balance each-other out making what I am engaged into a null-exercise.
So whilst we may struggle as vigorously and as determinedly as we like to accumulate more pluses than minuses on our exercise book, more merits than demerits, more ‘thumbs ups’ than ‘thumbs down’, the small print at the bottom of the deal we’ve signed (without ever reading) says that this can’t ever happen. There isn’t the freedom in the game for this to happen. What there is in the game is the freedom for us to believe wholeheartedly that we can come out ‘an overall winner’ and base our lives upon this assumption. That much is given to us. So we aren’t free to ultimately ‘win out’ in the struggle but we are free to keep on thinking that we are. We’re free to keep on fooling ourselves, in other words. We’re free to keep on chasing illusory goals. This of course is precisely the type of freedom that games do provide us with and as a result of this sort of illusory freedom we keep on thinking that we’re going to get somewhere but we never do!
In this pointless (but endlessly diverting) struggle – which is the struggle to get somewhere where we’re never going to get to – the thing we prize above all else (the only thing we prize, in fact) is the validation of our efforts. The abstract notion of ‘validation’ translates in subjective terms into euphoria – euphoria is the intensely pleasurable, intensely rewarding feeling that we experience when the I-concept is confirmed rather than denied. Euphoria is what I feel when I am able to believe that I, as a definite entity, actually do exist.
Euphoria is therefore the ultimate commodity as far as the I-concept is concerned. Euphoria is the only commodity that counts; it is – we might say – ‘the ultimate consumer product’. Whilst it is true that the economies of the world still function on the most basic level by trading in raw materials like minerals and metals and bauxite and crude oil, when we come up the ‘product pyramid’ to the more refined or more processed level, what we find is that the real commodity being sold isn’t coal or oil or titanium or copper or manganese or anything like that but gratification for the I-concept!
The gratification of the I-concept is what really keeps the wheels of commerce turning, this is what really gets the shoppers out into high-streets and into the shopping malls. We are all chasing euphoria! It’s not the goods or the products that we’re after, it’s the hit of euphoria that comes with purchasing them. Ultimately, it’s the feeling we’re after, not the pretext for the feeling, not the trigger for the feeling. We only want the product because of how it makes us feel and so whilst it is perfectly true that greed, anxiety, envy, the desire for status or power, and so on are the motivational forces that drive the global economy, all of these come down to the one thing and one thing only – the ever-present need of the perennially insecure I-concept to validate or confirm itself.
We don’t of course admit to ourselves that most of what we do comes down to chasing euphoria – that would be just a little bit too blunt. Instead, we legitimize our desires in one way or another. If I am trying to develop my career – if I am trying to ‘make something of myself’ – I don’t see this as pursuing euphoria (just as a compulsive shopper or an alcoholic or a cocaine user is plainly pursuing euphoria) – I see this as being eminently sensible and practical. But inasmuch as I am doing this on behalf of the I-concept (which is generally the case) then it must be the euphoria that we’re talking about here since euphoria is the only thing that the I-concept or self-image values, no matter what else it might claim.
We could go further and say that everything done on a strictly ‘rational’ or ‘purposeful’ basis is ultimately motivated by the need for self-validation, by the blind desire for the euphoric high that self-validation brings. This is not as hard to argue as it might initially seem – although on one level our rational goals can be very practical things it is of course true as well that when we obtain the goal we generally feel good about this. Who doesn’t get a little kick out of achieving a goal – particularly the more difficult type of goal, the type of goal we have to work at? A classic example of this is provided by games – if I am playing you at something and I win, then I get to feel good and the reason I get to feel good (which ought to come as no surprise!) is that the I-concept which I am identifying with gets validated by winning.
A game simply wouldn’t work if it were not for the I-concept receiving validation when it wins – there would be no other reason for playing it. the game would be pointless. The classic example or manifestation of euphoria is therefore that intensely gratifying flash of triumph that comes with winning, and who is that is ‘winning’ if not the I-concept?
Winning, and the one who wins, are inseparable – winning is not going to excite anyone as an abstract concept. It only thrills, it only gratifies, it only vindicates when it is experienced by that very narrow (infinitely narrow) sense of identity that is the mind-created self. And yet even here ‘winning’ remains an abstract concept; both winning and losing are abstractions – they have to be abstractions because the game itself (being a thing that is constructed purely out of rules) is an abstraction. So somehow – and very strangely – in a game it has to be true that I am obtaining an intense feeling of pleasurable gratification out of what is actually an abstract (or unreal) situation!
The point we are making here is that the only way I can obtain the particular type of good feeling that we are referring to as euphoria is by making myself into an abstraction. In other words, I make myself eligible for the much-coveted reward of euphoria by narrowly identifying myself with the abstract (or mind-created entity) which Wei Wu Wei calls ‘the I-concept’.
Within the context of a formal game it is very easy to see that winning validates the winner, and that being validated is the only reason for playing. This is however also true – as we have earlier suggested – for everything that happens within the domain of ‘purposeful activity’. Purposeful activity is a game because everything about it is defined – where we start from is defined and where we end up is defined. Purposeful activity is thus activity that can only proceed according to rules that have been laid down in advance, i.e. it is activity that can take place only within a pre-defined context.
This is really just a long-winded way of saying that purposefulness must be a game because purposes (or ‘goals’) are (by virtue of the fact that they are exhaustively defined) abstractions. Given the undeniable fact that when we are being ‘purposeful’ (i.e. when our actions are being guided by the maps or models of reality that are produced by the rational mind) we are ‘aiming at abstract outcomes’, then rationality and goal-orientated behaviour must be technically definable as a game. And given the equally undeniable fact that when we manage to achieve one of these abstract outcomes (one of the goals that have been derived from the maps and models produced by the rational mind) we feel good, then we must – when we’re in the goal-orientated mode – be chasing euphoria.
This is an extraordinarily significant point to understand. Earlier on we defined euphoria by saying that when we feel euphoric it is because the I-concept is being validated, and so to the extent that I am identified with this mind-created (and therefore abstract) image of who I am, I experience this euphoria as being ‘my euphoria’. It is me who is getting the gratification, the validation, the vindication – not the abstract self-image. We also explained euphoria by saying that it is the good feeling that I get when I am able to successfully believe whatever it is that I want to believe. That’s what the good feeling is all about. The buzz is not just about ‘me getting what I want’ (which is what it might superficially appear to be about) – the buzz is about me successfully getting to believe what I want to believe in…!
Put like this, euphoria doesn’t sound like such a great thing after all. After all, what we are basically saying is that the good feeling which I am angling for the whole time, the good feeling I am constantly yearning and working for, is the good feeling that comes about when I have been successful in deceiving myself that something is real when it isn’t. Put like this euphoria definitely doesn’t sound like such a beneficial sort of a thing. When it comes right down to it, when I’m chasing euphoria I’m actually chasing delusion. If I succeed at this task – if I am successful in my attempt to deceive myself – then clearly this victory is hardly going to be to my benefit. My success is inevitably doing to be at my own expense. Perversely, when I manage to ‘win’ instead of ‘lose’ (when I achieve the outcome that I have been hankering after and obtain as a result that cherished euphoric hit) then what I am feeling so good about is my own undoing!
The advantage I have obtained for myself is actually ‘a disadvantage in disguise’, only because my view of things is so one-sided there is no way that I can actually understand this. If someone tried to point this out to me I simply wouldn’t know what they were talking about – I would dismiss them out of hand as being some type of lunatic. Goal-orientated behaviour is in essence the attempt to create a particular definitely true statement. If I succeed in achieving the goal then I have managed not just to make a definitely true statement – I have also built a house on it, I have erected a dwelling upon the territory thus gained. I have built a world upon it.
But the problem that I can’t for the life of me see is that at the same time as creating the definitely true statement that I had set my heart on creating, I have also – at the very same time – created the antithesis of this statement. So my house is built not just upon the positive assertion, it is built equally on the corresponding negative one. The defined world that I have created for myself has got two sides to it, two opposed aspects to it.
My well-being has been linked to the positive statement of fact (which seemed to me at the time like a very good idea) but it is also tied to the antithesis of this positive statement (which of course undoes any good that I might seemed to have obtained for myself in the first instance). If I get to feel totally wonderful about the one statement, then for sure I will also get to feel thoroughly rotten about the other.
At the same time therefore that I have cleverly secured for myself a decent gulp of the deliciously sweet nectar of euphoria, I have also put myself next in line for an equally sizeable mouthful (or stomachful) of the appallingly bitter draught that is dysphoria…
Essentially, what the I-concept wants to deceive itself about is its own existence. The I-concept wants to believe in itself – it wants to believe in its own ‘sure-and-certain reality’. The I-concept itself is the ‘definitely true statement’, the unreservedly positive assertion. But, as we have just said, at the same time that this generous helping of ‘positive certainty’ comes into being so too does the sinister spectre of negative certainty. Hope and fear are born together. Pleasure and pain are born together – the two sides of the same paradoxical identity.
The existence of the mind-created self might therefore be said to be a strictly ‘conditional’ affair – I can feel good now to the extent that I will feel bad later on, and vice versa. I can experience pleasurable ‘positive anticipation’ now to the extent that I will pay it back later in terms of ‘negative anticipation’ (i.e. anxiety) later on. I can feel like a winner today only to the extent that I will feel like a loser tomorrow. Any given opposite is only real or meaningful in relation to the other, complementary opposite. They only exist in relationship to each other and – at the same time – it must of course also be the case that they are, when taken together, mutually cancelling. So we can say that whilst any definite statement – from the limited or narrow outlook associated with that statement – will appear to have an ‘absolute’ existence (i.e. an unconditional or unqualified existence as an independent entity) a wider perspective will always reveal it as having an existence of the strictly relative (or qualified) type.
So whilst each of the two complementary faces of the two-sided I-concept will seem to exist independently from the narrow or limited viewpoint that is associated with these aspects, a wider perspective will show that the euphoric side of the I-concept only has existence in relation to the dysphoric side (i.e. it will show that the two are mutually dependent). A wider perspective will show that if the two sides of the I-concept are taken together – as they must be – then they will add up to precisely zero. To put this in a blunt fashion therefore, there is no such thing as the I-concept.
It is all the same perfectly fine for us to play at being this thing called ‘the I-concept’ (or whatever else we want to call it). There is no problem with this whatsoever. It doesn’t break any rules for us to pretend to be the mind-created I-concept – it doesn’t break any ‘law’ to do this because there aren’t any laws or rules regarding what games we can and cannot play. We’re free to play any game we want to!
We’re free to play whatever games we want to but because there is no genuine freedom in games this really means that ‘we’re free to play at not being free’. We’re free to play at being the mind-created I-concept but there is zero freedom in this – there’s zero freedom in it because it’s guaranteed to come to nothing! The positive and negative outcomes that we achieve will always cancel out in the end.
The point is that we can’t meaningfully expect whatever happens in the game to translate into some sort of change in reality. In other words, no matter how far we get in the game, this won’t translate into ‘getting somewhere in reality’. Win or lose, succeed or fail, progress or regress, this only makes sense in terms of the game, it only counts in the game…
Thus, no matter how much effort we put into the game, it still won’t ever do us the slightest bit of good. It won’t help us at all, despite the fact that we think we’re taking actions that are benefiting us. I keep on grasping for satisfaction (within the narrow terms through which I understand reality) but all I am succeeding at when I do this is reinforcing the prison-walls behind which I am trapped. I am serving my captor, not myself. I am digging the hole that I am stuck in deeper all the time, so that the more I want to get out the more entrenched I get.
The reason for this – as we have said – is that I am trying as hard as ever I can to obtain happiness for the abstract I-concept that I have unknowingly identified with. This is a ‘doomed task’ no matter which way I go about it – trying to achieve happiness for the abstract I-concept is a doomed task because concepts can’t be happy!
Trying to make the I-concept happy is like trying to carry water in a bucket that is full of holes – as fast as you pour it in, it runs out again! The I-concept could have the concept of being happy but concepts don’t have any real substance to them. They are very skinny things. This is what being an ‘abstract concept’ means; this is what ‘an abstraction’ is – an abstraction is an infinitely thin slice of reality, a slice which is so thin that it has no width. An abstraction is two-dimensional – instead of width it just has two opposed faces – the PLUS face and the MINUS face, the YES face and the NO face.
A concept possesses a defined (or ‘nominal’) meaning but the thing about a defined or nominal meaning is therefore that it is innately and inescapably self-contradictory – which is to say, it will constantly keep on flipping over from one opposite to the other. This is how defined values (or concepts) show us that they are not real – by being self-contradictory, by being paradoxical, by switching over to be the opposite of themselves the whole time.
Being essentially honest in their ultimate nature (as everything is) definite statements demonstrate their innate lack of reality by saying two exactly opposed things to us at the same time, leaving us to work it out for ourselves.
The enactment of this paradox – which is what happens when we don’t ‘work it out’ for ourselves! – is the mechanical life of the abstract I-concept. When we are not aware of the paradox then we act out the paradox – we are then free to be euphoric to the extent that we are dysphoric later on, we are then free to be satisfied here to the extent that we are dissatisfied somewhere else, we are then free to obtain pleasure now to the extent that we will reap pain tomorrow.
In the unconscious life we can go up to the extent that we come down, and we can go forward to the extent that we come back again…
This is precisely the problem with constantly trying to obtain ‘false’ (or ‘theatrical’) happiness – as long as we invest everything we have in false happiness (the ‘so-called happiness’ of the painfully hollow and perennially hungry I-concept) – then we’re never going to get anywhere…
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.