Life, we may say, is a dynamic between curiosity and conservatism, adventure-seeking and safety-seeking, the love of unfettered, free-flowing movement and the fondness for deeply entrenched, fixed positions. On the one hand we have the formidable force of inertia, which unreflectively takes wherever it happens to find itself as ‘the ideal place to be’, and on the other hand we have the irrepressible force of life itself, which is never content to sit still too long, to be looking always out so drearily from the very same window at the very same horizon. Succumb to the force of inertia and everything quickly becomes all about fixed positions and how best to secure them, which is in itself a full-time job; the other possibility is to see life as being all about taking risks, moving on, expanding one’s remit, finding new horizons to go beyond.
FINITE AND INFINITE PLAY
James Carse puts this basic idea across by saying that there are at least two forms of play – the finite type and the infinite type. Finite play is all about manoeuvring in order to secure one’s position. The ultimate way for me to secure my position is if I can triumph over all other positions and render them submissive to my own. If I can ‘silence all other voices,’ as Carse puts it, then there will be no doubt about whose voice gets to be the one that is heard – my voice will be the only voice and so my supremacy will be secured forever. I will win the contest, not anyone else. In total contrast to this modus operandi, infinite play is not about cleverly manoeuvring towards an ultimately secure or invulnerable position, but rather it is about allowing oneself to remain vulnerable and insecure. I leave myself open to influences that may well change the way I look at the world forever – I accept the challenge of radical change in the spirit of adventure. Instead of assuming that wherever I am must ‘of course’ be the correct place, and doing my best to convert everyone else to this way of thinking, this way of doing things, I allow space in my awareness for the possibility that there might be other equally interesting ways of seeing the world that I don’t already know about. I am genuinely curious in other words, and so I don’t need to silence all other competing (i.e. different) voices. On the contrary, I am genuinely interested in what these voices have to say, and I am also interested in the possibility that my outlook, my ‘position’, may be permanently changed by listening to them. Carse makes the distinction between finite and infinite play very succinctly by saying that finite play is about playing within boundaries, whilst infinite play is about playing with boundaries.
LOVE VERSUS NON-LOVE
M Scott Peck refers to this same dynamic when he talks about ‘love’ versus ‘non-love’. Love, according to Scott Peck, is when I extend myself, despite the discomfort that this may bring, whilst non-love is when I refuse to extend myself – out of aversion to this discomfort – and stay securely and safely within my own narrow boundaries. These boundaries represent a ‘cut-off point’ beyond which I am not really interested, and beyond which I will make no real effort – although I will generally make some sort of ‘token effort’ for the sake of appearances. In non-love the emphasis is all on safeguarding my boundaries, and protecting and promoting the interests of the self. This modality of being is more commonly known simply as ‘selfishness’ – the ‘default’ state of being in which one is wholly and exclusively preoccupied with oneself.
The author of The Road Less Travelled further suggests that the inert state of ‘non-love’ may sometimes go beyond being merely neutral and turn into the antithesis of love, in which case I will actively seek to harm or restrict the growth of others around me, out of a perverse hatred of life. This perverse desire to harm, imprison and pass on suffering to others is more commonly known as ‘evil’. Scott Peck equates non-love with laziness – I do not actually want to harm anyone, but when it comes down to it I will not extend myself for them, I will not seriously risk my own comfort or my own well-being on anyone else’s account. I am ‘compassionate in theory but not in practice’ – I will engage in the pleasant fantasy that I am concerned for the well-being of others (those outside of my immediate circle), but if push came to shove I would soon discover that it’s myself that I really care about…
The comfort-loving tendency known as ‘laziness’ is clearly pretty much the same thing as ‘the force of inertia’ that we started off talking about, and the primary manifestation of this force may be said to be an attachment to that ultimate in deeply-entrenched positions – the everyday self, which is to say, the unreflective or unexamined assumption of the all-important ‘me’. Just as the ubiquitous force of inertia and conservatism drives us into the aggressively entrenched positions of finite games, and gradually removes any possibility of creatively ‘risking’ this position, it gradually strengthens and reinforces the walls, the defences of the concrete personality system of the ego until that self-centred way of life becomes the only modality that is possible for me. This sets my trajectory in stone, so to speak, and from this point on I am pretty much locked into a process where the only logic is the logic of ever-increasing control, ever-increasing risk-avoidance. The end result of this trajectory is inevitably going to be an unhappy one; eventually – as a result of being so safely and tediously secluded within the arbitrarily fixed but completely unquestionable boundaries of the ‘me’ I will become emotionally flat, creatively stagnant, and thoroughly miserable. In the absence of any challenge or stimulus, any meaningful connection to the outside world, the spark of life will go out within me and – as a result – I will eventually come to resent that spark where I see it in others. In this way, Scott Peck suggests, the relatively harmless or neutral state of non-love will always show a distinct tendency to drift towards ‘the dark side’, and gradually become something much more sinister.
THE INERTIAL WORLD
Looking around, we may be inclined to speculate that the conservative force of inertia, the pull towards living safely within established boundaries and never questioning or examining these boundaries, is either an awful lot stronger or an awful lot more persuasive that the complementary type of movement – which is the movement in the direction of exploring and examining one’s boundaries, and then going beyond them. The balance between the two tendencies – the mechanical tendency to keep on consolidating one’s position, and the lively and playful tendency to venture out beyond what one is comfortable with, seems to have been tipped firmly in favour of inertia and all things inertial. All we can see in the world around us is the type of activity that is characteristic of finite games – competitive activity, aggressive self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, the endless humourless and pointless struggle of one particular way or modality of being against all others, the perennial glorification of ‘winning’ – which has become a type of Holy Grail in contemporary culture. Finite games are a universal obsession, and anyone who isn’t obsessed with winning at something or other is generally considered as being somehow dysfunctional.
Society is full of finite games and finite game-playing of one sort or another – in fact society taken as a whole is one big finite game, one big entrenched position or ‘fixed pattern’. The social world which we take so much for granted (and which seems therefore so very normal to us) is as James Carse says, ‘one single voice that has effectively silenced all the others’; it is as Joseph Campbell says, ‘one single ‘myth’ that has managed to extinguish all other myths’, making itself thereby into something that is supposedly not a myth but a deadly dull literal reality. By assassinating the opposition and then implicitly denying that there ever was any serious opposition the ubiquitous orthodoxy has made itself into a flat or concrete reality with regard to which we have no choice but to bow down and accept it, no matter how mediocre that concrete reality might be. We acquiesce to it not because of any intrinsic merit that it might possess but simply because there is no other game in town.
Laziness – by which we mean the unreflective accepting of whatever limited and limiting pattern of existence we happen to have been born into – is in evidence all around us and genuine curiosity about the world we live in and its possibilities would appear to be rarer than nipples on a snake. That this is so is very hard to argue against. The evidence is all around us: we have been given a presented with a particular fixed modality of living, a particular game which we are expected to play, and rather than question this modality and try to find what we want to do in life, we almost always do what is expected of us. We accept the limited and limiting framework that we have been presented with, and try to do our best within it. The guiding principle, as Stephen King says somewhere, is that you have to ‘go along in order to get along’. Out of short-term thinking, and an unrelativized desire to maximize personal security, what is essentially a ridiculously arbitrary way of looking at the world is normalized and gets taken totally for granted as ‘the only possible way.’
The progressive and irreversible elimination of genuine alternatives pushes us inexorably down the path of maximized security and minimized risk, and since ‘risk’ always translates in practical terms as ‘any way of looking at things that isn’t the one we know about’ our collective way of life becomes ever more ludicrous, ever more untenable. Stagnancy becomes the order of the day. When the conservative force wins out and we become completely uninterested about anything that isn’t the particular way of life that is authorized and validated for by the arbitrary system we have unwittingly (i.e. unconsciously) committed ourselves to, then life becomes unbearably restrictive, unbearably oppressive, unbearably pointless. The tracks we are travelling down keep narrowing and narrowing, excluding more and more space the whole time, until they disappear entirely into absurdity, or ‘unreality’. We have no more space left to us, only an infinite proliferation of flat, 2-D images. There is no genuine openness, only the prescribed pathway, which unfailingly takes us further and further away from who we really are, and any sort of life that actually might be worth living!
FALSE TASKS AND DUMMY AGENDAS
Because the force of inertia or unreflective conservatism seems to be the dominant tendency in the world – at least as far as we can see – we will continue our discussion by examining more closely the tendency which Scott Peck refers to as laziness. Laziness as a topic doesn’t sound particularly fascinating; we naturally feel that we know everything there is to know about it, and so it is perhaps hard to see the point in discussing it at length. Understanding laziness is however the key to everything! We can start off by making the obvious observation that laziness is all about the ‘avoidance of the difficult’, the desire to take the easiest possible route at all times, the desire – ultimately – to sit safely in one’s armchair and forgo the adventure of life. Joseph Campbell might say that it is the desire to ‘stay in the playpen’. We could also say that laziness is the tendency to make a virtue of staying in the same spot – because it happens to be the spot we find ourselves in, and are comfortable with because we know it – and trying to persuade everyone else, by any means we can, to do the same thing. There is after all ‘safety in numbers’ – a lazy man does not like to have people around him who are not as lazy as he is because this would highlight his own shortcomings in this area, which he does not want highlighting. If he had to be aware of his own laziness that would be hard work, and because he is lazy, he is not inclined to go for that option…
Less obviously, we can point out that there is something rather unexpected about laziness in that it often leads to a situation where we are constantly engaging in very strenuous and time-consuming activity. How strenuous activity can arise out of profound laziness is easy enough to explain – there is, we might say, a basic rule associated with laziness, a rule which has to do with the creation of false tasks and dummy agendas. It is a psychological principle that any task that is not as difficult as the one which is to be avoided (even though in the long run we know that it cannot be avoided) immediately starts to look very attractive indeed. Something we didn’t want to do now becomes something that we are very keen on doing! The reason, needless to say, for the attractiveness of a task which we would have previously have shunned like the devil is of course because it allows us to avoid the really difficult task without knowing we are avoiding it. Laziness is after all, as we have already suggested, not just about avoiding the difficult task, but also ‘avoiding the fact that we are avoiding’. Perfect laziness is therefore when we avoid the difficult thing but fondly imagine the whole time that we are not avoiding anything, and that we are not in fact lazy at all. Perfect laziness is profoundly unconscious, in other words, and in order to protect itself it wants to stay unconscious.
So as a result of this rule the world is full of people busily doing this and that, and feeling that they are quite legitimately engaged in whatever it is that they are doing (and possibly even in some cases looking down on anyone who is not as commendably busy as they are). This is what Sogyal Rinpoche calls ‘active laziness’ – we fill up all the available space with the false tasks and phoney issues and at the same time ‘crowd out’ all other possibilities so that we don’t get a chance to consider or in any way be aware of them. When these proliferating false tasks are legitimized by the consensus viewpoint, and are validated by the whole massive weight of society, then this makes the over-all ‘set-up’ even more effective because in order to stand any chance of being aware of the ‘forbidden alternatives’, so to speak, we are going to have to go against the collective authority of the whole system. This puts us in line for ‘negative reinforcement’, which is to say, punishment.
If on the one hand if we unquestioningly take on board the dummy agenda that society has provided us with and proceed to engage wholeheartedly with the plethora of false tasks that go with it (and maybe even excel at them) then we are rewarded – we are accepted by our fellows, we are respected and valued and generally treated well. We have lots of friends and everyone has lots of time for us! Our chances of getting somewhere within the established set-up are therefore hugely enhanced. On the other hand, if we are uncommitted or in any way lukewarm about the tasks that are presented to us, or if – god forbid – we start taking an interest in possibilities or viewpoints that are not part of the established system, then we get to see the other side of the story, which is when we are ‘crowded-out’ ourselves. We are side-lined, devalued, dismissed, excluded and generally ignored in favour of those people who have taken on board the approved agenda. We start to get the distinct feeling that we are doing something seriously wrong, and that we had better ‘cop on’ quickly if we don’t want to spend the rest of our lives being invisible and excluded. We get to feel the weight of society’s ‘cold shoulder’ – we get to feel the pain of ‘exile’.
The majority of human activity is therefore displacement – it is displaced attention, displaced motivation, displaced energy. The means by which this displacement takes place is collectively orchestrated: our goals and interests are socially validated ones, they represent ‘serious’ or ‘legitimate’ concerns and as such we are not expected to question them or doubt their importance. If we did start questioning the socially validated goals which are provided for us, then there is a big danger that we might start to see them for what they are, bogus tasks, spurious issues, decoys, red-herrings. But if it is true that all – or almost all – the activity we see around us is displacement, and the tasks which are being pursued have the secret function of allowing us to avoid another, much more challenging task, a task that we seriously want to avoid, then what is that task? What difficult task are we avoiding with all our busy-ness? The simplest answer is to say that the task which is being avoided is the task of knowing who we really are. This, we might say, is the most basic ‘responsibility’ that we are faced with in life, as well as being by far the most challenging, and in order that we might avoid this most pressing of tasks, society excels itself in providing us with an absolute plethora of false or dummy identities to get working with – the definition of a dummy identity being one that we don’t have to question! The abundance of available false identities is quite simply staggering, and just as we don’t sit around questioning the goals that society provides us with, neither do we question our ready-made identities, which is to say, the image, picture or idea we have of ourselves. The whole set-up is excellent for ‘non-questioning’ – it’s flawless!
The big thing is to ‘run with it’, to ‘go with it’, to ‘get stuck into it’. It is as if you have been handed a baton in a relay race – as soon as you get the baton in your hand the thing to do is to take off with it as promptly and as quickly as you possibly can. If you stop to wonder about the baton, to examine what it is made of, and so on, then the whole point of the exercise is lost. You will have lost your team the race and no one is going to thank you for that. No one is going to commend you for your scrupulously philosophical outlook, no one is going to appreciate the fact that you were not willing to simply ‘take things for granted’ the same way everyone else does. We are born into exactly this high-pressure social environment – only instead of having a baton pressed into our hands we are handed a role, we are handed a ‘socially-constructed identity’ along with whole set of associated goals and expectations. We are provided with a game which we are expected to play.
This idea does not make sense straightaway because we do not see our ‘idea of who we are’ as being merely a construct. Naturally enough, we just assume that that our sense of ourselves, our idea of ourselves is ‘who we are’ – but a moment’s thought is all that is needed to show that this assumption doesn’t hold water. If I was brought up a Catholic I would see myself as a Catholic, if I was brought up a Protestant I would see myself as a Protestant; If I was brought up in Essex I would see myself as being an Englishman, if I was born and raised in County Kerry I would see myself as an Kerryman, and so on. Taking this example further, we also tend to define ourselves in terms of the type of work we do, our position in society, the sports we like, our interests and hobbies, the style of clothes we choose to wear, the books we read and films we watch – all of which we acquire ‘off the shelf’, so to speak. But none of these identifying characteristics are who I am, they are just things that I have picked up along the way. In addition to all this ‘explicit baggage’ (explicit because I can explicitly refer to it if I want to tell others about the type of person I am) there are also all the implicit assumptions that I make when constructing my image of myself – deep-rooted cultural assumptions regarding what it means to be a person, what people are supposed to do in life, what the essential nature or character of a human being is, and so on. All of these are pretty much arbitrary notions which have one way or another been selected and absorbed into the culture in question and then made ‘concrete’ – which is to say, made unquestionable. The big question is therefore, am I really being true to myself? And do I even care, seeing as departing from my socially-constructed identity is guaranteed (as Jung says) to bring me nothing but hardship and rejection? Do I really want to know who I am – or would I rather successfully fulfil the stereotyped role or image of myself, and get recognition and acceptance on this (admittedly false) basis?
THE CONFIDENCE TRICK
The thing is, we are not even given the chance to ask these questions of ourselves. The moment when we could possibly have done so is glossed over so quickly we never even know that it went by. If your vocational guidance counsellor helps you to figure out whether you would be better suited being a doctor or a nurse or a teacher or a business entrepreneur or a PR consultant or a lawyer or a beauty therapist or a carpenter they are only offering you the trivial choice of choosing between a number of categories or roles that are defined by society. Maybe you don’t want to buy into any of the above? Maybe you want to question the whole game? Maybe you want to do something completely different?
Taking time out to reflect on the bigger picture is not something that is encouraged, either by parents or teachers. After all, life is a race and it is on in earnest from a very early age; there is no time to look at what you are running with – the rule, after all, is ‘take it and run’ and all the rewards go to those contestants who have learned this lesson quickly, right from the beginning. Uncertainty is not where it’s at in the social matrix and any sort of certainty is better than no certainty at all. Certainty is not just ‘advantageous’ in a competitive environment, it is a necessity – without it you will be pushed back into the shadows by your brasher, less reflective, more assertive fellows. Without it you will be like a baby bird in a nest which doesn’t as a big a mouth and as pushy a nature as its brother and sisters. And – as we have been saying – in the shoulder-to-shoulder struggle it doesn’t matter what you are certain about as long as you have that certainty. Certainty translates as confidence and confidence is something of a buzz word in our culture – it gets you somewhere, whereas the conspicuous lack of confidence gets you shunned and side-lined since no one wants to risk being touched with the contagion of self-doubt, which is what lack of confidence signals to us. The reason for this ‘fear of contagion’ is clear – somehow must we know (on some level of awareness) that our own strong sense of self, our own brash certainty about who we are and what we want, is not as strong, not as robust, as it seems. We know that we walking on thin ice really and it is this subconscious knowledge of our own ‘vulnerability in the confidence department’ that makes us – as is always the way in any shallow, insecure, competitive society – fear being seen in the company of who we see as ‘losers’.
A strong sense of ‘who you are’ and a clear idea of ‘what you want’ clearly go together. The one follows on from the other – if I don’t know who I am then how on earth am I going to know what direction I want to go in? In a world where it is important to have external confidence the answer to this pressure is to identify with some clear-cut idea (or image) as quickly as we can, and having done this, never look back. The problem is thus solved, at least on the short-term. But as we all know all too well – if we were to stop to think about it – short-term solutions inevitably lead to long-term penalties, a long-term cost which has to be paid. That is the nature of short-term solutions. Understanding this basic point might be said to constitute the most basic lesson there is in life, and if we haven’t learned this much then we haven’t learned anything. The long-term cost in this case is nothing if not obvious – if my starting-off point is shaky then the rest of the journey isn’t going to be any better. Or, to put it another way, if the first step of finding out ‘who I am’ is recognized as being of absolutely crucial importance, then it is worth taking whatever time it takes to find an answer to this question. An answer that is ‘hastily thrown together just for the sake of it’ is clearly not going to end well!
The whole question of who ‘we really are’ is treated with extraordinary laxity in our culture. Any old label will do – I am this, I am that, I am whatever… This simply is not where we put the emphasis; where we put the emphasis is on striving tenaciously to obtain whatever goals we have been provided with, on the basis of who we have been told that we are. It is our effort and persistence in this department that is recognized and rewarded, not anything else. What we are talking about here, therefore, are games. Games are what are important to us – playing the socially prescribed game is ‘where it is at’, not the age-old philosophical question of finding out who is playing the game, and why.
THE BIG FEAR
We have already looked at the question of why we want to play games; games may be said to be attractive to us in so far as they provide us with an alternative to looking deeper into the world in which we find ourselves. Alternatively, we can say that games are a compensation for the insecurity we feel deep down with regard to who we are and what life is all about. We compensate for this nagging, aching insecurity by throwing ourselves into our games, the great thing about games being that they provide us with ‘easy answers’ with regard to who we are and what it’s all about. Ultimate questions don’t matter in a game, as we have said – all that matters is ‘getting on with it’.
The idea that we are fleeing existential insecurity in our day-to-day lives is at the core of existential philosophy, as well as being at the heart of Buddhism – deep down I am completely ‘ill at ease’ in relation to the fundamentally open nature of reality, and this acute ontological discomfort constitutes a basic manifestation of the existential pain that I am taking so much care to get away from. This ‘basic perplexity’ about reality is no minor thing – it is no mere itch but rather an outright fear. When I look within to find out who I am and discover that no matter how deep I go there are no ready-made answers waiting there to be taken off the shelf and adopted, then what I experience is a very great fear. I experience what is called ontological terror. It is as if I am sitting at a table in a high street café, sipping a cappuccino, nibbling on a pastry, when – all of a sudden, out of a spontaneous movement of curiosity – I take a look ‘inside’ of myself to see what is there. Instead of seeing something familiar, something reassuring, I glimpse instead a vast emptiness, an infinitely deep abyss, a cosmic void that stretches away endlessly in all directions. Within this inner abyss there are no easy answers, there are no quick conclusions that one may draw and then feel satisfied about so that one may go back to drinking one’s cappuccino in the café content in the knowledge that one has a good grasp on ‘what is going on’. In fact there are no answers, no possible conclusions at all. There is no possibility of grasping anything. It is after all the lack of answers, the lack of any possible conclusions that constitutes the infinite abyss, the limitless reality that we are running away from.
What I discover in this hypothetical scenario is what in Buddhism is called ‘groundlessness’ – there is a complete lack of any conceptual ground, a complete lack of any basis for me to have a definite framework of reference regarding who I am and what is going on. And yet fixed ideas and a definite framework of reference is what I want – I want to have that scaffolding in place so that I can rush ahead with my life, and not have to ever worry about whether that conceptual scaffolding is really there. I want a fixed and final basis that I can take for granted and then forget about, allowing me to entertain myself with trivialities which will – nevertheless – seem highly significant to me. I want the existential security of being able to play my games without having to be troubled by any deeper issues. I don’t want for there to be any deeper issues. When I am confronted with the conceptual void with no scaffolding in it, no supports in it, then my reaction is – understandably – one of total, all-consuming terror. I, who have for my entire life have been ‘addicted to smallness’ – small ideas, small beliefs, small goals, small concerns and pre-occupations (the chief of which in terms of pettiness is the idea of myself) all of a sudden come face to face with Carlos Castaneda calls the immensity.
What I am being faced with is as Jung says ‘bigger and big and smaller than small’ – it is completely outside of and completely independent of our framework of understanding, the conceptual yardstick by which we pronounce things ‘big’ or ‘small’ or whatever. My conceptual mind itself is petty (infinitely so), and when I look outside of that mind what I see is the true immensity. It is the difficulty of relating to immensity, this infinitely profound abyss that constitutes the ‘difficulty that I am avoiding’. It is this irreducible challenge (which is the challenge of ‘being what I really am’) that I am so keen to avoid, and the keenness of the desire to avoid or run away from the vastness is the source of the displaced motivation which I use to identify so strongly with a false self, and strive so energetically to obtain the infinitely petty goals that despite their pettiness become highly meaningful on this false basis.
PETTY TRIUMPHS AND PETTY DEFEATS
The price that I pay for escaping the essential challenge of life is, then, ‘the curse of invisible pettiness’. The false self’s concerns and preoccupations are a reflection of itself, after all, and it is the very epitome of pettiness. My triumphs are petty and my defeats are petty, and everything inbetween is petty, but the terrible curse of this all-encompassing small-mindedness is well-deserved, it is ‘just’ because I have acquired it as a result of running away from my true potential, running away from who I really am. There is a sort of ‘perfect symmetry’ that comes into play here – I have embraced the false or dummy self with all its displaced motivations and all its displaced concerns as a way of escaping the central challenge of existence and the price I pay for this ‘escape’ is that I am afflicted with a life of intolerable pettiness and unremitting superficiality. My relief at avoiding the challenge that I fear so much is such that I feel euphoric, but this euphoria is only a temporary phase, a temporary phase which gives way inevitably to suffering that is both profound and inescapable. It turns out that the ‘easy option’ which I have thrown myself at so enthusiastically is easy only initially – in the long term it is very difficult indeed. The point is of course that I wasn’t really bothered about the long term – I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. All I wanted was an immediate escape, and that is what I got.
The symmetry that we are talking about has to do with the principle – well-known in psychotherapy – which says that avoidance of a problem leads to the creation of that very same unwanted ‘difficulty’ elsewhere, only in surrogate form. So my escape leads me unfailingly, as it must do, to a challenge that is just as great as the challenge that I thought I had escaped from. When in everyday life we avoid some sort of inner pain by repressing awareness of it, or by displacing it outside of ourselves, the initial relief leads on to the situation where we are now faced both with the original pain, the original difficulty, plus the added extra difficulty that has been created by our stubborn avoidance; in other words, my neurotic avoidance of my own pain introduces a new ‘kink’ into the works that must itself be dealt with face-on before I can get back to the place I was before I started avoiding. The same principle holds true for the ‘larger scale’ avoidance in which we attempt to escape the existential dilemma of existence – by avoiding all we do is create a new tier of difficulties which we will have to contend with, before we can get back to contending with the original difficulty which we have managed to forget about by immersing ourselves in all the surrogate issues of life.
A simpler way of putting this is to say that the substitute (or dummy) task is the original task (i.e. the essential demand that life makes on me) in disguise. How this can be so is far from obvious. The question is – in what way is the petty task of fulfilling the needs and wants of the superficial self the same thing as the ‘original task’ of daring to find out who I really am, underneath the thin veneer of superficial appearances that I am usually so happy to take for granted?
The ‘connection’ is (as we have implied) in the suffering that gradually gets unveiled as we try to live life on the basis of the superficial self and its needs. The ‘plus’ side of the deal is the euphoria that comes about when the original difficulty is ‘successfully’ avoided, but this same euphoria – which we value so much in our goal-orientated culture – is really just a sign that I have ‘successfully’ managed to become petty, that I have ‘successfully’ managed to trivialize my outlook on life. If am experiencing euphoria then what this is showing me – if I were to be interested in taking notice – is that I am being successful in the project of ‘down-scaling’ both myself and my world as an illegitimate way of getting out of trouble.
The euphoria is therefore a warning signal, an alert – it alerts me to an insidious narrowing of my horizons, a narrowing that becomes both invisible and incomprehensible to me just as soon as it has happened because it is my capacity to see and comprehend that has become narrowed. Needless to say, I do not take euphoria as an alert or a warning because it feels so very good, because it is so intensely rewarding to the over-simplified, black-and-white viewpoint that has just been formed as a result of the euphoria-producing information collapse. Instead of taking the euphoria as an indication of narrowing horizons, I maximize my efforts to obtain more and more of it. I am gunning for it. All I know and all I care about is that I like the euphoria and want more of it and so – by default rather than conscious intention – I put all my efforts into optimizing the very process whereby I become smaller and smaller in scope. Perversely, I am dedicated to this dreadful business of turning myself into an ever-more shrunk-down and trivialized version of who I used to be – a crudely caricatured copy of my true self. It is for all the world as if I hate myself, and am doing my very best to bury myself forever beneath a mountain of superficialities.
DEFLECTING THE PAIN
As a consequence of my incorrigible addiction to smallness, I become an echo of an echo of an echo. I downgrade. I become, over time, a corrupt copy of a corrupt copy – the original self is lost beneath layer after layer of counterfeit versions, each onion-skin layer further from the truth than the one which preceded it. I become more and more trivial, more and more absurd, more and more futile and hollow. I become ludicrous, and the joke is that I just can’t see it. As far as I am concerned, the problem (or ‘wrongness’) originates elsewhere – it lies with everyone else, with the world in general. It certainly doesn’t lie with me. As long as I can successfully blame everyone else for everything that seems to be going wrong then it is true that I am not ‘paying the price’ for avoiding responsibility, for taking the easy option. I am not paying the price because I am suffering unconsciously rather than consciously – I am projecting or deflecting my pain anywhere and everywhere else, rather than acknowledge it where it belongs. I’m not experiencing my own pain – someone else is instead! But this tactic of deflecting the pain away from myself is of course still only a game of postponing the inevitable. In the end I am going to run out of space, run out of leeway, and then the suffering that I am trying so hard to avoid will rebound on me as fast as I deflect it. All I am doing with my incredibly persistent avoiding is adding to the bill which I and no one else will one day have to pay – like a man incurring extra charges the whole time on his maxed-out credit card because he is insisting on ignoring the problem. I am simply making my situation more and more ludicrous – worse than ludicrous, in fact. And the one thing that I can rely on is that when pay-back time comes its going to be a bitch.
THE LONG ROAD
Whichever way I play it, the easy road that I have gone for always turns out not such an easy road after all. It is only easy at first, and then when I turn round the first bend it turns out to be even harder than the road I didn’t go down. In fact the truth of the matter is that there is only one road, and this is where the Law of Symmetry comes in – whatever road I choose it turns out to be the same road in the end. In the end we discover that there are no short-cuts because ‘what you gain on the swings you lose on the roundabouts’. Every road (every short-cut) turns into the Long Road, the road that Jung calls the Longissima Via.
THE DOWNSIDE OF THE DEAL
Shrinking myself and my world down so that both become incredibly petty, incredibly trivial – which is a process that contemporary culture encourages and supports all the way – does not ‘avoid the problem’ because being this petty brings tremendous suffering with it. Being this petty is a sure-fire recipe for suffering simply because all sorts of ridiculously trivial and unimportant details are now going to bug me and make my life difficult. I may have avoided the big problem but now I have all sorts of little problems to annoy me – problems that only upset me because I have no sense of perspective on anything any more! Being petty or small means being rigid, brittle and reactive – things have to happen my way for me to be happy and ‘my way’ is a very narrow way. There are infinitely many ways for things not to go my way, and only the one worryingly precarious way for me not to be discontent or stressed out. Knowing on some level or other just how the much the odds are stacked against me (and how ridiculously audacious I am to think that I will always be able to stay in control of it all) I am always going to be dogged by anxiety. How can I not be anxious, when I have set myself the crazy task of getting the big wide world to conform to my ludicrously small-minded standards? Even when I am wildly optimistic and confident, this determinedly positive outlook is only ever a denial of the underlying awareness of the weakness, fragility and down-right absurdity of my position. This awareness is always going to be there – denied or not – because it is true.
Another way that I – as a rigid controller – try to cope with the fundamentally untenable situation that I have put myself in is through anger, resentment, indignation and frustration. When things aren’t working out for me (as they almost invariably don’t) then I am going to give myself over to complaining and moaning and groaning and griping and blaming and generally feeling sorry for myself. I am going to be in a bad mood a lot of the time, I am going to need a serious amount of humouring from those around me in order to get through the day without having a complete meltdown. This particular manifestation of smallness – constantly complaining, whinging, moaning and blaming others, being ratty, being cranky, being in a bad mood, sulking and feeling sorry for oneself – is, needlessly to say, the dominant pattern for a sizeable percentage of us. This is particularly the case as we get older and the number of ways in which life has failed to agree with our expectations of it (‘let us down’ as we would see it) starts to steadily mount up. We grow old without dignity. We grow old with bad grace. And the final crushing blow which lies in store for the petty, rigid and controlling self is of course death: when my life is characterized by the fact that I can never ‘let go’, by the fact that I always have to have my own way in things (no matter how absurd ‘my own way’ is) then I am fundamentally unprepared for death, and deep down I will know it, and experience great suffering on this account. Death does not come easy to the controlling ego. If on the other hand I could have spent my time learning to graciously let go instead of ‘holding on for the sake of holding on’ (and prizing my own petty opinions and wants over all else) then it would of course have been a very different story.
Being rigid means being reactive – which is to say, it means that I have very little tolerance for difficulty and challenges and as a consequence, when difficulty and challenges come along, my way of coping is by not coping, generally in a fairly spectacular manner! The petty, down-sized or shrunken-down self has virtually zero resilience, virtually zero ‘inner strength’ and so when a difficult situation comes along it mechanically reacts. In common parlance – I crack up, I hit the ceiling, I lose the plot, I take a freak attack, I have a melt-down, I go ape-shit, I go mental, I go ballistic, I throw a wobbly, I do my nut, I get the hump, and so on. Because I am constitutionally unable to sit there calmly and tolerate the difficult circumstances, I have to react. It is my only option – I make a big drama of things, I pass the buck, I blame and complain, I become toxic, I distract myself from experiencing the difficulty by screaming and shouting and generally carrying on. In short, I pass the pain on because I am unable or unwilling to sit with it myself. The reason I can’t sit with the pain, and have to pass it on in some way, is because I have no substance. I have no core – I have nothing inside of me to draw upon. All I have is my appearance of being calm, my appearance of being a fully-functioning honest-to-goodness human being, my appearance of coping, and so on, and this appearance cannot take being tested. Being tested is the one thing it is not good for…
In the absence of any genuine challenge this surface-level appearance can be extraordinarily impressive – I can do a very good impersonation of a human being with an actual core, but this impersonation goes out of the window when things get tough. Then, the false self displays its true nature – which is hollow and instantly collapsible in the face of any real trial. Fear appears on the scene and the false confidence that I had been so full of a moment ago vanishes so completely and so quickly that it is as if that confidence never existed. The answer to this problem – as far as the hollow, fragile self-image is concerned – is to systematically avoid any such trials, to create and maintain a sort of artificial situation (a stage-managed virtual environment) within which it can keep up the illusion that it is complete, that it is whole. This artificially managed world is all around us and it is the specific business of the social system to produce, maintain and run it.
This management process involves on the one hand the minimization of risk in the physical environment via the creation of safe and predictable material conditions, and on the other hand it involves the regulation of the mental environment so as to rule out any sort of ‘insult’ to our cherished illusions. The regulation of the consensus reality that we live in is achieved via the tacit observance by all participants of a number of all-important social game rules – rules that we do not even know, for the most part, that we are observing. The only way we know about these unspoken rules is that we feel uncomfortable or threatened when they are not observed. When however we do feel uncomfortable due to a breach of social etiquette we don’t get curious about what exactly these rules are and why it is that breaching them makes us so uncomfortable – we just want to escape the embarrassment as quickly as possible and get back to the way we were before it started. We just want to ‘sweep everything under the carpet’ because this is how the social game maintains itself without paying attention to the fact that it is maintaining itself. That way we don’t have to know that there actually is a social game going on. We don’t have to know that our sense of who we are (our sense of well-being, our self-esteem, our confidence, etc) is strictly conditional, that it is dependent for its existence upon a specifically engineered narrow context or system, which is to say, upon a set of certain all-important but invisible conditions.
But even in the best run and most civilized society insults to the ‘apparently-robust-but-actually-brittle’ self-image are not going to be eliminated. On the contrary, the ‘insults’ are merely down-sized so that the merest trifle is all that is needed to cause an upset. Robert Anton Wilson relates a story he read in his local newspaper about how a man came into a corner store to buy a sirloin steak for his dog; when the shopkeeper learnt that the steak was for his dog he innocently replied that he wouldn’t waste a fine steak like that on a mutt. The man went home and brooded upon this insult to his beloved dog, and then came back with a handgun and shot the shopkeeper dead. This is of course an extreme case but the basic principle holds good across the board – when we ‘down-size’ and retreat into the protective bubble of the social game all that happens is that new and tinier irritants appear which challenge us in the same way that much bigger problems would have challenged us before we downsized. As we become more and more civilized, our suffering becomes more and more neurotic!
Even the word ‘challenge’ isn’t the right word to use in this context because to see a difficulty as talking about a challenge presupposes a certain level of awareness and willingness to change in the first place and when I am ensconced firmly and securely in the comfort-zone of the managed environment I react to all deviations from the prescribed norm as being unforgivable insults. There is no question of me changing, or needing to change. There is no question whatsoever that I should have something to learn from the experience, or that the problem might lie with my own unnecessarily rigid and intolerant outlook. Quite the reverse is true – my attitude is that the fault lies with others, my attitude that the problem is outside of myself. My view is that ‘it should never have happened’ or that ‘it shouldn’t be allowed’ or that ‘there should be a law against it.’ I am scandalized by anything that happens other than what is permitted, other than what is sanctified by the rules governing the comfort-zone and I react in a completely mechanical (i.e. unreflective) way.
REPLACING SPACE WITH REACTIVITY
The reason I react mechanically to anything that is not an officially-sanctioned feature of my comfort zone or ‘managed environment’ – anything that represents any sort of a challenge in other words, since the whole point of a comfort zone is that it doesn’t contain any challenges – is because as we have said that I have no ‘core’. I am only a brittle, hollow shell, and the reason I am on only a brittle, hollow shell is because I have given all my spacious interior away. I jettisoned my core, I got rid of it, and so instead of having vast inner space to draw upon in times of difficulty I have nothing. I only have my shrunken-down brittle little personality-shell and there is no strength, no resilience in that at all – there is only reactivity, which is ‘passing the pain on’ rather than ‘sitting with it’. This capacity to ‘dodge the difficulty’, to ‘deflect the pain’, is an inferior substitute for inner strength or inner spaciousness – it is what we have to make do with in the absence of the genuine article. In a way replacing inner space with reactivity might be said to represent a form of ‘cleverness’ since we have figured out a kind of a short-cut or cheat, a kind of a way of ‘getting by without putting any work in’, but as Gurdjieff has said, ‘it is not clever to be clever’ because in the end all we succeed at is in creating a tougher situation for ourselves than the one we have just avoided.
Life is difficult, as Scott Peck says in the opening paragraph of The Road Less Travelled. Its nature is to be difficult, is to be a challenge. It demands of us that we draw upon our inner resources and discover as we do so the mysterious world that exists within us. If life didn’t challenge us then we wouldn’t discover this world. We would live in ignorance of it, oblivious to it, absorbed – but not happily absorbed – in our petty games, in the mind-numbingly trivial and frighteningly repetitive details of our time-honoured obsessions. The virtual, mind-created consensual world that we are presented with almost as soon as we step out of the cradle validates and glorifies these petty games and encourages us to base our sense of identity upon how well we perform them. In a perverse inversion of the natural order, to excel at ignoring and remaining oblivious to the tremendous scope of life and remaining steadfastly within the prescribed box is rewarded and counted as a virtue, as a sign that one is a responsible and level-headed human being, whilst any sort of interest in fields that are not socially-prescribed is seen as being an unfortunate manifestation of unaccountable eccentricity. Peer pressure means in practice that we adore small-mindedness, and compete with each other to see ‘who is best’ in whatever trivial game happens to be fashionable. If we get better at this game we feel good about ourselves and if we don’t do so well then we feel bad. What we are ‘getting better at doing’ doesn’t come into it – it could be seeing how many boiled eggs you can swallow at one sitting, or how many frozen peas you can stick up your nose. The important thing (as we all understand) is to excel at the game, no matter what the game may happen to be.
What we are trying to ‘excel’ at is performing ritualized tasks within the sterile bottle of the managed environment. The better we get at these tasks the more accepted we are and the more we are accepted the more opportunities we are given to progress within the terms of the system. In a very narrow sense, therefore, ‘we are doing well’, but in a wider sense we aren’t at all because adapting to the managed environment, the social game, means trading-off the one thing that really does matter – our ‘interiority’, our inner spaciousness. We do well in the word of surface-level appearances, but underneath this façade we’re not doing so well at all because we are trying to live our lives on the basis of having no true core, on the false basis of ‘being someone we aren’t’. Our orientation is all wrong – we are orientated towards the unreal rather than the real. We have been taught to look for life within our meaningless games. We have been taught to think that moving outside of the socially-sanctified comfort zone of who we think we are and what we think life is about is a manifestation of weakness, a sign of failure. We have been taught to avoid the genuine challenge of life – which is to go beyond our preconceptions – and instead concentrate on performing optimally within the narrow terms of these preconceptions. ‘Performing optimally within the narrow terms of terms of our preconceptions’ comes down to ‘representing what is spacious within non-spacious terms’ (or ‘representing the grand with the terms of the petty’) and then as a result of the unacknowledged down-scaling obtaining some type of petty success which for us represents a ‘victory over life’ – even though the very notion of being ‘victorious over life’ (or ‘succeeding at life’!) is in itself downright perverse.
REPLACING THE REAL WITH THE VIRTUAL
When we succeed at oversimplifying life into a game and then content ourselves with thinking that this game is all that matters, then the pressure is off. We have escaped from the fundamental challenge of life and this – perversely – we see as being an advantage that has been gained. But this ‘advantage’ comes at a price and the price is that we are now at a tremendous disadvantage with regard to real (or ‘unconditioned’) life. The disadvantage arises because of our attitude to real life – our attitude is that we treat it as an enemy, as something to be excluded or controlled or denied at all costs. It is not that we consciously see whatever lies outside of the conceptual bubble as being ‘the enemy’ because as we have said the conceptual bubble is not seen as ‘the conceptual bubble’ but implicitly taken to be synonymous with reality itself. Thus – as far as we are concerned – unconditioned reality is something that simply doesn’t exist, like unicorns and fire-breathing dragons. It’s even less real than that: unicorns and dragons we have words for, we have references for, whilst unconditioned reality is something that we have no referents for in everyday language. But even though we act as if it isn’t there it is – actually it is genuinely real whilst we are only virtually real, which is why we have to exclude it so thoroughly from our awareness. This essentially means that despite all our surface-level certainty and surface-level confidence, we are unconsciously threatened by reality and so we are put in a position where, if we are to remain safely unconscious, we have to constantly displace this insecurity through a range of theatrical activities – which is to say, activities that monopolize our time and attention, but which are ‘only for show’.
The long-term disadvantage which we incur as a result of opting for the short-term advantage of down-scaling ourselves (and restricting ourselves thereby to our over-simplified ‘conceptual bubble’) is that we can’t face anything that is not part of this securely managed and safely regulated bubble. We cannot face any genuine, honest-to-goodness challenge! To face the intrinsic challenge of life on the wholly inadequate basis of the hollow, reactive shell is an utterly overwhelming proposition – from the perspective of the ‘collapsed personality-shell’, the ‘two-dimensional self-image’, it is the worst, the most unpalatable thing there is. The term ‘intrinsic challenge’ may be straightforwardly explained by saying that it is the sort of challenge to which there exists no ready-made answers. If I ask you “What is 2 + 4?” this is not an intrinsically challenging question because it is possible to apply the laws of simple addition and produce thereby the correct answer. Similarly, in the collapsed logical bubble which is the world that is created by the activity of the rational mind all questions are capable – at least in theory – of being answered. Some challenges may be insurmountable in practice but they are still not intrinsic challenges to my being because I know what the answer could or should be. The challenge exists within an understandable framework – it doesn’t take me out of my framework and neither does it hint in any way that there might be anything outside of this framework. In other words, if the challenge in question is not an intrinsic one then it doesn’t highlight my conceptual framework of reference as being ‘only a framework’. This is why when we are faced with difficulties our immediate response is to go running for an answer, to go looking for a method, or for some ‘expert’ to tell us what to do.
Culturally, our unspoken assumption is that it should be possible in theory to generate a comprehensive body of logical procedures or protocols which will allow any problem whatsoever to be solved. For some problems – such as fixing a car engine or putting together a flat-pack chest of drawers – it is possible to derive and apply the appropriate logical series of steps, but where our blindness shows itself is in the fact that we have no appreciation at all that there is a larger class of difficulties that are not amenable to procedural answers, answers which we can’t look up in a manual or be trained to deal with in a college or university. What would constitute a difficulty of this nature is obvious once we start thinking about it – creating any sort of work of art such as a poem or novel or a painting, getting on with other people, loving someone, listening to someone, having a sense of humour, appreciating beauty, being authentically yourself, and so on, are all ‘intrinsic challenges’. Mental health is also a challenge of this nature; our whole approach to mental and emotional distress revolves around procedures and techniques, methods and approaches, theories and models – and yet just as life itself is an intrinsic challenge that no one can tell you how to solve, so too is our mental suffering. There is no logical answer or cure to suffering, any more than there can be ‘a prescribed logical way to live life’, and the very obvious fact that we don’t want to see this (and want instead to withdraw into a ‘safe’ technological cocoon) demonstrates with great clarity just exactly where we’re coming from. We’re not ‘warriors of the spirit’ – we’re escape artists!
WHEN LIFE IS THE ENEMY
Because we have opted for a world in which intrinsic challenge has been surreptitiously substituted for by an endless series of trivial challenges reality itself has now become the enemy we are not allowed to speak of, or know about. But because it is life itself which is the ‘intrinsic challenge’ this means that life is the enemy; although we won’t ever come out and say it. On the contrary, we make a big show of celebrating life and going on the whole time about how great it is – what we’re really celebrating however are our games. We don’t celebrate life, we celebrate our tame version of it, our controlled analogue of it. We go on in exactly the same way about how great freedom is, but – again – we don’t really want freedom at all – we only want the ‘freedom’ to be left alone to repeat our conditioned reflexes ad infinitum, time without end…
The truth is that we only value and desire conditioned freedom, which is the freedom to carry on holding on tight to our limited and limiting image of ourselves, and pursuing those aims and goals that make sense (or seem attractive) from this peculiarly constrained perspective. Given that the conditional self has no choice at all in desiring whatever it is conditioned or programmed to want this type of so-called ‘freedom’ is not freedom at all but its complete opposite – slavery. Because we choose to avoid and not know that we are avoiding we have given up our freedom, which is really just another way of saying that we have given up our ‘spaciousness’. We have handed over responsibility for seeing what is going on to the external authority that allows us to ‘avoid without knowing we are avoiding’ – if we hadn’t handed over the responsibility to actually see what’s happening then the whole point of the exercise would be lost. This sort of deliberate dumbness – which Chogyam Trungpa calls intentional stupidity, is of course a prerequisite for the game that we are playing. Freedom – or free volition – is always the enemy when one is playing a game, after all, to paraphrase Carse, if I was equally free to play or not to play then the game would be completely ruined. I have to substitute external compulsion in place of unfettered volition for the thing to work; I have to veil my own essential freedom from myself or else the game no longer can hold me in its spell. In the same way, then, if I am playing the game of hiding from my own true nature then I have to not let on to myself that this is what I am doing, and this also means giving away my essential free will. It couldn’t work any other way. The enemy is to this manoeuvre is awareness, therefore. Our own awareness is the enemy that has to be triumphed over, which is why we have to be so rigid, so constrained, so dogmatic, so ‘mechanical’, so obsessive, so judgmental, so ‘up tight’, so flatly incurious and so unreflective in all things.
When we are rigid, opinionated, judgemental, obsessive, brittle and reactive and all the rest of it then this is of course because we have made life into an enemy. Any psychotherapist worth their salt could tell you this! If life were the sort of enemy one might triumph over, or keep firmly under control, then this might at least be a workable (if essentially unhappy solution) but life is not that type of enemy at all – life is something over which we can never triumph. No matter how tightly controlled and heavily secured we are it will always break through our defences and when it does so this will be perceived as a frighteningly catastrophic sort of a thing. When life happens to us in a way that has not been decided in advance by us then this is seen as a crisis, a disaster, a breakdown, and so on, and because of we do relate to what is happening in this way we fight it every inch of the way. Fighting what is happening, when what is happening is beyond the power of our control, is a profoundly distressing experience and so – as a direct result of our insistence on our closed and defended attitude to life – we create the most traumatic type of suffering possible for ourselves. The more we dig in and adopt a non-negotiable position, the more pain we put ourselves in line for, which is an ironic consequence since the whole point of our intractability is to avoid pain.
Instead of saying that by defending against the process of life (which we might say is an ‘opening-out movement’ rather than a ‘narrowing’ or ‘closing-off’ movement) we make an enemy of that process we could equally well say that we make an enemy of ourselves. We aren’t acting in our own best interests, to put it mildly! So even if we could control the external world so effectively and so efficiently that the unwanted eventuality never occurs (which we generally can manage for a period of time at least, possibly even for most of our lives) we are still going to incur suffering because such a ‘cocoon of controlling’ comes with it its own price tag. The type of suffering we incur is the suffering of ‘being bored at leisure’, the suffering of subtle yet all-pervasive ennui. The threat of the unexpected has been removed (at least for a while) and so now we have to contend with a problem of our own making – stifling predictability. What we find then is that our pleasures gradually become duller, less vivid, less intense, less exciting; life itself becomes progressively blander and more wearisome to us, until the time comes when it actually seems to have lost its flavour entirely, like chewing-gum that has been chewed over too many times. Despite its lack of taste, however, we go on chewing it and chewing it, day in and day out. What else can we do – we’ve only got the one piece of chewing gum, after all! We just have to get on with it. There is no other option – we have made our bed and now we must lie in it…
THE LOVE/HATE DYNAMIC
It is not that life has really become tasteless, of course. Life tastes as good as it ever did – the problem is clearly that by playing it safe the whole time and opting for the ‘risk-free alternative’ we have become disconnected from it. As a result of protecting ourselves from life we have insulated ourselves from it – we simply can’t feel it any more because we have put too many barriers in place. We have got too clever, too strategic. Life is there but I can’t touch it or smell it or taste it or feel it. And neither can it touch me. I’m looking through thick glass the whole time. The ‘risk-free alternative’ works by being closed but portraying itself as not closed; the ‘simulation of life’ (where nothing radically unexpected ever happens) implicitly presents itself as being open, but in order to present itself as open it has to thoroughly exclude all genuine openness, otherwise the game would immediately be up. But because it is a closed world (no matter what it claims) everything that happens within it resounds with tedium, with barely-disguised meaninglessness. It is like shouting in a confined space – my own voice instantly rebounds at me, mocking me. All that there is is ‘me’, and that ‘me’ ends up becomes the most intolerable thing of all.
This is a real paradox: the closed or insulated ‘me’ turns into the one thing I cannot stand, even though it is the fulcrum around which everything turns, the central, all-important ‘reason’ for everything I do and think. This contradiction gives rise to what might be referred to as a ‘love-hate’ dynamic – on the face of it, I value and prize myself but unless I am able to effectively distract myself from being with myself I will start to feel rotten because I can’t actually ‘bear my own company’, as it were. As a result of this dynamic what tends to happen is that –although all of my actions are performed for my own gain or benefit – my own ‘gain or benefit’ translates as finding some way, either disguised or undisguised, of striking back at myself, since it is ‘myself’ that is making me feel bad and I am naturally resentful of this fact, as paradoxical as this may sound. I myself am ‘the limitation which pinches’, and so this limitation – in its blind pain and frustration – turns around and aims a few good, solid blows at itself. It recriminates against itself, it punishes itself, it shows itself no mercy…
When the conditioned self is functioning in what on its own terms would be thought of as ‘healthy’ way the pain caused by the over-tight straight-jacket of its own nature is ‘safely’ projected out onto the world, and so by this means it continues to feel good about itself. The problem is perceived as existing in the outside world, where it can be dealt with – either by outright aggression and violence or more commonly by condemnation and blaming, which although perhaps less satisfying, still serves to preserve the integrity of the ‘pain-displacement game’ that is being played. But as the constriction and the general sense of sterility and futility bites deeper, activities are engaged in which are only thinly-veiled acts of inwardly directed aggression – activities which ultimately turn into what we would call ‘self-sabotaging’ or ‘self-destructive’ behaviour. My activities become tinged with despair – I look for relief in behaviours that rebound on me and cause me more pain than the pain I was trying to escape! I am looking for release, but there is none…
THE GAME OF ‘CATCH THE PROJECTION’
The false ‘self’ which is the actual source of my suffering (inasmuch as it is no more than a cage or suit of armour which contains and cruelly restricts me) is the result or concrete residue of my avoidance of the central challenge of life. This is all I am left with; it is what I have to make do with, like it or not. My escape is from the demand of ‘spaciousness’ into the undemanding situation of ‘virtual spaciousness’ which is the world of the conditioned self reacting automatically to its own projections. The ability of this ‘false spaciousness’ to keep on looking the part inevitably wanes however; it inevitably becomes less and less convincing. This waning may be seen as a type of ‘running down’ of the clockwork mechanism that allowed it to move around so vigorously and so determinedly during the first phase of the cycle. During this first phase, the positive phase, everything is hunk-dory – there are no problems anywhere, or if they are, then they are always ‘on the outside’. During this ‘healthy’ phase of the cycle – healthy only from the inverted viewpoint of the conditioned self – the essential sterility of the rational-conceptual bubble is invisible, undetectable, and everything proceeds on the basis of positive and negative projections (or positive and negative ‘attachments’). Between chasing the positive and running away from the negative there seems to be the possibility of genuine space, genuine ‘leeway’.
Projection (or attachment) is the engine, the never-failing motive-force driving all the activity: certain elements within the game are glamorized and turned into tokens representing ‘the good stuff’ whilst other elements are – so to speak – demonized and are allocated the role of representing the ‘bad stuff’. These projections are like mirages that always slip away at the last moment – once we corner or capture the element within the game that carries the positive projection we feel elated for a while, but then the projection slips away again, it is withdrawn and appears somewhere else so that the never-ending game of ‘catch the projection’ may continue. Similarly with negative projections, which constitute the ‘reverse-stroke’ of the two-stroke engine of extrinsic motivation (i.e. motivation that is based on externalized images possessing either an attractive or aversive character) – we can spend a lot of time fleeing or fighting negative projection, but the actual carriers, the things that we are fearful of or angry towards, vary in a fluid fashion. If we fix or escape the negative projection in one manifestation we will feel great relief, but it will only pop up again elsewhere so that the game can continue. Or perhaps the very worst outcome will actually happen, I won’t be able to avert it, and the demon will corner and catch me, in which case I will experience a peak level of negative euphoria, which will in time diminish and fade, and then new demons will in due course appear to pursue and persecute me in their turn.
What we are looking at here, then, are two aspects of a fundamental and irreducible form of suffering – the suffering that comes about as a result of substituting virtual space (or virtual freedom) for the genuine article. On the one hand we have the suffering of being isolated, trapped in a sort of ‘solipsistic capsule of ego’ where we can never take a good satisfying lungful of clean fresh air, even though we know that there is no shortage of fresh air outside the capsule. Inside the capsule, however, all there is is this stale, recycled air – it has oxygen enough to keep us alive (after a fashion) because there is machinery to treat it and make it breathable, but it doesn’t really taste right and it fails to satisfy. And on the other hand there is the suffering of never-ending frustration because the goals we are chasing after are mere phantoms – designed to be chased but not to be caught.
The whole set-up is about expectation, the anticipation of arrival rather than the thing itself. The genuine article is beyond the power of the system of appearances to provide since it is only made up of appearances. It has no substance and so it can deliver no substance. It can only promise or threaten, and when we live in this virtual world (in this hyperreality) we live in a theatrical world where promises and ‘the thing that is promised’ (or threats and ‘that which is threatened’) have become one and the same thing. A collapse has taken place, and the ingredient that has been taken out of the equation is reality itself. Everything has folded up into two-dimensions, so to speak, and now has to be represented in terms of these two dimensions. We too have to be represented as ‘flat images’ – we are cartoons in a cartoon world. As Joseph Campbell says in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we are ‘fractions who imagine ourselves whole’. In this realm we cannot touch reality, or be touched by it, we can only relate to our images of reality and imagine that we either possess or do not possess these images. Equally, we cannot experience being – we can only experience desire, which is to say, either positive or negative anticipation. There is no actual content to anything, and there is also no genuine contact with anything, since only through content can we have contact, and so what is happening here in this collapsed or over-simplified version of reality is that we are being cheated on a very basic level.
SEARCHING FOR THE FINAL RELEASE
As we have been saying, when we successfully avoid the bigger picture what we end up with is a situation where stuff only makes sense to us when it can be related to the core idea of the concrete self, which is our essential referent for orientating ourselves in the universe, and guiding our thoughts and activities within it. This concrete self is however a closed state of affairs (there is no way that the concrete self can’t be a closed situation) and as such it has no capacity to relate to anything that is not a projection of its own static and limited viewpoint. This limitation constitutes a fundamental irreducible form of suffering because the self cannot partake in life; instead, all it can do is to keep on playing its own crude and repetitive games which – inadequate as they are – then have to substitute for life. Our games can therefore be thought of as the displacement of the pain or suffering that is caused by our collapsed situation. Playing a game means ‘hoping to win’ and winning, on an unconscious level, means obtaining release from the pain of conditioned existence.
Winning however does not release me from anything; on the contrary, it ties me into the game more than ever because winning is the game just as much as not-winning is – there is nowhere to go except round in circles. ‘Winning’ is the supremely meaningful concept within the terms of the game, but outside of this framework of meaning it means nothing at all. It is simply a particular outcome, a particular outcome that is no different in essence from any other, but because we have unconsciously made this specified state of affairs synonymous with ‘the final release’ playing the game has become meaningful to us, and so we are tireless in playing it. This motivational gimmick doesn’t work forever, however, and when it ceases to work what we find is that our goals no longer magnetize us as they once did, they no longer have the same power to draw us on and on, endlessly repeating the same dramas without us ever realizing that we are doing so.
Distraction as a tactic doesn’t work forever because one day (sooner or later) we are going to see that we are distracting ourselves, and when we see this key fact then the integrity of the game has been punctured. Thus (if we agree that one day we will see the truth) the whole business of what we have been doing – the game that has been substituted for life – can be seen as no more than a delaying tactic, a postponement of the inevitable. It is always possible (when my predicament gets too pressing) for me to try to take the game of avoidance one level further, and manage thereby to avoid the consequences of my original act of avoidance, but what happens then is simply that I produce another consequence – I create for myself an even more unbearable situation, an even more sterile and meaningless prison for myself to be trapped in. This escalation and intensification of the vicious sterility caused by my isolation or disconnection from ‘the open situation of unconditioned reality’ would then necessitate me playing an even cruder and even more violent ‘distraction game’, which only serves to escalates my suffering even more. In real terms, there is simply nowhere to go. There is no escape – the essential demand which life makes on me cannot be avoided because the more I try to avoid it the more pain I store up for myself in the future. If I am truly persistent, truly stubborn in my avoidance of difficulty, then I create the ultimately difficult situation of hell for myself. Hell then becomes my challenge – by being infinitely lazy I create a situation for myself that is the ultimate in hard work! The psychological state of ‘hell’ is therefore nothing more than the inevitable consequence of me ‘refusing work’, which is to say, refusing anything which isn’t part of my ‘system of denial’…
THE FALSE STEWARD
This talk of hell and suffering tends to sound terribly dire, reminiscent of the sort of grim warnings the church used to come out with in order to put people off sinning (or encourage them to fall into line with ecclesiastic authority) but this picture is not what it appears. Suffering is not a punishment with a helpful lesson, a ‘blessing in disguise’, we might say. Suffering might be said to be a ‘blessing in disguise’ because it is a lesson that will unfailingly liberate us when we finally get the message. What happens in suffering is that we are presented with a ‘problem’ that cannot be solved, a problem that is immutable with regard to our desire to manipulate it, a problem that stays the same no matter what tricks we try. This means that ‘the problem’ isn’t a problem after all but simply life! A difficulty that is insusceptible to being changed by any procedural means is what we have been calling intrinsic difficulty (rather than a mere ‘technical’ difficulty) and any intrinsic difficulty – no matter what form it takes or how it appears – leads us back to the original challenge that we have been attempting to escape from. Intrinsic difficulty is the original challenge – it’s the same wherever we meet it.
Intrinsic difficulty might be life itself, but it is also the conditioned self’s worst enemy, as we have been saying! Intrinsic difficulty isn’t something that the self can ‘handle’, but rather it is something that it has to avoid at any cost. From the conditioned self’s limited viewpoint – which is generally the only viewpoint we know – intrinsic difficulty is what we fear above all else. Any other lesser fears that we might happen to have only scare us because they reminds us of this original fear! The reason intrinsic difficulty is an enemy of the conditioned self is not because it is any sort of a problem (as we have said), but because of the complete opposite – it is an enemy of the self because it is so completely lacking in problems or limitations of any kind. What we are running away from in conditioned life is a ‘difficulty’ for us because it is too vast a reality, and our viewpoint is so very narrow, so very limited. In order to consciously relate to it we would have to expand our viewpoint and drop the unnecessary limitations that we have based our whole outlook on, and this is precisely what the conditioned self has a problem with. The conditioned self is at root those ‘unnecessary limitations’ (it is at root nothing more than a bundle of petty concerns) and so naturally has a very serious problem with letting itself go, in favour of some bigger, more generous view of reality!
This self is like the crooked viceroy or steward who has the job of governing the kingdom whilst the King is away – although the viceroy is obliged to pay lip-service to the King’s authority (and right to rule) he has not the slightest intention of giving up the throne now that he has it. The King for him is the enemy – in the same way that our own inner spaciousness (or inner freedom) has become the ‘enemy’ once we have identified with, and invested in, the set of glorified limitations which constitutes the false or conditioned self. Freedom is the enemy because in freedom there is no longer the grim necessity to identify with the claustrophobically restrictive viewpoint which is ‘me’ – the terribly narrow, petty and superficial viewpoint that has for so long promoted itself as ‘the only possible way of seeing things there is’.
WHEN ‘THE ARTFUL DODGER’ CAN’T DODGE ANY MORE
The conditioned or everyday self’s great skill lies in being tactical, its ‘strength’ lies in dodging and scheming. But this isn’t strength at all really – needless to say – because nothing is actually being accomplished. All it is doing is shuffling between various possibilities of self-deception. When one wears out, it tries another and another, until the fateful day comes when it finally runs out of options. Faced with the Immutable, faced with Reality, it can do nothing. It’s ‘being’ – if we may call it that – rests upon its ability to ‘stay in control’. When it cannot do this, and when all question of being in control is unconditionally relinquished then the everyday self can hang on to its unreal (or ‘conditional’) existence no longer.
Thus it is as Jung says – we only change when we have to, we only change when we no longer have the option of ‘not changing’, we only change when our back is well and truly against the wall. And so if this is the case (i.e. that we only change when we can’t dodge or hide anymore) then the loss of our ‘virtual freedom’ (which is the freedom to postpone the inevitable), full of pain though it might be, is actually ‘a blessing in disguise’. This then is the disguised blessing of pain (or fear) that we can no longer hide from – to have our virtual freedom taken away from us (so that we can no longer duck and dive, twist and turn) is the very last thing we want because it spells the end of the concrete self, but at the same time this is the greatest blessing that could ever be bestowed upon us!
The ‘conditions’ which the everyday self’s continued existence depends upon are after all that the truth can be dodged or conveniently slanted and when this loophole is closed to it this narrow provisional sense of self gives way to something vastly more expansive. What it gives way to is ‘the freedom not to control’, which is the freedom of the ‘not-self’. When the conditional self’s comfort zone, its cosy niche, is taken away (which is the inevitable consequence of awareness being allowed into the picture) then the false sense of ‘being this little self’ evaporates, leaving no stain or residue. That false sense of self was after all only a weak and insubstantial illusion that could be maintained only when it was being continually ‘humoured’, when it was being continually shielded from the truth by neurotic barriers, when it was being continually protected from any sort of genuine challenge behind wall after wall of self-deception. When our capacity to protect this ‘ghost-like’ self has been lost to us then the illusory self is ‘liberated’ – which is to say, we no longer tied to the onerous task of ‘keeping it going’.
Just to summarize, then, we can say that the way things work is that when a problem comes along we busy ourselves to find an answer and when we find the answer the problem disappears again. The problem is eliminated and the ‘fixer-of-problems’, the ‘solution-finder’, remains securely in place – which is of course exactly what we want, since we are looking at things from the fixer’s point of view! As a result of successful problem-fixing the challenge-fearing false self (which is our hiding place from reality) is not lost, which means that inner spaciousness (which is the freedom of the not-self) is not gained. And similarly, if we fail to fix the problem then the ‘failed fixer of problems’ remains equally securely in place, which of course also serves the purpose of the game! Whichever way we sucked into it we get trapped in that involuntary pattern of reacting which is the ‘problem-solving self’.
Either way (win or lose) life quickly devolves to what is essentially a grim and humourless struggle, where what is being struggled for is ultimately unattainable and the only possible victories are short-term victories, ‘victories’ where we temporarily manage to hide from what we don’t want to know. Life happens to us, but everything gets experienced from the viewpoint of resistance – which is why life in this case might be said to be marked by unconscious suffering, which is suffering that we fight against every step of the way. Conscious suffering, on the other hand, might be said to be suffering which we are not resisting every step of the way. We’re going along with the liberating process of suffering willingly – and even when we fight against it all (as we do by reflex, by sheer force of habit) we do so with a certain consciousness of what we’re doing, and are gently accepting of that part of us that keeps on fighting and resisting…
If I resist – if I fight to get off the ride – then what happens is ‘the struggle to get off the ride’ just turns into another sort of ride that I just can’t get off. Only this time it’s a very tight and restrictive ride, the ride of ‘unconscious living’. Really, however, it’s the same ride – it always the same ride, only now ‘the ride’ is not enjoyable at all because I am fighting against it all the way, and what this demonstrates (we could say) is that – in the end – the harder I fight against finding out who I really am, the harder I make it not to. No matter how many prisons I build for myself, and no matter how well I construct them, I can’t escape freedom…
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.