The mighty engine of curiosity is left idling; more than this, we may say that curiosity – the powerhouse of our being – is put into hibernation mode, is disabled, is shut down.
Without this engine, without this powerhouse, what are we? With the vital drive of our curiosity shut down, what becomes of us? What becomes of our lives?
This is like asking what becomes of an ocean going vessel when its engine fails – when its engine fails it drifts, it stalls, it goes around in circles, it is at the mercy of whatever ocean current catches it. In the same way we drift, we stall, we go round in circles, we get caught up in random currents, going this way or that for no better reason than the fact that this happens to be where the current is going.
For us, the ‘currents’ that rule our lives are the currents of thought, currents of ideas and belief. If those around us have certain thoughts, ideas, and beliefs about the world then we go with along with them in this. Why not? After all, in the absence of curiosity anything half-way convincing will do; just so long as there is some kind of established structure, some kind of accepted orthodoxy there, that is good enough.
The currents that capture us are ways of seeing the world. We are in the market – so to speak – for some kind of handy, off-the-shelf viewpoint or theory about things, and the blind, equilibrium-seeking forces that shape society, the minds of those in it, are more than happy to supply us with one viewpoint or another, one theory or another, one position or another. This is simply the psychological equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics – just as closed physical systems move inevitably towards a never-changing thermal equilibrium, so too the closed system which is society moves with equal inevitability towards an unchanging mental equilibrium. The end-point in both cases is the profoundly uninspiring but very-nearly irresistible attractor-state of maximized entropy.
Our lack of curiosity means that we are wide-open to being ‘shaped from without’, to being provided with stuff of one sort or another to go along with, whatever that might be. We want in effect to be told what to believe by an external authority because if there wasn’t some external authority there to do this then we’d have to start thinking for ourselves, and without any actual curiosity about the world where would we begin?
We don’t rely wholly on ‘belief-memes’ (i.e. ‘viral mental programs’) propagating around the strange stagnant sea which is society for our sense of direction, however; we can also utilize our own inertia, which is to say, we can keep on doing whatever it is that we have always been doing. We can ‘keep on doing what we’re doing’ and at the same time never look too closely at the reason why we never deviate from the established pattern of ‘doing what we always do’.
This is ‘cruising on habit energy’ but we turn it around and make a positive of it. We proudly say, “This is me”, or “This is just who I am”, thereby making a virtue of what is not actually any sort of a virtue at all, but merely the way the dice happened to fall. Whether it is my own personal habit energy or the collective habit energy that we fondly call ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’ makes no difference in the end – the one becomes the other, the one feeds into the other. When lots and lots of people put their habit energy together it turns into collective habit energy, it turns into the social othodoxy, which then in turn reaches back and blindly moulds the life of each individual member of the collective, whether they want to be so moulded or not.
Without the ‘main drive’ of our curiosity we drift helplessly, we are caught up in whatever local currents happen to be prevailing at the time. These currents are as we have said ‘utilized’ by us but this does not mean that they serve or help us in any real way, any more than an institution serves or helps the hapless disempowered inmates that it institutionalizes. These local currents do not serve any ‘higher good’; being purely mechanical in nature they do not further any cause other than their own. Mechanical patterns simply follow the pattern that is themselves – and that’s the end of it. That is all there is to them. They are ‘dead energy’, if we can put it like that. Without curiosity, we are incapable of looking beyond the tautological logic of this dead energy, the logic that never questions itself, the logic that says “This is the way that I am doing it because this is the way that I am doing it” or “This is the way that I am doing it because this is the way that I have ALWAYS done it.” Without curiosity we lose ourselves, we forget our true autonomous nature and become what the dead mechanical pattern makes us to be.
Why emphasize curiosity though? Could we not say that the main-drive, the powerhouse of our being was something else? Could we not equally well say that the coiled spring that internally motivates us is creativity, or playfulness, or compassion, or love? These seem to be equally fundamental. Each of these may be said to contain an element of curiosity though. Without curiosity we would not know anything beyond the pattern or format that we have – by default – been provided with and so instead of creativity we would have its ‘lower analogue’, which is copying. Instead of our energy going into the new, it would be utilized in the conservative task of obsessively rehashing the old. The same is true for playfulness or spontaneity – if we are conditioned to abide by the rules then ‘messing about with the rules’ – which is what playfulness is all about – is clearly not going to be allowed. Spontaneity will then be replaced by ‘playing within the rules’, or ‘rule-based play’, which is game-playing.
Compassion and love likewise cannot get off the ground without an element of curiosity since we cannot love or feel compassion on the basis of rules, on the basis of compulsion, on the basis of a ‘framework of thought’. So instead of compassion or love we end up with the rule-based equivalent, which is morality. Morgan Scott Peck talks about love in terms of extending oneself, and what is ‘extending oneself’ all about if not curiosity? ‘Real love’, says Scott Peck, ‘is a permanently self-enlarging experience’ and so we might define morality on this basis by saying that it is an inferior analogue of love in that there is no ‘self-enlarging’ going on; enlarging the self means after all going beyond the self and so if we are ‘playing a finite game’, if we want to ‘hang on to who we are’ we have no choice but to wear the sterile uniform (or ‘straight-jacket’) of morality in place of love.
Curiosity – as ‘the urge to go beyond the rules, and thus go beyond oneself’ – is inseparable from consciousness. It is another way of talking about ‘freedom of being’, the way in which we are free not to be contained by whatever structures exists within or without us. It is the way that we do not simply take everything at face value, as being whatever way the official designation says it is. Curiosity is what stops us unreflectively obeying whatever our directives are, our orders or instructions are, and daring to look at things differently, in a way that is out of step with everyone around us. Curiosity is the state of being open to whatever is out there, no matter what it is out there, and thus the absence of curiosity is the same thing as being closed-off, shut-down, mentally ossified or ‘dead’ to the world.
P.D. Ouspensky says that mankind’s greatest vice is obedience; obedience means that we obey our orders without question, we jump to follow orders no matter what those orders are; obedience means that we go along with whatever is already going on without thinking anything of it, it means we accept whatever dull definitions of reality are being peddled by the system without quibble or comment. Curiosity is therefore a form of dissidence or rebelliousness. Curiosity never goes along with the status quo and whenever there is genuine curiosity a revolution is inevitably going to follow. The rebellion in question isn’t primarily against the external status quo – the true mark of genuine, honest-to-goodness, no-holds-barred curiosity is to question the internal status quo.
Whoever questions their own internal status quo? Whoever rebels against their own self, their own thoughts, their own mind? This is unheard of – even to suggest it sounds ridiculous. It sounds crazy. It doesn’t make sense. One’s own mind, one’s own outlook, one’s own self is sacrosanct – an orthodoxy that is to be accepted absolutely, instinctively, unquestioningly, automatically. If I think something then ‘that’s it’ – it must be true because I have thought it. If I believe something then – similarly – it must be right because I believe it. If I want something then I have to have it, there’s no discussion about it, which is to say, it’s all about “How do I get it?” rather than “Why do I want it?”
Not having the remotest interest or curiosity in the structures and habits of one’s own mind is a good definition of the state of psychological unconsciousness. No one thinks of themselves as being unconscious, or perceives themselves to be so, but as long as I am unreflectively acting out these structures, these habitual patterns, then there is nothing of my own true nature in what is going on. There is only these structures, the patterns that have somehow become lodged (or ingrained) in my mind. Not having any curiosity about this ‘status quo’ means that who I really am remains in the state of latency; it remains in germ-form, in seed-form only. Nothing of this true nature is evident – but it could be evident, under the right conditions.
What happens then when the engine of curiosity is disabled is that we never go any further from the place that we already are. We make do with the set-up that’s there, we make do with the status quo, we ‘make do with what we’ve got’. We obediently get along with whatever we’ve been given to get along with. In his novel The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, P. D. Ouspensky has the line:
There is something in us that keeps us where we find ourselves. I think this is the most awful thing of all.
So when we are in this conservative mode we simply busy ourselves thinking the sort of things that we’re prone to thinking, believing the sort of things we’re prone to believing, doing the sort of things we prone to doing. When we are in the state of psychological unconsciousness we stay wholly absorbed in the sort of personal dramas we are prone to being absorbed in, we stay caught up in the sort of interpersonal relationships that we are prone to getting caught up in. We get trapped in whatever pattern that we happen to find ourselves in and that is that – unless something comes along to break us out of it that is our lot, that is our fate. Unless something happens that is not of our own doing, our own intention, then we will continue to putter along like this, as best we can, until the day comes when we can putter along no more.
There is a huge pathos in this. Being unaware of the fact that the mighty engine of curiosity which would otherwise be driving us onwards is in hibernation mode we just drift through our lives without knowing we are drifting. We settle down with grim inevitability to the designated equilibrium values whilst imagining the whole time that this is what life is supposed be like, that this is all there is to it. This natural assumption is hugely reinforced by the fact that everyone around us is doing the same thing. The idea that what we call ‘life’ isn’t life at all but some kind of insipid parody of it never gets floated, never gets put out there. We have other, infinitely more trivial things to be talking and thinking about, things that have been given to us by the system to think about! And even if the idea that ‘this isn’t life at all, only an imitation’ was to be floated, was to be put out there, who is going to pay the slightest attention? Who gives a damn?
There is a tremendous lack of intensity in this unconscious mode of living, a gaping lack of anything of any real interest, a deficiency which we nevertheless find entirely normal. With our lives in this ‘shut-down’ condition (which we don’t know ourselves to be shut-down) we occupy ourselves with innumerable little games, we busy ourselves with a host of astonishingly trivial pursuits which we – in our hypnotized state – do not see as being trivial at all. We are lost in the doldrums, pursuing tasks that are as mind-numbingly pointless as they are interminably time-consuming. The following passage from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth in which Milo and his two companions Tock the Watchdog and the Humbug meet ‘the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit’ and very nearly fall under his power gives a good flavour of what life in this ‘time-wasting’ realm is like:
As he spoke, he tiptoed slowly toward them with his arms outstretched and continued to whisper in a soft, deceitful voice, “Now do come and stay with me. We’ll have so much fun together. There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too.
We start off in life with a colossal boost, with our engines running full-throttle, full-steam ahead, and then, pretty much as soon as we hit biological maturity, and become fully engaged with the culture that we are born into, the engine of curiosity abruptly loses power and gets switched-off, leaving us in limbo, cruising on habit energy. This catastrophe is as we have said considered quite normal and no one pays any heed to it. The loss of curiosity and playfulness is actually thought of as being a good thing, a sign that we have ‘grown up’, a sign that we are ready to take up the responsibilities (or, as Sogyal Rinpoche puts it, the irresponsibilities) of adult life. We are ready to ‘play the game’ – and as everyone knows – it is important to take games with all due seriousness, or else we spoil it for everybody else. No one likes a spoilsport. No one gets a prize for thinking too deeply, or wins friends by suggesting that we might all have gone down entirely the wrong road. Nobody gets rewarded in this world for questioning or examining the overall structure – we only get acknowledgement for examining little tiny parts of the overall structure, and ignoring everything else. For mind-numbingly petty tasks such as this we get awarded honours degrees, master’s degrees, doctorates or perhaps even professorships if we are particularly clever and diligent in our studies…
The main engine seems to be getting turned off earlier and earlier as childhood becomes more and more contaminated by adult ideas, more and more subject to the noxious influence of the social matrix. As new arrivals in this matrix, there is a light in our eyes and this light is the light of our unconditional (or ‘non-game-playing’) curiosity – this light however is quenched the minute we start the business of ‘adaptation’, the business of trying to obtain approval and acceptance from our peers by taking the games that they play as seriously as they themselves do. In our irresistibly somniferous society the ‘blank virus’ takes hold pretty much as soon as we learn to walk…
There is an inexpressible sadness in being stuck in hibernation mode – a sadness we cannot articulate since we do not have the means of correctly locating it. This basic incommunicable level of suffering can only find expression via the illegitimate but ubiquitous psychological mechanism of locating it where it doesn’t belong, in aspects of our ‘game-reality’ that seem to be going unfavourably for us, or that we have ‘judgement’ about. Random things annoy and upset us, in other words, although this is of course not how we would see it. Via this displacement mechanism our energy gets constantly channelled into the never-ending task of trying to get things to work out for us within the ‘framework of the known’, which is the consensually-validated world of our everyday lives. Trying to fix the problem within the terms in which we understand that problem to exist reaffirms these terms, and buries the true cause of our dissatisfaction ever deeper, and so the whole system feeds back neatly into itself, and seamlessly perpetuates itself.
Yet although the world of normality (the ‘default-world’ that is created by the incurious mind) appears to have no seams, any boundaries of any sort, and gives every impression of stretching off in every direction like some sort of planet-engulfing desert, we are nevertheless always on the very edge of something new, something different, something refreshingly and thrillingly unrecognizable. A lush, vibrant landscape of mysteries and wonders lies only a hairsbreadth away, separated from us only by our profound lack of interest, by our stale ‘one-sidedness’, by the impermeable membrane of our habitual indifference…
It is not that we should be curious about the world, or that we ought to be curious. That is not it at all. This is not a matter of morality – shoulds and oughts can only ever lead to the desert of the known, there being no way that they could ever point towards the unknown. How can anyone meaningfully say that you ‘should’ do this, or that you ‘ought to’ do that, anyway? Absolute moral imperatives don’t come into it. There are no shoulds in life – shoulds and oughts only exist in the game. I might as well tell you that ‘you ought to be conscious’, which is deeply ridiculous since rules or compulsions arise out of unconsciousness (which is to say, a game that doesn’t admit itself to be a game) not out of consciousness (which is the state of unconditional freedom).
Saying that life could be so much more than we allow it to be is not a moral judgement, simply a poignant observation. The pathos arises out of the truth that things could be so very different, that the world we inhabit could be so much bigger than it is, that our lives are on the very edge of being so much deeper then they are. That is the truth of the matter but we are nevertheless perfectly free to carry on as we are; pretty obviously, there is no moral compulsion to be free, or else freedom itself would be a prison! Restriction cannot by necessity permit lack of restriction, but lack of restriction can and does permit restriction, just the same as it permits everything else. Or as James Carse says, finite games can be part of the Infinite Game, but the Infinite Game cannot be part of a finite game…
If the main drive is in hibernation mode then that is that. All the pressure in the world can’t change this. The engine has been disabled and the vessel will drift. Just so long as I am accepting surface-level appearances as being ‘the final reality’ then everything is decided for me. Everything has already been decided for me and so it’s all over… I might as well save time and climb into my coffin right away. I might as well spend all my life savings on the finest marble tomb I can get and jump right in. It is in this vein that Ouspensky quotes Revelation 3:1 “Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” He also mentions Matthew 23.27-32:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
I am laid up in a tomb – the tomb that is made up of the dead ‘pattern of pseudo-being’ that I have passively accepted for myself, and which I am on this account compelled to spend the rest of my life validating and endlessly reiterating.
Lack of curiosity means that we identify with whatever structures are there and then go along with them in accordance with the inflexible logic of these structures. It means we are trapped in these structures, that we never go any further than them. It means that we see ourselves as being these structures, and so of course we never question them, of course we never go any further than them. Lack of curiosity is in other words the very same thing as a belief in identity, a belief in separate, particularized selfhood, a belief in a fixed, finite and specific ego or ‘me’.
This is a tremendous insight: The reified selfhood and the stark absence of curiosity are one and the same thing! There is therefore (to look at this the other way around) no such thing as a genuinely curious self. Nosy perhaps, or suspicious, or maybe paranoid, but never curious. This way of looking at things means that it is the whole notion of finite or reified selfhood – which is so taken-for-granted, so enshrined in our culture, which is the trap. This is the ‘bad idea’ that we are being sold on just as soon as we are old enough to understand speech. Once I see myself as being ‘this person’, ‘this identity’, then this is the end of the story –everything has been decided from this point onwards. Definition is the living death – everything I do from this point is just ‘acting out the determinate pattern’, acting out that particular set of biases which is the self.
Whatever I do after identification with the pattern has taken place it is just the pattern acting on behalf of the pattern, the self acting on behalf of the self – trying to acquire what it likes and trying to avoid what it doesn’t like. No surprises here – this is an infinitely predictable old business, even though it doesn’t usually seem like that from the point of view of the self. Once I have fallen victim to the notion of fixed and finite selfhood then my attention is curtailed or restricted to the extremely limited domain of ‘what is of interest to that self’; what interests the self is what benefits the self (i.e. considerations of ‘profit and loss’) and this curtailed form of interest in the world is not curiosity at all but its very antithesis.
Curiosity has nothing to do with ‘looking for profit’ and this is why I can never decide to be curious, or intend to be curious, or put pressure on myself to be curious by invoking shoulds and oughts (which by definition are all about profit and loss). We can define curiosity therefore in terms of being interested in stuff that has no personal relevance. The logic of the concrete self is that “if something has no personal relevance to me then why should I care about it?” and indeed it is a sure-fire sign of the concrete self that it shuts off instantly the moment what is going on around it stops being of personal relevance to it, the moment things stop having a bearing on the narrow game that it is playing. All the interest goes. Conversely, then, what this shows is that if you are interested in stuff that isn’t in any way going to personally benefit you then you are not operating as a concrete self.
But then – we might ask – what am I if I am not a reified or concrete self? What else is there to be? Such questions miss the point however. If I want to play the game of limitation and localization then we can say what I ‘am’ but if I do not play this ‘finite game’ then what is there to be said? We can only talk (or think) about the finite and the limited, we cannot talk (or think) about what lies outside the restricted realm of the known. If I am not the finite self then there is nothing that I am not. But then again of if there is no specific pattern that I am compelled to ‘be’ this escapes the parameters of what we understand as selfhood. If I can be anything then this means that we are talking about the state of ultimate, no-holds-barred freedom. We are talked about the unbounded, the unlimited, the infinite, and this sounds very frightening indeed for the perambulating prison of the everyday self. It is so frightening that we don’t even want to think about it.
But then – on the other hand – if I cross that open-ended possibility right off the list and consider what my other options are, what remains? The question I am asking here is this – “If I choose to go along with this profit-orientated, gain-orientated, self-orientated, narrowly-focused approach to life then what’s going to happen to me?”
And the short answer to this question is that nothing at all is going to happen. Not ever. No matter how long I hang about. The status quo will remain forever undisturbed. The pattern will repeat itself ad infinitum. Things are going to carry on the way the way they have always carried on, and that’s just about all you can say about it. As soon as we say this we have exhausted what we can say about the life of the fixed and finite self!
And the thing is that this form of ‘living death’ is exactly what the finite self wants for itself, even if it doesn’t admit it. That’s what being a ‘fixed and finite self’ means…
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.