In order for us to ‘tune into the world’, and thus successfully interact with it, it is first necessary for us to adopt a narrow or limited understanding of reality – an understanding or view of reality which corresponds to the particular formatting (or construction) of that world. This suggestion is not such a hard thing to understand in one way; it’s a familiar enough idea, just like tuning into a radio station, or perhaps tuning into the perspective or worldview of someone who we happened to be talking to. In another way however it’s a rather radical suggestion – we don’t perceive ourselves to be limiting our perceptions and understanding every time we interact with the physical world, after all! What is even harder for us to understand is the suggestion that at the same time that we ‘tune into’ a particular physical environment/world, we also adopt a correspondingly narrow or limited version of ourselves, which is ‘the self which makes sense in the terms of the limited world that we are tuning into’. ‘Interaction’ is a two-way street, after all!
The physical world is run to a considerable extent on the basis of rules – that is how it gets to be physical (or ‘tangible’), after all – and so for us interact with it we must take those rules seriously. We have to ‘play by the rules’, as is the case for every game we might play. We could of course object that we can’t help taking these rules seriously; we can’t help doing this because we’re part of the physical world that we are ‘tuning into’! It’s not as if we start off immaterial and then have to make the choice to ‘materialize ourselves’ (or ‘limit ourselves’) in order to interact successfully with the physical environment around us! We’re ‘materialized’ the whole time, whether we like it or not…
This is not as good an argument as it might at first sound however – whilst it is true that our bodies are possessed of a ‘materiality’ indistinguishable from that of anything else that happens to exist in the physical universe, this doesn’t mean that our consciousness is automatically subject to the same laws, the same restrictions, as those that are regulating the physical universe. Who says that consciousness runs on rules? Consciousness- we might say – can be defined, or ‘limited’, by the physical environment, but it doesn’t have to be. When we are defined or limited by physical environments (and this is very noticeably the case when we are defined by the artificial environment that we design for ourselves out of the operation of our logical minds) then we inevitably become a mere reflection of this environment; we become ‘flat’, concrete, wooden, literal-minded, lacking in creativity or a sense of humour. This can certainly happen when the defined environment (or ‘society’) bullies us into submission but generally speaking of course we are not like this – we are freer than that, we are not so constrained by the rules and regulations, we are not so ‘defined’. If we were to look into it deeply enough, we would discover that consciousness – in its essence – is not constrained at all.
Consciousness does not necessarily have to be defined by the physical world (or the social one, for that matter) but the bottom line is of course that it very much tends to be! Using a slightly different language, we could say that ‘there is an immense tendency for it for spirit to get trapped in the material world’, and as soon as we say this we realize that we are simply reiterating the basic premise of Gnosticism and Alchemy. This doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as spirit (or ‘consciousness’), which is the position which the doctrine of scientific materialism would take, but rather that spirit doesn’t know itself to be spirit, and consciousness doesn’t know itself to be consciousness. Consciousness takes itself to be of the same character as the physical world, and assumes itself therefore to be ruled by the same deterministic laws. From a psychological point of view, we can say that there is a ‘danger’ in interacting with the determinate world, and that danger is that we shall ‘become unconscious’, by which we mean that we will allow it to define us (or condition us) so that we can no longer see that there are any other ways of looking at reality.
Instead of talking about ‘interacting’ with the determinate (or rule-based) reality, we could equivalently talk about ‘being purposeful’ or ‘controlling’ and what we can say then – as a kind of ‘short-hand’ for what we have just been talking about – is that purposeful activity creates the illusion of the purposeful self. All purposeful activity creates, if we let it, the illusion of the purposeful self! If there is a purpose, a goal, then there must be one who has this purpose, one who wants to achieve this goal. If there is ‘purposeful doing’ then there must be a doer. Or to put this another way, if there is a waiting game being played, then obviously there must be a ‘waiter’.
If we follow one goal by another by another and by another, without ever a break, then we shall never have to stop playing the waiting game! There is always the fulfilment of the next goal to wait for, and so there will always be a waiter. The ‘payoff’ for constantly moving from one goal to another therefore (which is to say, the pay-off in constant purposeful doing) is the reification of the purposeful self. ‘Reification’ means that this self becomes very, very real to us – it becomes’ a real thing.’ There is a downside as well of course and that downside is that we are always hanging out for something; we are always waiting for ‘the thing to happen’. We are always waiting for the thing that is going to happen to make up all our struggling and striving worthwhile; we always waiting for this, but it’s never going to happen!
The whole point of the waiting game isn’t – after all – that we get what we waiting for. That’s not the point at all! That’s the official story to be sure, that’s the overt or theatrical reason for us playing the waiting game. The covert reason however (the reason we are never going to suspect, the that reason no one is going to tell us about) is that we are ‘reifying the purposeful self’. That’s the real point of the exercise, that’s the real reason we waiting, not the prospect – however wonderful it might seem – of attaining the glittering goal. When we see the full story however, we can’t help pointing out that the so-called ‘existence’ of the purposeful self isn’t such a great and wonderful thing after all when it comes down to it. The purposeful self ‘lives solely in its expectations’, after all – it lives in expectation of the fulfilment of its purposes, and what type of a life is this? There is something very ghostly, very phantom-like in the purposes of the purposeful self. On one level the goal is the goal, the goal is ‘what it says on the label’, but on another level (the hidden level) the goal means something else entirely – the secret meaning of the goal is something like’ final peace’ or’ final fulfilment’. What we really looking for – as James Carse says – is the freedom not to have to play the game anymore.
So here we have this situation where we are ‘constantly grasping’ and this ‘constant grasping’ is pain (because the only reason we grasping or striving is because we want to escape the pain). The only thing that redeems the pain for us is the thought that we will one day be able to escape it – this is the motivating factor, this is what the whole exercise is predicated upon. Each time there is that moment of tantalizing hope. There never was the faintest remotest chance that our bid for escape could ever work (since a mechanical system can never free itself from itself by its own mechanical action) but nevertheless – every time we go through the well-worn routine there is still that tantalizing moment of hope. What were actually engaged in is ‘cooperating with the mechanism that perennially enslaves us whilst at the same time every time we cooperate we allow ourselves that precious moment of hope that this time we will secure a permanent release from the cycle. Somehow, by some extraordinary perverse twist of logic, every time we cooperate with our jailer we allow ourselves to hope that this active cooperation will result in our freedom!
‘Hope’ is the fuel for our imprisonment therefore. Spiritual teachers always point out that, far from being ‘a virtue’ – as both conventional religion and common sense says his – hope is actually a curse. Within the terms of the belief-structure of course hope is a virtue because it keeps us from giving up on that belief structure. The happy outcome is on its way, salvation is on its way – all we have to do is keep on believing, keep on doing what we are always doing. ‘Belief’ – in whatever form – always relies on hope therefore. Hope is what makes belief ‘tenable’, or’ viable’. This is what makes any logical structure, any system, ‘actually liveable’ – that element of hope. Without it we have nothing but dull mechanical trudging.
This’ hope’ really translates into ‘gullibility with respect to the promises that are made to us by the system’, be that system society, or the organisation/social group we are part of, or be it the logical system known as the ‘rational mind’. To speak of hope as a virtue therefore (in the same way that we might speak of patience as being a virtue) is distinctly perverse – patience does not create ‘the one who is being patient’ (just as love does not create ‘the one who loves’) but hope does create ‘the hoper’!’ Hope won’t ever let the hoper go. Hope is just another name for the waiting game therefore – hope is a basic manifestation of clinging (clinging to an illusion, clinging to a belief, clinging to an idea) whilst patience, or love, or any other virtue, is always associated with’ letting go’.
This is the crucial point to understand therefore – it’s the crucial thing to understand, but at the same time no one does understand it. It involves after all taking a ‘radically reversed’ viewpoint on everything that we have ever been told in our lives, which is obviously going to be an almost insurmountable challenge. All this talk of goals and targets and outcomes and solutions – all of this stuff that sounds so progressive and so forward-thinking – is really immensely conservative. We are excited by talk of achieving goals because we are excited by the thought of ‘creating the self’. All of our personal purposeful activity comes down to ‘creating and maintaining the self’ – that’s the game that we are playing, that’s the game that we are completely obsessed by. This is a very curious thing however – it’s curious not because it’s ‘wrong’ but because it is so very deceptive, so very ‘generative of illusions’. It opens up a world of endless illusion. When I approach the moment when my long sought-after goal is finally to be attained I feel excited, I feel thrilled. There is some ‘great value’ outside of me, out there in the world, that is to be obtained. This is what life is all about I think. Getting out there and ‘doing it’. Yet nothing of the sort is going on – I’m not in the least bit interested in the ‘outside world’, I’m interested in me! What I’m excited by isn’t really ‘the goal,’ but the prospect of creating the self. All euphoria (any euphoria I might experience) is always about ‘the creation of the self’. Euphoria and the creation of the self are synonymous.
When we start to think about this it immediately becomes utterly paradoxical – to say that it is ‘baffling’ is an understatement. Who – after all – is it that’s getting excited by the prospect of creating the self? Who is it that wants to do this? Who is experiencing the euphoria? And how does the process we are talking about here even get started, in the absence of the self? Why would the ‘not self’ want to become ‘self’, when ‘not self’ is so much more than ‘self’, when the self (or the belief in the self) is nothing more than a deep and treacherous hole in the ground that we fall into and then can’t get out of again?
One way to talk about this is in terms of tendencies. If there is some little ‘seed-like’ tendency, nothing more than a mere potentiality (and even the Buddha famously didn’t want to talk about how such a’ tenancy’ came about) then this seed can serve as a start to the process just like a microscopic particle of dust can precipitate a raindrop or a hailstone around it. The notion of ‘a goal’ and ‘the one who seeks the goal’ arise simultaneously. They’re the same thing, as we have said. The goal is a projection of the self, the self ‘projects’ itself ahead of itself, whilst deludely imagining that this projection is something else something other than itself, something that exists independently of itself. To start off with – we could say – there is some kind of ‘narrowing of possible perspectives’, some kind of restrictiveness with regard to the total field of possibilities. It’s as if we were playfully engaging in some kind of an experiment; an experiment whereby we oversimplify (or ‘decomplexify’) the universe and then see what it’s like to live in such a ‘pocket universe,’ see what it’s like to immerse ourselves in it, believing that this is the only universe that there is or ever could be.
This is what Alan Watts calls ‘the Game of God’. It doesn’t tend to sound right to our Western ears to hear of cosmogenesis spoken of in terms of ‘a game’ – the old Testament after all makes it sound a lot more serious than that. To say that God was ‘playing a game’ when he created the universe would seem like a slight, a mark of disrespect. In the Vedic tradition however it is seen as no insult to God to say that he is playing a game. In this tradition ‘the Creation’ isn’t to be taken seriously in the same way because it is not seen to be in any way ‘real’. Thinking that it is real is the game, after all, and the ultimate point of the game is to see through it. ‘When God created the world he was only joking’ says one wit, but we – needless to say – don’t think of God as being a joker or trickster! In the Judeo-Christian tradition there is not this implicit suggestion of the world as we know it being a joke or trick or game or ploy – to see it as such would be undermining of God’s greatness as Creator. What has been created in such case, after all, apart from some kind of dream or fantasy? We could even say – as the Gnostics do – “What has been created other than a very clever trap?”
We could summarize this discussion by saying that the physical world exists on two levels at once – it exists on the literal level (which is the level that is governed by rules), but underneath this there is a more ‘multivalent’ realm where nothing is set in stone. We know of this realm through quantum theory, through complexity and chaos theory. Understanding the universe as being essentially ‘non-determinate’ is something that we fought hard against, being enamoured as we were by the ‘machine-model’ of the cosmos, but towards the end of the nineteen eighties the struggle was pretty much over and few scientists would deny ‘the power of chaos’. We can very easily ignore the challenges of the indeterminate world however, and adapt ourselves instead to what we might call ‘the rule-based environment’ – which provides us with both security, and spiritual death! And then – taking things even further into the dimension of spiritual sleep (into something resembling a very deep coma) we have what Jean Baudrillard calls the hyperreal, which is the same thing as ‘society’. In the realm of the hyperreal, there IS only the one level – there is no nuance, there is no potential for creativity and poetic / metaphoric ambiguity. Our technology (particularly information and communications technology) has been put into the service of creating the hyperreal world, and – without any doubt – we are doing a very good job at doing it. We’re created a literal or deterministic analogue of reality for ourselves which – when ‘read’ in the way we are obliged to read it by the rules of the game – creates this unfortunate thing, this ‘hapless homunculus’, that we have been calling ‘the purposeful self’…
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.