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The Invisible Prison

The determinate environment ‘tells us who we are’; it tells us who we are and we actually like this – we take it as ‘a positive’! From one particular (and very narrow) perspective this is indeed ‘a positive’; from this one particular perspective being defined is exactly what we want. From another point of view however, it is of course not such a good thing to have anyone or anything ‘tell us who we are’. This should be obvious enough! To be told who you are is to have all your freedom taken away.



This however is something that we just don’t want to see. We want to be defined, as is evident from our whole societal emphasis on the sanctity of identity. Our sense of security depends upon us ‘knowing who we are’ within a collectively-validated framework, and everyone around us (our friends and associates) knowing who we are too. That’s how we prove to ourselves that we have some sort of actual legitimate existence in the world – by defining ourselves in terms of a collectively-validated framework, by defining ourselves in relation to the structures and systems that make up society. If we didn’t do this then we’d be misfits, we’d be outsiders, and we wouldn’t have that sense of belonging that matters so much to us. That’s why we like joining groups, because the group then ‘tells us who we are’, and unless the group tells us who we are (and unless we accept this definition of who we are) then we can’t be part of that group and if we aren’t part of the group then we can’t have that sense of ‘belonging’ that we want so badly.



‘The determinate reality’ and ‘a social group’ are interchangeable terms, both of them have the function of telling us who we are. This is – needless to say – the ultimate form of control; if I wanted to completely control you so that you wouldn’t have even the tiniest little bit of freedom left, then this is how I would do it. Generally speaking, we see ‘control’ as relating to behaviour, i.e. I tell you what to do, and when to do it, and then you obey me. You obey me because of the power that I have over you. But if I tell you who you are then I don’t need to also tell you ‘what to do’ – that trivial level of control in is redundant because once I define your very identity for you then no matter what you do you’ll be doing what I wanted you to do. Your aspirations and way of looking at the world aren’t yours after all, I gave in to you. I gave in to you and so no matter what you do you are obeying my will. You can’t not obey my will; whatever you do you are following my plan for you, and so I can actually ‘turn you loose’ and let you get on with it. You are your own jailer and now so I don’t need to bother myself with you. My job is done.



Being ‘defined’ is not just the ultimate form of control therefore, it is also a form of control that is completely and utterly invisible to us. My identity is my prison, and it is a prison that I will defend to the very best of my ability. My identity is my prison and I won’t let anyone free me from it! If anyone was foolish enough to come along and try to free me from my prison then I am guaranteed to turn very nasty very quickly. You’d better watch out because I’m liable to do anything – you have insulted the Holy of Holies, you have disrespected the sacred cow! My identity (which was automatically given to me by the determinate environment as soon as I was born into it) is an invisible prison because I’m proud of it, because I think it is ‘a very good thing’. And even if my identity gets spoiled (which can happen at the drop of a hat) I will still not let go of it because I’m afraid to, as I don’t know what else there is. I don’t believe that there is anything else. The habit of institutionalisation is very hard one to break, after all.



If someone were to want to, they could characterise our basic situation – the basic human situation – by saying that we are all subject to this ‘invisible prison’, the invisible prison which is identity. We are all – every last one of us – inmates of this prison that we can’t see and the thing we are most resistant to in life is having our attention drawn to this fact. The ‘prison of identity’ and our near infinite resistance to seeing it for what it is, is what underlies the whole of our existence, and this ‘existence’ – inasmuch as we can call it that – has absolutely nothing to do with who we really are. The ‘defined identity’ has nothing to do with who we really are, and this statement in itself is deeply incomprehensible to us.



The fantastic thing here is that the profoundly untenable nature of our ‘conditioned’ existence never seems to directly impinge upon us. We don’t seem to suffer from it, in other words! And yet suffer we must, surely. How can we not? We can’t play a game like this – the game of dismissing our true nature completely – without there being some form of unpleasant consequence. How can we live in the complete absence of freedom and yet at the same time retain any sense of well-being’? We started off this discussion by saying that we enjoy being told who we are, that we take this as ‘a positive’, but the big question that follows on from this is “Where do we go from here?” This is a rhetorical question because there isn’t anywhere to go from here. That’s what being imprisoned means – it means that there is no such thing as ‘going somewhere from here’. There is only here. To ‘go somewhere from here’ would mean acting freely, not acting and thinking as we have been told to act or think, and that’s the one thing we are never going to do!



Although being defined by the determinate environment feels good, this is really the ‘one off prize’ that we given in return for selling our souls. If the idea of ‘selling one’s soul to Satan’ means anything, it means this! If I get indoctrinated by some fundamentalist Christian sect, and start on this account to worry about the activities of Satan and the very real danger of falling for his wiles, then this fear of mine is a deeply ironic one because that fate has already befallen me! I have already fallen for the wiles of Satan, I just don’t see it! I’m afraid of something that has already happened to me. ‘Satan’ is the determinate (or determining) environment in other words, in whatever form that environment might take – be it society, family and friends or our own conditioned mind.



This idea finds many echoes within the Gnostic traditions. We come across it in the doctrine of the Cathars for example, which states that there are two worlds – the visible and the invisible, and that whilst the visible world is the rightful dominion of the devil, the invisible world – the world of spirit – is ruled over by the true God, the God of Light (as opposed to the controlling Demiurge or false God). This idea is even found in orthodox Christianity; we read for example in 2 Corinthians 4:14 –


Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the good news.



On similar lines, in the Complete Jewish Bible we read –


For the mind controlled by the old nature is hostile to God, because it does not submit itself to God’s Torah – indeed it cannot.



In Islam too we come across the idea that the thinking mind (which is our instrument for dealing with the determinate environment) is synonymous in some way with the devil, with Shaitan, who is called also called ‘the Deceiver’. This shouldn’t come as any surprise – what does this thinking mind ever do anyway apart from presenting us with false appearances! The thinking mind does one thing and one thing only – it judges, it evaluates, and every judgement, every evaluation is, in the ultimate analysis erroneous, a lie, a deception. If the mind framed its categories, its judgement, its statements about the world as being ‘not really true’ then this would of course not constitute a deception, but this is the one thing the thinking mind never does. The thinking mind no more points out the relativity of its constructs than a fundamentalist preacher points out that everything in the Bible is ‘myth’, or ‘metaphor’! That’s the one thing we know is never going to happen – the determinate environment determines, it defines. The one thing that the determinate reality never does is free us – the one thing it never does is grant us the inconceivable boon of setting us free from its definitions.








Author: Nick Williams

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