We are surrounded by the most immense, the most tremendously profound depths of utterly unfathomable, utterly imperturbable, immeasurable space and yet we are ill-at-ease, discontent, upset, agitated, querulous, irritated, cantankerous, bothered, worried… Why is this? How could this possibly be? What explanation could there be?
Strangely enough, the answer to this riddle is quite simple. There is nothing obscure or arcane or complicated about it at all. What causes us to be ill-at-ease, discontent, upset, agitated, querulous, irritated and all the rest are our arbitrary, whimsical, off-the-cuff whims and desires, our fanciful wishes for this, that, and the other. What sows the seeds of discontent and confusion in the midst of unfathomable peace are our random desires, and the arbitrary positions that we have had to adopt in order to be able to take these desires seriously.
The point about all this is of course that we don’t see our desires as being random (i.e. trivial) in nature – we see them as being absolutely vital, we see them as hugely important, as being central, as being essential for our well-being and happiness. Likewise, we don’t see the standpoints that we have adopted, the positions we so stubbornly defend (and so aggressively promote) as being random either. The game we like to play is to see them as the exact opposite of random and that is precisely where all the conflict and upset comes in. We see the positions we have adopted in life as being fundamentally correct, which is where all our cast-iron views of ‘true’ and ‘false’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ come from. It is the fact that we see our randomly-acquired viewpoints as being there because of some sort of ‘unquestionable divine law’ (rather than being the result of our own whimsical fancies) that muddies the clear deep waters that exist all around us and condemns us to live in a state of constant petty conflict and pointless discontent.
Once ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘success’ and failure’ and all the rest of it have taken root in our minds then the profound depths of peace that we were talking about go right out of the window. We can say goodbye to that profundity. We can forget about it. There is no peace in ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘success’ and ‘failure’ no matter which way around we manage to arrange things for ourselves. There is nothing in ‘right versus wrong’ (which is to say, in our fixed or definite viewpoints and the goals and methods that come out of them) that can ever give rise to peace or happiness. Conflict only ever gives rise to conflict, or – as Krishnamurti says – the only thing that can come out of disorder is more disorder.
Needless to say, we don’t see things this way at all – we think the exact opposite, we think that having the right view or picture of the world and having all sorts of goals (and methods for obtaining these goals) is the answer to everything, the cure for all our ills. We ceaselessly busy ourselves with a vast profusion of theories and models and procedures and all that sort of stuff – we have it coming out of our ears. We eat, drink and breathe it. We rejoice in this kind of business – despite the fact that it has never brought us anything but protracted unhappiness and frustration. We are utterly convinced that we can think ourselves out of the hole that we are in, despite all the evidence to the contrary (the evidence in question being pretty much the entire history of the human race.)
It wouldn’t take us too long however to see that it couldn’t possibly be the case that we can become happy via our notions of ‘right and wrong’, if only we would look into the matter a little deeper. The idea that ‘getting things right’, ‘obtaining the good and discarding the bad’, ‘striving to win rather than lose’, will somehow return us to the state of peace that we have lost as a result of imposing our arbitrary personal will on the situation is ludicrous to say the least. ‘Winning’ (i.e. getting it right) doesn’t revoke the random framework or position we have assumed in order to be able to have our precious goals – it simply confirms it all the more. Struggling to correct matters isn’t going to get us out of the hole we’re in – it’s just going to dig us into it all the more.
Our basic problem is that we want to have our cake and eat it. We want to have peace of mind and be happy, and yet at the same time we want to hang onto our framework, our particular fixed view of things, and have the pleasure of having it validated as ‘the right one’. We are convinced on a very deep level that this is possible for us, despite all the evidence to the contrary. ‘Winning’, for us, unconsciously symbolizes the peace of mind that we once had, the inexplicable state of transcendent harmony that we have lost. On some level or other we make the connection, so that – by this unexamined and therefore unconscious logic – we figure out (in some murky way) that when we win, when we succeed in our games, we will obtain this peace as a reward for our efforts, as a reward for all our striving and straining. We assume, in a classic example of what psychotherapists call ‘pseudo-solution’, that attaining our arbitrary goals will somehow ‘make everything OK’. This is what we are after in all our rational struggling, even if we don’t know it.
When we do succeed in obtaining whatever rational goal it is we have set our sights upon and we fail as we always do to get the quality of satisfaction that – on some level – we were looking forward to getting, then we simply think that we will do better next time, we think that the real success we have been looking for is just around the corner. Our not-very-carefully-examined logic is always that the next time will be the big one, and then the one after that, and so on and so forth. Like hard-core gamblers, we never give up, we always keep on trying – hoping in a perfectly futile way that one day our boat will come sailing in, hoping that one day we won’t have to be struggling and straining any more.
‘Winning’ is as we have said simply a symbol for us – but it is an unconscious symbol, a symbol which we fail to see for what it is. We take winning very literally and it is because we take it literally that we are doomed to keep on spinning around and around on the wheel of YES and NO. This is not to say that winning does not feel good to us – it can feel very good indeed – but it always follows the same old pattern: the electric excitement of the anticipation, the flash of euphoria when the prize is finally in the net, and then the slow ebbing away of the pleasure, the dying away of the glow, leaving nothing behind but the dull ache of hunger, which is the need to repeat the experience, the need to ‘do it all over again’. Nothing ever changes about this pattern – it’s the same every time and the basic formula that it follows is something to the effect that ‘the euphoria we obtain in the first phase is paid back in the second phase as dysphoria’. The books always balance in the end, but we are always in too much of a rush to ‘make things better again’ (or ‘regain what we have lost’) to notice this salient fact.
The essential problem is that we are trying to represent something within a framework that cannot be represented in a framework. Or rather it can be represented in finite (i.e. defined) terms but when we do so it turns into a +/- vibration, an oscillation between UP and DOWN, a self-negating or self-cancelling reverberation. The reason this happens is simply because if we take the PLUS phase literally (as an absolute gain) then we have to take the MINUS phase literally as well (i.e. we have to take it as being an equally absolute set-back). Since YES inevitably creates NO a bit later on – after some kind of a time-lag, either long or short – then this means that we’re locked into the mechanical dance. Because we take the positive so very seriously, so very literally, we are bound to act to secure it, and once we have secured it then we are heirs to the backlash, which (of course) we also take very, very seriously, very, very literally. We’re bound to be intensely attracted to winning, and we’re bound to be equally intensely averse to losing, and in the reactivity that follows on from this positive/negative attachment there isn’t even the slightest trace of freedom.
This ceaseless vibratory or oscillatory movement is the ‘loss of peace’ that we have been talking about. It is not a loss of peace because it is movement but because it is trapped movement. It is movement that never gets to where it wants to be; it is movement that doesn’t ‘live in the moment,’ but which always has its eye on the goal – a goal which (unfortunately for it) keeps skipping nimbly away just when we think we have it nailed. “I’ll be happy when I get X, Y and Z” I say, but since my conditions never are going to be fulfilled I never am and instead of happiness I have to make do with the endless tiresome round of pleasure and pain, hope and despair.
Free movement becomes trapped movement when it is compelled to stay within the bounds of a defining framework, when ‘the unlimited is portrayed within the terms of the limited’. We can therefore say that the vibratory movement is a ‘loss of peace’ because it represents the attempt to ‘catch’ something which is essentially uncatchable, and which eludes us with effortless dexterity every time we think we have it, causing us to start all over again. The secret that we cannot see is that peace comes about as a result of not wanting to catch the prize, of learning not to be forever grasping and grabbing at it; instead of understanding this lesson we keep putting all our money on the attempt to learn to ‘grab more skilfully and hence more successfully’. It is thus the ceaseless attempt to mentally seize hold of what we want, and the corresponding mental movement of pushing away (or aggressively rejecting) what we don’t want, that constitutes the non-terminating state of dissatisfied agitation which the Buddha spoke of as Dukkha.
An alternative way of looking at the root cause of the lack of peace from which we suffer is to say that it is caused by our wilful shallowness – i.e we can say that the immensely profound state of peace that surrounds us is obscured by non-stop restless agitation by virtue of the fact that we have taken a deliberately superficial view of everything. This is really just another way of saying the same thing. Any defined goal or outcome has to be the result of taking a superficial point of view since without a superficial (or limited) point of view there can be no defined goal-states, no defined anything. This is a straightforward enough point to understand but we never think about things this way. Any goal obviously has to be defined (there cannot be such a thing as an ‘undefined goal’) but what we almost invariably don’t see is that in order to define we have to simplify, we have to turn the world into an over-simplified version of itself – which is to say, we have to turn the world into an abstraction.
The way we do this is by drawing hard-and-fast boundaries, boundaries that we assume to have a real rather than a purely imaginary existence. Once a hard-and-fast boundary is in place then the mechanism of the discriminative mind swings into action – we have here but not there, in not out, right not wrong, hit not miss. Rationality is all about exclusive logic, either/or logic, logic that proceeds via mutually exclusive categories, but this type of simplistic compartmentalization doesn’t exist in any deeper levels of reality – it is a projection we make upon reality rather than being an intrinsic property of reality, which is how we take it. Either/or logic is another way of talking about extrinsic space – which is space that is no more than a reflection (or projection) of the framework that is being used to define or measure it.
Extrinsic space is measurable space – space that comes in categories, space that comes with defined and standardized gradations, space that conforms to our expectations (or ‘assumptions’). Extrinsic space is therefore a formal system, an abstraction, which means that it doesn’t actually exist ‘out there’ in the world at all but only exists as a kind of ‘quantitative overlay’, an abstract grid-work (like a see-through sheet of plastic which comes conveniently complete with markings) that can be superimposed on top of the world to help us orientate ourselves in a systematic way. This optional ‘overlay’ is nothing other than the rational-conceptual mind itself. The trouble here of course is that if we leave the overlay in place long enough we will forget that we put it there and start imagining that the gradations – or conceptualizations – we see actually exist in reality itself. The idea that space ‘as it is in itself’ (i.e. intrinsic space) is not measurable then becomes incomprehensible to us, ridiculous to us.
The idea that space as it is in itself isn’t measurable sounds crazy to us. After all, we measure it all the time – quite successfully. We rationalize it all of the time. We conceptualize it all the time. And even if we do manage to stay aware that the interpretive framework we are constantly bringing to bear on the world is our own, we are still very much inclined to assume that because space is susceptible to being measured (because it lends itself to being measured) then it must be legitimate to do so. Thus, as a result of this assumption, we are inclined to imagine that there cannot really be that much difference between space as it exists in itself and space after it has been measured.
This is far from being the case however – the difference between the two types of space is tremendous. More than being merely different we may say that the two types of space are completely and utterly incommensurable. The difference – we might say – is that whilst intrinsic space is inherently ‘tranquil’, extrinsic space is inherently ‘self-contradicting’ or ‘conflicted’. Of the two assertions that we have just made, that intrinsic space is tranquil and extrinsic space conflicted, the latter is the most straightforward to argue. The reason we can say that extrinsic space contradicts itself is because of the way in which – as we have said – that every little bit of it is defined. This may not seem at all contradictory (or paradoxical) but it is – this kind of a set-up is quite simply unviable and unworkable, if not to say flatly impossible.
The reason we can say that the situation where everything is definable is flatly impossible is because every logical perspective – no matter what it is – always comes complete with a ready-made blind-spot, (or as pioneering complexity theorist and researcher Stuart Kauffman says, “knowing requires ignorance’). Without this blind-spot, this ‘ignorance of whose existence we are ignorant’, there simply can be no such thing as logic because that it how logic works. Another way of explaining this is simply to say that in order for any kind of a logical statement at all to be made parameters have to be assumed, limits or boundaries have to be put in place. These parameters or limits are what provide me with a foundation from which to proceed, they make it possible to say something that is ‘definitely true’, so that I can then go on to say a whole load of other stuff that is definitely true, and this process of ‘lawful extrapolation’ (the unimpeded proliferation of ‘true’ statements) is what logic is all about.
If I don’t assume any parameters, if I don’t put any boundary conditions in place, then there is absolutely no way that I can ever get to make a ‘definitely true statement’ and so there is also no way that the whole business of logic can ever get started. Parameters or boundaries are in essence statements themselves, only rather than being explicit statements they are implicit, they are ‘taken for granted’. Once the ‘implied statement of fact’ that is the boundary is put in place then I can use this to make other explicit statements, which I can then logically prove to be correct because I can relate them to the axiomatic truths that automatically spring into being as a result of the existence of that boundary – no boundaries means no axiomatic truths. In short, then, we can say that before there can be any chain of logic there has to be a ‘given’ and the ‘initial assumed boundary conditions’ (the line that I draw in the sand of infinite relativity) constitute that ‘given’.
This is all fine and dandy and there are no problems with this at all just so long as the whole process – i.e. not just the ‘explicit’ part – is understood. The thing about all this however is that the process is not understood in its entirety – the whole point of the exercise is that it isn’t understood in its entirety, the whole point of the game of logic is that we turn a ‘blind eye’ to the fact that we must first agree for the limiting conditions to be true before any of our subsequent statements can be said to be true. Why this should be so is of course very obvious – if I allow myself to see the essentially ‘intentional’ nature of the exercise (which is to say, the way in which my so-called true statements only get to be ‘true’ because I have agreed for them to be true) then the game falls flat on its face. The whole meaning of the word ‘certainty’ is lost in this case because ‘certainty that is only certain because I choose for it to be certain’ is not certainty at all. Certainty that is only certain because I say that it is so is actually a disguised form of uncertainty…
So if we define logic by saying that it is ‘the realm within which it is possible to make true statements’ we have to go on to point out that this realm can only exist if there are these assumed boundary conditions, and that the whole point about assumed boundary conditions is that they remain implicit and at no time become explicit. If they do become explicit (i.e. if they were to be examined) then it would become apparent that there is no ground for assuming them; it would become apparent that there is no support for making them in the form of boundaries (or ‘rules’) that we ourselves have not made. Talking about boundaries is just another way of talking about rules, and so we can equivalently say that if we want to have certainty we have to have rules. Rules are not just the basis for certainty – they are certainty. Without rules nothing can be said, nothing can be known – rules are what make up the ‘unquestionable ground’ upon which we walk, the rock-solid foundation upon which we construct our understanding of ourselves and the world.
But in order to obtain these a rule in the first place, we have to have a blind-spot. If we want to have the certainty that comes with a rule then we have to ignore that fact that, as James Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games, ‘there is no rule that says you have to follow the rules’. A rule is only ever a rule because we tacitly agree to obey it, and so what we have to turn a blind eye to is our own complicity in this, the way in which we had to agree for the rule to be a rule. Jung speaks of this in terms of ‘one-sidedness’ – we only look at things one way, we look in effect at what happens when we make the rule, rather than looking at where the rule itself comes from, rather than looking at the way in which we ourselves make the rule.
The way Stuart Kauffman explains this idea (the idea that ‘knowing requires ignorance’) is in terms of ‘throwing away information’. This is a process that takes place every time we conceptually process the world, every time we think about the world. The mechanism of cognition works in essence by checking to see if the incoming information matches its criteria for determining whether it is meaningful or not, whether it can be slotted into its categories or not. If the incoming information does match then this is fine and if it doesn’t then it is summarily disregarded, dumped, thrown away (i.e. it is not given any value or interpretation). Any information that is thrown away, we don’t know about. This has to be the case since the only way we could know about it would be to evaluate it, assign it to a mental category. If we throw it away, then not only do we not know about it, we do not know that we do not know about it. So knowing requires a very thorough type of ignorance – it requires the unacknowledged type of ignorance known as entropy.
If the blind-spot behind logic (and therefore behind the world that we have made for ourselves out of it) were to be acknowledged then this would have the effect of relativizing all of our truths, all of our definite statements. This would as we have said undermine the very purpose of having them in the first place – there would be absolutely no point at all in making them. But more than this, not only can we not afford to be aware of the blind-spot, we can’t afford to acknowledge the existence of anything that doesn’t obey the laws of logic, anything that doesn’t have a place within the all-important framework. In short, we can’t afford to have any discrepancies. If we want to go into the business of creating a ‘positively defined world’ for ourselves then we have to go the whole hog – we have to eradicate any trace (even the merest hint of a suggestion of a possibility of a trace) of anything that can’t be explained by logic. If we didn’t do this then that would throw everything in doubt, leaving us nothing to bolster ourselves up with but ‘doubtful certainty’, which is as we have already said not any sort of certainty at all.
Intrinsic space and extrinsic space are thus incommensurable – or at least they are from the point of view of extrinsic space. As far as intrinsic space is concerned it is perfectly fine to have a ‘charted domain’, a domain within which every single thing can be defined; extrinsic space isn’t a problem because like everything lese it’s included in the ‘Universal Set of All Possibilities’. Intrinsic space can run any number of toy universes, no matter how bereft of freedom they might be. Freedom can include ‘the freedom not to be free’; or as James Carse says, the Infinite Game can contain any number of finite games, but this does – cannot – not work the other way around.
Whilst extrinsic space is only an abstract surface it represents itself as ‘the totality of everything that is possible’. It portrays itself as a real rather than an abstract domain; it represents itself as the actual territory rather than a mere simulation. It makes the implicit – and therefore unchallengeable – claim to be the world itself, it has to make this claim since this is the only way it can get to exist at all. As a result of this hubristic claim the whole world has to be crammed onto this virtual surface, which makes for a very over-crowded (and as a consequence dreadfully suffocating) situation. Squeezing the whole world into a mere abstract surface is the most unbelievably, astonishingly extraordinary act of qualitative diminishment ever, and yet when we have been qualitatively diminished in this way we think nothing of it, we know nothing of it. Life continues as normal, and yet it isn’t life at all but an absurdly oversimplified analogue thereof, a dehydrated version of the real thing.
The logical continuum is a grid-work of defined possibilities where each possibility is separated from all the adjacent ones by hard-and-fast boundaries (or ‘partitions’). The curious thing about this is that – despite the reasonable-sounding nature of the notion – the whole set-up is ridiculously impossible. Something very important is missing from this scheme of things and that is actual, honest-to-goodness space. There is no space in the categories (or compartments) themselves – clearly there can’t be because otherwise there would be differences within the categories themselves and the whole idea of a category is that it contains only the one possibility. If there were more than one possibility within the same category then there would be no defined meaning and the whole point of it would be lost. But if we now turn our attention to the question of what else goes to make up a logical continuum other than the array of defined possibilities we can start to see the problem because the only other ingredient in the mix would be the boundaries that separate the defined positions. A boundary, however, has no width to it – it isn’t something in itself, it is merely an abstract dividing line, and as such it doesn’t actually exist in reality. The anomaly now becomes obvious – the categories that make up the continuum of logic don’t have any space in them, and neither do the boundaries that mark off the categories…
If neither the defined possibilities nor the boundaries between them have any space in them, and if defined possibilities and boundaries are the only two things in the continuum of logic, then what this of course shows is that the continuum itself has no space in it. And saying that the logically-defined realm of existence has no space in it is just another way of saying that it is all the same thing; which in turn means that to move from one defined location on the grid to another is not really moving at all. As Krishnamurti says, the journey from one known to another is no journey at all. All the different possible statements (or positions) that exist within the continuum of logic are only ever tautological developments of each other; this is inevitably going to be the case given that each position can be derived from any other via the application of logical rules. Rules can never lead to change since the only sort of change they allow is ‘change that obeys the rules’. Logic is all about rules and rules don’t mean change, they mean the very antithesis of change – they mean that everything stays the same.
The next thing we might wonder about therefore is what happens when all these ostensibly different statements get crammed into the same box, a box with no actual space in it, and the most obvious answer is that they all get piled up on top of each other so that even though they are in disagreement, they’re still all true at the same time. We don’t experience things like this because we are usually only capable of being aware of one logically-defined possibility at a time. Essentially, the two different types of statement that are possible in the continuum of logic (which is the continuum of the rational mind) are YES and NO, which are kept in separate, air-tight mental compartments. But if everything in the logical continuum is all the same thing, then YES and NO occupy the same space, which means that they are really just the same thing.
YES and NO are, we might say, tautological developments of each other, which is the meaning of the Yin-Yang symbol. Another visual illustration of the principle of the identity of the opposites is the familiar optical illusion of the vase which is also two faces; in this illusion it is the very same outline that defines the two faces that defines the vase – the one being the positive view and the other the negative. Face and vase are very different things but that the same time they are both ‘tautological developments’ of each other in the sense that one gives rise to the other without any change actually having to take place. One can become the other just by us changing the way we look at the figure, and so it’s our way of looking that changes, not anything else. Really, it’s all just the one, and when we see it in an unblinkered way we see it as just one, which spells the end of the optical illusion. The two face and the vase negate each other, just as YES and NO negate each other, just as the crest and the trough of a wave negate each other.
Another illustration of this principle is the ‘cybernetic paradox’, as defined by Gregory Bateson. A basic formulation of the cybernetic paradox would be a barge sailing down a narrow canal: if the bow of the barge starts to deviate to one side slightly so that the craft is in danger of colliding with one side of the canal the solution is obviously to correct matters by steering in the opposite direction; but because the canal is so narrow as soon as we do this then straightaway we’re in danger of running into the other side of the canal, which means that we have to correct again, this time in the opposite direction. So, as Bateson says, RIGHT equals LEFT which equals RIGHT which equals LEFT, and so on for ever. When the gap between the two banks is narrow enough a positive correction immediately necessitates a negative correction, which immediately necessitates a positive correction, and so a non-terminating vibration is set up.
In psychological terms we can say that there is a constant frustrating struggle going on – YES gives rise to NO which gives rise to YES and there is never any possibility of peace. There is never any possibility of peace because there is no space and as a consequence YES and NO have to live ‘on top of each other’. Yet despite all the commotion and agitation going on it all comes to nothing in the end; all the action, the agitation, the pushing and pulling, the to-ing and fro-ing always adds up to nothing, just as the swinging back-and-forth of a pendulum always adds up to zero. Agitation is the ‘lower analogue’ of peace, which is to say –
YES/NO (duality) is the lower analogue of Original Symmetry, or [?]
So the reason extrinsic space is self-contradictory (or ‘conflicted’) is because all there is in it is [+] and [-] – ‘movement in a positive direction’ or ‘movement in a negative direction’. Positive can only lead to negative and negative can only lead to positive, with no possibility of cessation. This is a lot like Freud’s joke about life having two main stages – the first stage in which we eagerly look forward to the second and the second stage in which we wish we were back in the first. So too we could say that extrinsic space is the kind of a situation in which ‘where we are’ inevitably becomes the place where we don’t want to be, and ‘where we aren’t’ quickly becomes the place where we do want to be.
Another way of explaining this is to say that there is some kind of psychological principle in action which means that our goal-states will always be outside of ourselves. It doesn’t take long to verify the existence of this principle – whoever heard of someone having the goal of being exactly the way that they already are? Sometimes of course, amongst what we might term ‘psychologically sophisticated’ folk, we come across the phenomenon of self-affirmation, which is where we affirm that we are great as we are. But the only reason we do this is because deep-down we don’t believe it (otherwise why would we need to self-affirm in the first place?) and so this doesn’t really count. We’re self-affirming on the surface, but secretly self-denying underneath it – we’re denying the non-self-affirming self.
The goal of ‘self-acceptance’ is the exact same thing. As Alan Watts points out, the whole idea of self-acceptance is inherently self-contradictory because the only reason we try to accept ourselves is because we can’t accept ourselves as we really are (which is fundamentally unaccepting of ourselves) and so we try as hard as we can to change this unnaccepting nature of ours.We fight against it, we make a goal of not being unaccepting, which is of course paradoxical.
It doesn’t matter what we try to do, what we try to be, our trying is always going to be jinxed in this way. The space in which we try, the space in which we make goals (which Krishnamurti calls ‘psychological time’) is inherently jinxed, inherently conflicted.
We cannot argue that intrinsic space is inherently tranquil in the same way we have argued that extrinsic space is inherently conflicted because we can’t analyze it, because we can’t ‘break into it’. All we can do is say what it is not. We can say that intrinsic space is not a state of conflict because there is nothing for it to be conflicted with. From the point of view of intrinsic space there are no ‘things’, they never were and never could be. According to Hui Neng,
From the beginning not a thing is.
If not a thing is, then what is there to break the perfect harmony of undivided Oneness?
When we look beneath the surface of things, we can see that there are no waves, no ripples. There is no conflict, no flurry of superficial agitation. It is like a perfectly translucent ocean, an ocean so very clear that we can see right down to the bottom of it many miles below – only in this case there isn’t a bottom…
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.