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The Inverted Joke

It’s only a joke that there’s a me. It is actually a pretty good joke, as jokes go! It could actually be said to be the ‘ultimate joke’. This is a joke that hits like a jolt of pure electricity going right up your spine and explodes in your head like a thousand-petalled lotus. The more convinced you are that there actually was a you, the more of a jolt it is, and we are after all pretty convinced of our everyday run-of-the-mill identity. The jolt is painful in a way – like an unexpected ice-cold shower is painful – but it is also a tremendous kick. The initial shock to the system (which really was something you never saw coming) gives way to inconceivable ecstasy. If however I am not just solidly convinced that there was (and is) a me – but also very attached to the notion that there should be  – then I will fight against the revelation that it is only a joke to the bitter end. I will fight against this revelation for all I am worth. I will fight it the most I could ever fight anything. This implacable struggle will define my life, even though I won’t of course be able to see it…



If I am attached to the notion that there should be a me then I will resist the ecstatic awareness – the ecstatic awareness that we’re talking about here will be something that I just don’t want, under any circumstances. I will hang onto what I think I’ve got (but which I haven’t got) no matter what the cost to this ‘hanging on’ might be. If I fight against the joke then the joke – for me at least – is not a joke. It’s no joke. The joke then becomes an ‘inverted joke’. When I hold onto the delusion that means so much to me then (i.e. when I resist the humorous awareness that the delusion is only a delusion) then I become deeply embroiled in a long-drawn out prolongation of the inverted joke. I drag it on forever, in other words. There is no ‘ecstatic release’ in the inverted joke, only the desperate hope that it will one day be conclusively proven to be not a joke. This hope is my religion, and I am a ‘fundamentalist believer’.



The inverted joke really isn’t a laughing matter therefore (or at least it isn’t for me). It is serious and what’s so serious is my insistence that it isn’t a joke. The inverted joke is (to me) as serious as can be – it is deadly serious and the reason it is so serious is simply because what I am insisting on just plain isn’t true. What other reason could there be for something to be ‘serious’? Why else would I lose my sense of humour so totally, if I were not caught up in the grim business of ‘denying the truth at all costs’? There is no ecstatic release from our so-serious valuation of the illusion in the inverted joke – there is only the inverted analogue of ecstasy.  If ecstasy is the ‘joyful letting go of what was never real in the first place’ then the inverted analogue of ecstasy is ‘the desperately humourless hanging on to what was never true in the first place’…



The thing about the inverted joke is that it is a joke at my expense. The joke’s on me, although I can’t see this! I am very far indeed from seeing that the joke is on me – I’m not allowed to see this. The thing about the inverted joke that cause it is to be ‘inverted’ is I am excluded from it!  This might sound very unfair (if not to say downright mean) but the point is that there isn’t anyone else doing this to me. I am excluding myself from the joke that there isn’t a me… This is the very thing that I am so busy doing – I am busy holding onto the illusion, I am busy resisting the ecstatic awareness, I am busy denying that there is a joke… I don’t want to get it. This is the last thing I want to get!



The inverted joke isn’t much fun therefore. It isn’t exactly what we might call ‘a barrel of laughs’. It is very far indeed from being a barrel of laughs – it is interminable misery! It is a prolonged exercise in unremitting misery – it is misery that doesn’t have the decency to bring itself to an end… There is no humour, no joy, no light-heartedness, no compassion and no creativity in the inverted joke. There can’t be because all of these qualities involve ‘letting go’! Anything real always involves letting go. Life itself is letting go. And if life is letting go and the inverted joke is the situation where the one thing we are most opposed to doing is letting go (where the one thing we are absolutely guaranteed never to do is let go) then this means that the inverted joke is not life, is not living. It’s something else other than life. It is the misery-suffused parody of life…



We sometimes say “This is no life” and this is exactly true for the situation in which I am staunchly and resolutely opposed to seeing ‘that it is only a joke that there is a me’. The identified state of existence (the way of being in which I am unreflectively identified with some literal/humourless idea of ‘who I am’) is no life at all. Its only denial – it’s the denial of the truth, the denial of life, the denial of everything. It is a prolonged exercise in misery that I am committed to extending indefinitely. The only relief to the misery comes when I temporarily manage to believe that it is all somehow going to ‘work out for me’ (on my terms that is, which are the terms that it is no joke that there is a me). The only relief to the ongoing misery is when I am able to successfully deceive myself, in other words…



When – in my serious / literal way – I believe that I have ‘cracked it’ (i.e. that I am heading in a good direction, in my terms) then I experience a relief from the misery of my situation but this relief is not joy or happiness or anything like that. It’s something else. It’s a substitute for joy, a substitute for happiness. It’s something that I have to ‘make do with’ in place of joy or happiness. What I am experiencing when I think that I am heading in a ‘good’ direction has no joy or light-heartedness or anything like that in it – it can’t do because I am holding on tightly to the illusory idea of myself the whole time. I am trying to base my ‘happiness’ (such as it is) on this false idea of myself. When we chase our dreams, when we close in on our goals we hold on more not less! Goal-orientated thinking and behaviour has nothing to do with living – it’s all about extending the illusion, it’s all about prolonging the miserable state of affairs that I am so caught up in.



Why isn’t there some possibility of actually living when we are holding tightly onto the mind-created idea or image of ourselves, we might want to know? It sounds unfair, it sounds cruel. We can’t really say that it’s ‘unfair’ however because (as we have already pointed out) there’s no one else doing it to us – only ourselves! As Sir Edwin Arnold writes in The Light of Asia


Ye suffer from yourselves. None else compels,

None other holds you that ye live and die.

And whirl upon the wheel, and hug and kiss

Its spokes of agony…


We can hug and kiss the spokes of agony as much as we want to – it is after all an expression of our innate freedom to do so. The cause or our agony is our insistence (insistence is too mild a world, really) on turning our backs on the one thing that’s actually worth anything – our freedom to be what we actually are. In refusing to see the joke we are insisting on ‘not being free’ and so in conditioned existence we are simply getting what we are insisting on. In rejecting our own innate freedom as much as we could possibly reject anything we are guaranteeing our own misery and at the same time we are also rejecting our freedom to see that this is what we are doing.



The inverted joke is we might say the result of us rejecting that most precious of things – the freedom not to be who we absurdly think we are…







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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