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Living Life Backwards

We see everything back-to-front. One way of getting at this is to look at the way we regard causality, and ascribe everything to some kind of causal vector. Alan Watts explains this very well. According to Alan Watts we always see the present in terms of the past, in terms of it being explained by the past. This seems abundantly obvious to us because this is the way we choose to look at it but actually it’s the other way around – everything comes from the present. The present is the source, not the past. The present gives rise to the past and not vice versa, not matter what we might think. The present isn’t caused by anything! As Watts says –



If you insist that your present is the result of your past, you are like a person driving your car looking always in the rearview mirror. You are not, as it were, open to the future, you are always looking back over your shoulder to find out what you ought to do. And this is something absolutely characteristic of us and this is why human beings find it difficult to learn and difficult to adapt themselves to new situations. Because we are always looking for precedents, for authority from the past for what we are supposed to do now, that gives us the impression the past is all-important and is the determinative factor in our behavior.


It isn’t anything of the kind. The life, the creation, comes out of you now. In other words, don’t look for the creation back here at the beginning of where the wake fades out. Don’t look for the creation of the universe at some very far-distant point in time behind of us. The creation of the universe is now in this present instant. This is where it all begins! And it trails away from here and eventually vanishes.


We can also get at this idea that we see everything backwards by thinking in terms of information.  Information is that which is new, that which has no precedence in what has already happened. If something occurs that has been prefigured by the past then we knew it was going to happen before it did and this means that the so-called ‘event’ has no information content. This isn’t information, this is redundancy – it’s the business of trying to dress the old up as if it were genuinely new. Redundancy is telling us nothing we did not already know – it’s a repeat, it’s a pointless extension of the previously existing situation. In Wei Wu Wei’s terms, it is mere ‘seriality’. It’s the degradation of the ‘Eternal Now’ into linear time –


What we know as ‘life’
is the analytical realisation
in the seriality of time
of our eternal reality.


Seriality is the repeating of the past indefinitely into the future, so that really everything is the past. Seriality is an echo – it is old stuff coming back again and again and again forever, but the fact that it’s coming back again so persistently doesn’t make it new. Only the new is new, and the new doesn’t come out of the past. We could therefore quite legitimately ask where the new does come from, if it doesn’t come from the past? The answer is clearly that it comes from the present, from the now. Whatever comes from the now – without contamination from the old – is new, is genuine information rather than mere redundancy, mere seriality, mere trickery.



This is all very well – the answer seems to make sense in a way – but we still might want to be a bit awkward and ask where the now comes from. This is a tricky question because we would usually have said that it comes from the past, only we can’t say that any more. That glib (and entirely erroneous) answer is now denied us. Only the old can come from the old – the new can’t come out of the old any more than information can come out redundancy, any more than the original event can arise out of the echo of that event! This then poses a bit of a problem – we can understand the past well enough but not the present but since (as Alan Watts says) everything comes out of the present, like an eternal fountain, like an ongoing cosmic explosion, this means that we aren’t ever going to be able to understand anything! How do we figure this one out: we don’t know where the present comes from and everything comes out of the present…



So this turns out to be an answerable question because the only way we ever could answer it would be in terms of precedence (i.e. by saying that it comes out of X, Y or Z or whatever) and this is the one thing we can’t do! That would be like trying to say where information comes from – that would be a paradox because as soon as we say where information comes from it’s no longer information. It instantly becomes redundancy – it instantly becomes an echo of something else. This is also like trying to specify a mathematical procedure whereby random numbers could be generated – the definition of ‘random’ is that there is no logical connection, no logical continuity, with regard to the preceding numbers so the moment we specify how to generate the random number it stops being random…



We simply can’t explain the present in terms of the past – we can only explain the past in terms of the past, but since the past is mere redundancy this doesn’t actually explain anything. It is just a perpetuation of the same redundancy, and the redundancy isn’t telling us anything (because redundancy can’t tell us anything, that being the quintessential nature of redundancy). Redundancy doesn’t really exist after all – it’s a non-event pretending to be an event, it’s the lack of information trying to fool us into thinking that it actually is information. It is in other words an illusion and what do we need to know about an illusion other than the fact that it is an illusion? There’s no real need to go into it any further – actually there’s nowhere further to go, no matter what the illusion itself might be telling us!



Only information is information, only the new is new, and only the now is real. Our automatic attempt to understand the new in terms of the old (or portray the present in terms of the past) is therefore the attempt to understand the real in terms of the unreal. There never was a bigger ‘non-starter’ than this! It’s coming at things the wrong way entirely! This really is getting everything ‘back to front’, ‘putting the cart before the horse’, etc. And this is how we do things. This is ‘what we do’ – we are constantly explaining the present in terms of the past! This brings us to another approach to this matter of ‘seeing things backwards’. We have said that information is ‘the new’ and that redundancy is ‘old stuff disguised as the new’ (mutton dressed as lamb) and that this trick is pulled off via some basic bit of trickery whereby there is a superficial type of rearrangement taking place which neatly distracts us from seeing that – actually – it’s just the same old story. The formula has been re-jigged, in other words, but it’s still the same old basic formula. That never changes. Information is thus ‘an event’ and redundancy is ‘a non-event’ trying to pass itself off as an event – it is a virtual event, we might say. When this trick is pulled off then the superficially new takes the place of the new, redundancy takes the place of genuine information and where it is the case that something has been neatly substituted for by an inferior analogue then the original has been effectively gotten rid of. It has been – by this process of surreptitious substitution – effectively eliminated, and so what we now have is a situation where the superficial contrivance, the ‘clever gimmick,’ the re-jigged formula now equals the new.



This is the same as saying – as Jean Baudrillard does in Simulacra and Simulations, that the formal symbol has replaced the reality that is being symbolized, and so what we are actually talking about here is the proliferation of the hyperreal, just as Baudrillard describes it. How can the hyperreal not proliferate, when it has such sneaky tricks up its sleeve, when it has such an effective way of cheating? The hyperreal is like a parasite that has learned to live entirely on the resources obtained by other organisms, so it never needs to do a day’s work itself. All it needs to do is to be able to reproduce!



So the thing about hyperreality is that it does away with the need for reality. It doesn’t of course go around broadcasting the fact that it has done away with the need for reality – on the contrary, it trumpets on and on, in the most tiresome fashion imaginable, about how much it values reality, nature, beauty, art, justice, life, freedom, etc. This way we never suspect it. This way we are thrown off the scent, bamboozled. By paying lip-service to all the virtues it has done away with the hyperreal succeeds in making the illusion complete; to anyone who is content to look at things purely on the nominal level of meaning there will be no question whatsoever of missing reality therefore. The inversion that has taken place means that the token has taken the place of that which is being tokenized. It means that the simulation has taken the place of reality. Or as we could also say, it means that mere flatulent redundancy has taken the place of actual honest-to-goodness information.



So when we’re talking about the ‘inversion’ this is another way of talking about seeing things backwards. Saying that we see the present as being caused by the past is the same as saying that we see pseudo-information as the real thing – the past by definition is pseudo-information (i.e. redundancy) because it has already happened, because it’s ‘old news’. The ‘now’ – untainted as it is by the residue of the past – is simply too radical for us to be able to catch sight of, too different from what we know for us to have any way of relating to. We understand stuff by comparing it to what we already know, after all, and we don’t already know the now. This is what the everyday mind is – it’s a device for making sense of stuff by comparing it to pre-existing criteria, pre-existing categories, pre-existing rules. The criteria (or categories, or rules) operate by drawing a firm line between ‘what exists’ and ‘what doesn’t exist’. The fixed rules say what exists or not, what is real or not, in other words, and the rules are the past. To our usual way of thinking this sounds pretty sensible but what it actually comes down to is ‘transforming information into redundancy’. Redundancy is the only thing the thinking/categorical mind sees as real, therefore, and the whole point about redundancy – as if we keep on saying – is that it isn’t real. It’s the pretence of reality, the sham of reality.



The everyday mind inflicts a type of blindness on us therefore – reality blindness! We become blind to reality, blind to the radically new. We live exclusively in a world of seriality, a world of repeats, which we consistently fail to see for what it is. It is of course perfectly possible to live life like this – it is in fact quite unnecessary to make such a statement since living like this is what we do every day! The new, the real, the now is coming into existence all the time, at every moment of our lives, and yet we continuously fail to encounter it. It is an overflowing cosmic cornucopia of surprise whose overflowing goes completely unnoticed by us! Instead, we ‘live in the shadows’, we live in Plato’s cave. Instead, we continue to eke out our existence in endless realms of seriality, repeating the same basic formula over and over again as if it were this static formula (this static set of dead rules) that were the fountain of all existence, and not ‘the new’.



The real is that which can’t be repeated, can’t be copied, can’t be ‘explained’ or put forward as a template for everything else that is to follow, as we so dearly love to do. As a result of our peculiar attitude all we care about is stuff that can be repeated, stuff that can be copied, stuff that can be exhaustively explained within the hallowed terms of the everyday mind. In this attitude lies the root of our morbid fear of death – our fear of death is actually our fear of reality!  As Krishnamurti says,



It is we human beings who are always concerned about death – because we are not living.  That is the trouble; we are dying, we are not living.  The old people are near the grave, and the young ones are not far behind.


You see, there is a preoccupation with death because we are afraid to lose the known, the things that we have gathered.  […].  We don’t want to leave the known; so it is our clinging to the known that creates fear in us, not the unknown.  The unknown cannot be perceived by the known.  But the mind, being made of the known, says, “I am going to end,” and therefore it is frightened.


Reality is after all the radically new and the ‘radically new’ is the death of the old. Only when the old dies can the new come into being, and so life itself is a process of continual letting go. And yet for the conditioned self, life (or what it calls life) is one long ‘holding on’, one long continuation of the same set of assumptions, the same set of dead rules. The inverted form of life is a logical continuity, in other words, and a logical continuity (or seriality) is ‘an exercise in unreality’, an exercise of aggressively promoting the unreal as the real….



Once we see this then we see a lot! Once we see this then everything all of a sudden become very clear – once we can see that all of our grasping, all of our clutching, all of our holding on and controlling comes down to this exercise, the exercise of promoting the unreal as real, then this puts everything in a radically new light. It’s not just that we are ‘valuing the old over the new’ – our absolute terror of the new means that we don’t admit that it exists.



Our unacknowledged or never-mentioned terror of the new means that we cling to the old for all that we’re worth. We cling so much that we don’t even know that we’re clinging. We cling so much it seems normal to us – it seems like normal life! We cling so much that ‘not-clinging’ seems like the height of dangerous irresponsibility – it seems like pure reprehensible insanity. Everything comes down therefore to just various forms or types or shades of clinging – our whole life is clinging…



And having said this, it’s not even that we value the old – despite the fact that it looks so much that we do. How can we value the past when there’s actually nothing in it, when the old is merely a ghost that we keep on trying to resuscitate? It’s not that we value the old so much as we value what it represents to us – i.e. the illusory possibility of escaping from the new. We don’t value the old for the intrinsic value that it has in it (it has none) but simply for the apparent security that it provides us with, the capability it has to protect us from the radically new.



As soon as we put it like this it can readily be seen how ‘identification with the simulation’ is not just a recipe for suffering, it is suffering itself. We’re trying to live life on the basis of the unreal, which is the most treacherous foundation there ever could be. It’s not that ‘life is unreal’ but that the way we live it is backwards, back-to-front, the wrong way around, the result of which is that we are constantly defending the unreal and fighting against the real. All of our purposeful activity is an embodiment of this struggle, this war. All of our striving is on behalf of the old, for the sake of the old. This is the ‘conservative motivation’, the ‘neophobic motivation’. Our rational thought processes too are a manifestation of this very same struggle – the struggle against reality.



To say that all of our purposeful behaviour, all of our rational activity is ‘living life backwards’ (or that it is ‘promoting the real over the unreal’) is distinctly controversial. Saying that this view of things is ‘controversial’ doesn’t really make the point strongly enough – it’s not merely controversial, it’s completely unacceptable! And yet once we see it, there can be no doubt whatsoever that this is the case. What is a ‘purpose’, a ‘goal’, if not a manifestation of the old? Of course a goal is a manifestation of the old – how could it be otherwise? What is purposeful activity if not the attempt to secure the perpetuation of the past?



Both the goal and the one who seeks to achieve the goal are manifestations of the old, manifestations of the ‘surrogate version of reality’ that is disguised redundancy. Our thoughts too (as we have said) are an embodiment of the way in which we live life backwards, on the basis of the unreal rather than the real. Thought deals in certainties, in definite statements regarding ‘the way things are’. But certainty means zero information since we already know what we’re going to find before we find it. We’ve already decided – the certainty comes out of the measuring stick that we use to measure reality, not reality itself, and the measuring stick is a manifestation of the old! The thinking mind itself is a manifestation of the old.



A definite reality is an abstraction; it is an extension of a system of our categories, an extension of the thinking process. It is the projection (or reflection) of our cognitive measuring stick upon the world. It is the perpetuation of the old, in a universe where the old does not exist. The old only exists in our minds…



We’re always controlling, we’re always consolidating the known, we’re always ‘holding on’, but this is to our detriment since by clinging to our life, we lose it. As we read in Luke 17:33 (New Living Translation version):


If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.








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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