Who I generally take myself to be is not who I am at all really but simply an ‘act’ or a ‘stance’, or a ‘mask’ – it is a simplified or convenient way of representing or portraying myself that for the most part fits in with the expectations or requirements of the culture that I find myself in. This ‘mask’ is the adapted self, or as it is more often called, the ‘persona’. Alternatively – and perhaps less obviously – we could say that the ‘act’ or ‘stance’ or the ‘mask’ which I take myself to be is made up of things that I take seriously (because the rules of the game say I have to) but which I don’t really have to take seriously’. This isn’t quite so easy to understand but the point is that our attachments (i.e. the things we take seriously) are ourselves – this is how we define ourselves, when it come down to it. It might seem odd to say so, but I am my attachments! I am the stuff I take seriously – I am my goals, and I am my fears….
‘Taking stuff seriously’ is another way of saying that I believe in rules – it means that I live in a world which contains rules that I absolutely have to obey. Believing that the world contains absolute rules means, in turn, that I inevitably end up changing from being ‘playful’ (which is how we all start out) to being ‘serious’. In general terms, we could say that I end up tensing up, going rigid, becoming hard and inflexible, turning strangely flat and humourless, being ‘reactive’ or ‘cantankerous’ or ‘prickly’, and so on. It means that I become heavy rather than ‘light’, and end up solid and predictable and dull rather than fluid and free. The fun goes out of things when this happens – there is no more humour or light-heartedness in life. Life has become a dry matter of ‘following rules’ which, as we all know very well on some level or other, it oughtn’t to be.
THE INVISIBLE TRANSITION
The transition we are talking about there is therefore the transition from freedom to restriction (or playfulness to seriousness) and as such it is noticeable in what is essentially a painful way. It doesn’t feel good to be heavy and flat and serious the whole time – in fact it’s a miserable, unhappy way to be. It’s a dreadfully miserable old way to be!
Once I have become all serious in myself however the fact that I am tense and rigid and inflexible and all the rest of it very quickly tends to become invisible to me – it just becomes ‘the way that I am’ and I pay no further heed to it. Physical tension is a perfect example of this – if all of a sudden my muscles all go tense I will be aware of it but if this is the way I am every day it is more than likely that I will carry this tension around with me quite unconsciously. It will become normal for me – I won’t see anything strange about it at all. Mental tension is exactly the same in this regard – it very quickly becomes habitual and when it does we have no awareness of it. It becomes a way of life; it becomes the only way of life.
So what has happened now is that I have made a transition from one state of being to another, and then lost sight of the fact that any transition has occurred, or that there is any other way to be than the one with which I am so familiar. I now think (or rather I unconsciously assume) that life is an essentially unfree sort of a thing rather than ‘an exercise that is freely undertaken’. Life is always serious from the point of view of the persona, from the point of view of the idea that we have of ourselves. If someone were to come up to me and say that life isn’t really ‘serious’ – in the way that we generally think it is – then this wouldn’t sound right to me. It is quite likely that I will affronted or insulted – of course life is serious, I will reply, how could anyone be foolish enough or irresponsible enough to suggest that it isn’t? But life is only ‘serious’ for the persona because everything about the persona is deliberate (or calculated) and this necessarily means that there can’t be anything playful about it. It’s an unfree thing. There’s no way to programme freedom or lightness into it!
So when we get all heavy and unfree in ourselves we don’t see this as an affliction or malaise, we see it as the only right and proper way to be. We turn it into a virtue and if there are people around who don’t seem to take things as seriously as we do, who don’t have the proper serious attitude, then we regard them as being immature or irresponsible. Life’s not a laughing matter! In respectable society in a certain type of ‘stuffy solemnity’ is normal and this is the reason we don’t generally smile very much. We’re all busy taking something seriously – something which we don’t actually have to take seriously, but which we’ve somehow very much grown into the habit of doing so all the same. We’re taking our masks seriously. We’re taking the game seriously, and in fact we’re taking the game so seriously that we won’t even accept that it is a game.
THE CONCRETE AND THE SYMBOLIC
Our usual predictable way of being in the world is – we could say – the result of our very literal and concrete way of perceiving and understanding it. The world itself isn’t rigid and inflexible – it’s just our attitude that is, it’s just our outlook that is! A good way to explain this point is to say that there are two ways to relate to the world – the concrete and the symbolic. The concrete modality is the one which we know the best and it involves projecting a map that is created by rational-conceptual mind onto the world and then, having made sense of the world in this way, relating to the meanings which we ourselves have put onto things as if they ‘have’ to be that way.
The ‘meanings’ that we are relating to in this way are literal in the sense that they are ‘what we say they are and nothing else’. Or we could say that they are literal because they are ‘what the rational-conceptual mind says they are and nothing else’. If you look a word up in the dictionary you will find a definition (or list of definitions) of that word and that is all you need to know. That’s what the word means, for heaven’s sake, so what more is there to say? The everyday mind is just like a dictionary in this way because it is composed of a set of classifications or categories which we refer incoming information to in order to make sense of that information. It is ‘a yardstick’. No matter where we go this yardstick stays the same because the whole point of a yardstick is that it doesn’t keep changing the whole time, any more than a dictionary keeps changing the whole time. The value of any standard or reference point lies in the fact that it is the static thing, that it is the unchanging thing! It can’t change, any more than the position of the goal posts can change during the course of a game of football.
The type of meaning associated with this mind is therefore the concrete type because the meanings that the rational-conceptual mind derives or imposes upon the world are of course as fixed or unchanging as it is. What we are calling the concrete modality is very easy to understand, therefore, which is not the case for the symbolic modality. The symbolic modality of relating to the world is the one in which we step out of the rational mind, and by doing this relinquish our habitual rigid control of how the world appears to us. The meanings that we perceive when we are in the symbolic modality are not governed by the categories that we impose on things, but instead – we might say – they emerge all by themselves from a deeper stratum of reality. They are ‘emergent’ rather than ‘imposed’, therefore. Symbolic meanings are not at all fixed therefore – there is no dictionary of symbols that we can refer to in order to make sense of them, although this isn’t to say that they don’t make sense! They just don’t make a ‘standardized sense’.
This kind of idea comes up a lot with dreams – there are any number of books out there that claim to be a guide to interpreting dreams. If you dream of this, it means such-and-such, and if you dream of that, it means some other thing, and so on. This however defeats the whole point of a dream (if we can even say that a dream has a ‘point’, which we can’t really since only rational, goal-driven enterprises have a ‘point’ to them). The dream has the function of enabling us to escape from the thinking mind, and so if we then turn around and subject the dream to rational analysis then we are delivering ourselves right back into the clutches of that mind. When we ‘interpret’ our dreams this is just the rational-conceptual mind doing the same old thing it always does because we are treating the material that comes up in dreams as if it were belonging to the realm of concrete meaning, rather than the non-concrete symbolic world. The point is that any given element in a dream can mean just about anything – it can mean anything the dream wants it to mean, just the same as an image used by poet can mean anything he or she wants it to mean. We normally use language is in a ‘compliant’ way therefore – we operate it in the way the rule-book says it must be operated. When we use a word that word means what the dictionary defines it as meaning not what we want it to mean. But when I take my own authority back and use language creatively I turn this around; when I now get to be the boss of the words rather than vice versa then this is a whole different ball game.
STUCK IN THE CONCRETE
This does not mean simply changing the meaning of words around in a random way but somehow getting language to express or hint at a level of order which is not implicit in the logic of the language itself. Language is a tool and this of course means that it must have a degree of ‘order’ (so to speak) in it that is less than the degree of order present in the user of the tool – the tool is a lesser sort of a thing than the one who operates the tool, in other words! This means that by not being afraid to call upon my ‘natural authority’ I can get language to say more than it is technically-designed to say, so to speak! If on the other hand I am ‘passive’ (or ‘compliant’) in relation to the instrument of language and only use it in the way that the rules say I have to use it, then I am serving the tool and not vice versa. Because I am not bringing anything of myself (my true unique self) into the picture, but only conforming to the rule-based regularities of the system, the result is that I am going to be stuck in the concrete modality, the literal modality. When I am talking (or thinking) in a concrete way, therefore, this is because I am letting the dead mechanical system which is the thinking mind define me, rather than remaining essentially free from it, remaining essentially undefined by it.
SYMBOLS FREE US
Symbols don’t define anything, and neither can they be defined, or tabulated neatly in some kind of a manual or hand-book. To our usual way of thinking this seems rather strange because we cannot see what possible use our language could be if it doesn’t pigeon-hole stuff, if it doesn’t pin stuff down. What good is a symbolic (or metaphorical) language, we might ask? What’s the point of it? What the hell does it tell us anyway? The point we making here is that to our normal way of thinking only the stuff that we already know about is of any value and symbolic meanings are meanings that are not only ‘off the map’ as far as the rational-conceptual mind is concerned, but are always going to be off the map since symbolic meaning can never be converted into concrete meaning without entirely losing the meaning that they had before we converted them. So symbolic meanings have no use within the closed frame of reference which is the everyday mind but where they do have an immensely significant use (or value) is in their function of taking us beyond this closed context, and relating us thereby to a wider and altogether more interesting world.
Concrete meanings never widen our horizons – we can take in as much concrete information as we want and it won’t expand our perspective even by the tiniest little bit. The journey from one known to another is no journey at all, as Krishnamurti says. Naturally symbolic meaning isn’t going to make ‘sense’ to us in the usual dull old way that things normally do – if it did then it wouldn’t be taking us on a journey, it wouldn’t be breaking us out of our narrow framework. To want it to make sense is ridiculous – it is like wanting to reduce everything to the banal, as if there were something intrinsically good or worthwhile about downgrading the world in this, and turning into a bunch of tawdry literal signifiers! Symbols relate us, therefore, to a wider world – or we could say that symbols relate us to reality itself since ‘the wider world’ is the same thing as reality. The narrow compartmentalized world that we normally relate to isn’t reality at all – it’s just a filing system, it’s just a guidebook, an operator’s manual, a dictionary made up of wretchedly petty literal signifiers.
THE WORLD OF EXTERNAL APPEARANCES
So what we have been saying is that whilst a ‘spontaneously arising symbol’ clearly means something – it doesn’t make any sense to try to pin down the meaning that it does have because that meaning lies beyond our conceptual horizon, not within it. If we do fit it into our concrete system of meaning then we lose the opportunity that we had which was to expand beyond this horizon, and enter into a bigger world as a result. Instead of talking about entering into a ‘bigger world’ we could also say that symbolic meanings (if we can refrain from collapsing them into mere literal signifiers) allow us to enter into the very heart of things, rather than just being trapped in the two-dimensional world of ‘external appearances’. Symbols relate us to the inside of things, literal language (or concrete thinking) relate us to the outside. Why should there be such an all-important difference between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ of phenomena, though?
To start off with, we could make the point that the ‘outside’ of things is entirely a matter of convention. The ‘outside’ is all to do with where we decide to draw the line – which particularities we choose to highlight and which ones we choose to ignore, to thrust out of sight in the background. Once we ‘draw the line’ then we have created a definition, we have created a concrete description, and so we now have a system of literal signifiers which we can use in order to talk about the world. This is such a pragmatically useful kind of a thing to be able to do that we take advantage of it as much as we can and – in the process – we forget something very important about the descriptions that we are using – what we forget it is that they are conventional rather than essential in their ultimate nature! The realm of descriptions is a realm of abstractions – ‘abstractions’ meaning that the descriptions which we are using so freely are a sort of convenient short-hand for the world that is being described rather than being genuinely (or ‘essentially’) representative of that world.
So what we’re saying here, curiously enough, is that there aren’t any outsides to anything – the ‘outside’ doesn’t really exist, it only exists in an abstract or conventional kind of way, which isn’t a real way at all. In reality there aren’t any outsides, there aren’t any ‘excluding boundaries’, there is only the inside! Everything is on the inside and there are no hard-and-fast edges, no concrete boundaries, and yet all we usually care about are the edges, the boundaries, the ‘outsides’… We’re obsessed with ‘things’, when it comes down to it, and yet – as Hui Neng says –
From the beginning not one thing exists; …
When we fall into the trap of getting wholly immersed in concrete meanings, which happens extraordinarily easily, what is happening to us is that we are ending up in a situation where we’re very concerned about stuff that doesn’t really matter at all, stuff that is only ‘provisionally true’, whilst at the same time being entirely negligent of (or blind to) what really does matter. We’re very serious about things, but the things we’re so serious about are infinitely trivial. By being sucked into the literal mode, the concrete mode, we’re entering into a dead-end, a cul-de-sac, and once we’ve gone down this dead-end or cul-de-sac we’re hopelessly trapped in it because we have rendered ourselves incapable of seeing what has happened to us.
THE SIMPLE AND THE COMPLEX
As we have said, it’s just not possible to represent the essence of phenomena in a definitive or literal manner. That would only work if the essence of phenomena is itself a cut-and-dried kind of an affair, something that legitimately lends itself to being exhaustively ‘accounted for’ in a dry pedantic rational fashion. The fact that we could ever seriously entertain such a supposition is itself remarkable – how could we think so little of reality that we could imagine it capable of being squeezed into our rational boxes? How could we be so blasé and dismissive of the world that we could happily assign it to a collection of routine mental categories, and then imagine that that is all there is to it? Obviously, something in us would dearly love to believe that ‘that’s all there is to it’, would dearly love to believe that reality can be wrapped up so neatly, but this tendency that we undoubtedly do have within us is hardly anything to be trusted! This tendency is the tendency to ‘grasp at the simple at the expense of the complex’, the tendency to want to believe that the world is a straightforward ‘black-and-white’ affair when nothing could be further from the truth!
Living in a world that is made up of straightforward ‘literal truths’ (i.e. a world that can be represented in terms of dogmatic statements) brings obvious ‘psychological advantages’ in terms of us not having to deal with the new (which as Maslow says is thing we find the most challenging in life) but the price we pay for this is that we get cut off from the living heart of things, because the living heart of things is always new. I gain the satisfaction of being able to make dogmatic statements about the world, but at the same time I become a total bore to myself – even though I may not have the insight to realize this! By wanting to live in world that can be known in a literal or dogmatic fashion I condemn myself to a life which is really only about going over the same basic things over and over again, and those things aren’t even real! I condemn myself to the fate of repeating the same basic statements over and over again, like a wind-up clockwork toy, and those statements aren’t even true!
The essential nature of phenomena is forever outside of our ken, is forever beyond our crude attempts to understand it – it is complex rather than simple, deep rather than superficial, metaphorical rather than literal. Whilst from an intuitive perspective, the suggestion that the essence of things is elusive in nature rather than being cut-and-dried rings true and no one is going to have any problems with it at all, from a rational perspective we have huge problems with the idea. If you meet someone who is stuck in the rational mode and you say to them that the essential nature reality itself is not susceptible to logical analysis, and actually has nothing to do with logic or rationality, this is going to sound absolutely nonsensical to them. They won’t get it at all. For the rational mind, the world is a puzzle to be solved and then placed into the correct mental compartments. When we’ve accomplished this then its “job done” and we can all go home! We can ‘get on with do whatever it is that we want to do’. To the intuitive mind however, the world is a riddle that can never be answered, a riddle that was never meant to be answered – and this is just fine! We don’t want to ‘wrap it up’ so that we can get on with the tedious task of enacting our rational agenda.
When we’re in rational (or concrete) mode everything comes down to the 1:1 literal correspondence between ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’. When the two are correctly matched, paired off together so that we have represented reality in terms of literal signifiers, then this really is the end of the story! When we make the match then we lose interest. What else is there to know after this? The puzzle has been solved. The answer has been found. When we’re operating on the basis of symbolic understanding, on the other hand, then it’s not about 1:1 correspondences. Symbols do not ‘match’ some ready-made standardized template or other, they do not simply ‘slot into’ a convenient mental framework – on the contrary, they stand alone. They’re ‘non-referential’. Symbols cannot be assimilated into an existing structure without losing their essential nature, which is ‘open-ended’ rather than ‘cut-and-dried’. All sorts of expansive meanings can be associated with a symbol – it is rich in meaning rather than sparse, cryptic rather than straightforward. What we get out of a symbol depends on where we’re coming from – everyone takes home a different meaning from it, and yet even if a million people were to mine it for its content it will still have an unending supply of new meanings to give! There are no final definitions as far as symbolic meaning is concerned.
‘FINAL’ VERSUS ‘UNFINISHED’
This then gets down to the very crux of the matter as regards the difference between the concrete and symbolic modes – meanings are ‘final’ in the former and ‘unfinished’ in the latter. In the concrete mode ‘everything has already been said’, ‘everything has already decided’, whilst in the symbolic mode everything is still ‘up in the air’! This of course shows why we have been speaking of the concrete modality as being inherently rigid and inflexible – it is based upon a static system of meaning where things simply are what they are and ‘that is the end of the matter’. The basic ‘units’ or ‘constituents’ of reality are already known and the only possible ‘source of surprise’ lies in how various combinations of these units might present. This is only ever going to be ‘superficial surprise’, therefore, which isn’t really any sort of surprise at all!
The whole endeavour in life when we are in the concrete mode is therefore not about exploring or questioning the ‘final meanings’ that it presents us with, but working away within the box, working away within the fixed framework. Or we could say – life in the concrete mode is not about realizing undiscovered potentialities but rather learning to ‘play the established game’ as well as we possibly can! We let these literal meanings shape us, in other words, so we become every bit as final (i.e. just as inflexible) as they are. Adaptation becomes the greatest virtue, and all genuine intelligence (i.e. intelligence that isn’t serving our closed rational agendas) gets flushed unceremoniously down the toilet.
It becomes very apparent from everything that we have said in this discussion that the ‘concrete mode’ (which is the mode associated with the rational-conceptual mind) comes with some extraordinarily significant drawbacks – drawbacks that really make a mockery of any benefits that we might stand to gain out of staying in this mode the whole time. Even to make this point properly (and not have the impact totally diluted) is extraordinarily hard because we don’t as a rule have any awareness that we are living just about full time in the concrete mode. We don’t even really acknowledge that there is such a thing as ‘concrete mode’, so how are we going to know that we’re living in it?
Our understanding is not that we are living in a kind of ‘rational-conceptual simulation of reality’, but that we are living in reality itself, and so the issue of what ‘drawbacks’ the concrete mode might have simply doesn’t arise! And yet there can be no doubt that we are living in this patented ‘rational-conceptual’ simulation – as soon as we manage to cultivate any awareness at all in our lives we see this. Rational thought cannot spot that we are living in a simulation of reality for the very straightforward reason that the rational-conceptual simulation is created by our rational thoughts. Of course it can’t see it! Because rational thoughts are by their very nature examples of ‘rigidity’ (or ‘concreteness’) we cannot – on the basis of these thoughts – appreciate the drawbacks that are associated with being totally rigid, or being totally concrete. A thought can’t see itself – the referents just aren’t there. In a loose kind of way, we could say that this is like being in an abusive relationship, or growing up in an emotionally abusive family – if we don’t know any difference then we won’t of course know that it is (or was) abusive.
We might ask what it is that’s so inimical (or ‘abusive’) about the concrete mode, but then again, we’ve already gone into that rather thoroughly – the concrete mode is inimical because it drains every bit of ‘lightness’ out of life. It doesn’t allow any lightness – and what is life without the lightness?
The concrete mode doesn’t allow any life in it, when it comes right down to it. The ‘lightness’ is the life! Everything else is just the dull mechanical enacting of foregone conclusions, and where’s the life in this? The rational-conceptual simulation (which we have been referring to as ‘the concrete mode’) doesn’t allow any life in it because there isn’t any script for life and the one thing the rational-conceptual simulation of life cannot ever do is to allow anything that it itself has not scripted!
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.