There are two types of meaning in the world, if we may put it like that. To put it very simply, we can say that one type of meaning is ‘man-made’ and the other is ‘natural’. One is ‘conditioned’ (or ‘produced’) and the other is ‘unconditioned’. The type of meaning that we make up for myself is meaningful only in relation to our particular static (or ‘closed’) way of looking at things – that particular static or closed way of looking at things being the common or garden ‘rational-conceptual mind’! This type of meaning is a kind of ‘split-level’ kind of affair in that it seems to be going somewhere when we look at things in the way that we are ‘supposed’ to be looking them but which actually goes nowhere, which is actually a complete dead-end. The reason it goes nowhere and is a total dead-end is precisely because it is only meaningful in relation to a closed frame of reference. This being the case, then of course this type of meaning (i.e. conditioned meaning) is a dead-end – it relates only to the closed frame of reference which is the rational-conceptual mind, and that frame of reference is an unreal abstraction. It belongs to a purely formal realm – a realm that isn’t actually real.
Understanding why it is that we can say that the world recognized by rational-conceptual mind is ‘unreal’ tends to be a challenge for us because it is this very same mind that we use for understanding things! We don’t have any other perspective on things. The everyday mind cannot see itself for what it is – it certainly can’t see itself and its projections as being quintessentially unreal! In order to see this clearly we need to be coming from outside of this mind, which is a possibility that it doesn’t even acknowledge; rather than seeing itself as an arbitrary and limited perspective on things the everyday mind just goes right ahead and takes its arbitrarily limited viewpoint as the only possible viewpoint that there ever could be, which means that the view which it shows us is not understood as a ‘conditioned view’ of the world, but as the world itself. This being the case, of course the thinking mind cannot acknowledge that there is any other way of seeing things other than its way (just as it can’t acknowledge the possibility that there is any world other than the one we know, which is the one that it tells us about). That’s just how it works. That is what makes ‘a closed system’ a closed system – the fact that it falsely presents itself as not being closed! The fact that is says it isn’t closed!
Looking at the world in a way that isn’t just ‘the conditioned way’ (i.e. shifting out of the narrow viewpoint of the everyday mind) is something akin to using a muscle that we have never used before – a muscle that we don’t even know we have! It can be done, and the more we practice doing it the more naturally it comes to us, but the problem – we could say – is getting started in the first place. How do we use a muscle when we don’t know how to use it, when we don’t even know that it’s there to use? Probably the best answer is that we need to have a genuine interest in looking at the world in a different way that we always do. The usual way is for the conditioned viewpoint to greedily swallow up all of our attention, so that there’s no left over to start taking an interest in anything else. It’s as if we’re totally convinced that all the good stuff is there in the world that we know about, and so we’re so bent on getting our share of the good stuff that we really don’t care about anything else. We know that the rabbit is down this particular hole, so because we want so badly to catch the rabbit we won’t look anywhere else. Our attention is fixated, is glued to the spot. We’re no more going to take an interest in ‘thinking outside the box’ than a person with severe obsessive compulsive disorder is going to be interested in stuff that has nothing to do with the subject of the obsession, any more than an addict is going to be interested in anything that hasn’t got some kind of relevance to the all-important task of servicing the addiction. This isn’t a matter of choice – when our consciousness has been ‘eaten up’ in this compulsive sort of a way then taking what we might call an ‘open-ended’ (or ‘playful’) interest in the world just isn’t a possibility…
Being curious about the world that exists outside of the mind’s ‘rational agenda’ means that we aren’t entirely a prisoner of that mind – it means that we aren’t entirely slaves to the type of meaning that it peddles, which is ‘conditioned meaning’. The question is – if we can only begin to be free from the compulsive field of attention which corresponds to the world that the rational-conceptual mind shows us when we manifest genuine honest-to-goodness curiosity, and if we can only be genuinely curious about stuff when we aren’t entirely imprisoned by this rule-driven mind, then how does the process of ‘becoming free’ ever get to start? Seeing as how we flatly don’t believe that there is any way of seeing things other than through the mind, how do we ever get outside of the mind to see what things look like without the ubiquitous rational-conceptual filter? And even if – by some accident – this happened, why would we manage to get to the point of acknowledging what we see as having genuine value when the thinking mind is going to be very vigorous in telling us that it doesn’t just the moment it comes back on line? And yet – despite all this – the process of becoming free (at least to some small degree) from the humourless tyranny of the rational mind does exist, and is always ready to burst into life (like tender green shoots of vegetation coming up from between the concrete pavement slabs), just as soon as conditions are right. Nature can never be beaten by the system, only delayed!
Seeing things from outside of the remit of the thinking mind essentially means seeing them in a ‘non-generic’ way. Normally we see the world in a completely generic way; seeing the world via the thinking mind means seeing it in a generic fashion! That’s what thinking is, thinking is ‘arranging stuff in classes’ and if something is in a class then – by definition – it must be generic! Seeing the world in a non-generic way (in a non-mechanical way) means seeing it as if for the first time, without relating it to any frame of reference we might have filed away somewhere. When we do this then everything we see stands alone, is unique, is ‘unlike anything else’ – which means that it can’t be a member of a class. This is how the world really is, and this is why the mind that sees everything as belonging in one class or another is seeing a ‘reality’ which doesn’t really exist…
When we relate to the world via the machine which is the thinking mind then we aren’t actually relating to the world at all, we’re relating to the abstract pattern of organization that we have superimposed upon it. We’re relating to the world as if it were nothing more than an assembly of generic constituents, and it isn’t. What we see are our own concepts, our own perceptual categories, our own mind-made divisions reflected back at us – we don’t see reality as it is because reality isn’t a concept! As a simple ‘rule of thumb’, if we see divisions (i.e. if we see ‘separate things’ that we can know about, that we can name) then it’s not reality we are seeing but the pattern of organization that our mind has overlaid reality with. We’re not seeing reality, we’re seeing our ‘rule-based interpretation’ of reality. We’re seeing what we have made reality into. And – contrariwise – if we see reality as having no inherent divisions in it, as not being made up of lots and lots of different (or separate) things, things that we can readily put a name to, then this means that what we are relating to is genuinely real and not something that we ourselves have made up!
This brings us to the second type of meaning, which is what we might call ‘natural meaning’, i.e. the meaning that was there already before we overlaid our own artificial (or formulaic) type of meaning on it. It could be said that this is not a type of ‘meaning’ at all because it doesn’t actually mean anything. The usual way that we understand ‘meaning’ is after all in terms of some invariant correlation that exists between what we are looking at and some category (some abstract designation) that we have there in our heads, so we say that ‘this means this’ and ‘that means that’, in a very concrete way. We can afford to be so very concrete, so very literal, so very bone-headed because we ourselves made up the rules of the game! No one can prove us wrong, because we ourselves created the system. This is how we get to be so irrevocably certain about the fact that ‘this means this’ and ‘that means that’, but the price we pay for this ludicrous level of certainty, for this absurdity concreticity, is that nothing we say means anything really. It’s all just an exercise in ‘make-believe’. It’s all just nonsense that we are compelled to believe in! So the type of meaning that we normally deal in – which is concrete or literal meaning –is referential meaning because it only has the meaning that it is said to have in relation to some sanctified ‘frame-of-reference’. The frame of reference provides the meaning and so the meaning is only good to the extent that the framework is good and the framework is only good because we say it is!
So as we have intimated, this kind of business doesn’t get us anywhere at all! It’s pure nonsense. And yet within the terms of the game of ‘referential meaning’, it all makes perfect sense – it makes perfect sense because we never question the framework that we’re comparing everything to. When we’re talking about referential meaning the only way anything gets to have meaning is if the framework says it does. If I can’t refer it to my framework then it doesn’t exist – it’s as simple as this. That’s the first type of meaning. But the second type of meaning is meaning that is non-referential – it is meaning that stands alone, without the need from any supporting ‘abstract context’, without the need for any external validation or authorization. This is unique or ‘non-generic’ meaning and so – curiously – we can say that it is the type of meaning that doesn’t actually mean anything. It doesn’t point to anything else, it just ‘is what it is’, which is not what we generally understand as meaning at all. As Alan Watts says, it’s not that we mean ‘this’ or ‘that’, but that we ourselves are the meaning. The universe is its own meaning – it needs no external reference point.
Referential meaning is the meaning that the category (or the class) has in relation to the abstract framework that has determined that the category or class should be there in the first place. If this sounds funny then that’s because it is! This is meaning that feeds on itself – it’s a circular argument, a tautological loop. It is the snake that bites its own tail. It’s the meaning that the artificial fragment possesses in relation to the dualistic mind. The artificial fragment (i.e. the category, the class) doesn’t have any meaning to anything other than this dualistic mind and the dualistic mind (because it operates purely on the basis of circular logic) doesn’t actually exist anyway. The fragments, the categories, the classes, the elements within the classes, are reflections of the illusory dualistic mind. They don’t exist in reality, and their inherent non-existence is an honest reflection of the illusory mind that believes in them!
It can therefore be seen that what we are calling ‘referential meaning’ (i.e. the type of meaning that we ourselves read into things) is a very shaky, very insubstantial kind of a thing. It’s there if we look at the world in a certain sort of way (in the narrow sort of a way that makes it be there) but it’s not there otherwise. And what’s more, looking at the world in this ‘narrow sort of a way’ actually means not seeing reality for what it is – which is something unspeakably tremendous – and seeing instead our own mind-produced projections as reality, even though they are not tremendous at all, but fantastically dull and lifeless! When we see reality for what it is we are seeing non-referential meaning, which is something we just can’t compute. We can’t compute it and we can’t analyse it and we can’t do anything with it – we can’t use it to back up our own assumptions any more than we can use it to further our own ends. Quite the contrary is true – non-referential meaning shakes us to the very core and if we get too much of it all the structures that we have created on the basis of our unexamined assumptions come tumbling down all around us. This unique, non-generic (non second-hand) is what Jung calls the numenosum. As it says in the Whole Earth Catalogue, “God is not nice, God is an earthquake” (or as the Yiddish proverb has it, ‘God is an earthquake, not an uncle.’) In Verse 10 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says –
He who is near me is near the fire.
This about sums up the numenosum – the numenosum isn’t an interesting fact and it isn’t a polite visitor, it is the biggest challenge we will ever come across. It’s more than just a ‘challenge’ – it’s a fire that will burn us up. It’s the absolute falsification of everything we ever thought to be true, the absolute uncompromising annihilation of our idea of who we thought we were and what we thought the world was. It is confirmation of our ideas we normally go looking for, not the ultimate challenge, not the ultimate falsification, so it’s no surprise that ‘non-referential meaning’ is something that usually ‘strictly off the menu’.
What we have said so far is that there are these two type of meaning – one of which we are very familiar with and the other of which both entirely unfamiliar (not being encountered in everyday life at all) and extraordinarily disturbing in its nature if we ever do (by accident, perhaps) encounter it. But there is more to it than this – that isn’t making the point strongly enough. It is not just that there are these two types of meaning in the world, the mechanical and the non-mechanical, the ‘man-made’ and the ‘naturally-occurring’, and that the former is familiar to us whilst the latter tends to be unfamiliar. Actually the first type of meaning is all we are allowed to know about, whilst the second type is kept as the ‘biggest secret ever’ – there is no secret that is kept as well ‘covered up’ as this. We could well say that this is the ‘ultimate conspiracy’ – the conspiracy to prevent us from realizing that there is another type of meaning to the world, a type of meaning that we haven’t projected upon it, that completely falsifies the banal type of meaning that we do know about. Or as we could also put it, the ultimate conspiracy is the conspiracy to prevent us from ever realizing that the type of meaning that we are familiar (and which is being ‘rammed down our throats’ on a daily basis) is so damn shaky that it only seems believable just so long as we keep the truth completely banished, completely out of the picture. Once we clearly understand this dynamic, then and only then do we have some sort of an idea of what is really going on in the world!
We could also express this basic ‘dynamic’ in another way: we could say that there are two types of awareness, the mechanical and the non-mechanical type, and that the former voraciously ‘eats up’ the latter wherever it comes across it. This means that there is no free or unconditioned awareness left over to see what’s going on, to see that our natural, spontaneous awareness has been gobbled up piranha-like by the mechanical variety. We could say therefore that there is no unconditioned awareness left over to see that all the ‘non-mechanical meaning’ (which is the meaning that the world has in itself and of itself) has been efficiently converted into mechanical meaning (which is ‘the meaning we say stuff has’). Everything has to be part of the game, therefore. Unformatted meaning just isn’t left hanging around, not even the tiniest little bit of it, for us to remark on, for us to puzzle over. Unformatted meaning is like a fifty Euro note dropped on the pavement on a busy shopping street – it’s only going to get to lie there for the briefest moment of time before it ends up in somebody’s pocket! Large-denomination bills lying there on the pavement just isn’t a stable situation when everybody has sharp eyes and everyone is hunger for money! It’s like feeding lamb-chops to a starving crocodile – you could lose your fingers like this. Or we could think in terms of a juicy T-bone steak that is thrown into an enclosure full of ravenous wolves – the length of time that steak is going to be left hanging in the air is measurable in milliseconds. There’s only one outcome going to happen here and that outcome is going to come about fast…
In the same way, when the apparatus of the categorical mind snaps up a tasty morsel of unconditioned meaning (faster than any ravenous wolf, faster than any snapping crocodile) then the very speed at which this happens denies that anything has happened. It’s like whipping up the fifty euro note the very second it gets dropped on the pavement and then saying “Fifty euro note? What fifty euro note? I didn’t see any fifty euro note…” The apparatus of the thinking mind is a thousand times faster than this. It is a hundred thousand times faster – “Unconditional reality?” it asks, “What unconditioned reality? I didn’t see any unconditioned reality!” The world gets closed down so it ends up looking the way that the machine of the categorical mind wants it to look and this ‘processing’ happens so extremely rapidly that the machine can easily deny that any processing (any closing down) actually took place. We simply don’t see anything happening. The machine doesn’t admit to anything happening. Who’s to know?
Nobody knows anything of any unconditioned reality anyway, so we aren’t going to miss anything. No one has to deny anything, because there’s nothing to deny! The thinking mind is so fast and so aggressive in its operation that we never get to register what was there before the processing took place. And even if we did register it (if there was some kind of flukey slip-up, perhaps) we will tell ourselves that we were mistaken, we’ll tell ourselves that what we saw didn’t really mean anything really, that it was just some kind of random ‘blip’. Such is the authority of the everyday mind – it can cover anything up! And even if we do over-ride the spurious mechanical authority of the thinking mind and acknowledge to ourselves that we really did see something, that it wasn’t just our imagination or a trick of the light, then everyone else is going to tell us that it never happened, that it wasn’t real, that it was only a meaningless aberration of our over-stretched consciousness. Our friends and relatives will pretty much always tell us this – and if the ‘aberration’ in question doesn’t go away then maybe a whole bunch of psychiatrists will tell us that it isn’t real too! Nobody acknowledges the reality of the unconditioned or unformatted meaning that lies just beyond the surface of the everyday world. It’s just not something that ever gets mentioned. It’s a ‘non-thing’ – it’s something that we are ignoring, and won’t admit to ourselves that we are ignoring.
Our ignoring of the unconditioned reality is so clever that we might even pretend to ourselves that we aren’t ignoring it, as a way of not having to address the fact that we don’t really want to know about it. This is after all a more sophisticated approach than simply saying ‘it isn’t there’. We might imagine that we do acknowledge the reality of the unconditioned world; we might say that we aren’t ‘covering everything over’ with our banal rational projections. But if this was the case then we wouldn’t be carrying on in the dull old mechanical way that we always do! Something would have changed! If this were true then we wouldn’t still believe in the tedious old fiction of ‘who we are’ and ‘what life is all about’ that everyone else believes in. We wouldn’t go along with that story at all! Just because we might read a few poems here and there doesn’t means that we see the poetry of the world ourselves – it just means that we like to think we do. Similarly, just because we sit down to meditation every now and again doesn’t mean that we have seen through the illusions of everyday life – we could just be doing that to enable ourselves to feel that we have. We could be just meditating (or doing yoga, or art, or tai chi, or mindfulness to make our lives a bit more bearable for us, so that we can go back to living our dull old mechanical lives with a bit more energy! This – as Ron Purser says in his post Beyond McMindfulness – is why mindfulness is now so popular in mainstream society – not because it is a way of seeing through the illusions, but because it offers us (apparently) a way of offsetting the anxiety, stress, alienation and depression that come about as a result of adapting ourselves to the consensus reality.
If we use mindfulness or meditation as a tool to help us feel better (or function better in our lives) then this is just a pretence at honouring the non-mechanical, it’s a sop thrown in the direction of the spiritual. If we really took any notice of ‘intrinsic meaning’ – of the numinous – then this would transform us beyond recognition. That would be pure dynamite. That – as Krishnamurti says – would constitute a revolution. Revolution means revolution – it doesn’t mean keeping the bits we like and getting rid of the bits we don’t like. It doesn’t mean bolstering up the old system, the old way of life, with what we’ve learned. This is of course what the ‘mechanical meaning system’ does for a living – this is its forte, this is its ‘number one trick’. It does this over and over again, it does this till the cows come home – it copies what it sees and skilfully duplicates it in order to update its performance, in order to upgrade its operation. It ‘absorbs and conquers’, like the universal ‘mind amoeba’ it is.
Essentially, the ‘mechanical meaning system’ is a device for copying reality. It copies and duplicates reality to produce its own patented version, which we then get effectively trapped in, since it is a closed system (i.e. since it doesn’t declare itself to be a simulation and we don’t know the difference). It is the inventor of false worlds that implicitly claim to be true. It is the demiurge – the False God of the Gnostics…
Be this as it may, the bottom line is that whole endeavour is quite absurd. How can a mechanical system, which is quintessentially unfree, unfree by its very nature, simulate freedom? How can the unreal simulate the real? The better the machine can simulate freedom the more effectively we can be imprisoned in the simulation, but it can’t get away from the basic absurdity. No matter how ‘effective’ the simulation, any amount of curiosity at all – no matter how small or tentative it might be – will be enough to show that there is something fake about what we are expected to believe in…
Image: Flickr user Rosa Menkman
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.