We surround ourselves with baubles. We entertain ourselves with pretty images, pleasant fantasies, optimistic ideas and unchallenging beliefs about the world. We distract ourselves with mind candy, in other words. We live – if we can – in cosy little nests made of mental candy-floss.
But what’s wrong with this? Why shouldn’t we have pretty images, pleasant fantasies, unchallenging beliefs, if that’s what we want? The answer to this question is of course that we are perfectly free to surround ourselves with all the mind candy we want. We can play with baubles if we want to. That’s fine. The only thing is, it would be both interesting and valuable for us to know one thing about mind candy, pretty images, distracting baubles, and so on.
The ‘one thing’ is this – every mental construct has both an agreeable (or as we would say, ‘positive’) aspect, and a disagreeable (or ‘negative’) aspect. This is such a fundamental principle that ‘fundamental principle’ isn’t even the right term to use. After all, surely we should know that every UP comes with a DOWN, that every HAPPY comes with a SAD, that every RIGHT comes with a WRONG? Speaking in terms of a ‘principle’ implies that this is something hidden or obscure that we would possibly – if we’re lucky enough – discover for ourselves if we studied hard enough, but what is obscure about this?
What this principle of duality means in practical terms is that when we are careful to arrange things so that we are surrounded by images and thoughts that are pleasant to us, images and thoughts that we like (because they are favourable to our underlying biases or prejudices) then at the same time we are also arranging things so that we are going to be surrounded by images and thoughts that we find actively unpleasant, that we particularly don’t like.
All mental constructs are duplex in nature, and this is something that we all prefer to remain oblivious to. They have two sides to them, not just the side we are favourably disposed to. It could be said that our ‘psychological understanding’ is drastically oversimplified, so that there is a whole side of things that we just don’t have the slightest clue about – even though it is a side that is extraordinarily pertinent to us, a side that it would be crucially important for us to know about. An alternative – and probably more accurate – way of stating matters would be to say that we just don’t have any sort of psychological understanding (or insight) at all…
When the side that we like is uppermost then this is of course very agreeable to us – we are quite happy, we are in ‘good form’. But when the duplex mental construct ‘flips over’ (as it inevitably will do) so that the other side is foremost then this is entirely disagreeable to us – we find ourselves in bad form. The point is however that both mental states – the happy and the unhappy, the euphoric and the dysphoric states – have been arranged beforehand by us.
Inasmuch as I am responsible for surrounding myself with mental constructs that make me feel good I am also responsible for surrounding myself with mental constructs that make me feel bad. Inasmuch as I have chosen to experience euphoria (by selecting a way of looking at the world that pleases me) I have also chosen to experience dysphoria. Optimism is the exact same thing as pessimism; thinking positively is exactly the same thing as thinking negatively.
The drawback of going headlong down the rose-tinted road of ‘choosing to see things in a way that I find agreeable’ is therefore that at the very same time I am choosing to rush heedlessly down the road of ‘choosing to see things in a way that is disagreeable to me’. It’s the same road. The undeniable fact that I can’t for the life of me see that this is what I have done makes no difference whatsoever with regard to the outcome! Just because I am dumb this doesn’t spare me from the consequences of being dumb.
We could also explain this should-be-obvious principle in terms of ‘flattery versus insults’. If I am capable of being flattered then this is because I have some kind of an arbitrary or unjustified notion in my head, so that when someone comes along and agrees with this arbitrary or unjustified notion I feel good. I get a good feeling because of this and that makes me eminently manipulable by the person who has discovered what the ‘right thing’ to say to me is.
Exactly the same is true for what we call ‘insults’ – the fact that I am capable of being insulted necessarily means that I am harbouring some kind of arbitrary or groundless notion (essentially some kind of illusion) so that if another person comes along and in some way disagrees with this cherished notion, I feel bad. I feel hurt and upset and outraged and angry and all the rest of it because the person in question has cleverly discovered the right ‘wrong thing’ to say to me. Either way – be it via flattery or insults – I am manipulable. I have buttons which can be pushed by anyone observant enough to figure out what they are. I am a robot waiting to be controlled.
Flattery and insults are the two sides of the same coin therefore, since both rely upon the fact that I have some kind of an unwarranted assumption, some kind of a precarious illusion that I desperately want to hang onto. The agreeable mental constructs that we like to surround ourselves with are agreeable to us because they flatter us, but to the same extent they are capable of flattering us they are also capable of insulting us to the very core.
So it is as if I have selected for myself as a companion a person who can be relied upon (I think) to always say the sort of things I want to hear. I never really sit down and hit upon a plan to do this – it just kind of happens naturally. It happens naturally because I have a tendency to distance myself from non-flatterers, and a tendency to gravitate towards those who are willing to flatter (i.e. humour) me. We could say that I have made the unconscious decision to associate myself with the type of companion or friend who can be relied upon to flatter and humour me. But the irony is of course that I have also – at the same time – chosen as a companion a person can be relied upon to insult me, and say the kind of things I particularly do not want to hear. The situation that I have obtained for myself is a ‘cosy’ one, but it is cosy in both a pleasant and an unpleasant way, like the type of relationship you really wish you didn’t have (i.e. one that is both intimately pleasant and intimately unpleasant).
This is the sort of ‘two-sided’ relationship we are inevitably going to have with our mental constructs since all mental constructs are – as we have said – duplex, and will express their duplicity by periodically ‘rotating’, by periodically ‘switching over’ from one aspect to the other. The aspect we particularly like is replaced by the aspect we particularly don’t like – what attracts us is replaced by what repels us, just like a magnetic field reversing over and over again. This is what Buddhism refers to as ‘the turning wheel of samsara’.
This being the case – as it inarguably is – we might well wonder what the motivation could possibly be for arranging such a state of affairs. After all, as intense and uncompromising as my motivation is to obtain and hold on to the desired outcome, that is exactly how urgent and uncompromising my wish is escape from the undesired outcome. Like and dislike are conjoined. I love the object of my fixation just as much as I hate it and so my gain is my loss, my victory my downfall. This is why – as Jung relates – in The Chymical Wedding the inscription over the door to the castle carries the cryptic (but highly significant) inscription –“Congratulor, Condoleo.”
This cryptic message of congratulation and condolence applies to us all, since we are married to ‘gaining’ and ‘losing’ to exactly the same extent, since gaining and losing are the very same thing. The game of the fixed or defined self always involves advantage and disadvantage, UP and DOWN, triumph and disaster, in exactly equal measure. This however makes no sense to us whatsoever – it is as if we are constitutionally unable to see it. We just don’t get it. Our whole motivation for carrying on with the narrow game of self is after that we can have UP without DOWN, WINNING without LOSING. Our modus operandi is based on the unshakeable belief that the opposites are not conjoined, that they can be split up. This is what we pin all our hopes on.
One way to try to make the paradox clearer is to look at ‘craving versus fear’. These two motivations are apparently worlds apart and yet if we examined the matter we would be able to see that the two can never be separated – the craving for the desired object goes hand-in-hand with the fear of not obtaining it, and the fear of the undesired outcome is the same thing as the intense desire to escape or avoid that outcome. Craving and fear are movements in two different directions, but on exactly the same straight line or axis. Desire will never take us away from fear and fear will never take us away from desire. At any point on the linear axis both are equally present – desire on one side and fear on the other. Any point on the ‘axis of attachment’ to an object is equally made up of desire and fear, just as any point on a North-South axis is made up equally of North and South.
In conditioned existence (existence which is conditioned by attraction and aversion, YES and NO, PLUS and MINUS) we are free to move up and down the axis as much as we please, but we are not free to ever escape the situation of attraction and aversion being present, being part of the picture, to an exactly equal extent. It is true that in conditioned existence we experience attraction and aversion to very many different things, very many different situations, but each of these things, each of these situations still only represents a deterministically defined line along which we can move ‘freely’ in either one direction or another. Having lots and lots of different possibilities of getting side-tracked and bamboozled doesn’t bring us any closer to genuine freedom – which would be freedom from all axes, freedom from win and loss, YES and NO, good and bad. Given very many things or situations that we can experience attraction and aversion towards only makes the game more complicated, more convoluted, and harder to see through.
A linear axis has no space (or freedom) in it. It allows movement in one direction or the other, but since movement in the [+] is no different from movement in the [-] direction this is not really freedom at all. No matter which way we move we are going to be moving along the same old axis. Space translates as ‘genuine freedom of movement’ and since the axis is only an abstraction, only a virtuality, there is no freedom to be had there. Free movement would be movement out of the axis, movement away from the axis, movement that is in no way defined or restricted by the axis. The axis represents therefore a ‘special type of freedom’ (referred to by J.G. Bennett as negative freedom) which is actually the absence of freedom disguised as freedom. The linear axis of attachment gives us the appearance of choice which is in reality no choice at all.
All of this means we can say that conditioned reality (which is ‘life on the axis of attachment’, or as we might also call it ‘the game of self’) is quintessentially a null situation. This is the most important thing to understand about it. That is in fact the only thing we need to understand about conditioned reality – reality that is based on having a definite, black-and-white (or dual) view of things, reality that always exists within the framework, within the continuum of logic.
To use J. G. Bennett’s terminology, a null situation is a fully compensated situation in that every gain made in the game is always compensated for by an equal and opposite loss. Every step forward is always compensated for by a step backwards; every positive thesis is cancelled out later on by the negative antithesis.
The null world or null situation is an arena of experience in which desire and fear are always perfectly balanced, so that we end up experiencing both to the same extent. Or we could say that it is the arena of experience in which we spend the same amount of time in the state of pleasurable anticipation as we do in the state of fearful anticipation, so that the euphoria we experience in the first half of the cycle is always exactly compensated for by the amount of dysphoria we experience in the second half. Everything gets ‘scrubbed clean’ – it all comes back to zero every time. This is ‘Groundhog Day’ with a vengeance.
The everyday, rational self (Krishnamurti’s self-image, Wei Wu Wei’s self-concept) is constrained by its very nature to stay always within the parameters of the null world, the null domain of conditioned existence. This is because the conditioned or mechanical or rational self operates solely on the basis of ‘avoiding pain and seeking pleasure’ – it functions solely by the consideration of profit and loss, it functions by, as Oscar Wilde puts it, ‘the skillful calculation of ways and means’. What other way can it function? All it can do is ‘calculate’ because that is what its mechanism does.
All a mechanism (any mechanism) knows is the logic of optimization with regard to the set of criteria (the program) that it has been provided with and all the mechanical self knows is the logic of advantage versus disadvantage with regard to the given point of view (or position) which is itself. It has no way of knowing how to do anything else. Nothing else makes any sense to it and for this reason it can do nothing else other than go around in closed and sterile circles. It can do nothing else other than continually seek pleasure and reap pain.
The Law of Compensation is a way of saying that nothing ever happens within the world of the conditioned self. Nothing ever happens because the basis or fulcrum of this game is a defined point or position (i.e. the ‘definite statement’ of who I am) and all defined points, all definite statements are without exception inherently paradoxical. All logic is inherently paradoxical – it has to be paradoxical because it is impossible to say YES without at the same time saying NO, and all logic can ever do is either say YES or NO…
Whatever I think is happening, from the closed viewpoint of ‘who I think I am’, in relation to the assumed position of ‘who I unreflectively take myself to be’, is always an illusion. It is an illusion because it only makes sense to the static and fixed viewpoint that I have wholly identified with and this static and fixed viewpoint is a logical abstraction, and therefore it is also necessarily a ‘self-contradiction’.
Another way of making this point is to say that we live in a world made up entirely of our own projections, both of the positive and negative variety. Projections are inherently confining – they are confining because there is never any space between us and the projections that we are automatically reacting to with either attraction or aversion.
A positive (or attractive) projection is every bit as confining as a negative, aversive one. Intense desire is as fundamentally lacking in space as intense fear and our only (apparent) escape from the pain of this confinement is desperately blinkered goal-orientated or purposeful activity, which doesn’t actually take us anywhere. It only ever seems to be taking us somewhere.
As horrendously suffocating and confining as our projections are, they do serve a perverse kind of a function and that function is that they allow the essential unreality of the one who is governed by intense desire and intense fear to go unchallenged, unexamined. The total lack of space (and therefore perspective) allows the essential unreality of the one who is forever preoccupied with what it likes and what it doesn’t like (what it is attracted to and what it fears) to remain the best kept of all secrets.
What challenges ‘the one who both projects and reacts unreflectively to these projections’ is space. Space would allow this automatically reacting ‘virtual identity’ to look at itself and see itself as it actually is, which means that it would inevitably have to ‘let go of itself’. The lack of space means that ‘there is only the one way to see things’. The only reason the conditioned self doesn’t let go of itself therefore is because it can’t see itself in any other way. It is the lack of space that allows the virtual self to continue ‘taking itself seriously’; it is the lack of space that allows it to go on playing the game of itself.
If the reactive virtual entity which is the ‘me’ were able to see itself as it actually is (i.e. if it were to see things from a different perspective from the one that it automatically takes for granted) then it would no longer be able to take itself seriously and as soon as this pseudo-entity ceases to take itself seriously it starts to fall apart, it begins to irrevocably disintegrate or dissolve.
So if I don’t take the reality of my projections absolutely seriously I can’t take myself seriously and then the whole game falls apart, comes apart at the seams. And when the game comes apart, I am back in reality. When my absurdly superficial and trivial world is revealed for what it is and falls away from me, I find myself face to face with the infinite, the unlimited. The secondary gain of living in the claustrophobically spaceless world of my own projections is therefore that I don’t have to encounter reality, which is what we might call ‘groundless’ (or ‘unformatted’) space.
Our mental constructs (which is to say, our thoughts or ideas about reality) serve the function not of relating us to reality but shielding us from it. Our projections, our thoughts – and thus the mental bubble that surrounds us and makes up what we know as the ‘the world’ – have/has the covert function of shielding us from the Immensity. As Anthony de Mello says,
A thought is a screen, not a mirror; that is why you live in a thought envelope, untouched by Reality.
So no matter whether we are happy or sad, pleased or displeased, elated or depressed, euphoric or dysphoric, fearful or desirous, we are still getting something out the deal. We are winning whichever way it works out, we are winning even when we are losing, because our secret agenda is being met.
Whether the mind candy we suck away on is sweet or sour makes not the slightest bit of difference in this regard. Whichever way things work out for us we are getting what we secretly want because our two-sided mental constructs provide us with the vital secondary gain of not having to come face-to-face with the endlessness of Reality.
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.