Consciousness doesn’t suffer in the same way that unconsciousness does – it doesn’t have such a hard time of it. It isn’t marked or tainted or clouded by suffering in the way unconsciousness always is – it doesn’t have that underlying ‘darkness’ to it. “Let yourself be open, and life will be easier” as Jack Kornfield says, in the quote generally misattributed to the Buddha. This is not to say that everything is easy for consciousness, that everything is a doddle, that everything is ‘a piece of cake’, but just that conscious living doesn’t have that particular dark quality of ‘unacknowledged suffering’ that unconscious living does.
The origin of the suffering that we are talking about can be seen in the ‘forced’ or ‘controlled’ quality of everything we do when we live unconsciously – the forced or controlled quality that has its roots in denied fear. This assertion doesn’t necessarily seem to make much sense – obviously we have to push ourselves to do stuff sometimes, but on the whole it seems that we are doing stuff because we want to, because it’s our own idea to do so. Yet even saying this gives the game away because if we want to do stuff, we if we have the idea (or plan) to do it, then straightaway this means that we’re working against ourselves, even though it may sound self-contradictory to say this. Forcing (or controlling) means that what we want to happen won’t happen otherwise, and what this means is that we are fighting against ourselves.
The point we’re making here essentially has to do with the difference between spontaneous and purposeful action – in spontaneous action it is as if the whole of us wants to do something and so there isn’t any thinking, there isn’t any ‘idea’ to do it. There’s no rule as to what we should be doing. With purposeful activity however there obviously has to be a purpose in it, and a purpose is of course the same very thing as an idea. Once I have an idea to do something and I work towards enacting this idea there is effort and trying and straining and so on but this effort isn’t only to do with the fact that I have to do work to reach the goal – it also has to do with the fact that I have to put effort into doing it because I don’t spontaneously ‘want’ to do whatever it is that I am doing. I only want to do it because I have the idea that it is a good thing to do it. Therefore, I don’t just have to force the plan to happen – I also have to supply the motivation to do the forcing!
MAINTAINING THE FRAMEWORK OF MEANING
Purposeful activity always involves a current of resistance within ourselves; there is no way that this can’t be the case because purposefulness is always fighting against something. There is an inertia in the system that needs to be overcome and inertia means resistance. If I have a very strong desire to obtain some outcome then the resistance involved is not at all visible to me and I will feel that it is indeed ‘the whole of me’ that wants to achieve the goal, but with purposeful activity – as we have said – this can never be the case. We can see that this can’t ever be the case just by looking at the way purposeful activity gets to happen. Generally speaking, we would probably say that in purposeful activity the thing that comes first – the key thing – is the formulation or conception of the goal. This isn’t true, however. The thing that comes first – the really crucial thing – is the creation or instigation of a framework of meaning within which the goal makes sense. We of course just take it for granted that the goal does make sense, that it makes sense ‘all by itself’, but only a modicum of reflection is needed to see that this isn’t so. The feeling that we have that the goal makes sense all by itself (that it makes sense independently) comes ‘after the event’ – it comes only after we put the framework of meaning in place!
This means that we have TWO jobs to do, TWO tasks to take care of, and not just the one, as we imagine. We have to struggle to achieve the goal and we also have to struggle to convince ourselves that the goal is worth struggling for (which actually means that we are in denial of the fact that the goal isn’t genuinely meaningful in itself, but only meaningful with we buy into the framework that says it is meaningful). We of course don’t see things this way for the simple reason that we turn a blind eye to the second level of struggling, which is the level in which we struggle to ‘maintain the meaningfulness of the goal’. For us, life is all about empowering ourselves by pursuing our dreams – we take the attitude that we are free to have any goals that we want and that this is an inalienable right. It is if there is something sacred about being able to have our dreams and fight against all the odds to achieve them – it is as if this represents the ultimate form of personal freedom.
This belief is true in an extremely superficial kind of a way but it’s not freedom in the way that we like to make out that it is – in fact it’s not freedom at all. Saying that ‘I am free to choose any goal that I want’ sounds empowering but because this is the type of freedom that needs to be artificially created and maintained it isn’t really empowering at all. If I am free to pursue any goal that I want to then what this means is that we are talking about the type of freedom that is ‘meaningful only because I say that it is’ and this isn’t actually freedom since the one thing I can never do is ‘create freedom for myself’! If I do ‘create my own freedom’ then I’m just playing a game with myself, I’m just entertaining myself. It’s just ‘a conceit’. If I have to control things to be meaningful for me when otherwise they wouldn’t be (which is what happens in a game) then although I am ‘free to play the game’ (i.e. ‘free to enjoy the artificial freedom in that game’) I am at the same time a slave to go on maintaining that made-up freedom. I am a slave to the necessity to carry on seeing things in this particular narrow and artificial way otherwise I can’t play the game!
In a game I have to control the way I see things but I also have to make sure that I don’t see that I am controlling the way I see things because if I see this then the game is spoiled. So the game contains a layer of virtual (or theatrical) freedom which I am to restrict my awareness to so that it might seem like the genuine article and not a fake, but outside of this waver-thin layer of theatrical freedom I am not free at all. I am not free because I am obliged to maintain the illusion, and I am equally obliged (as James Carse says) to keep on veiling my own role in this. This is a bit like the guy who has to maintain the fairground rides – you don’t want to see him going around with a monkey wrench tightening up bolts and whatever else he has to do (because that might be quite worrying) but he has to be there all the same. With any form of entertainment or show there always has to be someone maintaining the façade. So just to make the point one more time: when I arrange for certain goals to be meaningful to me I can’t just walk away – I’m committed to the job so that I can carry on finding these goals meaningful. If we say that ‘pursuing my goals’ (or ‘doing what I want to do’) is the type of superficial freedom that exists in the game, then it is clear that this trivial freedom is paid for in terms of a more profound loss of freedom because I am obliged to keep maintaining the system, and also obliged to continue keeping my role in maintaining the system a secret from myself. When I have ‘control things so that I don’t know that I am controlling them’ this isn’t freedom by a long chalk therefore – it is a form of bondage!
This isn’t to say that we can’t get the inspiration to do something, then work hard to carry it through, without it being some kind of meaningless private game, but the point we’re making here is that acting via inspiration (or creative intuition) isn’t what we have been calling ‘purposeful activity’. Getting inspired to do something isn’t purposeful activity because we didn’t supply the purpose! We don’t supply the goal, and neither do we supply the framework of meaning. If I am acting intuitively, if I am inspired to do something, this isn’t goal-orientated behaviour because I don’t know what I’m doing and if I don’t know what I’m doing then I can hardly be said to be providing the meaning for what I am doing! When I know in advance what I want to achieve and then ignore all else in the endeavour to obtain this outcome then this is purposeful activity, and when I don’t know what I am trying to achieve but feel inspired to go for it anyway then this is creativity. Although people sometimes like to talk about ‘creating our own meaning’ as if this is creativity it isn’t – creativity is when we’re not afraid to relinquish control and let stuff emerge by itself. We not creating meaning, we’re simply opening the door to it. We’re facilitating it.
The one thing we’re not free to do is provide meaning for our own activities. We can as we have said ‘provide our own meaning’ in the context of a game but when we do this it isn’t really meaning at all – when we create our own meaning then this so-called meaning is hollow, which is to say, it doesn’t actually have any meaning in it despite the fact that we say that it does. Everything is just an extension (or projection) of ourselves.
This is the glitch in all systems that are made up ‘nominal meaning’ – if something is so only because we have said that it is so then it isn’t really so at all. Control is always like this because if I control something to be a particular way then this means that ‘it’s only that way because I have made it be that way’. If I didn’t make it to be that way then it wouldn’t be that way – obviously it wouldn’t because otherwise there would be no need for me to exert control in the first place! With regard to physical systems we can of course say that control does have (or at least can have) an actual impact in the real world since if I control something to be a particular way then that’s the way it really is. Steering the car to the right is not the same as steering it to the left, for example. The meaning of my activities is being provided by the framework of the physical world, not me, and this means that my activities aren’t redundant. But when I control the meaning that something has for me (which is what I do when I make a goal of something) this really is ‘only true because I have decided to see it as being true’. Nominal meaning is the meaning we project on the world – we supply both the framework, and the changes that take place within it, and this is the definition of redundancy.
To state this another way: living within a framework that we ourselves have put in place creates a null-world. Of course living with the prescribed FW creates null worlds and null situations – everything that happens in this world is merely ‘what we want’ (or ‘what we agree in advance shall happen) and ‘what we want to happen’ is an extension of ourselves. It’s a closed situation: all we can ever do when we are in the purposeful mode is to keep on extending ourselves, extending ourselves, extending ourselves, and there is no freedom in this at all. It’s all just mechanical, like a habit is mechanical, like a reflex-reaction is mechanical, like ‘something you know is going to happen before it happens’ is mechanical. This type of activity is mere self-promotion, even though we don’t see it as such. A more crudely obvious example of self-promotion would be someone who is very insecure in themselves and who goes around on this account trying to score points off people the whole time, constantly trying to prove that they are better than everyone else the whole time. This sort of behaviour isn’t ‘free’ – it’s driven by crude mechanical pressure. The person concerned can’t help doing what they’re doing – they are being controlled by their need to not feel like the painfully insecure person they actually are, and so until they are willing to be aware of this unwanted and un-owned feeling of insecurity they are going to carry on being controlled by this need…
THE ‘NULL-ACTION’ OF SELF-EXTENSION
In exactly the same way, when we go around promoting our closed world-view the whole time, continuously extending and extending ourselves, there is no freedom in this. We are simply mechanically reacting, we are simply being controlled by our need to go on stating and restating whatever it is that is in our heads, simply because it is in our heads. We are being controlled by our conditioning, by our programming, by our unexamined preconceptions, and this is a ‘null operation’. It is an example of ‘runaway redundancy’. It’s an example of ‘non-change masquerading as change’. Something seems to be happening, but really nothing is happening! A closed system is being promoted at the expense of everything else.
When we say that the unconscious (or closed state) of being is where we are simply extending ourselves and extending ourselves and extending ourselves the whole time by acting out the ideas and thoughts and beliefs that are in our head in an unreflective manner, and when we further say that there is no freedom in this type of mechanical or rule-based activity there are two reasons why we can say it is unfree –  is because we can’t help doing it, because it is automatic or non-volitional behaviour, and  is because what we are so busy extending isn’t who we are anyway!
Statement  is easy enough to demonstrate: if something can be mechanically extended, enacted, duplicated, copied, replicated etc, then whatever it is that is being extended, enacted, duplicated, copied, replicated etc, must be some kind of mechanical template. It has to be a definite (or literal) statement of some kind. Obviously this has to be so – only definite statements can be duplicated, only code can be copied, only literal instructions can be carried out, only black-and-white rules can be extended or enacted. But ‘who we are’ isn’t a bunch of code, isn’t an aggregate of rules or instructions – if that were so then we would be no more than some mere mechanical ‘thing’. Now in one way it is true to say that this actually is what we are; insofar as we identify ourselves with a bunch of code; inasmuch as understand ourselves to be ‘only what our minds say that we are’, ‘only what our mechanical thinking represents us as being’, then we are indeed mere mechanical ‘things’. Our rational thinking infallibly turns us into ‘things’ – there is nothing else it can do since it only deals in defined logical categories.
On the other hand, once we start becoming aware of our conditioning, our mechanical ‘likes and dislikes,’ as soon as we start to question what our mechanical minds are telling us, then we stop automatically identifying with the mind-produced self then we start to become free from this previously all-powerful ‘literal illusion’. Being free means that we don’t endlessly preoccupy ourselves with ‘copying out the rational template’ – we don’t preoccupy ourselves with copying out the template because we realize that we aren’t this template! At this point we realize that we are not some mere mechanical thing (some concrete object) that can be codified or logically represented and this realization genuinely is freedom. Thus, purposeful doing is never freedom because all we’re doing is mechanically acting out what the thinking mind tells us we are, which isn’t true anyway. Our purposeful doing is the same thing as our conditioning. Seeing that we aren’t what this mind tells us we are, on the other hand, and seeing that we don’t have to do what our conditioning tells us we have do, is freedom, without the need to ‘do’ anything!
We might say that our normal, everyday, purposeful behaviour is – symbolically – geared towards obtaining freedom, one way or another. We might say that this is our ‘hidden motivation’ in doing whatever it is that we’re doing – that this is what our ultimate (if unspoken) goal is. It is thus for the sake of freedom that we engage in all the humdrum joyless mechanical doing (the dotting of ‘i’s’ and the crossing of ‘t’s) that seems to make up so much of our lives. We obey rules in order that we might one day be free from rules! But mechanical doing – since it is fundamentally unfree in itself – can never reach freedom no matter how hard (or for how long) it tries. Rules can never take us beyond rules, and so the unconscious symbolic meaning never translates into reality…
SERIOUSNESS VERSUS PLAY
When we are trapped in the mechanical self we don’t necessarily go around thinking “I am not free yet but one day I will be, if I do all of this stuff!” but this is nevertheless the underlying hope, the underlying dynamic. We are for this reason acting seriously. We are acting out of need, and although the need we think we are experiencing is not the need that is really driving us. If we were trying to obtain goals that are an expression of our true volition then this would be one thing but because our goals (when we are in the mechanical mode of being) are nothing but smokescreens or decoys designed to distract from the true-but-unstated need (which is the need to be escape from our unfree mechanical situation) our activities always end up being contaminated with the ‘symbolic battle’ that we are unconsciously enacting. Even when we think we’re being playful, and not serious at all (and after all, who wants to be serious all the time!) the chances are that we aren’t – the chances are that underneath the veneer of playfulness or ‘light-heartedness’ we are trying to win a battle that we don’t even know we’re fighting. We can only be free on the outside if we’re already free on the inside.
‘Unconscious symbolic battles’ are always impossible to win. They are impossible to win because they are based on ignoring the real problem and endlessly diverting attention onto false or surrogate problems! The underlying unconscious rule is “We must be free” but this is an absolutely impossible task. The rule is self-contradictory – ‘must’ is the epitome of unfreeness and yet via this epitome of unfreeness we are somehow expected to become free! Because unconscious life is based on ‘a rule that can’t be obeyed’ it is therefore a situation in which we are subjected to ‘unbearable pressure that can never be resolved’ and this is suffering no matter which way you look at it…
Unconscious suffering manifests as ‘seriousness’. We don’t see being serious (or ‘non-playful’) as a manifestation of our underlying suffering because we are so fixated the whole time upon attaining the goal that will make us feel better. This fixation on goals is what makes the suffering ‘unconscious’. When we are in the unconscious mode everything is serious, even though on the face of things it may not seem so. We may seem casual, we may seem open to all sorts of possibilities, but underneath it all things are always serious because there is always the underlying unconscious agenda to free ourselves – which is an agenda we don’t understand because we think that we’re already free.
If our activity is ‘serious’ then what this means is of course that it’s directed to a goal that is serious, a goal that is ‘an end in itself’, a goal which will change our situation very dramatically if it is realized. This goal divides everything in two therefore – there is ‘how things are going to be if I succeed’ and there is ‘how things are going to be if I fail’ and these two outcomes are as far apart as anything ever could be. If I don’t succeed in obtaining the goal then this is ‘as bad as bad could be’ and if I do succeed then this is ‘as good as good can be’ and obviously there is no room for humour or lightness in this. This absolutely stark ‘black and white-type business’ is the very essence of a serious struggle, and yet no matter how the struggle is portrayed on the theatrical level of meaning, it always has the function of diverting or displacing our attention from the actual nature of the struggle – which has to do with our need to escape from the absolutely sterile, absolutely pointless, absolutely inimical situation which is ‘mechanical’ (or ‘rule-based’) existence. We are ‘safely diverted’ into the realm of virtual freedom which is generated by the theatrical level of meaning.
THE ‘STERILE CYCLE’ OF YES AND NO
Because the theatrical struggle is a decoy it obviously doesn’t really make any difference at all whether I win the game or lose it. That’s just window dressing. Either way, nothing changes. It’s exactly the same underlying situation whether I win the all-important prize or not – it’s only a ‘theatrical difference’. Whether I get things to work out or I don’t get things to work out it’s the same old system, the same old set-up that is being enacted every time. The system is made up of PLUS / MINUS, PLUS / MINUS, PLUS / MINUS, PLUS / MINUS over and over again. That’s what the system is – it’s +/- vibration. So the more intensely we want to turn things around and get a YES result rather than a NO one, to get the right outcome rather than the wrong, the more we reiterate the fixed pattern. This is how we reiterate the pattern; this is how we reiterate the system! The more we want to ‘change where we are’ into ‘where we’d like to be’ the more we keep perpetuating the YES / NO sequence, which is the very thing that we want so badly to get free from, if only we could realize it…
The sterility of this cycle fuels itself therefore because its our pain-driven grasping for ‘theatrical freedom’ – which is the YES phase – which leads us right back into the NO phase, which is the very thing it seems to us that we want to become free from. So the YES phase delivers us right back into the NO phase, which is where all our hopes and dreams come crashing down around our ears and the crushing futility of our situation is brought home to us in spades. There is nothing like the sweetness of hope (the hope that is based on desperate denial) to set us up for the blackness of the despair that comes with our eventual defeat. So when we grasp at whatever positive outcome it is that happens to be in our sights we don’t see this as grasping at freedom but this is what the positive outcome represents for us, on the covert level of meaning. Winning symbolizes freedom therefore, but really it simply means ‘continued imprisonment’ and as long as we stay on the level of theatrical meaning this cycle is going to continue to fuel itself. We will continue to extend ourselves, feeling the whole time that there is the germ of freedom in this hopeful extending, feeling the whole time that we really are getting somewhere…
THE ‘TWIN DEMONS’ OF ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
In purposeful activity therefore (just to summarize what we have been saying so far) it is the case that we are struggling on two levels – one which we know about and one which we don’t. On the one hand we are struggling to achieve the goal, or ‘fulfil the purpose’, and on the other hand we are struggling to keep on believing in the goal, we are struggling to keep the ‘theatrical’ level of meaning going, which is the level of meaning in which YES stands for freedom. This dual-level struggling (where one level is overt and the other covert) is soaked in suffering. It is – whether we see it or not – totally saturated in suffering. The overt or conscious level (Level 1) contains suffering because all of our apparent progress keeps being reversed, which means that the ultimate form of ‘success’ for which we are searching always keeps eluding us. This ultimate form of success is of course bound to keep eluding us because (as we have said) the prize that we win as the result of all our efforts is always only ever going to be a token for what we are really seeking, even though we don’t consciously know this. As a result of the fact that we never get our hands on what we’re really after there is always going to be this deep-rooted theme of frustration and disappointment entwined with our experience of living on the level of conscious striving. And along with the frustration there is also the type of suffering that is caused by the terrible repetitiveness of our basic purposeful activity – which has to be repetitive because it never really succeeds!
Level 2 (which is the covert or unconscious level) also contains suffering because it entails continuous effort, continuous struggling, continuous straining, with precisely zero chance of ever obtaining what we are struggling and striving for. We could say that here is a kind of futile or doomed feeling (or ‘atmosphere’) to the struggle that is taking place here – a ‘losing battle’ is being fought because its never going to get anywhere, but at the same time we’ll never give up fighting it. We’ll never get anywhere yet at the same time we’ll never give up trying and the resulting ‘stuckness’ itself constitutes a profound form of suffering – our energy is not going anywhere but is in fact ‘turned against itself’. “The contradiction is that all finite play is play that is against itself.” as Carse says. There exists the possibility of this crippling sense of ‘futility’ leaking through into Level 1, and what happens then is that a huge weight is loaded onto our conscious goals and because of this disproportionate weighting the goals concerned will be anxious goals. Somehow, we can’t shake off the feeling that all our efforts will come to nothing, but we of course assume that this feeling applies to the overt task that we are engaged in, rather than seeing that it has to do with the flat impossibility of us ever solving the covert aim associated with this task!
It is not the goals themselves that we can never achieve but what they represent (i.e. ‘freedom from the sterility of the game’) and because we have confused the theatrical meaning of what we are doing with the actual meaning the world of our everyday living gets suffused with anxiety, permeated with anxiety, choked with anxiety. And because the goals themselves are eminently achievable, neither we nor anyone else can really understand what is going on. It just doesn’t make sense to us. Anxiety can therefore be said to be the result of a contamination of the overt level of meaning by the covert, such that the two become hopelessly mixed up. The all-important ‘watertight division’ between Level 1 and Level 2 has been breached, which jinxes the game! Our purposeful activity thus gets to be overwhelmingly problematical for us, it becomes forbiddingly problematical and eventually turns into a morass of false-starts and crippling indecision. As a result of this leakage between the levels life itself has become impossibly difficult – but only because we are unknowingly loading too much pressure on our mechanical representation of life, hoping thereby that we can win the battle that we don’t even know we’re waging, which is a battle to achieve an impossible thing.
Another way in which what is going on in the covert level can influence what is going on in the overt level is when there is not ‘too much loading’ but not enough, so to speak. What happens then – in this scenario – is that the conscious struggle to achieve all of these nominally-meaningful goals gets banjaxed in another way because we no longer see them as being worth chasing after! The magnetically attractive pull that all these goals have for us gets turned off, as if with a dimmer switch, and the result of this ‘meaning failure’ is of course that we are simply no longer motivated to carry on with the tiresome rigmarole of it all. We are no longer able to believe in the attractive illusions that are being dangled in front of our noses; which is to say, we are no longer able to believe that when we eventually manage to obtain them this will somehow ‘make everything OK’. With this all-important motivational factor gone from the mix unconscious (or mechanical) living runs out of steam! Our reasons no longer serve us, our purposes no longer carry us. There is no longer any genuine reason to carry on in the mechanical way that we have been doing – in fact there never was but the difference now is that we can see that there isn’t! This is a particularly appalling thing for everyone else to witness because – unconsciously at least – we all recognize what a terrible fatal thing it is for our games to be jinxed in this way. On some level we are reminded that our games are games: if I am in denial about the fact that my purposeful activity is essentially futile (in that it can never serve the end that I unconsciously want it to) then when I meet someone else who was similarly in denial, but has now been forced to confront the truth that neither I nor they want to know, then naturally enough I am going to want to run a mile! You won’t see me for dust…
When the (false) shine is taken off all of the ‘enticing illusions’ that were leading us on then we find ourselves in the situation of having to trudge wearily on through the dull mechanical business of it all without any (believable) promise of anything better ever happening at the end of it all. This situation is very different from anxiety therefore because in anxiety we still believe in the meaningfulness of the goals that we are chasing – we just don’t believe in our ability to get them to happen! It is our own efficacy, our own potency as an actual effective causal agent that we don’t believe in, not the goals – the enticing illusions are still just as enticing and the aversive illusions is still just as ‘aversive’, but we feel impotent to either obtain the former or avoid the latter. When the shine wears off from our illusions then we can still obtain our goals, but we experience no excitement in doing so, any more than we experience a feeling of satisfaction after the event. Everything is just ‘flat’ – there is no pleasurable anticipation beforehand, nor any pleasure in the actual achievement. Instead, there is what a psychiatrist might call anhedonia – the inability to experience pleasure. This is the curse of ennui – Robert de Ropp uses the word accidie and quotes from the first act of Hamlet, “God, oh God, how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!” When we suffer from accidie life has no more flavour for us and the whole world seems – as Shakespeare says – ‘stale and profitless’. Since there is no profit to be had, no advantage to be gained, why would we continue with the game?
THE INTOXICATION OF EUPHORIA
The ‘profit’ that we would have been making before in mechanical living is simply euphoria – euphoria is what we play for, euphoria is the profit that we wish to take home to the bank. And euphoria, it will be remembered, can be defined as ‘the good feeling that we get from believing in our attractive illusions’. Take away the belief and – very obviously – we take away the good feeling, we take away the euphoria. We can also define euphoria by saying that it is ‘the good feeling that comes from believing that following the rules can free us from the rules’; this belief – despite being obviously nonsensical – nevertheless acts as the (nearly) infallible fuel for all our mechanical activity. As we have said, mechanical living is unending pain and drudgery, and the promised release from this interminable pain is therefore as sweet to us as the pain is bitter! The crucial function of the unacknowledged struggle which is taking place on Level 2 is then to provide us with this promise, and when this promise seems believable to us this creates the addictive state of intoxication that we have been calling euphoria. We have said that what takes place on Level 2 is ‘the struggle to believe that the struggle is worthwhile’ and so struggling to believe that the struggle is worthwhile comes down to ‘struggling to believe that rules will lead us beyond rules’! It’s the same thing. When we get disillusioned from this belief and see that rules will only lead to more rules, and so on and so forth ad infinitum, then there is – needless to say – zero euphoria in this! The buzz wears off, the high comes to an end, and we find ourselves unceremoniously ‘dumped’ into world in which we don’t want to be.
When the euphoria is taken out of the equation then we’re left with all of the humdrum mechanical crap but none of the (imaginary) consolation, and so all of a sudden life turns into a wasteland, a desert through which we must wearily trudge, with no light at the end of the tunnel to put spring in our steps. Actually mechanical living was a wasteland the whole time, but the difference is that now we can see it! The intoxication of euphoria is not there any more to blind us to reality; the wine has worn off and we are left feeling very rough indeed…
The wine in question is the nepenthe spoken of by Homer in the Odyssey, which is the ‘drug of forgetfulness’ given by Helen to Polydamna in Book 4, v. 219–221 –
Straightway she cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug
to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill.
The narcotic substance of which we speak could also be said to be the wine spoken of by Jesus in Verse 28 of the Gospel of Thomas –
Jesus said: I stood in the midst of the world, and I appeared to them in the flesh. I found them all drunk; I found none of them thirsting, and my soul was afflicted for the sons of men; for they are blind in their heart, and they do not see that they came empty into the world, and empty they seek to leave the world again. But now they are drunk. When they have thrown off their wine, they will repent.
Withdrawing from this potent intoxicant is no bed of roses therefore – it plunges us into a view of life that is very bleak indeed. Faced with such unremitting bleakness, we feel that we no longer have the heart to go through with it. We quail. We look for a way out. And yet it is not life itself that is bleak but only our mechanical way of living it. What is bleak is our way of living life not life as it is in itself – what is bleak is living life solely on the basis of always trying to obtain a profit for the self, always trying to obtain the advantage for the self, a gain for the self. The unremitting blackness of depression is the period in which we are disidentifying with the self and its perennial quest for imaginary gain and this process of disidentification (or disinvestment) is nothing if not thorough. In this connection Jung quotes Matthew 5:25,
I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.
When for whatever reason the drug wears off and we are no longer blinded by euphoria into thinking that our mechanical situation is actually workable (that it is desirable even) and that it is not a wasteland, not a complete pointless disaster, then we experience a lot of suffering. This is the bitterest of pills to swallow. But this suffering, this pain was always there. It is our tendency (understandably) to refer to this pain as ‘an absolute evil’, as a curse or sickness, but all that is happening is that we are seeing the pain that was always there, the pain that is inherent in the unconscious way of living, the pain that is inseparable from the unconscious way of living. As Jesus says in the verse given above, “When they have thrown off their wine, they will repent.”
SEEING THINGS BACKWARDS
When we’re ‘working on reflex’ – which we are almost all of the time – we label mental pain as an absolute evil and as a consequence we don’t want to look into any more than we have to in order to get rid of it. Ideally, we wouldn’t want to look into it at all. Ideally, we would like to get so skilled at getting rid of pain that we don’t have to know about it at all! We would like to get rid of it so quickly and so automatically that we don’t even know we’re getting rid of it at all! When we run into major neurotic pain therefore (which is mental pain that can’t be conveniently avoided, because it is our own pain-avoidance tactics that are causing it) then we really do see this as a curse. This is the curse of curses. Collectively, we label what we are going through as an illness (like dengue fever or diphtheria) and we relate to it on this basis – we ‘fight against it’, we ‘battle it’, we ‘struggle to overcome it’, and so on. But because our struggle against the pain of neurosis is another tier of the neurosis (since it is just ‘us trying to avoid mental pain’, as always) this exacerbates the situation rather than relieving it. This pain is not what we take it to be – it isn’t an ‘absolute evil’, something to be eradicated at all costs, but rather it is a manifestation of consciousness in our unconsciousness world. It reminds us of what we have lost – the more we have lost then the more painful it is being reminded of what we are lost, and in the unconscious or reflexive mode of being we have lost an awful lot! As Khalil Gibran says,
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore, trust the physician and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity: For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen, And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.
What creates the particular ‘dark’ quality of suffering that exists in the unconscious state is that things are one way, and we are absolutely dead-set against seeing that they are this way. We have not even the remotest intimation of what our resources are, of how great our resources are, and yet we use them all in this utterly stupid, utterly self-defeating enterprise. Denial means that we use our power against ourselves – we put our entire life-energy at the disposal of a mere mechanical reflex that wants to repress anything uncomfortable and thereby place ourselves in the ridiculous position whereby our own chance of happiness and well-being seems to be dependent upon us ‘successfully obeying the logic of this reflex’, even though there is precisely zero possibility that we will ever be able to do so. How can we make things be what they are not? All of our hopes are hung upon obeying this dumb reflex; all of our energy goes into ‘being positive’ and imagining that ‘it is going to work out for us’, even though what we call ‘things working out’ only ever translates into ‘successful denial’ – which is of course the ultimate impossibility, the ultimate nonsensicality.
The way to transform this unhappy (and thoroughly jinxed) situation is – needless to say – to wholeheartedly assent to the truth of what is going on (to the truth of our situation) rather than fighting so grimly against it. Hence Anthony de Mello’s comment,
Enlightenment is: absolute cooperation with the inevitable.
To us, ‘cooperating with the inevitable’ sounds like a recipe for complacency and conformity, it sounds like passively going along with stuff. Surely the healthy thing to do – we ask – is to fight for what we know is right? The (invisible) problem with this noble-sounding statement is that we generally only know ‘what is right’ because our mind tells us, and the mind that is telling us what is right and what is wrong is ‘the mind of denial’. The mind of denial sees everything backwards – what is wholesome seems unwholesome and vice versa. What is genuinely helpful seems like the worst thing in the world and what is harmful seems marvellously beneficial. The mind of denial works backwards because it is all about creating a false reality, a false reality that is based upon ‘an inversion of the natural order’. This is like ‘believing in things’ – if I believe in something then this is because I want to believe in it, but if I believe in a thing because want to believe in it then this means that what I believe in isn’t true! As James Carse says, “Believing is an inherently self-contradictory act.”
Denial is the state of being in which we run away from our own freedom, our own autonomy, our own creativity and hand everything over to the closed logical system which is the simulation of reality. The way that the ‘mind of denial’ works therefore is that it misidentifies our true will or volition with ‘the acting out of the mechanical rule’, so that when we talk about struggling to achieve our goals we’re not really doing what we think we’re doing, we’re not really doing what we say we’re doing. We have it all backwards. When we strive the obtain the goals that have been mind of denial we think that we’re upholding or expressing our own true will but we’re not – on the contrary, we are aligning ourselves with a logical construct that is denying who we really are. We are supporting the system that is oppressing us and controlling us because we have we have confused what the system wants us to want with what we actually want ourselves.
Fighting against the inevitable is denial. What we are fighting against in the unconscious state is the very nature of reality itself and the way that we have done this is to create our own artificial world – an artificial world which is a ‘logical construct’ (or ‘closed system’) which operates by replacing reality with itself so that we can’t tell the difference. On the terms of this construct, this closed system, ‘cooperating with the inevitable’ is (of course!) the worst thing possible – this is the one thing we should never do! But outside of this game (which we don’t see to be a game) cooperating with the inevitable is actually enlightenment, as Anthony de Mello says. Its when we stop fighting against 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.