We think ourselves into existence every day! This is the nature of the game, this is what it’s all about – whether we realize it or not.
The urge to think is irresistible – it is like wanting to nibble on something tasty, like a freshly baked chocolate brownie, or like wanting to lick something sweet, like a spoon of the purest, most fragrant, nectar-like honey. We just can’t help doing it – we can’t help ourselves. We just keep at it, nibble after nibble, bite after bite, lick after lick. We keep coming back for more and unlike a chocolate brownie or a spoon of honey the source of our delight never seems to run out!
The thinking isn’t always so pleasant as all that of course. It isn’t always delicious and enticing. Generally speaking it isn’t actually delicious at all but just rather bland, rather insipid, rather uninspiring. For the most part our thinking is – if the truth be known – pretty flavourless fare; very often it seems hardly worth the effort of going on with it – not that this stops us of course.
We could maybe say that thinking is more like chewing gum than eating brownies or licking something sweet – there is an initial burst of flavour which hooks us in and then before we know the flavour is all gone, leaving behind the thoroughly inert and tasteless ‘base material’ of the gum which is not – technically speaking – food at all, despite the fact that we put it in our mouths and chew it.
The gum loses its flavour but we keep on chewing it all the same – it’s something to do, after all… Going through the motions of chewing away at the gum has the ‘outer form’ of eating nourishing and tasty food if nothing else, and in the same way we think away at whatever it is we are mentally masticating more for the sake of ‘having something to do’ than anything else. It feels like we are doing something meaningful even if we aren’t – it is at least nominally purposeful activity, and any sort of purposeful activity always has the advantage of looking as if it is happening for a reason, even if it isn’t. It’s a ‘cover story’, it’s a ‘mask’, it’s something to ‘hide behind’ – so to speak. And as a cover story or mask, it makes it look like there’s ‘somebody at home’ even if there isn’t…
So we chew away, chew away, chew away on our thoughts and sometimes there’s a good flavour to them, and sometimes there’s middling flavour, and sometimes there’s no flavour at all! But what also happens is that sometimes we chew on our thoughts and instead of being enjoyable it is actively unpleasant for us. Sometimes the process of thinking brings us pain rather than pleasure – there is a ‘flavour’ alright but it is downright a nasty one! This might seem like a very strange thing to do (i.e. keep on thinking when the thinking makes us feel bad) but the thing that we don’t usually understand about the thinking process is that it is compulsive, and so we just can’t help thinking the pain-inducing thoughts, over and over again, sometimes for a prolonged period of time. [If the truth were known the pleasant or enjoyable type of thinking is also compulsive but we don’t generally notice this fact because we are far too busy enjoying it!]
There is a kind of psychological law (or principle) that operates with regard to this business of ‘compulsive thinking’ and this psychological law says that we have to suffer from our thinking to the same extent that we have enjoyed it. The suggestion that there might be such a law tends very much to sound completely bizarre, completely wrong – not to mention extremely unfair. The idea that there has to be a balance between mind-created euphoria and mind-created dysphoria is something in the nature of an alien concept to us: why should we have to balance out our enjoyable thinking with thinking that is painful or distressing? Why should there have to be a punitive clause like this in the deal? The answer to this is very simple – the point is that the ‘good flavour’ in the thinking wasn’t really there in the first place and that is why we have to pay for it…
Of course thoughts don’t really have any flavour in them! How could a thought have a flavour? How could a mere ‘thought’ (i.e. an abstract description) give us either pleasure or pain? I think about eating a delicious dinner and straightaway I feel good; I think about getting a cheque in the post and straightaway I feel cheerful. But this is ridiculous – there is no dinner in my thoughts of dinner, any more than there is actual dosh in my thoughts of receiving a cheque in the post. The description of something pleasant doesn’t actually contain anything pleasant so how can it make me feel good? This is like me trying to warm myself up on a cold winter’s night by thinking of roaring log fire, or trying to slake my thirst on a scorching summer’s day by imagining myself drinking a long cold glass of water. And yet this – in some strange way – actually seems to work. It actually seems to ‘do the trick’: there genuinely is a pleasure associated with thinking pleasant thoughts, just as there genuinely is distress involved in thinking of unpleasant ones.
In fact all of our commonly-encountered ‘good and bad feelings’ come from our thoughts, and what this means – as Jiddu Krishnamurti (1982) says here in this passage taken from The Flame of Attention – both good and bad feelings (mind-produced pleasure and mind-produced pain) are when it comes down to it one and the same thing –
Is pleasure different from fear? Or is fear pleasure? They are like two sides of the same coin when you understand the nature of pleasure, which is also time and thought. You have experienced something very beautiful in the past and it is recorded as memory and you want that pleasure repeated; just as you remember the fear of a past event and want to avoid it. So both are movements of the same kind although you call one pleasure and the other fear.
Descriptions are of course in themselves always perfectly ‘neutral’ with regard to flavour; all descriptions are exactly the same – they are only descriptions. All thoughts are the same – they are all only thoughts, they are all only tokens for something else, they are only a system of tokens. Thus, if I illegitimately suck flavour out of my thoughts then I have to pay back what I have taken; I have to pay for the sweetness that I obtain now with bitterness in the future. Repaying what I have borrowed makes the transaction legitimate, even though at the time it might have appeared that I was ‘getting something for nothing’. And actually everything in life is legitimate in this sense no matter what I do (or try to do) because whenever I attempt to ‘cheat’ I always end up paying for it later, which of course means that it wasn’t ‘a cheat’ after all.
So whilst we are at perfect liberty to describe the world in such a way that it makes us feel good to lean on this description (i.e. to ‘confuse the description with reality’) this always involves us in a cycle – the cycle of UP and DOWN, YES and NO, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, euphoria and dysphoria, pleasure and pain. This then – we may say – is why we can’t resist nibbling on the freshly-baked chocolate brownie, licking the spoon of nectar-like honey, having a lick of the delicious ‘mind-candy’ that is being presented enticingly to us. How could we not go for it, when the reward is so immediate and so sweet?
As we have said, it is of course true that most of our day-to-day thoughts aren’t particularly wonderfully sweet but then at this stage we have already got into the habit of chewing on them. The sweetness is a memory only, a ghost, a ‘mental phantom’. Our daily mundane thoughts are therefore as we have said much like stale old chewing gum – we go through the motion of thinking them more out of habit, because we are in the routine of doing it, rather than because we are obtaining some kind of valuable outcome out of the process.
So it could be said that we masticate away dutifully on our largely flavourless thoughts in honour of the sweetness they used to have, once upon a time, back in some mythical Golden Age – which is very much like keeping some memento, some trinket or other in memory of someone dear to us, or perhaps simply in memory of some earlier, happier time in our lives.
This would mean then that our humdrum everyday thoughts aren’t necessarily ‘functional’ in the strict sense of the word, but that they are a token of something greater than themselves, something altogether more wonderful that we can no longer properly remember. Something we can only pay respect to in its present, sadly degenerate, and therefore unrecognizable, form. But even if our everyday thoughts are no longer exciting, the tediously repetitive process of our thinking still serves an indirect (or non-explicit) type of a function, and this ‘indirect’ or ‘hidden’ function is that it shores up (or ‘confirms’) the basic familiar picture of reality that we have for ourselves. Our thinking reiterates the validity of the framework within which it occurs, and within which it makes sense.
This is really a very neat trick: it doesn’t actually matter at all therefore what thought I think – anything at all will do. It doesn’t matter how trivial or foolish or insignificant the thought is it will still do a perfectly good job at ‘validating the framework’. This is like saying that if I use a particular tool for carrying out some task, then the fact that I am doing this validates the tool – the tool is validated by the very fact that I am using it!
We could also think about this in terms of social roles and say that the existence of tickets needing inspecting validates the role of the ticket inspector, or that the presence of people needing arresting validates the role of policemen. If we accept the actions of either ‘inspecting tickets’ or ‘arresting people’ as being necessary then this of course straightaway means that we have accepted ticket inspectors and policemen as being ‘necessary’. It is all part of the same ‘logic structure’, it’s all the same thing.
So if there are ‘thoughts there that need thinking’ (or at least this is how it seems) then this means that the framework of interpretation assumed by the thinking must indeed be necessary. The fact that this is absurdly circular logic (i.e. the thoughts wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t already started using the framework in the first place) doesn’t even come into it. It must be true because Jimmy says it’s true, and Jimmy also told us that everything he says it true. Jimmy supplies all the referents. So once we’re inside the circle of self-validating logic there’s no looking back – it’s all good.
Because all the referents are supplied for us then anything the referents don’t mention gets forgotten about and thus, when I take up a role, and engage with the world on the basis of this role, the one who is taking up the role becomes invisible to me. Or to put this slightly differently: the more I get into the role (i.e. the more seriously I take it) then the less able I am to see that it is only a role…
So we can say about thinking that it is like a tool or machine that gets validated more the more it is used, and we can also say that it is like a ‘social role’ that we step into, with the effect not only that it gets to be taken more and more seriously the more we get into it, but also that the one who steps into the role actually gets totally lost in the process. Saying this puts a whole new perspective on the apparently innocuous habit of automatic thinking, or thinking thoughts of ‘this, that and the other’ the whole time. Thinking does not just confirm and reconfirm the validity for us of the framework (or ‘context’) within which the thinking takes place, it causes us to identify with the ‘role’ of the thinker to the extent that we totally lose sight of who it is that is doing the identifying! So in thinking constantly (or at least more-or-less constantly) we become the thinker. But if this is so then who exactly is this ‘thinker’, and what sort of a role is it?
The role of ‘the thinker’ is of course simply to think, and in this it doesn’t matter greatly what it is that gets thought. Anything will do. A ticket inspector inspects tickets and a policeman arrests lawbreakers and – in just the same way – a thinker will think thoughts. Any thoughts. As long as the thinker does this then it gets validated, and when it gets validated it gets to ‘exist’. There is however something deeply flawed about this so-called ‘existence’ and the flaw in question has to do with the circular logic of the argument – after all, something that exists only because of circular logic doesn’t really exist at all.
We could also – and equivalently – say that the flaw in question has to do with the completely uniform or standardized nature of the thoughts that the thinker is thinking. This is far more significant a fact than we might at first realize! Of course all the thoughts that it is possible to think within the system of thought are standard, just like all the products for sale in a supermarket are standard, just like all the shoes we might buy in a shoe-shop are standard. None of the (rational) thoughts we think are unique to us – anyone at all can think them, just as anyone at all can use the word ‘and’ or the word ‘monotonous’ or the word ‘misappropriate’ or the word ‘intransigent’ or the word ‘hyperbaric’…
The point is that if the thoughts are standard, uniform, generic, then so too is the thinker. So if I, by continuously thinking about ‘this, that and the other’, lose sight of who I really am and become identified with the concrete role of ‘the thinker’, then who I think I am as a result of this act of identification is a being or entity which is itself completely and utterly standardized, uniform, generic, stereotyped, interchangeable, and so on. I pour myself into a container which has – although I do not realize this fact after the event – nothing genuinely unique about it whatsoever. It’s a ‘standard vessel’, it’s a ‘one size-fits-all’ garment…
So if I have become this standardized, stereotyped, regular self, which is like a ready-made character that I have picked for myself in some kind of sophisticated Role Playing Game (a self which is therefore essentially a ‘token’ that has been provided for me by the designers of the game) then the million dollar question that arises now is “Where am I in all this?”
In practice however this question (big though it is) never arises. It never arises because I never think that I have to ask it! And the reason that I never think to ask it is of course because I already think that I know who I am. [Another way to put this is to say that ‘asking who I really am’ isn’t part of the game that I am playing and so to the extent that I am taking the role seriously, I do not ask this question.] I am convinced to the very bottom of my shoes that I already know who I am, and all my interest’ is fixed therefore upon the burning question of “What do I want to do on the basis of this assumed or taken-for-granted identity?”
The first question is a complete show-stopper and so I don’t go there – the secondary (and infinitely more trivial) question as to what I should do when I stop asking the first question is however of consuming interest to me and I go there a lot!
When I am engaged in doing all the stuff that I am ‘supposed to be doing’ in the game then my attention is displaced in a ‘safe’ direction – it is safe from the point of view of what we might call ‘the integrity of the game’. Once all my attention has been safely channeled into the designated concerns, the designated area then I have absolutely zero perception that there is anything amiss. I don’t, in other words, see even the slightest, faintest, most remote sign of the glaringly huge flaw in this business of ‘identifying with the role of the thinker’. Naturally enough, my lack of perspective on the matter means that just as I take it for granted that my thoughts are ‘mine,’ so too do I take it totally for granted that this identity, this particular sense of self that I have, is genuinely ‘mine’. I have no perception at all, in other words, that there is anything standard or uniform or generic or stereotyped about it…
In this business of ‘identifying with the role of the thinker’, therefore, an absolutely staggering transformation has been effected – the original or unique ‘I’ has been converted into a ‘supposed self’ that in reality has no connection with who I truly am. I have been converted into an off-the-shelf, prepackaged, fully-programmed identity-unit that has no individuality in it whatsoever, any more than the blurb on the back of a packet of Corn Flakes has individuality in it. This is – needless to say – a highly peculiar state of affairs – if there is nothing of my true individuality in this standardized product, this generic virtual self, then in what way is it ‘me’? In what way are its mechanical activities ‘my life’?
The ‘invisible flaw’ – very simply put – is that I am not in this ‘me’, this hypnotically compelling ‘sense of self’, at all. I’m not in it. I’m not there. Someone else is there, but that ‘someone else isn’t a real person at all but only some kind of a ghost or illusion or phantom presence that has been automatically generated by the machine, by the system of thought. It is what Robert Anton Wilson calls ‘a spook’. The self-image (or I-concept) is thus deeply flawed in that ‘there is no one in it’; no one apart from the spook, no one apart from the fictional or two-dimensional identity, that is. And if there’s no one in it (if it’s empty or hollow) then what am I doing thinking that this is who ‘I am’?
The spookiness comes out of what is at no time anything other than a mere mechanical system somehow manifesting the appearance of genuine individuality, genuine presence, genuinely volitional behaviour. The spookiness comes out of the strangely compelling appearance of there being somebody home, when we know very well that there isn’t. In practice – as we have already said – the truth of the matter is that we don’t know very well that there is nobody home. We are totally taken in by the appearance, and that is of course what the whole game is about – being taken in.
The reason we ought to know that there can be ‘nobody home’ in the mechanical system of thought is precisely because it is mechanical. There is no uniqueness or individuality whatsoever in a mechanical system – that’s the whole point of a mechanical system, after all, that there is nothing unique in it. The whole point of a mechanical system is that there is nothing in it that doesn’t conform to the over-all framework of reference, nothing in it that doesn’t obey the set of rules that is the system. A mechanical system, we might say, is ‘a set of rules’ plus ‘the automatic acting out of the possibilities that are allowed by the rules’ and so if there were anything else in it (other than what we have just stipulated) then that ‘anything else’ would not be allowed.
The point that we are making here is that this ‘anything else’ is who I really am. This is what is being disallowed. This is what is being excluded because it doesn’t accord with the rules. ‘Anything else’ is the one who has been lost in the process of identifying with the ‘role’ of the thinker; I am the one who has been ‘left out of the equation’…
The final point, the final embellishment, might be said to be this – what is excluded in a mechanical (or ‘logical’) system is not just the unique I (or individuality) that has identified with the system, but reality itself – since reality is uniqueness and uniqueness is reality.
The disappearance of the true non-simulatable I (the banishment of unconditioned consciousness) is ‘the ultimate in cosmic irony’. The reason this is cosmically ironic is because what we are hoping to do, and trying to do with all our constant, non-stop thinking – even if we don’t know it – is to secure some kind of genuine, honest-to-goodness existence for ourselves.
We habitually ‘chew the cud’, we ‘rationally process’ stuff in an automatic or habitual manner, but in this daily habit there is a grain of hope – the hope that we might thereby gain some sort of ‘purchase’ on reality, some kind of a hold on it, some type of an advantage over it. We try to establish a ‘personal relationship’ with it; we try via our constant thinking to ‘personalize’ reality, in other words.
Thinking is not going to achieve this for us however. Thinking takes us away from reality, it causes us to slip with grim inevitability into ‘endlessly degenerating heedless automatism’, going around and around in sterile diminishing circles. Going nowhere but thinking we are. It turns us into mere empty ‘mechanical grasping’ – grasping that continues long after the essence that is being grasped for has fled. We ‘think in order to exist’ in the manner of Descartes, but what we obtain as a result of our thinking is not existence but a ghostly surrogate.
We think in order to obtain a self, but what we obtain as a result of our thinking (our automatic grasping) is an analogue self, the virtual, two-dimensional image of ‘a self’ with absolutely nothing behind it. We end up with a shadow self – a self which is actually an absence of being, an absence of presence which we invertedly perceive to be the genuine article.
We think ourselves into existence every day, but the self we think into existence is the lower analogue of who we really are – it is the contracted self, the contained self, the congealed self, the corpuscular self, the ‘self-of-constriction’.
We create a lower analogue of who we really are, and this lower analogue inhabits an analogue world, a type of ‘lower analogue of reality’.
The ‘problem’ with this (if we may call it a problem, which in an absolute sense it isn’t at all) is that both analogue self and the virtual world it inhabits are really both the two aspects of the same thing, and this means that the whole business is a tautology. Saying that the whole business of ‘the virtual self living in the virtual world’ (i.e. the conditioned self living in a conditioned world, a world that is made up of its own projections) is a tautology means that neither have an actual existence of their own.
Self cannot exist without Other, and Other cannot exist without Self.
The two are ‘mutually arising’ (or ‘mutually producing’) opposites: the virtual self is real in relation to the virtual world, and the virtual world is real in relation to the virtual self that relates to it, but neither are real independently of each other.
This is exactly the same thing as saying that UP is only UP when compared to DOWN, and DOWN is only DOWN when compared to UP and that there cannot – on this account, be ‘an UP without a DOWN’ or ‘a DOWN without an UP’.
And so saying that ‘the lower analogue self and the lower analogue world which it lives in form a mutually conditioning pair of opposites’ is really just another way of saying that there is no such thing as either.
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.