What limits us is feeling pleased on the one hand, and displeased on the other. Our whole life takes place between these two feelings, these two responses – everything that happens to us happens somewhere between ‘the pole of euphoria’ and ‘the pole of dysphoria’ and the truly shocking thing about this is that there is no space between these two ‘poles’ at all!
Our normal everyday way of relating to the world, interacting with the world, engaging with the world, is entirely on the basis of pleasure on the one hand and displeasure on the other. If we were to pay attention we would see that everything that happens to us is measured either in terms of pleasure or pain – which is to say, in terms of whether we either ‘like it’ or ‘don’t like it’, whether we give it the ‘thumbs up’ or the ‘thumbs down’. The whole fabric of life – as it is registered by the everyday mind – is perceived in terms of subtle nuances of satisfaction and dissatisfaction – as well, of course, as the grosser, much more obvious manifestations which come along ever so often. We might even go so far as to say that our lives are made up of these little tweaks and twinges of ‘up’ and ‘down’ – along with the more dramatic (but less commonly encountered) peaks and troughs of intense elation and profound despair. Various combinations or patterns of ‘up’ and down’ are what constitute the very fabric of our everyday lives.
From the normal everyday viewpoint which is the conditioned mind this constant succession of up and down, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, euphoria and despair might be said be synonymous with life itself, so much so that if someone were to float the notion that it might be helpful not to take this ups and downs as being so crucially important, to not invest so much of ourselves in them, then we would see this as losing the most vital part of life. It is the constant contrast between hot and cold, pleasure and displeasure that gives life its savour, we might claim. The usual question is to ask what sort of a dull and neutral existence would we have if we got rid of these extremes, these passions? It sounds the equivalent of being ‘emotionally dead’, no matter what other, fancy-sounding ways we might have of talking about it. The thought of living life without the ongoing drama of all the little euphoric buzzes, and all the little disappointments when life doesn’t go to plan sounds positively bleak to us. What possible interest could we find in the proceedings with the investment of ‘personal interest’, we might ask?
It’s not just that we might be looking at things this way – we positively will do, just so long as we have this ‘default mode’ of being in the world. From the POV of the conditioned mind, as we have said, it’s all about the euphoric ups and the dysphoric downs, the ‘personal drama’ of it all. This is what we relish above all else. This is our ‘bread and butter’. When we talk of life we’re talking about the ongoing soap opera which is made up of the sweetness of success versus the bitterness of failure – the thrill of living, as far as we’re concerned, lies in getter more of the sweetness than the bitterness! This is the perennial challenge; this is where the interest, the intrigue lies – scoring more hits than misses, having more ups in our lives than downs, being more of a winner than a loser…
So when we’re in this default mode of the conditioned mind (the conditioned mind being the mind that is ‘set-up’ to approach and experience life in just one specific, pre-programmed way) everything is really just like one long soap show. It’s all just one long saga of ‘good luck versus bad luck’ – or perhaps, ‘skilful game-playing versus unskilful game playing’. Each significant event in life becomes either a cause for celebration and self-congratulation, or grounds for disappointment and self-recrimination. The ideal is to reach the dizzy heights of being either very lucky or very skilful, or some combination of the two – whatever it takes to make us into a winner rather than a loser!
Like everything, however, this only seems normal because we’re so very used to it. Actually, if we could see it with fresh eyes we would immediately see this to be a truly bizarre state of affairs – why would I want to focus exclusively on those things that are either pleasing or displeasing to me, and heedlessly disregard everything else as being irrelevant? Why would I want to live in a ‘personalized world’ – a world that is entirely made up of things that I either like or dislike, approve of or disapprove of? Why would I want to make myself so ‘big’ (so important) that I can never see anything but myself? Why would I let myself get so caught up, so preoccupied with my own petty and arbitrary ‘likes and dislikes’ that I quite lose sight of anything beyond this?
There is no way – if we see what we are actually doing with this business of ‘positive and negative attachment’, this ongoing trivial drama of my likes and dislikes – that I wouldn’t be frankly appalled by it. The only reason I am a blasé as I am is because I am so lost in the petty details that I can’t see the bigger picture of what I am doing and this ‘lack of awareness’ is hardly good reason for accepting the status quo! By this way of living what I am doing is making my own personal game so big that it swallows up the world itself – my personal concerns occludes the impersonal world, which is the only real world. Everything else (apart from me and my desires and fears) gets left out of the equation. To me – sunk as I am in this wretched ‘default mode of being unconsciously in the world’ – ‘everything else’ simply doesn’t exist. I have no interest, no awareness in the real world at all – all I care about is what relates to me and the closed little game that I am playing.
Obviously there are ‘advantages’ – of some sort or another – to playing this closed game. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. The advantages in question aren’t hard to see – on the most obvious level we could say that it’s something to do! It’s a diversion, it’s a distraction, it’s an occupation – the same as any game is. Less obviously, perhaps, we could say that playing the game of like and dislike is a (supposed) way of engaging with a wider reality, we could say that it is a kind of an attempt to establish a basic relatedness with the world. It is an attempt to ‘reach out beyond ourselves’ – even if we aren’t really reaching out beyond ourselves! More accurately, the game of ‘making it personal’ is a way of putting on a theatre of reaching out beyond ourselves whilst at the same time ensuring that nothing too challenging (i.e. nothing too radically strange or unpredictable) will ever happen to us as a result…
The problem with putting on such a very convincing ‘theatre’ of engaging with the world is – of course – that it effectively substitutes for the real thing. We don’t need the real thing! In fact – as we have said – the whole point of theatrical engagement, theatrical ‘reaching out’, is that it is a safe alternative to the genuine thing. So we stick with the game, we stick with the theatre, and everything is OK. Everything is fine and dandy. The only thing being that – as we have said – it isn’t really fine and dandy! It only seems to be fine and dandy when we don’t see the bigger picture of what is going on. Actually, we have created a thoroughly preposterous situation for ourselves – we have created a situation where we can’t see the world any more, a situation – moreover – where we have no interest in the world any more. All we care about are our games. We say that we’re engaging with a wider reality but we’re not. We claim to be living but this isn’t true. As the line goes in Revelation 3:1 –
…I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.
In the absence of a genuine ‘reaching out’ there is nothing – there is mere appearance. Admittedly, if it happens to be the case – as it in fact is – that appearances are good enough for us (so that ‘the appearance equals the thing’ as far as we are concerned) then there won’t seem to be a problem with theatrical living, and if there doesn’t seem to be an major problem then of course we’ll just carry on. Just because we’re not aware that we have put ourselves in an utterly preposterous, utterly absurd situation doesn’t detract from the truth of the matter at all however. Ultimately, what we are doing is creating a type of suffering for ourselves – a particular type of pain. I might retort – quite reasonably – that I am not in any pain, that I am not suffering (or at least, not unduly) but this is merely because I am anaesthetized. Of course I can’t feel any pain – I’m under general anaesthetic! I am busy imbibing the juice of the lotus! Manifestly, I am not aware of the absurdity of my situation – I am not aware of the particular horror of my situation – and I don’t care to find out.
No one who has ever looked into it is ever going to deny that unconscious living creates pain. The same sort of thing happens with alcohol – if I drink as a way of avoiding life’s difficulties (which seems to work at the time, since every time I feel bad I just have to get drunk enough and I am no longer connected with how I feel) then all of the stuff that I haven’t felt in my life doesn’t go anywhere, it just accumulates and accumulates, it becomes one big ball of unfelt feelings waiting to jump on me whenever the day comes when I am no longer safely anaesthetized – which is a grim prospect, by anyone’s reckoning. The tactic of continually postponing pain, and ‘saving it all up’ thereby for a day of reckoning is an extraordinarily unpleasant trick to play on oneself, to say the least, and yet this is a skill that we are all specialists in. This is in fact a skill our modern rational culture is supremely accomplished in; this – it seems – is what we’re really good at…
Instead of saying that it is ‘unconscious living’ that causes pain we could also say that it is limitation that does this. If it is limitation that we are aware of then the pain in question is conscious, and if it is limitation that we are unaware of then what it produced is unconscious pain – i.e. it is pain of which we have yet to become aware of. A ton weight is about to fall on our heads from a great height and we – as of yet – don’t know about it. This is the type of time we have bought for ourselves with out trick therefore – disaster is there in the pipeline, heading our way like a bullet with our name on it, but we contrive to live our lives in that brief time-lag that exists between the creation of the pain and its inevitable manifestation. I have hit my thumb with a hammer (instead of the nail) but I have a few brief microseconds to party in before the message travels up the nerve in my arm to inform my brain of what has just happened!
Put like this, of course, the game of self-distraction doesn’t sound so great. The only thing is however that we can’t really see this pain of which we are speaking. On the face of things, there doesn’t really seem to be much sign of it – life continues as normal, as it always does – and so we could very easily claim that the pain we’re talking about isn’t there at all, we could very easily claim that there isn’t any invisible cost to the peculiar game we are playing. [We are of course much more likely simply to claim that we aren’t playing any sort of a game at all and that the way we live life is a perfectly legitimate and honest way, but we will ignore this for the sake of the point we are making.] If we reflect on the point however we can see that the idea of ‘unconscious suffering’ does ring true. One way of looking at this is to say that the pain of which we speak is the pain of ‘unlived life’. If I truly live my life (and don’t opt to withdraw into some sterile game or other) then that is one thing, but what if I don’t? What happens then? Can life be ‘not lived’ with impunity, so to speak? In Joseph Campbell’s terms, we could say that ‘life unlived’ corresponds to ‘the refusal of the call to embark upon the Hero’s Journey’. We all receive this call at some point or other in our lives, says Campbell, but one option is simply to ignore it. When we do heed the call and venture out beyond the comfort and safety of the play-pen then straightaway we put ourselves at risk (there being no adventure without risk) but it is this risk-taking, this ‘venturing into the unknown’, that makes our lives real. By the same token, therefore, as Campbell says, “Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative.” This line of Campbell’s very clearly corresponds to the following verse in the Gospel of Thomas –
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
The ‘negative adventure’ is the default situation in this modern age – it is what we automatically subscribe to when we avoid life by becoming the passive consumer of second-hand realities. At the heart of the negative adventure lies boredom, frustration, sterility, meaninglessness and despair – all of which we cover up with ‘theatrical living’ – with the glamorous trappings of samsara, we might say. The type of life we have been provided with in this peculiarly passive, peculiarly incurious, peculiarly unadventurous age of ours is the negative adventure – only it is not, of course, marketed as such! We are sold what is essentially a ‘virtual-reality world’ of restricted mental horizons, we are skilfully manoeuvred into accepting lives of dull conformity to a generic, mass-produced reality which is cleverly spin-doctored to appear as if it were not generic, as it is were not mass-produced. This manufactured world has a veneer that looks wonderfully attractive, wonderfully glamorous, but which at the same time covers up something truly rotten, something truly unwholesome. As we read in Matthew 23:27 –
For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.
In a nutshell then – just to sum up – we could say that everything that goes on inside the system equals ‘the negative adventure’ (i.e. equals ‘the inverted or conditioned version of life that we experience when we avoid reality without knowing we are doing so’) whilst everything outside the system equals what Joseph Campbell calls ‘the Hero’s Journey’. Moreover, we could also say that what’s inside the box, inside the system, inside the consensus reality is also the Hero’s Journey once we become aware of it for what it is – i.e. once we see it with eyes that haven’t been conditioned by the system. So what this means is that the negative adventure is itself the Hero’s Journey, once we see it for what it is! Everything is life, in other words, just so long as it is seen truly…
The corollary of this is that the negative adventure is only the negative adventure when we don’t see it as such. When everything is seen in the way that we are ‘supposed’ to see it, in the way that the system (i.e. the consensus reality) represents it to us, then this is the ‘bizarre situation’ that we have been talking about – the situation in which the artificial (and therefore hollow) construct replaces reality so thoroughly that reality itself become a dangerous ‘foreign body’ to be excluded by the immune system which is our everything way of thinking about things.
The difficulty with ‘seeing the negative adventure for what it is’ is precisely that this constitutes an awareness that appears – on the face of it – to be wholly inimical to us. So to see things this way (and overturn therefore everything we believe in) is like willingly confronting our worst (and most secret) fear– how are we going to find the courage to do this? The great difficulty is that when everything is decided for us – right down to the way in which we understand ourselves and the world – then how do we access that deep-down part of ourselves (which is our true selves) that wants to see the truth?
There are clearly only two ways in which it can happen that we do see the truth – one would be willingly and the other unwillingly! When the truth manifests itself to us without our assent then we don’t experience the adventure as ‘an adventure’, but as pure undiluted suffering. There is no excitement in this, no ‘thrill’ at all, only unmitigated terror. We can’t be dragged into the Hero’s Journey unwillingly, after all, and so instead of ‘the excitement of adventure’ we experience negative excitement, which is to say, we experience horror and dread every single step of the way. Life itself is being experienced in an inverted way, and thus, as J.G. Bennett says in The Dramatic Universe, instead of awe when faced with the infinite we know only fear…
What unfailingly happens to us when we become habituated to seeing the world in the way that it is represented to us by the everyday mind is that ‘the supremely important thing’ becomes the conditioned self or ‘ego’. That’s the whole point of the game we are playing after all – the game in which I personalize life so that it becomes ‘all about me’. I don’t know that it’s ‘all about me’ – I don’t have any awareness of this because if it did then this awareness would be intolerable to me. But whether I allow myself to see it or not the truth of the matter is that everything in unconscious living is about me – unconscious (or ‘theatrical’) living is solipsistic self-absorption, pure and simple! As Heraclitus says –
The waking have one world in common, whereas each sleeper turns away to a private world of his own.
And yet what is even more bizarre, even more outrageous, the self (or ‘private world’) that I am solipsistically absorbed in (or that I have ‘turned away to’) doesn’t even exist in the first place….
Given that this is the case (as anyone who is not asleep will testify!) the ‘disincentive’ for seeing the truth about the negative adventure is that I stand thereby to lose the most important thing in my world, which is my illusory idea of myself!
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.