Really, who I am isn’t me. This is possibly the most basic truth of all. There is the illusion that who I am is me, but that’s all that it is – an illusion, albeit an extraordinarily persuasive one!
The sense of ‘me’ just creeps in, it accretes slowly like moss on a stationary rock or fronds of lichen on the branch of a tree. Or we could also say that it builds up like rust on the blade of a garden scythe that hasn’t been used in a long, long time. If we had never seen a scythe, and didn’t know what it was for, then we might think that it is a thing for growing rust, rather than an instrument for cutting grass!
If this were true then it would be the growing of the grass that would be the important thing, not the cutting of the grass – which would of course be seeing things exactly backwards! What is more, if the job of the blade was to produce a rich accretion of rust, then cutting grass would be the last thing that I would want to do since vigorous activity of this kind would start to knock the precious rust off. And if I really threw myself into the task of cutting grass – putting my back into it and working away day after day, week after week at it – then it might even happen that some of the metal under all that rust might be revealed!
The stifling, all-consuming sense of ‘me’ that gradually accretes over the years is very much like the rust on the blade of the garden scythe in this regard. It covers over the original bright metal, disguising it entirely, creating the impression that the character of the blade is of a different nature altogether – a dull, crumbly, flaky nature rather than the bright, hard and sharp one. And just as in the example given above, the impression will then arise that the important thing is the preservation of the false sense of ‘me’ at all costs, not that the instrument be used for its original purpose!
If I were to engage therefore in genuine work – work that suits my true nature, work that is true to who I actually am, rather than engaging in the scurrilous pseudo-work of pandering to the random accretion which is the false self – then this would be perceived in a negative way because my habitual sense of myself would start to be compromised, threatened, endangered, eroded away. If I were to be true to myself, and act in keeping with my actual nature, then this would be disastrous for who I think I am. I would become less and less ‘who I think I am’ – perhaps even to that point where something entirely different and entirely unexpected will be revealed!
Because I think that I really am the everyday ‘me’ of my commonplace experience I am hardly likely to embark on any type of work that is going to cause discomfort and distress to the fake sense of myself that has taken me over. Instead, I am going to be wholly engaged in doing whatever I can to build up this sense of self, and consolidate it against all the forces and influences out there in the world that might be dangerous to it. This creates the characteristic ‘inverted’ (or perhaps we might say ‘perverted’) dynamic of unconscious life which is where is where I cherish what I am not, and reject what I am. I celebrate the unreal and dismiss the real and as a result I move further and further into what is a totally false system. This is a system which has innumerable overt agendas but only one covert agenda – to cover over the true nature of things…
What gets lost in the all-consuming rational hubbub of everyday life is the indefinable sense of who I really am, which is not in any way a ‘rational’ sort of the a thing. There is nothing rational about free consciousness! This irrational Unitary sense of who I am is lost and is substituted for by a motley plurality of mind-produced representations – a veritable ‘three ring circus’ of jostling, squabbling, competitive thought-forms, a non-stop glittering cascade of brash, attention-grabbing images. All that is left – in place of a strong and clear sense of who I am – is a kind of residual echo or vibration of something that I can no longer remember, an echo of a Wholeness that has since broken up into a multitude of conflicting fragments, into a chaos of disconnected shards, each vying with all the others to be the one that gets listened to, the one who gets to stand up at the podium and give the all-important key-note speech.
The impetus or driving force for each disconnected shard of thought to want to be the one who gives the speech, the one who gets listened to, is the fact that each feels itself to be not just a mere ‘disconnected fragment’, a partial and therefore biased view, but a unity in its own right, and therefore possessed of genuine authority. Each rational shard perceives itself to be not merely an authority on the subject but actually the authority, not just a viewpoint but the viewpoint.
Despite this unshakeable conviction however, when the ‘successful’ fragment or viewpoint makes it to the top of the pile, and gets to stand up there at the podium, giving the keynote speech, it turns out to have nothing worthwhile to say. It can do nothing but talk about itself and this is not something that is of any interest to anyone but itself! The rational viewpoint has nothing worthwhile to say since it itself is nothing but a ‘degraded or distorted echo’ – an echo of an echo of a Unity that has long since been lost, a poor substitute for something we are no longer allowed to talk about, no longer able to be aware of…
Each disconnected rational fragment, each flake of crumbly red rust on the blade, is a ‘me’ – a ‘partial’ or ‘biased’ view which takes itself to be the final word, the beginning and the end. Each fragment, each shard, each flake of rust, each upstart ego, is a ‘pipsqueak pretender to the throne’ – fuelled by the desire to get to the top of the pile, fuelled by the need to be the one who calls the shots, the one who will be ‘the only voice that gets listened to’. This is the ultimate goal for all of these vacuous pretenders but at the same time every last one of them is utterly and completely devoid of any insight of what it might usefully do when it does get a bit of power, when it does get to be in charge, just as it is utterly and completely devoid of anything worthwhile to say when it does get to be ‘the only voice’. The whole business is a kind of a joke, therefore.
As G. I. Gurdjieff says, the idea that I am in any way ‘a unity’ is laughable – the truth of the matter is that I am no more than a rag-bag rabble of competing egos, each of which absurdly imagines itself to be the all-knowing centre of the universe, whereas in reality being only an odd kind of a ‘self-validating’ glitch, a biased viewpoint which automatically sees its own peculiar way of understanding the world as being the only possible way. This is ‘the Doctrine of the Plural Ego’.
And whichever one of these nonsensical ‘pipsqueak egos’ gets to rise to the top (like an individual bubble in the head of a pint of Guinness) for whatever brief period of time it is allowed before it is displaced and replaced by another, gets to be a ‘me’!
A more degraded situation than this would be hard to imagine – consciousness, the fairest of virtues, the ultimate virtue, the only virtue, is put at the service of whatever squalid jackass power-mad ego it is that manages to rise (scum-like) to the top of the devil’s broth which is the ‘false personality’ spoken of by Gurdjieff. The subtlest and most sublime of all things is forced into the service of grossest, crudest, inanest of things – the mechanical ego. Such is the situation of consciousness in the banal arena of everyday life – it becomes the helpless puppet of forces that are both stupid and essentially malign!
In reality (as opposed to in the samsaric illusion-realm of everyday life) I can therefore do one of two things – I can either work towards the emancipation of consciousness, or work against it. The problem that arises here is that when I work towards freeing the consciousness from the mechanical forces which are enslaving it the self that I normally feel myself to be complains mightily, and mobilizes itself to fight back against any threat to its integrity. And when I work for the banal mechanical egos, and do what they want then this actually feels good – I get to feel more secure in myself, stronger in myself, more satisfied in myself, more pleased with myself, more certain of myself, more puffed up in my ego.
Given this situation – where becoming freer brings about pain and disappointment and causes me to feel insecure and vulnerable and not at all sure of myself, and becoming more enslaved brings pleasure and satisfaction (at least in the first stage of the enslavement process) and allows me to feel safe and protected and smug and validated and vindicated and all of that sort of stuff, it is a marvel that any movement in the direction of freedom ever takes place! It is extraordinarily more likely that the only movement which will exist is the movement in the direction of being ever more secure and protected (and lost) in a stodgy sticky morass of self-serving lies…
Even though I end up – as is more than likely – serving the mechanical forces that rule my life (without ever even questioning what I am doing or why) and opting thereby for the secure and self-certain position rather than having no defined position to cling to (and becoming as a consequence progressively more insecure and uncertain), this does not means that I really do get a benefit from having cut this deal. The mechanical forces that seek to enslave us offer an apparent benefit for those who go along with them – much as the Devil is traditionally said to offer some kind of highly-enticing reward to anyone willing to sell their soul to him – but this deal is of course only a trick! The Devil is only ever cheating us, as we really ought to know…
As deals go, this particular one is without any doubt the very worst and most foolish that anyone could ever make! As mistakes go, this is a bad one – just how bad, I am not going to be in a position to appreciate at the time, but whether I understand what I have done or not I will suffer the consequences just the same. Whilst it is perfectly true that in the first part of the process I get to feel that I am ‘right’ in all the crappy choices that I have made, in all the squalid beliefs and opinions that I hold, in all the sentimental values that I falsely proclaim myself to espouse, in the phases that follow I will inevitably discover everything that I had imagined myself to have obtained in life to be hollow, to be phoney, to be a lie, to be a thin pretence or charade. Now it is also true that I might be able to escape being consciously aware of what I am nevertheless on some level dimly aware of but in this case the penalty that I pay for remaining unconscious will be a severe one – I will be forced to become ever more shallow and insincere and self-deceiving, and ever more ‘toxic’ into the bargain as all the legitimate pain and suffering that I am avoiding has to be experienced by someone! It has to go somewhere! As a result of making this choice therefore – however unconsciously – evil grows in the world, and brings forth its fruit…
On the other hand if I do start to become aware of the truth of my situation then I get to experience a whole world of pain – a type of pain that we are culturally very ill-fitted to understand since we actually believe in all the labels and concepts and images we fling so carelessly about the place, and think that we actually are these socially-validated concepts, that we actually are these two-dimensional mind-produced images. So when we start to experience the fraudulence and rottenness of the whole set up, the hollowness of it all, this is interpreted by everyone as some kind of actual physical disease process, something like diabetes or ulcerative colitis, and it is treated it accordingly. We bravely ‘fight against’ this mental suffering, using all of the Twenty-first century medical technology that we have at our disposal. We try our best to return to the safety of being purely conceptual entities, to being hollow mental images, to being mere abstract ‘constructs of the mind’, only this time without the pain that this misidentification necessarily causes! Such is our hope; such is our idea of ‘mental health’…
If we were a psychologically aware culture (rather than being merely a technologically manipulative one) then we would clearly see two things. We would firstly see that the neurotic suffering which afflicts us as a result of our identification with the false personality system is legitimately ours rather than being due to some kind of accidental disease process. My neurotic suffering is legitimately mine because I am the one who has given away my true self in favour of the situation in which I allow myself to be defined and controlled by a mechanical set of rules! The pain is my awareness that this is in fact what I have done – it is how I learn what I have done. Without the intervention of this intolerable suffering I would continue being unconscious indefinitely. I would never ‘wake up’ – I would carry on being merely ‘my idea of myself’ for ever!
The second thing that we would see is that all this pain and anguish is not actually a genuine problem at but – as Wei Wu Wei says – only a ‘pseudo-problem’. Pain is not really a problem at all because there is no one there to have it! Suffering is not a genuine problem when it comes right down to it because there is no sufferer…
As Wei Wu Wei writes in Fingers Pointing Towards the Moon:
It is only the artificial ego that suffers. The man who has transcended his false ‘me’ no longer identifies with his suffering.
Or as he says in Open Secret:
There is no one to suffer. We appear to suffer as a result of our illusory identification with a phenomenal object.
Let us at least understand.
What we are is invulnerable and cannot be bound.
So just to restate this point – the first thing I would see (if I were to become psychologically aware) is that the pain which I have been so busy deflecting and displacing and thereby distancing myself from the whole time is rightfully mine, and cannot on this account be either ‘given away’ or ‘technologically fixed’, and then – when I have gone through this phase of the experience (which the alchemists of old understood well and called the nigredo phase of the work) and have thereby become separated or disentangled from the false personality system, I will see the second thing, which is that – really – it was never my pain anyway…
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.