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Noticing Your Mechanicalness

The way we normally are is ‘being mechanical but not noticing that we are mechanical’. We don’t at all notice our mechanicalness and for this reason it takes us over. Because we don’t see it the mechanicalness possesses us – it owns us. We are its helpless plaything. This doesn’t sound so good, but the other side of this is that when we do start to notice our mechanicalness, to actually see that it is there rather than remaining oblivious to it, then we get to redeem ourselves from this all-consuming mechanical energy. When we bring consciousness into the picture, then we get ourselves back, in other words!



When we have been taken over by the mechanical energy we don’t realize the fact. We don’t notice that we have been consumed by mechanicalness – actually, we don’t really notice ourselves at all!  We’re oblivious to what’s really going on. The reason we don’t notice ourselves (the reason we’re ‘oblivious’) is because we’re always looking forward to what the mechanicalness is aimed at. This is the nature of mechanicalness – that it’s always aimed at something – so as long as we’re in the mechanical mode we’re always looking forward towards some goal or other. The mechanical mode of being is all about performing some formulaic set of actions so as to obtain a specified result, a particular desired outcome. We have our eyes on the prize, on the goal, on the desired outcome because this is all we’re interested in – when we’re in ‘mechanical mode’ then obtaining the goal is all that matters.



Of course we have to dedicate some amount of attention to the mechanical procedure that we are enacting. It has to be performed correctly, after all. With mechanical procedures there is generally only one way to get it right and an infinity of ways to get it wrong! Lack of attention spells mistakes and mistakes mean that we won’t obtain the specified goal. But on the other hand, because what we are doing is formulaic (and of course all mechanical operations are by definition going to be formulaic or ‘rule-based’) fulfilling the task at hand only really requires a minimal amount of attention. It requires a limited type of attention – it requires what we might call a mechanical type of attention! Another way of putting this is to say that our attention, our consciousness, has to be trained so that it takes notice of some things, and not of others. We pay attention to the relevant, and screen out the irrelevant; what helps us not make mistakes in enacting the mechanical task is relevant, and what doesn’t help us isn’t. Because to the trained attention the only thing that matters is the fulfilment of the assigned task, anything that doesn’t have any bearing on this over-all goal is simply of no possible interest to us. It’s of zero interest. As far as the trained attention (i.e. the ‘conditioned consciousness’) is concerned, it simply does not exist.



When our attention has been ‘trained’ then, as Krishnamurti says, it becomes ‘insensitive’. It becomes violent and aggressive in nature. Essentially, it gets turned into a machine – it’s a machine because it’s only interested in what the rules say it should be interested in! Nothing else matters to it, nothing else exists for it. To perform the task correctly, so that the designated outcome is successfully obtained, is demanding, but only in a very narrow sort of a way therefore. It doesn’t use all of us – just a narrow little part of us – and so the rest of us isn’t needed at all. It’s not just the outside world that we are only selectively interested in, it’s ourselves too. As far as the requirement to fulfil the mechanical task is concerned, the rest of us doesn’t matter, the rest of us doesn’t actually exist. Only the part of us that is necessary for performing the task matters, only the part of us that performs the task exists…



Two things may be said to happen at this point – one is that our trained attention functions pretty much ‘automatically’ and goes ahead and does its own thing without us (it becomes a habit, in other words) and the other thing is that we get bored with the routine (because it is a routine) and stop paying any real attention to it and so we simply let it go ahead and function autonomously, all by itself. The ‘left over part of us’ – so to speak – isn’t in the least bit interested in watching the mechanical stuff happening and so it does something else, it gets interested in something else. What it does is to distract itself with day-dreaming of one sort or another.



We’re free to day-dream when we’re performing mechanical tasks. It passes the time for us, it makes the mechanical mode of being more bearable. The day-dreaming activity that we’re free to engage in can take various forms. One form – which we mightn’t necessarily see as ‘day-dreaming’ – is to think ahead to the outcome that we’re striving for and start imagining how great it will be when we achieve it. This is therefore an enjoyable thing to do and aside from passing the time in a pleasant way it serves the function of validating the task that we’re engaged in. Another type of day-dreaming that we might engage in might simply involve looking forward to the time when the task is finished, and pleasurably anticipating the relief that we will experience when we get to the end of it. This type of looking forward is still focussed on the pleasure that will be ours but it not about how great the goal will be but how great having a break from the mechanical task will be. Although it is clearly not validating the task in any way, it may still be said to be a source of motivation for us and as such it serves a function with regard to keeping us doing whatever job it is that we’re supposed to be doing.



A third form of day-dreaming that we might engage in is the random type, the type that isn’t connected with the routine at all. This is what we usually see as ‘day-dreaming’. We are just thinking about whatever stuff it is that pops up in our heads and because the stuff that pops up in our heads is unconnected with the drudgery of the task, it too offers us pleasurable relief. We are being entertained in much the same way that we would be if we were sitting watching the television and so this too is motivating, even though it is entirely unconnected to what we are actually doing. It may be said to be ‘motivating’ for the same reason that the first two forms of day-dreaming are – because it makes the punishing drudgery of the routine more bearable to us, because it enables us to carry on where otherwise we would actually just stop what we’re doing entirely. A fourth possibility which we haven’t yet mentioned would be where we keep motivating ourselves by reflecting upon the fact that the task is a valid one and that by performing it we are doing the right thing, the responsible thing, the morally commendable thing, etc. This is really just another version of the first type of day-dreaming because we’re reflecting on a goal – only the goal in this case isn’t to obtain that specific outcome that the routine is going to result in, but to obtain the sense of personal validation that comes with ‘doing the right thing’ (and of course being seen to be doing the right thing).



These are all examples of ‘positive reinforcement mechanisms’ that facilitate the mechanical mode of being, which would be all-but-unbearable otherwise. All of this type of stuff is of course very familiar to us – we day-dream like this in one way or another pretty much all the time, even if it is only just ‘entertaining ourselves with random thoughts’. It’s actually a very rare thing that we wouldn’t be split in two like this – engaged in doing the dull old mechanical task on the one hand and pleasantly daydreaming on the other. It might seem a bit peculiar when we put it this way, but if we were to spend a moment or two reflecting on the matter we could hardly deny that it is the case. This is as we have said perfectly normal stuff – this is how we usually are. This is everyday life. The only thing is – however – that although this sort of ‘split existence’ is very normal, very ordinary, it remains at the same time a remarkably peculiar way to be...



The ‘peculiar’ thing about this is that it’s actually a way of not being present with ourselves at all; it’s a way of being ‘absent’ from our own lives, which – when we put it as bluntly as this – can hardly seem like a good thing to anyone. We’re not actually noticing ourselves ‘as we are’ – we’re just handing over to the automatic pilot and at the same time as doing this we’re allowing ourselves to be distracted by all the mind-produced fantasies that are being played out for us. And because these fantasies aren’t in any way related to ‘how we are’ there’s no part of us that is aware of what’s actually going on for us. One half of our conscious attention is soaked up by the mechanical task (and no longer really belongs to us therefore) whilst the other half is absorbed by whatever distracting images are being thrown up on the mental screen of our daydreaming mind and so that’s all of us soaked up. There’s nothing of us (nothing of our free attention) left over at all…



We have thus to been ‘split in two’: there is the part of us that has been taken over by the mechanical task (the part of us that has been ‘turned into a machine’), and there is the left-over part which is not interested in the repetitive routine and which is therefore absorbed in the ‘daydreaming’ activity. The part of us that has been turned into a machine has no freedom (that’s what being a machine means, after all – it means ‘having no freedom’) and the part of us that is distracted from what the mechanical part is doing and is absorbed in the fantasies also has no freedom – it only has the ‘false freedom’ (the ‘virtual freedom’) of the daydreaming! It is actually enslaved to the process of passively following the narrative (or story-line) that is being weaved by the mind, and it doesn’t really have any choice in this. To be passively entertained is to be ‘a slave to the entertainment’, after all. All in all, therefore, the whole of us has been taken over – both the part that has been thoroughly robotized for the sake of doing the task, and the ‘left-over part’ that has been thoroughly robotized by the daydreaming process!



This then is what the mechanical mode of being consists of – it consists of ‘how we really are’ (our actual situation, which is where a big part of our attention has been caught up in performing the mechanical task and is now owned by the mechanical task just as a slave is owned by its master), and ‘how we imagine ourselves to be’, which is the entertainment side of things (which is where we are being distracted with a constant stream of attractive thoughts and images, with some kind of intriguing narrative of what is going to happen or what could possibly happen). If we state things like this then our situation (when we’re in ‘mechanical mode’) doesn’t really sound very good. As we have said, what this means is that we have been ‘taken-over’, ‘cop-opted’ by some mechanical purpose, some mechanical agenda. Moreover, it can be said that we have been co-opted by a mechanical purpose which is fundamentally inimical to our actual intrinsic nature. The reason the mechanical agenda (when it takes over) is going to be inimical to our intrinsic nature is because our nature is ‘free’ and being turned into a machine means that this freedom is being taken away from us. We are in our actual nature free and we are being turned into something unfree; we are being controlled by a mechanical process and this is (inevitably) turning us into a mechanical process too, which is not what we are!



Being co-opted in this way means – not to put too fine a point on it – that we have been turned into machines, but at the same time as being ‘turned into  mere machines’ we are fed all sorts of ideas and images that effectively distract us from seeing that this is the case. And if we look into it we can see that it is not just the case that we are being ‘distracted with images’, but rather that an entire fake version of reality has been created for us by the thinking mind that causes us to believe that we aren’t mechanical, that causes us to believe that we are in fact perfectly free and that we haven’t been co-opted by any mechanical process. As Jean Baudrillard says, reality has been sneakily replaced by ‘the hyperreal’. The content has been replaced by the description of the content, and – absurd though it may sound – we haven’t noticed the difference! Doing the thing has been substituted for by ‘talking about doing the thing’, by ‘thinking about doing the thing’, and we haven’t spotted the substitution. Who can say that they aren’t at least in some way familiar with this sort of a trick that we play on ourselves?



When we are in ‘mechanical mode’ we sort of know that we are, but at the same time there is always the promise of relief just around the corner. There is always the implied promise that if we succeed at the task then we will be that much closer to being free, to being non-mechanical. This is like working long hours doing a job that we don’t like because we will get paid at the end of it and we will then have the freedom to do what we want with the money. When we submit to the necessities of the mechanical routine the implicit hope is always that if we get it right then we will be rewarded with freedom (which is where the anticipation of release or relief comes from) but the truth of the matter – as we all know – is that there is always another mechanical job, another routine task, waiting queued up for us in our in-box. Freedom is always being postponed – the final release is always being kept on the long finger! The fantasy-images that we are being entertained with are – we could say – always promising us something wonderful, something great, if only we stick with it, if only we keep working away as we’re supposed to at all the mechanical stuff…



The above discussion may perhaps sounds as if it could be read as some kind of political comment, as if it could be referring to the way our society works. The social system in which we live is after all a mechanical (or precedence-based) sort of a set-up and as such it only requires part of us  – it only requires the part of us that can perform all the mechanical or rule-based activities it needs to keep it going. We are valued for the use that we can be to society, in other words, not for ourselves. We are required to be ‘generic social units’ – if we do not ‘turn out to be generic social units’ then what possible use could a mechanical society have for us, after all? Society – we might say – values us only for the societal role or identity that it itself provides us with, not for who we are underneath all this conditioning. And what is more, it keeps us pre-occupied, safely diverted the whole time with a constant stream of images, a constant stream of entertainment, in order to ensure that we don’t get too curious about what is really going on. It could indeed therefore be society that we are talking about here – this modern mechanical way of life which we accept so unquestioningly and which crushes from childhood onward the creative, non-generic, free thinking part of us which is actually who we truly are. The more we look at it the more this seems to tie in with what we have just been discussing, therefore. But we’re also talking about something else – we’re talking about the taken-for-granted external determining structure that is society, but we’re also talking about the taken-for-granted internal determining structure which is the rational mind! We’re also talking about the mechanical mind which operates us every day whilst providing us with the illusion that we are operating it



The thinking mind is a machine. There is no way that it cannot be – the business of thinking (i.e. fitting the world into mental categories and then performing logical operations on the basis of these assumed categories) is entirely mechanical.  It’s all about following rules – to start off with there are the rules that determine what belongs in the category and what doesn’t (the rule here is the boundary that divides what ‘belongs’ and what ‘doesn’t belong’) and then everything that follows on from this point is also determined by rules because the process that follows is logical and logic means following rules. The thinking mind never does anything that isn’t prefigured by the rules that govern its operation, which is why Krishnamurti says that ‘thought is always old’. This is in itself fine since this is the only way the thinking mind could ever work (this is what thinking is, after all!) but where things stop being fine is the point at which the thinking mind ceases to be an instrument that we are using, and becomes instead the thing that operates us. Machines can be very useful when we are using them, but when the machine takes over and starts using us then this is – needless to say – a different matter entirely…



John Godolphin Bennett talks about the ‘tool switching places with the user of the tool’ so that the tool, the instrument, turns the tables on us and ends up operating the would-be operator. As with fire, the good servant then becomes a very bad master! Everything is back-to-front in this case – the tool doesn’t have any actual ‘sense’ itself, of course.  It doesn’t have any guiding intelligence; it’s just a lumbering mechanical thing. It’s just like a huge train without any driver hurtling down the tracks simply because the tracks are there to guide it even though the train-driver isn’t. There may therefore be the illusion that the train ‘knows what it is doing’, the illusion that everything is under control and that there is a legitimate destination that we are all heading to, but that’s all that it is – an illusion! The one thing that we ought to know for sure in a scenario like this is that we’re not heading to a good place – the one thing that ought to be very clear to us is that the driverless train hurtling down the tracks is headed only to disaster! There’s a train-wreck ahead and that’s all there is ahead…



When the machine that is the thinking mind is running ‘driverless’ down the tracks then this is the very same thing. The tracks in this case are the rules, the programmes, the conditioning that governs the mind; the tracks are our beliefs, our opinions, our ideas and concepts, our ideologies, the picture or theory of reality that we have ended up being imprinted with. On the face of it, if we don’t look too deeply (if we are content with surface-level appearances, if we are content simply to go along with things) then there is the illusion that we know what is going on, that we are ‘in control’. There is the illusion that there is a ‘wise and wakeful’ driver who is sitting there doing his job at the front of the train.  The truth is, however, that this couldn’t be further from being the case! There’s no driver there. The lights are on but there’s no one home! The vehicle is driverless. Why else is it that mystics and spiritual teachers have been saying throughout the ages that we are all asleep? As Gurdjieff says,


Without self knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.


Saying that the mind is a machine (as G.I. Gurdjieff does) is another way of saying that it is made up entirely of established categories and procedures. The thinking mind can no more deviate from its established categories and procedures than a magistrate can redefine the laws of the land every time a new case is heard. This means that rational thought can never ever surprise us – at least not in a way that isn’t purely trivial. Being a machine, ‘surprising’ us is not something that it can do. The question is then, since our rational thinking can never surprise us how can we remain interested in its output? How is it that we continue to be ‘stuck to the screen’ like an avid TV watcher viewing the latest episode of his favourite series? We’re not interested in the nuts and bolts of mechanical process of rational thought itself (the process by which the output is obtained) but we are most definitely interested in what pops out of the other end, the finished product, the ‘utterances’ of the thinking mind. We are interested in what our thoughts have to say, despite the fact that ‘our thoughts are always old’, despite the fact that we’ve already been there many times before…



In a similar way to what we were saying before, we can suggest that what ‘enlivens’ our joyless mechanical situation (and mechanical situations are always joyless!) are our fantasies, our day-dreams. Our rational thoughts are mechanical, repetitive, and purely generic but we nevertheless contrive to see something in them that makes them ‘light up’ for us. We project something on them. We have ‘unconscious associations’ with the thoughts that causes them to seem as if they signify more than they actually do; as a result of these unconscious associations the thoughts appear to infused with some kind of potently seductive promise, the type of ‘potently seductive promise’ that fires us up with blind desire. Either that or the thoughts seem to carry some kind of ominous threat instead, the sort of threat that fires us with equally blind aversion or fear, a threat that instantly presses all our alarm bells, and this ‘threat’ is of course exactly the same sort of thing as the ‘promise,’ only with the polarity reversed. Thoughts can either be attractive to us or they can be repellent – they can press the button for desire or they can press the button for dread, and both ‘desire’ and ‘dread’ happen to be equally interesting, equally fascinating for us! Both tend to completely magnetize our attention; both spell ‘compulsive entertainment’ for our conditioned awareness.



We could say that what makes our thoughts – our dull generic descriptions of reality – shine for us with promise (or threats) are the unconscious or automatic associations we make with them, but we could also say that what makes them either attractive or repulsive for us are the projections that we overlay them with. This isn’t as complicated as it might sound – the basic projection that we are talking about here is the self and so what we’re saying is that the reason our thoughts become charged with meaning for us is because of the way in which they seem to offer either advantage or disadvantage for the self! This – needless to say – is not a hard thing to understand – it’s just another way of saying that everything makes sense for me (or becomes relevant to me) only in terms of what it personally means to me. This – we might say – is the ‘unconscious’ way of relating to the world – i.e. seeing everything narrowly in terms of myself.



Another way of talking about the unconscious (or mechanical) mode of being is to say that it when everything I do is narrowly purposeful. Everything is done for a purpose, for a logical reason. My purposes are all to do with me (even if I think that they are ‘unselfish’ or ‘altruistic’ they are still all to do with me because they’re all based on the closed, self-referential way in which I am seeing the world) and so when I am being purposeful with regard to everything I think, everything I do, then it is inevitably the case that I am living in a world that is made up entirely of my own projections. Even though I don’t realize it, I’m seeing everything very narrowly in terms of the construct that I call ‘me’. Or to put this another way, when I am in ‘purposeful mode’ this means that I am seeing everything through the eyes of the machine which is the humourless (and poetically uninspired) rational mind. I am seeing the world through what are essentially ‘robotic eyes’ in other words and this why life inevitably gets degraded into an endless collection of dry tasks and soulless routines when I am mechanically unconscious. Who can argue about this, when the evidence is so easy to see?



There are – we might say – two ways that we can be in life. We can be purposeful-rational or we can be creative-spontaneous. The first is what we might call ‘serious’, the second ‘playful’. Generally, of course, as adults we are a pretty serious lot – more serious than we would like to face up to, in fact. We justify this seriousness however by saying that it is worth it because of the great gains that are (ultimately) to be made as a result of it; either this or because of the great danger that is to be avoided as a result of it. In the most basic way, we could say that we justify our purposefulness (tiresome though it is) in terms of the purpose that is to be served. The ‘purpose’ justifies the purposefulness. This however is deceptive because the purpose or goal is only ever a rational construct, and as such it is quite ‘dry’, quite ‘juiceless’ – the only ‘juice’ that it has is the unconscious  association that we make with it, and this association is not really what we think it is! The goal unconsciously ‘stands for’ something for us but we don’t really understand what it is it stands for…



What the literal goal unconsciously ‘stands for’ is actually something quite impossible. What it ‘stands for’ is actually the biggest illusion of all! We can show this quite easily: when the machine which is the rational mind operates it automatically creates a virtual world that is no more than its own projection upon the real world. When we unwittingly allow this machine to define the whole of reality for us (including ourselves) then we get trapped in this virtual reality, this projection, this ‘fantasy’, and we cannot see it to be such. This – we might say – is the ‘unconscious’ or ‘mechanical’ mode of being. We’re playing a game but we don’t know we’re playing a game. We could also try to explain the unconscious mode of being by saying that it’s when we are ‘trapped in a dream that we do not understand to be a dream’.



The question then is, “Who dreams the dream that we don’t understand to be a dream?” I might assume that I am the dreamer who is dreaming the dream. Actually, however, it is the thinking mind that dreams both the dream and me in the dream. The thing is, therefore, that the machine itself is creating the illusion of the day-dreamer who is dreaming that one day he or she may finally be free. But ‘being free’ means being free of the machine and since it is the machine which is dreaming the dreamer in the first place how is this ever going to happen?








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.

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