The universal way for escaping from ontological terror (or ‘fear of openness’) is by handing over our freedom. Handing over our freedom doesn’t sound great but when we’re faced with ontological terror anything that gets us out of it seems infinitely preferable in comparison. Any price seems worth paying! In such a situation, we’d sign our name to anything and we certainly wouldn’t be wasting any time looking at the small print!
The mechanism by which we run away from ontological terror (the strategy by which we hand over our freedom) is very simple, it is not at all hard to understand. There are two ways in which we could put this:  we could say that all we need in order to escape from ontological terror is to have some sort of absolute certainty to cling to (or believe in), or  we can also say that all we need is to have a rule which we can obey. Both of these come down to exactly the same thing! Both equal ‘an unquestionable authority’ which, because it is unquestionable, provides us with an unassailable sense of security.
When there is some sort of fact of reality that is absolutely certain, absolutely for sure, then ‘the rule’ is of course that we have to believe in it. When we believe in this fact, this definite statement or assertion of truth, then we are obeying the rule. The whole thing about ‘obeying a rule’ is (as everyone knows) that there is no questioning, no challenging, no rebelling, no deviating, no baulking, no ‘not taking the rule seriously’, or anything of that nature. There is only conforming. Whatever the rule says we should do, then that is precisely what we do do – no more and no less. As the rule says, so we do! Or we could say, ‘as the definite picture of reality is presented, so do we believe’…
It can be seen therefore that this strategy really does simplify things a hell of a lot! With openness, the whole thing is that we are not told what to do, we are not instructed in what to believe, what we are to grasp onto. We are left perfectly free to do or believe anything at all, or not to do or believe anything at all. All possibilities are left open – we are not restricted or limited or corralled in any way and this is precisely what terrifies us. If it can be arranged that the infinite range of possibilities shall be narrowed down then the situation immediately becomes more handleable, more manageable. If it can be arranged that there is only the one prescribed possibility, then things become very simple, very straightforward indeed!
When there is ‘only the one prescribed possibility’ then all I have to go along with it and what could be simpler than this? Only the one prescribed possibility equals the rule and so what we have to do when everything has been ‘simplified down’ in this way is to obey the rule. Obeying the rule simply means ‘carrying the prescribed possibility forward’, it means ‘enacting’ it. Obeying the rule means faithfully reproducing or replicating that prescribed possibility so that there is no change in what has been laid down as a template. There is therefore no uncertainty whatsoever with regard to the question “What should I do?” (or the question “What should I believe?”) – all that has been taken care of, all that has been provided for me. All I need to do is to carry on enacting what I have been instructed to enact, carry on believing what I have been told to believe, carry on faithfully replicating and perpetuating what I have been told to replicate and perpetuate.
We can straightaway see that the challenge posed by the open situation (or we could say, ‘the challenge posed by the ontological terror that arose out my awareness of the open situation’) has been solved at one stroke! The word ‘solve’ is highly significant here because the existential challenge – we might say – is not meant to be ‘solved’ but met and in ‘solving’ this challenge we have neatly evaded it instead of meeting it! Because we have sneakily evaded the challenge of existence rather than ‘rising to meet it’ we have to pay a price and the price is as we have said our freedom.
The suggestion that the price we pay for escaping from ontological terror is our freedom is of course nothing if not obvious from what we have just been saying. In order to escape ontological terror we opt to obey the rule: as we have been saying, when we see ‘obeying the rule’ as the only important thing then everything is simple, when we see ‘obeying the rule’ as the only important thing then when we are able to successfully do this then there is no fear. So all we have to do is keep on obeying that rule the whole time and everything will be OK. Everything will be hunky-dory. This is the answer, this is the solution! The only ‘proviso’ (so to speak) is that we have in this way given away our freedom since – very obviously – there is no freedom in obeying the rule!
When we go down the path of denying ontological terror we plunge straightaway into the ‘mechanical realm’, which is the realm we all know so well, the commonplace realm of everyday life. We don’t however perceive ourselves as having handed over our freedom (i.e. we don’t perceive ourselves as being slaves to a bunch of mechanical rules) and the reason we don’t is because we identify with these rules so that we think that what the rules tell us to do is actually what we want to do. [Or alternatively, we could say that we don’t experience any conflict because we think that what we want to do is what the rules are telling us to do.] Actually, the rules tell us what to think, and what to perceive (as well as what to do) and so of course there isn’t any conflict! As Jung indicates, there is no conflict in unconsciousness.
Identifying with the rule makes the rule invisible as a rule therefore, and because the rule has become invisible the very last thing we are going to do is question it. If it’s assumed then it’s not questioned; no one questions their own conditioning. I experience myself as wanting this, that or the other and that’s good enough for me! If I want the thing then its not the fact that I want it that is the problem – the only problem that could possibly come into the picture would be anything that stops me getting what I want. This is how things work when we have an addiction (i.e. its not my addiction that’s the problem but the fact that I can’t get what I am addicted to) and it’s exactly the same thing with all conditioning – its not the conditioning that is driving me which is seen as the root of the problem but the circumstances which get in the way of me doing what the conditioning requires me to do. The mental ‘rule’ itself is never questioned.
This reversed way of looking at things (in which we see things from the perspective of the rule) is our normal way of looking at things – and so it doesn’t seem reversed at all. On the contrary, it seems very normal! It seems like the right and proper way. It seems like the only possible way. The reason it seems so normal, the reason it seems like the right and proper way (or the ‘only’ way) is because who we really are (which is consciousness) has now been surgically removed from the picture. There is only the well-established habit of ‘us automatically obeying the rule’, or fretting or fuming or generally feeling discomforted if for some reason we can’t obey it. There is no consciousness in this, no questioning, no reflecting, only a reflex, only a well-oiled mechanism.
If we were to be still there (still ‘present’), amongst all the mechanical stuff that is going on, then what is going will seem very strange. It will not only sound strange, it will seem horrific. The more consciousness is present, the stranger and more horrific the mechanical habit of obeying the rule will seem. And as we have said, if every last trace of consciousness has been soaked up or removed, then the habit of obeying the rule seems right, the habit of obeying the rule seems normal; we don’t see it for what it is (which is some kind of pointless perversity), we just see it as being ‘what is’. We take it as ‘a given’.
Seeing the mechanical process as ‘just the way things are’ (or as ‘the natural order of things) is the same thing as not being able to see that we have no freedom. It is the same thing as not being able to see that we are not this habit, and that the world the habit makes for us is not the real world. We don’t see the illusion for what it is. So the upshot of all of this is that although the price we have had to pay in order to be delivered from the jaws of fear is our freedom not to have to conform to the rule, at the same time we hand over our freedom we also hand over our freedom to see that we have handed our freedom.
From one point of view, therefore, this might seem like the perfect arrangement – we have escaped the ontological terror successfully, and at the same time we have also managed to avoid seeing that any price has been paid, or – indeed – that anything untoward has happened at all. The viewpoint from which the exercise has been a success, or is worthwhile, is however an extraordinarily narrow one – it is the ‘viewpoint’ of not actually having any awareness of what has happened; it is the ‘perspective’ that comes about when we make a decision and then forget that we have ever made a choice, when we forget that there ever was a choice in the first place. This is therefore not really a viewpoint or perspective at all: we don’t find ourselves wondering whether the exercise was a success or not, was worthwhile or not, was a mistake or not, because we no longer have the capacity to do so.
In one particular very narrow way the exercise was a success because we did escape from the terror but the truth is that this is a Pyrrhic victory. It is a Pyrrhic victory because it is achieved at the cost of having to live a life in which there is no actual freedom, even though we can’t see or understand the fact. We have solved one problem, but have ended up with another worse one. And what is more – a great deal more – the ‘original problem’ (which was the ‘ontological terror’, or the ‘spaciousness’ that triggered it) was never really a problem at all – it was REALITY, and so how is reality a problem to be fixed? What we ran away from was ‘an invitation to exist’ (or ‘an invitation to grow’) and so this hardly counts as any sort of a victory! It is a victory over ourselves – we have ‘won’, but at our own expense. Retreating from ontological panic puts us at odds with our own true nature – it converts us into our own enemies, our own jailors.
We have said that the cost we have incurred as a result of running away from reality is quite invisible to us, which means that we manage to carry on without any appreciation of the fact that we have traded off something as ‘vital’ as our own freedom. It is also true to say however that ‘pay-back’ has not been avoided but merely postponed, so that it eventually comes to us in an altered format, in an unrecognizable form. Whilst it is true that if we continue to obey the rules that govern our lives we won’t experience ontological terror and won’t even know that such a thing exists (because of the security that comes with obeying the rule) its also true that we won’t always be able to ‘obey’ successfully. The successfully adapted state of affairs (i.e. the state of affairs in which I am a successful conformist) can in theory continue indefinitely but sooner or later problems will arise and the most obvious of these problems is that we will, for some reason or other, be unable to obey successfully. When this happens then the basic requirement of the deal we have signed up to will of course have been broken, and there will be consequences!
The whole point of the rule is after all that we obey it and if we can’t then it stands to reason that there will be trouble. This failure cannot be ignored! It’s not OK not to obey the rule – what kind of a rule would it be if it was OK to break it? What kind of a rule would it be if we could break it with impunity? What happens in practice – in the simplest possible terms – is that when we can’t obey the rule we feel bad. We get upset, we get frustrated, annoyed, angry, stressed-out, demoralized, and so on. When we can’t obey the rule we straightaway run into some variety or other of distress. If we say that the ontological terror which we are running away from (put in psychotherapeutic terms) is the ‘Original Pain’, then the distress we experience when we can’t do what the rule tells us to do is the secondary manifestation of the original pain, the displaced (and therefore disguised) version of the original pain. It’s ‘the pain where it doesn’t belong’, in ‘the form that we don’t recognize’. The suffering we run slap-bang into when we can’t obey the rule is therefore the surrogate form of the original ontological terror.
One manifestation of the ‘displaced terror’ is frustration, irritation or anger, and another manifestation (if the situation where we are unable to successfully obey the rule persists on a more chronic basis) will be the deep-rooted feeling of guilt and worthlessness, the feeling of being a failure, the feeling of being ineffectual or impotent, or perhaps the feeling of being jinxed or bedevilled with bad luck. We could say, therefore, that the type of mental pain or distress we experience as a result of being unable to obey the rule on a long-standing basis is that we start to lose confidence in ourselves. In a fundamental way, we start to lose belief in ourselves. Instead of being ‘automatically convinced’ of our ability to obtain our goals or control effectively (which is the exact same thing as our ‘ability to obey the rule’, even though we don’t of course see it like this) we experience a deep-down feeling of ‘not being able’, of ‘not having what it takes’ and this of course means that fear begins to seep back into the picture, albeit in what we might call a more ‘trivialized’ manifestation or context.
At this point therefore we have entered The Kingdom of Anxiety, which is where we begin to doubt, on a very basic level, our ability to obey the rule, and obviously, the moment we start to seriously doubt this we open up a can of worms we most definitely don’t want opened! This is not just an inconvenience; this is a fully-fledged disaster. It is a fully-fledged disaster because it jeopardizes the fear-avoidance strategy that we’re not supposed to know about. It is interesting to note how very difficult it is for us to take on board this particular way of understanding anxiety – we see anxiety as a jinx that is affecting our belief in ourselves, our belief in our ability to obtain those goals that have been officially nominated as being important for us to obtain, not as a jinx which is banjaxing the mechanism we are relying on for keeping the spectre of ontological fear at bay! We understand anxiety as a deep-rooted doubt about our ability to control effectively, but we don’t see the true significance of this erosion of confidence.
Naturally any perception regarding the relationship of anxiety to the incipient failure (or threat of failure) of our ‘terror-avoidance mechanism’ is going to be very deeply buried, very heavily disguised, because to see that we are worried about our terror-avoidance strategy starting to lose its effectiveness is the same thing as coming face-to-face with the very thing that we don’t want to come face-to-face with, the very thing we are working so hard to avoid coming face-to-face with! This is why we experience the failure (or threat of failure of this system) on the theatrical level, on the surrogate level, on the level of analogies that we aren’t allowed to see as analogies.
We could also say that this is the reason we experience the threat failure on the level of the game, which is the ‘trivial’ level. So on the level of the game I feel bad about the prospect of not being able to successfully achieve this, that or the other prescribed outcome – whatever the outcome is (whatever trivial goal it is that has been deemed important within the terms of the game). We might wonder, when we are eaten up anxiety, why it is that we should spend so much time worrying and fretting over things that we know very well don’t matter at all really, and this is the reason – we aren’t really worrying about the trivially important outcome, we’re worrying about what the trivial outcome stands for! We are worried about something altogether more serious; we’re worried about seeing something that the game won’t let us see. It could be said that what we’re worried about in anxiety is the failure or breakdown of the game itself, which is our mechanism or system for avoiding a fear so big that we can’t allow ourselves to know (even for a moment) that we are avoiding it.
This is why – in our deeply superficial culture – being ‘a failure’ (or being seen as ‘a failure’) is such a damning (or stigmatizing) kind of a thing, and why being ‘a success’ (or being seen as ‘a success’) is idolized to such a ridiculous extent. We fear the spectre of being a loser and we covet the kudos of being a winner! The attitude that reveres and idolizes the winner is of course the very same attitude that looks down upon, condemns (and shuns) the loser – our adulation of the one is the same thing as our contempt for the other. And both our revering of success and our despising of failure are at root nothing more than a ‘transfiguration’ of our unacknowledged horror of ontological fear!
We shun the loser (in whatever form our culture defines being a loser) because we need above all to put distance between ourselves and this nameless terror, this fear which we cannot allow ourselves to be aware of, and we are attracted and hypnotized by the image of the winner because the glossy, glittering, golden image of success represents for us the prospect of permanently escaping this same unacknowledged terror.
The mechanical realm is all about ‘obeying the rule’, it is all about ‘doing it right’ and ‘not doing it wrong’, it is all about ‘succeeding’, all about ‘not failing’. This permeates through to every level of the game – everything we do (within the context of the game we play but do not admit to playing) has a bearing either on our success or our failure, our advantage or our disadvantage. Everything is always about either being validated as a winner or devalidated as a loser and whilst the former confers ‘subjective immunity’ to the fear we dare not confront, the latter brings us frighteningly closer to it, albeit in surrogate form.
The apparent diversity of the game all comes down to this – there is nothing in it that is not about either winning or losing, being validated or being de-validated, being admired or being despised, being on one side of the line or on the other. It all comes down to either moving towards a position where we feel safe, or slipping back to that ‘unsafe place’ that is represented within the sanitized context of the game in terms that don’t actually refer to the thing we’re actually trying to escape from in the game!
We think winning is great because it (unconsciously) equals ‘escaping ontological terror’ and we think losing is the worst news possible because this (unconsciously) equals not escaping from it! And as we have said absolutely everything in the mechanical realm comes down to this, from the question of how much money we have, how popular (or how powerful) we are, how good-looking we are, how many qualifications or titles we have, how big a car we drive, etc to the most petty matters imaginable (i.e. who takes the parking space that both of us were going for, or who manages to have the last word in the argument). Everyone wants to be ‘one-up’, everyone wants to gain the advantage, because being ‘one-up’ and ‘gaining the advantage’ means putting more distance between ourselves and the nameless thing we are running away from.
And the joke is that even when we do (in whatever context) manage to be ‘a winner rather than a loser’ we aren’t really being successful in escaping ontological terror – we are only being successful in (temporarily) fooling ourselves into thinking that we are!
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.