to top

The Paradoxical Self

Our normal type of consciousness is one in which we create and maintain a model of ourselves in our mind, and then live out of this model, or operate on the basis of this model as if it WEREN’T a model at all! This is how I almost always am, and if I were to be in any doubt of this all I would need to do would be to observe myself when something happens to make me feel ‘self-conscious’. I would then see – if I allowed myself to – that my ‘idea of myself’ is in the process of getting seriously challenged. This is because when we are self-conscious (for whatever reason) it is our image of ourselves that we are conscious of, not who we actually are.

 

 

We generally don’t see that we are living on the basis of an idea that we have of ourselves, but as we have just said this fact can become painfully obvious under the right conditions. This is like any part of the body (or perhaps like  an organ such as the liver or stomach) which we remain blissfully unaware of when it is working normally, but are very acutely aware of otherwise. When my self-image is not under pressure then I don’t notice that it is there, and when it gets stressed, when it gets challenged, then I am suddenly very conscious of it. The thing about this though is that as soon as the situation passes I can’t wait to become unconscious of it again! I could notice the ‘self image’ in day to day life, but the truth of the matter is that I’m just not interested in doing so…

 

 

So this is how we are – we operate almost always on the basis of a ‘thought-created model of ourselves’, and very rarely on the basis of ‘who we really are’. This is how we live life – for better or for worse. The point here being of course is that it is not ‘for better’, since living life from the point of view of our idea of ourselves is not only complicating things unnecessarily, but also creating a whole spectrum of neurotic suffering for ourselves. The most obvious way in which this particular way of being in the world isn’t at all satisfactory is perhaps that there is never going to be any genuine ‘ease’ in it. I am never – on this basis – going to be able to truly relax. How can I relax when I have to hold a model or imagine of myself in my mind the whole time? If I am engaged in ‘holding on’ to something in this way then this – by the very nature of what it means to be ‘holding on’ – rules out any possibility of relaxing. Thinking otherwise would be like me being foolish enough to think that I can ‘stay in control’ and ‘relax’ at the same time – it just isn’t going to happen! I only get to truly feel myself when I am relaxed, and yet I am also addicted to being in control, so this puts me in a quandary!

 

 

So one problem that arises out of our normal way of ‘being in the world’ is that we can never properly relax, and another difficulty is that we never get to feel authentically ourselves, since – as we have  just said – it is impossible to hold to stay in control the whole time and also feel that we are truly ourselves. If we consider that what this ‘staying in control’ actually entails (i.e. holding on to an idea or image of ourselves) then it is very clear that we can’t feel as if we are ‘authentically ourselves’.  How can I be authentically myself if I am acting out of an idea of myself rather than who I really am? The only way I could be authentic in this case would be if the idea that I have of myself were identical to my true self, and – for reasons that we will shortly go into – this can never be the case, any more than it can be the case that I can stay firmly in control and yet manage to be relaxed at the same time. This is another blatant impossibility that we don’t generally pay any heed to! Taken together therefore, the two impossibilities that we have just mentioned – the impossibility of ever truly relaxing and the impossibility of being who we authentically are – constitute a rather substantial ‘drawback’ to living life as we normally do live it, on the basis of an idea of ourselves!

 

 

This is of course understating the matter in rather an extreme way. How can an idea of who I am be a satisfactory basis for living life, never mind a ‘stressed out idea’? Apart from the fact that the idea of who I am isn’t the same thing as who I actually am (which has got to cause problems, no matter which way we look this) the idea of who I am takes constant effort to maintain precisely because it is a construct and not the way things really are. This has huge implications with regard to how at ease I am going to be; as we have just said – how can I ever truly relax if the ‘me’ that wants to relax has to be actively maintained the whole time? This is such a convoluted idea that the very thought of it is enough to tie us up in knots!

 

 

Because stress is such a big thing in our lives (because it is endemic in our modern, status-driven, image-conscious, goal-orientated way of life) we spend a lot of time as a culture in talking about relaxation, writing about relaxation, teaching classes on relaxation, running courses and workshops on relaxation, marketing relaxation, and so on. We have developed methods for relaxations – we make reference to ‘special skills’ that can be learned in order to obtain these highly valued states of relaxation. All this ‘relaxation-technology’ and know-how comes across as being pretty impressive and as a result we tend to buy into it without giving the matter a second thought. Yet behind this impressive-sounding technological edifice (with its pseudo-scientific terminology and theory) there is the central absurdity that we have just talked about, which is that the ‘me’ that wants to relax is a mental construct which needs to be actively maintained every single moment of the day…

 

 

Suppose that I am sitting here (or lying here) following some kind of relaxation technique, trying as I do so to use the ‘relaxation skills’ that I have been taught. The whole point of this is that I should learn to ‘let go’ as a result of all this and enter into a state of profound relaxation. That’s the name of the game. But the one who is putting into action the ‘stress management protocol’ and is studiously trying to follow the recommended procedures is the unrelaxed knot of tension which is ‘my idea of myself’. So no matter how well I do this centralized knot of tension is still going to be there, pulling the strings, ‘doing the right things’, trying dutifully to achieve the goal of relaxation. The engine might be partially relaxed, therefore, but the engine driver is still on the job, sitting in his cab, making sure that everything is in order. Somebody has to be following the method after all, somebody has to be adhering correctly to the approved procedure.

 

 

We might wonder if the engine driver might not perhaps tell himself to go off duty. But this is paradoxical – in order to tell myself to go off duty I need to be on duty! If I’m off duty then I won’t be there on hand to tell myself to go off duty – I’ll be having a cup of tea in the canteen reading a newspaper and chatting to my mates. I won’t be telling anyone to do anything! So as we have said in order to tell myself to go off duty I have to be on duty, which means that I will then have to tell the part of myself that was staying on duty that it can now go off duty, which means that another part of me is needed to be on duty to tell that part of me that it can now take a break. This is of course a regression which disappears off into infinity since there will always be someone at the end of the chain of people needed to give the order to relax…

 

 

The point that we are making here is not that we can’t ever relax (because we plainly can) but that we can’t relax ‘on purpose’, as part of a rational agenda. That is the impossible thing. I might still wonder why I can’t just tell myself to relax and then obey my own instruction, so that there is no one left on duty but the thing is that unless there is someone there, some ‘higher source of authority’, so to speak, then I just won’t be able to follow instructions. The thing to understand here is that the thinking mind can by its very nature only operate in response to instructions so that – as we keep saying – there always has to be someone there to give the orders. It is this necessity for there to be someone there giving the instructions that creates the paradox. This is the same sort of thing as the well-known paradox of “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” (“who shall guard the guardians?” or “who watches the watchers?”) only in this case it is “Who directs the director?” or “Who controls the controller?” In all of these paradoxes there is no way out, this being the nature of paradoxes.

 

 

The paradox we’re talking about here is the paradox of ‘instructing yourself to stop instructing’. Or we could say that it is the paradox of ‘ordering yourself to stop giving orders’, the paradox of ‘controlling yourself to stop controlling’. It is the paradox of ‘intending not to intend’, the paradox of ‘deciding not to decide’, the paradox of ‘planning when to stop planning’. It is also the paradox of ‘thinking of a method to stop ourselves thinking’ – which is why Krishnamurti says that the state of meditation can never come about as the result of following a method or technique, which is a ‘construct of thinking’. I can never ‘stop being purposeful on purpose’, for reasons that are abundantly obvious, and this constitutes the ‘paradox of total control’, also known as the Cybernetic Paradox.

 

 

As we have already intimated, the reason this paradox raises its head every time is because the thinking mind is a machine, and as a machine it can only ever ‘do what it is told’. It can only ever be ‘purposeful’. Even if we encode a programme in it (a ‘hard-wired reflex’) saying something like “When X happens do Y” the mind is still only ever doing what it is told, which means that the programme will still be there running the whole time, which is the same problem all over again. True relaxation means that there are no programmes running in the background, directing things, organizing things. Contrary to what we might think, there is no ‘programme for relaxation’! True relaxation means ‘the absence of control’ and there is no way that control can be used to bring this state of affairs about…

 

 

The fact that the thinking mind is a machine (i.e. a passive instrument) has a very significant consequence with regard to what it can never do, and this consequence manifests itself in terms of the paradox that we have just been discussing. The fact that the thinking mind (along with all the constructs it brings into being) is a machine results in a singular impossibilitythe impossibility of it ever deviating (even by a millionth of a millionth of a centimetre) from what we want it to do.

 

 

This may not seem like much of a problem but it is – it is a problem because what we are really trying to with our thinking is get our image of ourselves, our model or idea of ourselves, to be an authentically life-like kind of a proposition and this is just not possible if we can’t get it to act independently from our wishes, independently from our instructions.

 

 

This is like the scene in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian where Brian is troubled by the fervently messiah-seeking crowd that has gathered outside his mum’s house and tries to get them to go away. “Just f*** off and leave me alone,” he implores, to which the crowd reply, as one, “Tell us how we are to f*** off and leave you alone, Lord!” You tell me to stop doing what I’m told the whole time and show a bit of independence, and I reply “Tell me how I am to do that. What is the approved method or technique for becoming independent?” You order me to stop obeying orders, and I respond by asking for advice on how I might best obey you… This is a glitch we can’t get out of since there is no way you can tell me how to think for myself. There is no way for you to control me to be more independent…

 

 

This is also like being in a relationship – if I happen to be a very controlling sort of a man and I have a partner who is entirely submissive to my wishes (and this kind of thing isn’t exactly unheard of!) then this is in one way exactly what I want, but in another way it is extremely annoying and profoundly unsatisfying for me. Extreme compliance actually becomes ‘passive aggressive’ and affords the would-be controller no pleasure at all. Thus – according to William Burroughs at least – in cultures where feminine passivity is highly prized by the men-folk this most unfortunate medical condition called latahism tends to develop which is where the woman ends up mimicking or reflecting back everything that is said to her. Needless to say, no one (not even the most over-controlling male) wants to be married to a latah! According to Burroughs,

 

 

Otherwise sane, Latahs compulsively imitate every motion once their attention is attracted by snapping the fingers or calling sharply. A form of compulsive involuntary hypnosis. They sometimes injure themselves trying to imitate the motions of several people at once.

 

 

The point that we are making here of course is that the thinking mind only ever reflects back what we have instructed it to do, and this isn’t really what we want from it. It would be what we want if I were using it as a tool or instrument, but I’m not – what I am actually using my mind for (whether I admit it or not) is creating a fictional version of who I am in place of who I really am. Or we could also say that what I am using the thinking mind for is to create fictional version of what the world is in place of what it really is. I’m really trying to do two things here – I’m trying to control everything because I am ruled by my fear, and yet at the same time I don’t want it to seem like I’m controlling everything! Naturally enough we don’t tend to see things like this but if we go around relating to ‘who we are’ as a known thing, and ‘the world which we live in’ as another known thing, then this is undeniably what we are doing! After all, ‘known things’ don’t get to be ‘known things’ unless we make them so, via the insidious all-encompassing operation of the categorical mind…

 

 

It is quite undeniable really that I only ever relate to my own construct of the world, my own construct of myself, and this being the case there is no way that I can’t run into the problem of having my own thinking, my own ideas reflected back as me at every turn. Admittedly I don’t tend to notice this, but the problem is there all same and it will on this account unfailingly manifest itself. One way it does this is via the ‘latah effect’ that we have just mentioned – having my thinking reflected back at me the whole time makes me feel that someone is having a laugh at my expense, it makes me feel that I am being mocked. The lack of space that is inherent in me being in control of everything that happens impinges upon me and there is a very unpleasant ‘persecutory’ feel to the whole thing. Another problem with being in control all the time has to do with the impossibility of ever being able to relax, as we said earlier. Everything is purposeful, which means that nothing happens by itself, and so if I am to relax, I have to simulate that state of being myself! Managed (or simulated) relaxation is the only type of relaxation I’m going to get. There is no help for this – I have to simulate everything because that is the position that I have put myself in. There’s no grace in anything, there’s no real freedom in anything; the fact that everything has to be done purposefully means that everything is done jerkily, mechanically, humourlessly, artificially – and above all inauthentically. Things might seem to work well just so long as I stay within the bounds of the system which supports my ‘mechanical way of being’, just as my ‘artificiality’ will remain invisible just as long as I make sure to hang out with people who are artificial in exactly the same way (which is just another way of talking about society at large) but on some level or other the lack of flexibility which is inherent in ‘living life on the basis of a mechanical construct’ is going to impact adversely on me. How can it be otherwise – I don’t get to give away the essential freedom of my true nature and get away with it, no matter what short-term adaptive advantages there might be in this strategy!

 

 

The basic ‘problem’ that we are looking at here, therefore, is that the model or image of myself that I am holding onto, and acting out of, as if it really were myself, can only ever be a model, can only ever be an image. I implicitly want for this image to be who I really am – I am after all acting for all the world as if the image were me, and I am also completely convinced that this mind-produced image is who I am, but all the same I can never get over the essential ‘impossibility’ that lies at the root of all this, which is the impossibility of the construct ever acting in a truly autonomous (and truly creative) way. This hidden impossibility shows itself in the type of irresolvable paradoxes that we were talking about earlier.

 

 

The quintessential ‘problem’ with the self-construct (or self-image) is that there is no freedom in it. How can there be freedom in a machine, a mechanism? How can there be freedom in a fixed idea, a fixed concept? The self-image is the very antithesis of freedom because it is an unhelpful fiction that I have to keep maintaining, a pointless burden that I have to keep on carrying.  How can there be freedom in a fictional story-line that I have to keep maintaining? Or to put this another way, how can there be any freedom in my own goals, my own plans, my own purposes?

 

 

This is the point that it is so hard for us to understand. Actually, from the point of view of the rational mind, it is quite impossible for us to understand. What is so hard for us to see (because of our habitual involvement with the thinking mind) is that purposefulness is a prison. Purposefulness is the ‘Hotel California’ – we can check out any time we please, but we can never leave.  I can’t ever leave the realm of purposefulness because once I’m in it then purposefulness is all I know, so now I’m well and truly glitched. Every single thing I do has to be done ‘on purpose’! I’m well and truly glitched because – as we have said – I can’t intend to stop intending, just as I can’t plan to stop planning or make a goal to have no more goals. Or rather I can do this – I can intend to stop intending, I can plan to drop all my plans, I can have a goal to have no more goals – but this just won’t get me anywhere…

 

 

Pure undiluted purposefulness (or rationality) is a hell, despite the fact that we can’t normally see this, despite the fact that to say this seems a ridiculously extreme and unreasonable sort of statement. Pure, undiluted purposefulness might sound fine in theory but in practice it’s a disaster. Just a few moment’s reflection is all that’s needed in order to show this: if I have to tell myself to do everything before I actually do it (i.e. if I have to have a purpose for everything I do) then this makes life into an unbelievably tiresome chore. This is a sure-fire guaranteed way of making life into an abysmally tedious and utterly pointless ‘duty’. It is like turning life into an exercise in bureaucracy – we do it (because we are obliged to do so) but there is precisely zero joy to be had in the enactment of the job. The only possible bit of satisfaction we might get out of it is the satisfaction of ‘ticking things off the list’, the satisfaction of ‘getting it out of the way’. We can get a type of short-lived ‘bureaucratic pleasure’ in having the job ‘done and dusted’ (if indeed we are able to do so) but then there is the next job on the list to be tackled, and then the next one, and then the next after that. The whole business is ‘as brisk as a tomb’. If this general scenario sounds at all familiar, then that’s because this is how the rational or purposeful mind always organizes life!

 

 

To live in a world that is perfectly purposeful is to live in a world that is entirely sterile – life is nothing but an endless series of decisions, all of which are hollow echoes of myself. I think of doing something and so then I do it; I think of saying something and so then I go ahead and say it; I have a plan, a goal, an agenda and so then I take the necessary steps until this plan, this goal, this agenda is successfully enacted. All of this sounds like a dream come true from the point of view of ‘the positive thinker’ – what could be better than this? This is everything that every motivational speaker ever to ascend the podium has ever waxed lyrical about – I have all these goals, and then I make them happen! Wow! How fantastic is this? How marvellous is this? What a great feeling this must be! On the surface of things this sounds wonderful, this sounds like the best thing ever – the ‘dream of perfect control’ – but if we were to look into it a little more deeply we would see that a rather important element is missing, that easily-forgotten little thing we call ‘freedom’.

 

 

In what we are calling ‘the world of purposefulness’ I have neither the freedom to be myself, nor the freedom to genuinely express myself. Instead, I have a fixed idea (or image) of myself, and an endlessly proliferating series of goals that are tautological extensions of this same self-construct, this same-image. So the urge that I have to obtain the goal (or meet the agenda) is really the humourless compulsion of the self-image to keep on perpetuating itself, over and over again. There is an itch and I have to keep scratching it. Or to put this another way, the programme needs to keep on re-enacting (or keep on repeating) itself – as programmes always do – and I am caught up in this flat, mechanical need…

 

 

To obtain whatever goal it is that I have in my cross-hairs is sold to me under the guise of freedom, but really it is just a disguised form of bondage. There is the sense that something great will happen when I succeed, but all that will happen is that another goal will be found for me to pursue. The viral programme that is the self-image will not be satisfied merely to enact itself the once, it has to keep on doing so, into the indefinite future, until some external force comes along to thwart it. The mechanical dream of the viral self is just to keep on restating itself (because that’s the only ‘freedom’ it has), and the way I do this is by projecting goals ahead of myself, and then striving as hard as I can to achieve them. These goals are an extension of myself, and by successfully managing to bring them about I am ‘stating and restating myself’. The same discordant note gets to be played again and again, with utter appalling humourlessness, until hell freezes over or until pigs develop the ability to mysteriously defy gravity and levitate…

 

 

The curious thing about this is that we live in a universe in which – ultimately – it is impossible not to be free. This is why all purposeful actions (and all rational statements) are paradoxical. This is why the purposeful or goal-driven self is paradoxical – because it is flatly impossible for it to do what it sets out to do…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

(Visited 52 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Comment