We can either be present, or we can be absent, and these are the only two alternatives that are open to us! This sounds rather limiting, rather restrictive, but this isn’t really the case because ‘being present’ includes all possibilities – when we are present we are open to whatever is going on, in a completely unqualified way, and so this isn’t restrictive at all. This ‘one possibility’ of being present equals all possibilities, without reservation. We are present to whatever is there. Being absent IS restrictive however because it only incorporates the one possibility. When we are ‘absent’ what has happened to us is that we have been taken out of the open world of all possibilities (which is necessarily an undefined world) and we have instead taken up residence in the closed world of our own thoughts, our own preconceptions, our own ‘mind-created version’ (or ‘simulation’) of reality.
So the two possibilities that are open to us are the possibility of being open, and the possibility of being closed. When we are open we have no preferences about how we would like to see the world (i.e. we have no preferences about what we would like to believe regarding ‘what is true’ and ‘what is not true’) and when we are closed we do have preferences regarding how we would like to see the world, we do have preferences with regard to the sort of things we would like to believe to be either ‘true’ or ‘untrue’. The set of preferences that determine how we are to see the world arises from the rational-conceptual mind, and this mind has the capability of producing many logically-consistent different ‘sets of preferences’, each of which – when we take them seriously – go on to create a particular determinate or defined ‘virtual world’. Each of these defined virtual worlds is when it comes down to it nothing more than a particular, logically-consistent description of what the world is, so when we inhabit one of these virtual mind-created worlds what we are essentially doing is inhabiting a description!
It is true that when we are what we have called ‘absent’ we are actually present in a provisional sense because we are present in the closed representation of the world that our black-and-white rational minds have created for us. We are present in the rational simulation of the world, so (in a way) this is a type of ‘present’. The only thing is that when we are present in the description of the world we are necessarily absent to anything that is not the description! This is how ‘descriptions’ (or ‘definitions’) work after all – they are exclusive in nature, which means that one way of looking at things is seen as being right or correct, and all other ways are seen as being incorrect, as being ‘erroneous’ or ‘of no account’. So when we are present with our description of the world, our model of the world, our idea of the world, our thoughts about the world, then we are not present with the world itself.
Being present in our descriptions of the world, our ideas about the world, etc, is how we get to be absent, and so what we are looking at here is a complete inversion of what we might call ‘the natural order of things’. The more focussed we are on the picture that is created by our rational minds we are, the less in reality we are, and yet the rational mind imperiously decrees that the picture it shows us is the only reality. The rational mind decrees it and we are powerless to do anything other than agree with what is being decreed!
Once we look at it like this it becomes clear that being absent is the normal way of things, even though ‘being absent’ is an inversion of the natural order. It also becomes clear that when we are ‘absent’ we don’t know that we are absent. We don’t know that we are absent because we are present ‘in an inverted way’ – we are present with the descriptions of reality that have been generated by the rational mind in such a way that these descriptions appear to us to be an actual reality in themselves. This is therefore a substitution – the unstated world is substituted for by the stated world, the ‘open’ situation is substituted for by the ‘closed’ one. Radical uncertainty is substituted for by the banality of ‘the known’; which is to say, the actual is substituted for by the nominal…
The curious thing about this (the curious thing about any inversion) is that the ‘regular’ way of things doesn’t – of course – seem like an inversion of the natural order at all. It seems perfectly normal, it seems right and proper, it seems correct, it seems like the only way things could ever possibly be. So if someone were to come along and suggest to us that we are not, on the whole, present in our lives, then this doesn’t seem to make the slightest bit of sense. It sounds like nonsense! In a way – as we have said – we are present – we are present with our thoughts, we are present with our ideas, we are present with the mind-created simulation of reality, which our mind is telling us (or at least implicitly inferring to us) actually is reality. So being present in the simulation (or present in the description) feels just like being genuinely present to us.
This state of being present in the mind-created simulation of reality is ‘home’ for us, it’s our comfort zone, it’s what we are familiar with – we’re more than familiar with it, it’s just about all we know! But when we are present with our mental picture of reality we are (as we have said) absent from actual reality since the description necessarily excludes what is being described, and ‘being absent from reality’ has consequences. Whilst it is generally the case that when we are absent we don’t know that we are absent – and don’t have even the slightest intimation that this is so – it is also true that when we are absent we cannot ever be genuinely happy (or at peace in ourselves) and so ‘being absent’ is fundamentally unhappy state, even though we may not know it as such. Generally speaking, we don’t see that it is an unhappy state, and the reason we don’t notice this unhappiness because we make do with the substitute, a surrogate, and this substitute or surrogate is ‘mind-created happiness’, so to speak. The actual way in which mind-created happiness is obtained – we could say – is by the simple precedent of ‘getting things to be the way we want them to be’ (or ‘getting things to be the way we think they ought to be’, which is the same thing). What this means therefore is that mind-created happiness is linked with control, which in turn means that just so long as we are hooked on this surrogate form of happiness or well-being we have to be forever trying to stay in control!
This explains why control is as important to us as it is – it explains why we go on about control so much. It explains why control is some kind of ‘holy grail’ to us! There is a problem with the surrogate form of happiness however – a nasty irresolvable snag that comes with it. For a start the link between ‘control’ and the good feeling that we are after means that we can never relax (not if we don’t want to lose this good feeling, anyway). We can never really relax and because there is no real ‘down-time’ as far as the pursuit of what we call happiness (but which is really only ‘euphoria’) is concerned the whole business gets very wearisome, very exhausting, very draining. The whole business becomes very serious, very humourless, very grim, and this ought to alert us straightaway because happiness ought not to be a serious or humourless or grim kind of an affair. If it is then there’s something very wrong…
This is the first aspect of the irreducible snag – the fact that the pursuit of ‘surrogate happiness’ very quickly reveals itself to be a grimly serious and exhausting type of a business. The second aspect of the irreducible snag is that successful control isn’t always possible, no matter how much effort we put into it. We can only be successful some of the time. We all know this! There is winning, for sure, but there is also losing! Now the thing here is that if successful controlling (so that things get to be the way I want them to be, or the way I think that they ought to be) is what creates surrogate happiness (or euphoria) for me then it stands to reason that failed controlling must create the opposite of this. The opposite of false or surrogate happiness is ‘reverse false or surrogate happiness’, which is dissatisfaction, displeasure or dysphoria. It is what we feel when we fail to get the outcome we wanted, when we fail to get our own way, when ‘things go against us’. I have set my heart on something, invested all my well-being in the fact that it must (or will) happen – and it doesn’t! In terms of games, we could say that all my reputation, all my standing, all my self-respect, all my self-validation, rests upon me winning the prize (or upon me beating the other guy) but I don’t – I lose the prize to someone else, then I am humiliated in defeat. I am de-validated instead of validated…
If I am attracted to the ‘positive’ outcome of control, then I must of course be averse to the ‘negative’ outcome of control. If I am positively attached to the one then I must be negatively attached to the other. The two are the same thing – wanting to win is the same as not wanting to lose; liking pleasure is the same as disliking pain. So what this means is that by unwittingly opting to be absent rather than present (unconscious rather than conscious) we have bought into a situation where we are bound to get what we don’t want just as much as we get what we do want! We get to have the personal gratification and validation of being in control just as much as we get to have the dissatisfaction and devalidation of not being in control – we get to have the reward just as much as we get to have the punishment. Or we could say, to the same extent that we receive the delicious ‘ego-affirmation’ that we love so much, we are also bound – at some future date, at some point or other – to be the unwilling recipient of the ‘ego-negation’ that we find so cruel, that we find so utterly punishing. The ego-affirmation therefore equals ‘the honey’ and the ego-negation equals ‘the cruelly lacerated tongue that we get from licking it off the razor blade’, to use the Buddha’s analogy.
So when we opt for the possibility of being absent (which is as we have said not straightforward ‘absence’ but ‘absence disguised as presence’) then there are ‘drawbacks’ that go with this choice (even though it isn’t really a ‘choice’ as such since because we don’t know that we are absent we also don’t know that there is any other possibility). The ‘drawbacks’ as we have listed them are that it is all very grim and serious, with nothing very much in the way of light-heartedness or fun, and that the pleasurable or rewarding aspect of this modality of existence is exactly counterbalanced by the painful or punishing aspect. When we state matters like this something that might come to mind is addiction: addictions are of course exactly like this because there is no fun or humour in addiction, and whatever pleasure we get out of it is invariably paid for later with an equivalent amount of suffering! This is why, when we are caught up in an addiction, it sooner or later turns into what is generally called a ‘love/hate relationship’. When we live in the mind-created simulation of reality – which is ‘being absent and yet thinking that we are present’ – then our relationship with this conditioned or artificial world is also going to be of the love/hate variety. This relationship is also an addiction – we are dependent on the reward that the mind-created simulation provides us with, but we also have to suffer the punishment that it is later on going to inflict us with. This is also, we might say, like an abusive relationship – we have nowhere else to turn for the good feeling that we are addicted to, but when we do turn to the artificial system for this good feeling (which is essentially a sense of security) we put ourselves in line for the rotten bad feeling that it is going to land us with later on. Our fear of losing the security of ‘what we know’ keeps us trapped – the whole thing just goes around and around and around and there doesn’t seem to be any escape from it…
As if all of the above were not enough, there is also an underlying anxiety to life in the mind-created simulation (which is as we have said how we get to be absent without knowing we are absent). The simulation provides us with a sense of security but this security is not just given to us for free. We have to do something for it – we have to ‘pass the test’, as it were. This is the same for all logical procedures – if we carry out the logical procedure correctly then we get the desired result and if we don’t (if we mess up) then the desired result simply doesn’t happen. Sometimes the procedure that we have to carry out might be fairly simple; there doesn’t seem to be any big problem to it. An example of this might be some fundamentalist religion where we are required to adhere to some specific code of behaviour (as well as adhering to the stated beliefs of the religion) so that we obtain the desired outcome of ‘gaining spiritual salvation’. If we faithfully follow the guidelines we get to be saved and if we don’t then we get eternal damnation instead! There is a price to be paid for the security of knowing that you are going to be saved because strict adherence to a code of thinking and behaving is repetitive and essentially very tedious, even if it isn’t challenging in any other way, but because what we have to do is at least straightforward and the reward is so great we will be inclined to pay this price. We will put up with it. We conform to the limiting system even though conforming is a drag and it means that we have to turn ourselves into some kind of stereotyped, unquestioning, ‘servant of the mechanical system’. We lose our sense of humour as a result of striking this bargain because humour doesn’t come from blankly obeying whatever procedure it is that we are supposed to be enacting. Robots aren’t exactly renowned for their sense of humour, after all!
And not only do we have to forgo our sense of humour if we are to be assured of obtaining the ultimate reward, there are other grave degradations to our character that we are obliged to endure – we are also required to lose our ability to be compassionate and empathetic to our fellow human beings. Instead, we become brutally judgemental and dismissive of anyone who doesn’t adhere to our ‘robot code’. The only people we will give our support to are those who are exactly like us and this – needless to say – doesn’t count as compassion! In fact far from being an example of compassion it is a manifestation of ‘disguised self-cherishing’, which is the antithesis of compassion, which is ‘other-cherishing’. All this and more we have to submit to in order to be guaranteed the outcome that we are so sold on – the outcome that will supposedly make it all OK! And what we have just said isn’t just true for hard-core fundamentalist (i.e. ‘literal-minded’) religious sects either – it is of course true for society as a whole. It just becomes that bit more obvious when we look at an extreme example, which actually means that the fundamentalists are doing us a favour by making the universal principle visible to us. This ‘universal principle’ is that in order to receive the prize we have to conform to ‘the rules of the game’, even if the rules of the game are frankly dehumanizing.
In the case of social adaptation therefore we have an excellent example of the general principle that following a straightforward procedure that will give us the required result if we follow it literally enough, stringently enough, inhumanly enough. We have the previously mentioned ingredients of seriousness and humourlessness here but it still might not be immediately apparent where the actual anxiety comes in. It ought to be apparent however because whenever things are getting ‘serious’ anxiety can never be that far off. If a goal is ‘serious’ then this means that it is very important indeed that the goal be achieved and this automatically means that it is just as important that we don’t screw up and therebye fail to obtain the goal. If there is a whole procedure or protocol that needs to be followed before the important goal can be achieved then this protocol itself then becomes a very serious affair, i.e. it becomes extremely important that we don’t deviate from the rules or procedures that have been laid down. Following the rules is RIGHT and deviating from them is WRONG and the seriousness of the whole affair comes from the fact that there is no leeway, no freedom in this. As soon as there is the clear black-and-white understanding that we must not do something the wrong way (or that we must not fail to obtain the final goal) then anxiety is already with us, whether we are aware of this or not. Anxiety is born out of seriousness – or we could simply say, ‘anxiety always arises when there is a lack of freedom’.
The less tolerance there is for any kind of mistake, any kind of deviation, the more the pressure will be – obviously – and anxiety is a function of ‘pressure’. If there is the compulsive message “You have to do X, Y or Z” therefore then this message equals anxiety. On the face of it, why this should be so may not be obvious. After all, if we are able to obey the message correctly, then why would we need to be anxious? And if the task is simple enough, then surely there is no reason to think that we won’t be able to obey the message? The thing is however there is an intrinsic problem in following a set of instructions or rules absolutely literally, absolutely to the letter. This can be seen if we think about perfectionism – the problem we perfectionism as a trait is, as everyone knows, that it is fundamentally impossible ever to be totally perfect in the real world! It is possible to be perfect in the ‘formal world’ which is the rational simulation, but this is because the rational simulation is not real – it is an idea, and an idea simply isn’t the same thing as reality. So when we try to apply an idea to reality (and perform some task absolutely perfectly), we run into irreducible problems – we run into irreducible problems because, as we have said, we can never reach the formal ideal of ‘perfection’ in the real world.
The ‘inherent impossibility’ that we’re talking about here can also be seen to show itself in something as supposedly straightforward as adapting to a social group. Just to give one example, in a small, relatively isolated community there is a process that can be observed in which ever more adaptation to the conventions, ever more adaptation to the norm is required in order to save one from becoming the focus of gossip regarding one’s oddities or one’s misdoings. Any small indiscretion, any small deviance from the norm will be enough the gossiping majority something to talk about. The problem that we have been talking about comes up here because it is impossible for anyone to keep up a perfect image – something or other is always going to come up because we are all only human. There is always going to be some little thing. This is not just a matter of what we might call ‘moral indiscretion’, any change in behaviour or appearance or character that is visited upon us by accident or by illness will make us depart from what is considered normal. Until comparatively recently in Western Europe epilepsy was a sure-fire guarantee of social exclusion. Suffering from depression or ‘nerves’ or from any other such condition would be another way to get stigmatized – it doesn’t take much at all to ‘spoil our identity’, as sociologists put it. Erving Goffman (1978), in his book Stigma, quotes Rosemary Garland-Thompson in saying that stigma causes the person concerned to make the transition for being a “whole and usual person to being a tainted discounted one.” This unhappy fate is never that far off from any of us according to Goffman –
The most fortunate of normals is likely to have his half-hidden failing, and for every little failing there is a social occasion when it will loom large, creating a shameful gap between virtual and actual social identity. Therefore the occasionally precarious and the constantly precarious form a single continuum.
The fear of being turned by public opinion into a tainted and discounted ‘non-person’ can become so intense that there is the urge to point the finger at someone else and draw the group’s attention to someone else’s indiscretions or peculiarities so as to deflect it safely away from ourself. We thus get the situation where everyone is trying to denounce everyone else as being a deviant, a good example of which is the McCarthy era in the USA in the fifties, where – it seems – the only sure way to escape being branded a communist and ‘anti-American’ was to loudly denounce someone else instead. The same phenomenon occurred in seventeenth century Salem where the entire community was consumed either by a fear of witches, or a fear of being denounced as such. This ‘witch hunt’ epidemic echoed a long history of murderous hysteria in Europe in the course of which tens of thousands of women (at the very lowest estimate) were executed after being found guilty of being witches. In the first case the pressure driving the intense counterproductive need to conform is political, in the second case it is religious.
The general principle at work here is one – therefore – in which everyone is trying as hard as they can to become standardized, to become safely normal, so that they can be assured either of being accepted or assured of not being stigmatized by the group – both of which are (of course) the same thing. Yet even when we are all conforming as hard as we possibly can to the template, even when we are all as alike as peas in a pod, even when we are all total clones of each other, this is still no guarantee of immunity since ‘inclusion depends on exclusion’, which means that for some of us to be in the group, others must be out of it. In order for there to be a group there has to be outsiders because there can’t be such a thing as ‘an insider’ unless there is also such a thing as an ‘outsider’! The ‘ideal’ in this situation would be where we are all included and no one excluded but this just can’t happen. The ‘ideal’ is where there is an inside but not an outside but this is an impossibility. We are all (as we have said) trying as hard as we can to ‘adapt to the ideal’ (by getting it right and not getting it wrong) but the ideal is always ‘a razor’s edge’ since it exists only in the formal realm of our ideas and not in reality. Reality isn’t black and white, it isn’t an idea or a category, and so the harder and more desperately we try to fit onto the razor’s edge the more we are going to get cut!
The mind-created simulation is always ‘the razor’s edge’, when it comes right down to it. There might seem to be leeway but there isn’t. It’s all black and white, it’s all either/or. It’s all either ‘in’ or ‘out’. The phenomenon that we have been discussing is one example of the irreducible problem (or paradoxicality) that always manifests when the need to adapt or conform to the formal (or rule-based) system which is society becomes too intense, too highly-valued, too desperate, and in a similar way anxiety might be said to be the inevitable consequence of attempting to conform too exactly to the formal system of the rational mind – which is the system of the way we ‘think’ things should be! When we are under enough pressure we respond by attempting to adhere or conform ever more stringently to the rules, and because this is reducing our leeway, reducing the space between what is right and what is wrong, what is allowed and what is disallowed, this leads inevitably to the escalation of anxiety. By trying too hard to adapt to the ideal, by trying too hard to conform to an abstract system, we have put ourselves in an impossible situation.
The crux of the ‘irreducible problem’ that we have been looking at here is that we can never totally fit in (into a rule-based system of any kind) because what we’re trying to fit into doesn’t exist. We can’t fit into the balck-and-white picture because we’re not black-and-white. We can’t fit into our picture of the world (or our picture of ourselves) because this picture doesn’t exist…
So the possibility of ‘being absent’ (which equals ‘being present in the rational simulation of reality’, rather than in reality itself) is actually not possible at all, because the rational simulation doesn’t exist!
Or even more succinctly, we can’t really exercise our option of being absent because ‘being absent’ doesn’t exist! Being absent is an impossibility and so this is the paradox that we are constantly up against.
The impossibility we are constantly battling against is the impossibility of being successfully absent (even though we can’t admit to ourselves that this is what we are doing, that this is what we are aiming for). Everything that we do is about trying to be absent – our whole way of life, our whole outlook, our whole culture is all about this. It’s all about trying to be absent without letting on to ourselves that we are trying to be absent!!
This is the name of the game. This is what we’re at the whole time. We want very badly to be absent. And yet we’re onto a loser here because there’s no such thing…
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.