Our central, all-consuming passion in life is the preservation of whatever pattern it is that we happen to be trapped in. It doesn’t in the least bit matter what that pattern might be – that has nothing to do with it – our number one, over-riding aim is just to preserve the pattern, to make it last, to keep it going, to stop it ever coming to an end…
On a very small scale of things (in a very short-sighted kind of a way) this makes perfectly good sense. It gives us a game-plan, it gives us an agenda. It gives us something to be doing, something to aim for. Being on the mission of ‘preserving the pattern that we’re trapped in’ gives meaning to our existence – it is the logic by which we live our lives! On a bigger scale of things however (if we take the longer view) it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. It’s not just senseless – it’s absurd. It’s utter madness.
To say that our game plan of always striving to preserve and perpetuate the existing pattern is ‘utter madness’ is just a way of indicating that, were we to see it, were we to allow ourselves to become aware of it, then we would instantly recoil from it, as from something with which we want no ‘affiliation’ at all. This is the ‘turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness’ that is spoken of in the Lankavatara Sutra. As P. D. Ouspensky says in In Search of the Miraculous –
To awaken means to realize one’s nothingness, that is to realize one’s complete and absolute mechanicalness and one’s complete and absolute helplessness. When a man begins to know himself a little he will see in himself many things that are bound to horrify him. So long as a man is not horrified at himself he knows nothing about himself.
Rather than allowing ourselves to witness the absolute hideous insanity which is being ‘trapped in the pattern’ we are very careful to keep ourselves restricted to only seeing the small picture, to only seeing the small view of things. To protect ourselves from the deeply disturbing awareness of just how frighteningly pointless, futile and downright perverse it is to devote ourselves on a fulltime basis to doing nothing apart from struggling to perpetuate the pattern that traps and denies us, we make sure to keep on looking at life in a very short-sighted way. We avoid the ‘big picture’, the ‘long view’, as if it were the plague…
This benighted and topsy-turvy state of being, in which we conscientiously stay away from seeing the Big Picture, in which we scrupulously avoid looking any further than the tips of our own noses, is the only state of being we know. This way of doing things doesn’t seem strange or perverse to us at all but perfectly right and proper and it is this appallingly nonsensical carry-on that we absurdly refer to as ‘life’! It goes without saying of course that we never allow ourselves to see that we are being determinedly petty and short-sighted in all things. That wouldn’t do at all: that awareness would ruin everything. Instead of allowing ourselves to confront this painful awareness (or in any way address it or acknowledge it) we have a phenomenally successful way of validating our pettiness, of validating our short-sightedness. This validation mechanism – which as we have said is astonishingly, amazingly effective – is called the self. If all that pettiness and short-sightedness is dignified by called it ‘the self’ (i.e. by taking it to be ‘the self’) then it, of course, doesn’t get seen as being petty and short-sighted at all. On the contrary, the dreadful insupportable pettiness gets glorified, it gets placed on a pedestal…
The self is the supreme validation, the ultimate validation, the validation that no one ever sees through. Who ever sees through the self? The self is the basis we never look at. We are all far too busy trying to obey the self, gratify the self, placate the self, vindicate the self, excuse the self. The self is therefore the ultimate baffle, the ultimate red-herring, the ultimate smoke-screen, the ultimate ‘opacity’. As soon as I come across something that promises to further the ends of the self, I look no further than this. As soon as I come across something that seems to threaten the well-being of the self, I look no further than this. These two things (stuff that promises me benefit and stuff that threatens me) take up all of my attention, all of my time, and because I am so incapable of looking beyond them I am effectively cocooned in the dismally small world of me and my own likes and dislikes.
As far as games go this is an absolutely marvellous one – it is completely engrossing, completely compelling, completely immersive and completely time-consuming. These are all the things we look for in a game! A game with these qualities is guaranteed to keep us busy forever, on a full-time basis. The game of ‘preserving and promoting whatever pattern it is that we happen to be caught up in’ is utterly engrossing, utterly compelling, utterly immersive and immensely time-consuming and so as far as the game-player in us is concerned, this is A1. That’s just looking at things one way, however. The other way of looking at this situation involves the awareness that – as we have said – it is also all perfectly absurd, perfectly pointless, perfectly nonsensical, perfectly senseless. So the question is, taking these two aspects of the game together (and seeing them both at the same time) what kind of a picture is this giving us?
As long as all I want is ‘short-sighted logic’ (which is the logic of the little picture) then I am happy. In this case I just carry on with whatever I am doing and ‘that is that’. I just have to carry on with the endless business of ‘perpetuating the pattern that I’m trapped in’ and everything is fine! If I happen to be successful in perpetuating the pattern then this is the icing on the cake, and if don’t succeed then that’s OK too because it’s still all part of the game. After all, losing at the game is every bit as engrossing, compelling, immersive, and time-consuming as winning at the game. The integrity of the game isn’t threatened either way – in fact it is reinforced both ways. The illusion of the game is reinforced whether I do well or do badly. It’s fine either way.
The point that we’re making here is that ‘immersiveness for its own sake’ isn’t actually as wonderful as it might initially appear. For a committed game-player ‘total immersiveness’ is great news, but from any perspective that isn’t the very limited perspective of the committed game-player we can straightaway see that ‘immersiveness for the sake of immersiveness’ is without any doubt a truly terrifying sort of a proposition! To fear ‘immersiveness for the sake of immersiveness’ for the horror that it is is however very rare. Normally the prospect of being permanently lost in illusion doesn’t trouble us at all! We don’t see this as something to be feared. As Milarepa (rhetorically) asks, “Do people fear the samsara being vacant?”
If we could somehow ‘get our heads straight’ and free ourselves from the distorting perspective that is being imposed on us by the static pattern of thinking that we’re trapped in then we would see that being permanently and unknowingly trapped in this brutally restrictive pattern is something that warrants being afraid of. If on the other hand we can’t get free from this imposed self-validating perspective however then we won’t be afraid of being indefinitely contained in (or subsumed by) the static pattern at all. Quite the contrary is true – our situation is that we are now mortally afraid of being freed from it! When we’re trapped in the pattern freedom is the thing that frightens us and we are hopelessly addicted to the reverse of freedom instead…
If we were to ask ourselves “What exactly is this pattern that we’re trapped in?” then we would see that it is something very strange; we would see that there is something very peculiar indeed about being contained in any sort of fixed and repeating pattern. A fixed pattern of being has the peculiar property – we may say – of seeming far more spacious when we’re contained inside it than it actually is. In fact it hasn’t got any space in it at all – it only seems to. There is the illusion of spaciousness. We somehow believe that there is space (or the possibility for freedom) there when there isn’t.
The fixed or static pattern of thought is like a grubby little prejudice that anyone who isn’t afflicted by the prejudice in question can easily see to be utterly petty, utterly squalid, utterly and completely odious into the bargain. If we happen to be the one suffering from the prejudice however, then we can’t for the life of us see this! If it is me that has the judgemental opinion, if it is me that suffers from the prejudice, then it doesn’t seem petty or squalid or odious at all – far from it. As far as I am concerned, the culpability belongs to the unfortunate target of my prejudicial opinion, not to me. I am whiter than white – as if I have just stepped out of the washing machine – whilst the subject of my virulent prejudice is lower than low – the veritable ‘root of all evil’….
This type of ‘inversion’ is not just something that is associated with prejudices (which are very small and very bad-smelling mental boxes that we live in, whilst imagining the whole time that we are residing in a palace) – it is associated with all fixed or static patterns of being. A fixed pattern of being is essentially ‘the same old position’ stated over and over again, it is ‘the same old point of view’ reiterated ad absurdum. By definition, there can never be anything new happening in a fixed pattern and a situation in which nothing new can ever happen is a situation in which there is no space. If there is no possibility of change, no possibility of movement, no possibility of anything new happening, then what we are talking about here is absolute confinement. What we’re talking about here is the state of total abject slavery to the system. There is zero leeway, zero freedom, zero sense of humour, no tolerance for anything other than the fixed pattern as it has been defined, and this complete absence of leeway is a truly astonishing thing in itself because reality (which is of course what underlies and supports the pattern) is nothing other than perfect leeway, perfect freedom, perfect openness. These two situations therefore couldn’t be more of a contrast to each other – they are in fact perfect inversions of each other.
Given that the ‘discrepancy’ (if we may use that harmless-sounding word) between the fixed pattern and the underlying reality is so colossal (with there being no freedom at all in the former and all the freedom in the world in the latter) then why then do we not notice this fact? Why do we not get the feeling that there is something strange – or rather something downright perverse – going on? The suggestion that consciousness could get trapped in a finite repeating pattern and yet not notice this insanity seems utterly unbelievable – if this astonishing trick could be played on us, if this gross deception could be perpetrated on us, then surely there is nothing that we wouldn’t fall for? If this is true, then surely we would be liable to take any nonsense seriously, no matter how preposterous it is, no matter how scurrilous it is?
As soon as we say this however we realize that we are indeed liable to take any nonsense at all seriously, no matter how ludicrous it is, no matter how scurrilous it is. That’s pretty much what we do! That’s called ‘being human’! The point is that consciousness can indeed get trapped in any rational simulation (any fixed mind-created pattern) without noticing that this has happened to it and the reason this works (the reason we are able to be effectively hoodwinked in this way) is precisely because the inversion (or reversal) which we have been talking about takes place and causes us to ‘see everything backwards’, so to speak. As we’ve said, the reversal causes us to see slavery as freedom. What happens in the inversion process is that the freedom of being able to move on, the freedom of being able to change, is replaced with the ‘freedom’ of being able to assert the finite self – which is as the very same thing as the freedom of being able to endlessly and pointlessly reiterate the fixed pattern that we are trapped in. In John G. Bennett’s terms, freedom gets replaced by negative freedom, which is ‘the freedom not to be free’.
‘The freedom to move on or change’ (i.e. the freedom to let go and allow something genuinely new to happen) is what is called ananda or ‘ecstatic release’. In total contrast to this there is ‘the freedom to assert or reiterate the fixed pattern or finite self’ which is a ‘pseudo-freedom’ that gives rise to satisfaction (or pleasure) in the first instance, followed by a rebound of dissatisfaction (or despair) in the second instance. Because we don’t see that the ‘freedom’ to compulsively chase satisfaction is the same thing as the same thing as the ‘freedom’ to involuntarily harvest sorrow and despair we therefore see it as a genuinely meaningful type of freedom, rather than being nothing more than a kind of horrific trap. The reversal in which true freedom is effectively substituted for by the supposed ‘freedom’ to assert (and keep on asserting) the fixed pattern is the mechanism by which we get trapped in any pattern that is going, the mechanism which causes us to get helplessly caught up in any random pattern that happens to floating around.
What after all could feel better than the satisfaction of ‘getting our own way’, the satisfaction of ‘getting what we want’? What could feel better than the feeling we get when we manage to obtain the outcome that our thinking tells us is so extremely important (if not vital) for us to obtain? What could be more gratifying to us than to have the viewpoint or belief which our mind tells us is correct confirmed or validated? Our thinking (our rational mind) is the ‘fixed pattern’ that we are constantly struggling to enact correctly and so whenever we are able to act in line with it, or arrange outcomes that are in agreement with it, (or indeed affirm it in any way) this equals ‘promoting and perpetuating the pattern that we are trapped in’…
Very obviously – the more successful we are promoting and perpetuating the pattern that we’re trapped in the more trapped in it we are! The more we’re able to obtain those outcomes that accord with our thinking the more trapped in our thinking we are and the more we’re able to prove to ourselves that our thoughts are the right ones, that our beliefs are the correct ones, the more trapped in our mind we become. Any yet obtaining (or trying to obtain) the results that we value, the outcomes that affirm our thinking is just about the only thing we ever put any real effort into! Chasing satisfaction and fleeing dissatisfaction (or chasing validation and fleeing de-validation) is the name of the game, and the game is all about perpetuating the pattern that we’re stuck in.
The struggle we’re engaged in on a full-time basis isn’t just about trying to obtain the right results, it is also about striving to prove to ourselves that the ‘right’ results really are right, that the pattern which we’re trying to keep going really is the ‘right’ one. In other words, half of the struggle is to keep the pattern going and the other half of the struggle is to keep what we’re doing believable (or meaningful) to us, even though it is always going to be revealed as being purely arbitrary and nonsensical when we actually look at it. This, as we have said, involves ‘making sure that we never look out of the box’, ‘making sure that we never see the bigger picture’. We have to fight to keep the pattern going and we have to fight against seeing that there isn’t any real point to keeping the pattern going!
A lot of the time this doesn’t actually seem like a struggle at all – a lot of the time it seems as if its all happening by itself and it doesn’t feel that we have to push for it at all. But when it feels like this – when the self and its perennial pursuits, the stories its spins and the beliefs it concocts, all seem eminently reasonable and plausible – all that this means is that we’re ‘rolling down a hill’. We’re free-wheeling down a very steep entropic gradient and this means that the ‘apparent advantage’ of moving strongly ahead in what seems like a wonderfully progressive manner is not actually any sort of an advantage at all. We’re successfully digging a hole for ourselves. We’re busy ‘digging our own grave’. The pattern that we’re trapped in is the hole; the pattern that we’re humourlessly asserting is our grave. We’re affirming our own prison: with every act of emphatic unquestioning self-assertion all that we’re doing is ‘persistently banging another nail into our coffin’…
There is no way that this can’t be the case, no matter how far we are from seeing it, given that ‘asserting the self’ means ‘perpetuating the fixed or static pattern that we are caught up in’, and the ‘fixed pattern’ is a situation where the absolute lack of freedom has been effectively disguised as the very basis of our freedom (or a situation in which the deeply uninspiring business of forever ‘staying the same’ has been effectively misrepresented as a gloriously meaningful progression). We’re buying into illusion – we’re buying into samsara, and as Milarepa says, the thing that really ought to frighten us about samsara (but which doesn’t) is that – despite all that it promises – it is completely vacant.
When the self disappears we are relieved of an invisible narrowness – nothing is gained, but rather an absence is taken away. When we are no longer all cooped up in the static pattern of thinking and reacting that is the self then what we experience is a sense of spaciousness that we can’t really put a finger on. We can’t describe or define it. We can’t describe or define it because we are it! This sense of spaciousness is a true wonder, a wonder that never diminishes or dims, and yet at the same time it is nothing at all!
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.