The addition of a little sprinkling of euphoria makes a meaningless mechanical routine positively shine with meaning. How, we might wonder – if we are given to wondering about such things – does euphoria manage to do this? How can euphoria make meaning out of lack of meaning? By what magic does it cause crystal-clear spring water to gush forth from a stagnant cistern of murky, evil-smelling, amoebic dregs?
This is an extraordinarily pertinent question for us to be asking because the general way of things is that our lives are, for the most part, made up of ‘meaningless mechanical routines’. And if we were to be really honest then we’d have to go further than this and say that our lives are meaningless mechanical routines – punctuated perhaps by the odd flash of creativity, the odd flicker of wonder, the odd burst of spontaneous heart-felt emotion. The truth of this assertion is not hard to see – whenever we are not being creative or spontaneous, whenever we are not feeling wonder at the fact that we’re here at all, then we’re caught up in a routine. It’s as simple as this. These are the only two possibilities – either we are being ‘directed’ (i.e. ‘purposeful’), or we are being spontaneous. It’s got to be one or the other.
Saying what we have just said doesn’t tend to sound right to us – the suggestion that if we’re being ‘purposeful’ then we’re necessarily caught up in enacting some ‘meaningless mechanical routine’ doesn’t generally sit very well with us. Surely, we might think, it is possible to be purposeful in an exciting way, in a creative way, in a positive and progressive sort of a way. Our whole culture is pretty much based upon this assumption, after all! The belief that it is good to be purposeful is pretty much written into the constitution, it’s so basic! We’re all about being purposeful, whilst at the same time imagining that this purposefulness is somehow an expression of everything that is most human about us. We’re identified with this purposefulness, and the dry rational descriptions (or theories) of the world that it springs out of. As far as we’re concerned, being unashamedly purposeful is the dynamic way to be, this is what makes us the gloriously progressive and evolving culture that we are.
‘Purposeful’ and ‘evolving’ oughtn’t really to go together in the same breath however – that’s just confused thinking. Purposeful is where I have an idea (a blue-print) of what I want to do, and then I go right ahead and do it! I enact the programme – that’s ‘purposefulness’ in a nutshell. Of course there can be more trappings to it than just this – due to the process of trial and error I can discover better, more efficient ways of progressing towards my goal. I can refine and upgrade my methods for getting to my designated destination; based on the feedback I am getting I can optimize my game-plan, I can optimize my strategies. This isn’t evolution however – this is just cybernetics, this is just a negative feedback mechanism steering us more effectively towards an equilibrium point. Evolution, on the other hand, is where we deviate from the blueprint, it’s where we move out of equilibrium. It’s where we forget about the goal that we’ve been putting so much energy into because we’ve discovered something more interesting, because we’ve accidentally (not purposefully!) come across a totally different direction to be going in…
If I start off with a bunch of code (whether it is in the form of DNA or whatever else) and I obey this code so that I go ahead and do whatever it is telling me to do then this isn’t evolution – this is just mechanics, this is just a fixed pattern busily propagating itself over and over again. This is just a foregone conclusion getting to manifest in reality in the way we knew it always would! Evolution on the other hand is where there is some kind of unexpected accident in the code, it is where the code doesn’t get to be faithfully obeyed so that the outcome isn’t the predetermined one at all. OK, so there is a bit more to it than just this – the mutation has to prove viable rather than deleterious (as of course the vast majority of unplanned deviations from the code are) but the important thing here is that the basic principle of the process is founded upon accident rather than design. This then is the big difference – purposefulness is all about design whereas evolution comes about as a result of ‘happy accidents’.
From the point of view of purposefulness, if we have an accident then this is called ‘failing’; this is not a good thing – we’re failing to reach the goal that is so very important to us, the goal which is an extension of our present position. Being purposeful is about achieving your purpose and anything that takes us away from this is called a failure. Evolution – even though the word generally sounds so dynamic in a ‘linearly progressive’ kind of a way – is not purposeful, is not goal-driven. It’s all about failures – lots and lots of accumulated failures! The great thing about the evolutionary process is its great flexibility; a goal-driven process on the other hand has zero flexibility – that’s what being goal-driven means, that we don’t have any flexibility with regard to achieving the goal. That’s the whole point of purposefulness – we don’t want flexibility, we want the goal! We are flexible (maybe) about how we go about achieving the goal but this is merely ‘flexibility in the service of inflexibility’ (or ‘change in the service of staying the same’). This is just boring old optimization.
The reason we’re talking about evolution so much is because it demonstrates how difficult we find it to understand change that is not directed towards some kind of final goal. We see change that is directed towards a final goal as the only sort of change we’re interested in; we see it as by far the ‘best’ form of change, whilst actually it is not any sort of change at all! And yet we cannot understand this – we cannot for the life of us understand that goal-driven change or purposefulness is all about ‘staying the same’, whilst deceptively claiming (at the same time) to be all about changing! This is precisely where our blind-spot is and we have to work very hard to get around to seeing this blind-spot. Culturally speaking, we see goals as ‘the be all and end all’ but really a goal is nothing more than a glorified limitation. Goals are a limitations that we can’t see to be limitations, which of course makes them supremely effective as such. Goals are limitations because we can’t see beyond them – we’re not interested in seeing beyond them and this is precisely what makes them a ‘cut-off’ point in our attention. We only give attention to what helps us get there. Some things are of course perfectly good as goals – if I need something to drink then I go and get myself a glass of water and in this case I don’t need to look beyond this. If I am in danger for whatever reason then my goal is to get out of danger (to run away, perhaps) and it is quite understandable if in this case I don’t look at the bigger picture of what’s going on, and concern myself only with the narrow focus of what will help me in purely immediate terms.
Everyday life is full of little goals such as getting something to eat or putting out the rubbish bin, and also from time to time bigger goals such as buying a car or moving house. These are all ‘narrow focusses’, and quite legitimately so. There are goals in life and there is a perfectly legitimate role for goal-orientated thinking but this is not the same as saying that life is all about goals or that ‘to live’ can itself be a goal! When we make this leap then everything becomes absurd, and yet make this leap we do! We’re always making this leap. Goals are purely ‘pragmatic necessities’ and life itself is not entirely a matter of pragmatic necessities – to see it as such is a particularly dismal form of insanity, albeit a form of insanity that has come to seem very normal to us. Life cannot be a ‘narrow focus’ (where we concentrate on what’s inside the box and ignore what isn’t) because what’s outside the box is also life – it’s all life, as Kurt Vonnegut has his character Kilgore Trout say in Breakfast of Champions. So when we make life into a narrow focus (into a mere matter of goals, rational agendas and strategies) what we’re actually doing is using our goals, our agendas, our strategies, as a way of ignoring life…
The reason we’re so obsessed with our theories and goals and strategies is therefore because we want to ignore life! That’s our game. Immersing ourselves in our rationally-mediated activity of thinking and purposeful doing looks on the surface as if it’s a way of getting the most out of life (or maybe even celebrating life) and so the suggestion that it is actually a sneaky way of avoiding life (or at least, that it is when we take it as far as we do!) is one that is nothing short of anathema. It is a perversion of everything we hold dear – even though what we ‘hold dear’ is nothing more than some kind of half-baked, unexamined fantasy!
What we like so much about goals and strategies and methods is that it provides for us a very special kind of feeling – the type of feeling that comes when we know we are progressing in a direction we want to, via logical steps, in a way that we can be in control of. This is an immensely appealing state of affairs – it provides us with the verifiable belief that we are heading towards the desired outcome, a belief that is based upon the fact that we can see ourselves getting there, measure ourselves getting there, prove to ourselves that we are getting there. This gives us a very ‘secure’ sort of a feeling, and not only this – there is (as we all know) something about anticipating that the good thing is going to happen that actually exceeds the reality of the desired outcome when it does happen. We can therefore say that it is this ‘pleasurable anticipation’ which is the real currency here, not the goal itself, which – if the truth were known – is only there to enable us to experience the pleasurable anticipation with regard to the expected positive result…
Anticipating the desired outcome feels as good as it does feel because the outcome or goal we are anticipating is – quite simply – serving as a substitute for life! Life itself isn’t a routine or a series of mechanical steps but a routine or series of mechanical steps can act as a replacement of life, as a sort of ‘safe analogue’ for life. A logical routine can very easily act as an analogue for life – this doesn’t mean that it in any way approximates life, or that it has the faintest relationship to what it is replacing, it just means that the routine can (all the same) effectively substitute for life. If we were to try to say something about what life really is (since it isn’t a routine), we could perhaps say that it is a leap – that it is a leap into the unknown. A ‘leap’ is a very different thing to the type of mechanically-graded change (or progression) that is associated with a logical routine; routines, as we have just said, are all about the type of change which we can call ‘concrete progression’, the type of rule-based change which can be absolutely verified, and therefore totally relied upon, as taking us to where we want to go. We can verify the process every step of the way, we can continuously check up on it by reference to a formula for ‘how it is supposed to be going’ and this naturally gives us a great feeling of security regarding the fact that ‘we’re getting there’. And yet whilst where we’re actually going is of course important in a nominal (or surface-level) sense it isn’t – as we have already indicated – actually important because what really counts, what really matters, is the feeling that we have that we’re progressing towards somewhere that we have designated as ‘a good place to go’. Our goal isn’t all that important in itself, it’s only important because it’s facilitating that good feeling, that pleasurable anticipation, that comforting sense that ‘we are getting somewhere’! The goal that we’re progressing so reliably (and so manageably) towards unconsciously represents to us all that is good in life, which means that the distinctly banal mechanical process of ‘obtaining the designated goal’ has now become ‘an analogue of life’.
The goal we are working towards stands for something far more significant than it actually is but if we allow ourselves to see this then the game is of course immediately spoiled. The routine is only an analogue of life but the key thing is that we don’t see it to an analogue. We have got to be blind to what we ourselves are doing – we have got to ‘do it, but not see that we’re doing it’. This blindness facilitates the substitution process, but it also creates a glitch that will come back to haunt us – even though we don’t realize it, we have incurred an ‘entropy debt’. Or to put this another way, we have created ‘meaninglessness that we can’t see to be meaninglessness’. We have created the inverse of information, we have created entropy.
The fact that the pragmatically useful routine is now serving as an analogue for something bigger than itself has, we might say, a highly significant consequence – the fact that the routine is serving as an analogue means that it is now entirely meaningless in itself. Inasmuch as a routine has a practical purpose, and inasmuch as this practical purpose is the real reason for performing the routine, for enacting it, for engaging in it, then the routine is not meaningless. Its pragmatic purpose is its meaning! It’s not a huge purpose perhaps, it’s not overwhelmingly important, it’s not compulsive, is not terrifically exciting or anything like that, but it is meaningful nonetheless. It is meaningful in relation to the goal we are seeking to obtain. But when the real reason that we engage so enthusiastically in the routine is because it is serving the covert purpose of substituting for life then the routine we are engaging in straightaway becomes entirely meaningless. It becomes entirely meaningless because we are not doing it for the reason that we say we are, and if we’re not doing it for the reason that we say we are then clearly it can’t have this genuine (if humble) pragmatic meaning. All it has is the ‘false meaning’, the ‘pseudo-meaning’ that we’re not admitting to and the plain fact of the matter is that this pseudo-meaning isn’t really there…
It seems wrong to say that there could be a something (a part of our lives, maybe even a very substantial part) which is ‘completely devoid of meaning’. Are there any such deserts in life? Are there such things as ‘wastelands of the soul’? Everything has some kind of meaning, we might think, even if it is only the subjective sort! Surely even illusions still have some meaning. This objection is understandable, but it misses the point. The point is that whilst nothing is ‘totally sterile’ as it is in itself (i.e. whilst nothing that naturally occurs is meaningless) we can nevertheless create this kind of ‘unnatural sterility’ for ourselves when we use a mechanical routine as an unacknowledged analogue of life. In other words, even though we live in a universe which is full of meaning, we can create meaninglessness for ourselves by creating our own realities. We can create this peculiar thing, this most peculiar thing which is ‘meaninglessness that we cannot see as such’.
When we use a routine (which we have made ourselves) as an analogue for life what we are doing is creating a situation where there are two levels of meaning, one of which is overt and the other covert. The overt level of meaning is where we ‘see what we are supposed to see’; this is the show, this is the theatre, this is where we get to project whatever meaning we want onto the screen that we have in front of us. The overt level of meaning is therefore where we falsely see something that isn’t there as being there, but which we’re supposed to believe in as being there nonetheless. If the overt level of meaning is where we ‘see what we’re supposed to see’ then the covert level is made up of what we’re not supposed to see! This of course has to do with the actual mechanism of projection, the mechanism by which our attention is distracted neatly onto the overt level of meaning, where the theatre is being played out. The covert level of meaning corresponds therefore with what the skilled conjurer is doing behind the scenes in order to facilitate the illusion he is entertaining us with. In one way this is all well and good (this being what the conjurer needs to do in order to conjure) but in another way this creates a kind of ‘glitch’ because the result of having all our attention hovered up like this by the distraction, by the illusion that is being promoted, is that a ‘vacuity’ (an ‘absence of genuine content’) is created – the pernicious sort of vacuity which we are constitutionally unable to be aware of. When all of our attention is taken up with something isn’t real, something that we ‘imagine to be there but which isn’t’, then this creates an area of ‘neglect’ – it creates, as we have said, an area of unawareness the existence of which we are unaware. This thoroughly unpleasant (if not to say toxic) vacuity, which is unfailingly produced as a kind of unwanted and unforeseen by-product of all ‘mind-created’ (as well as ‘media-created’) realities, is alluded to here by the philosopher Jean Baudrillard –
The futility of everything that comes to us from the media is the inescapable consequence of the absolute inability of that particular stage to remain silent. Music, commercial breaks, news flashes, adverts, news broadcasts, movies, presenters—there is no alternative but to fill the screen; otherwise there would be an irremediable void…. That’s why the slightest technical hitch, the slightest slip on the part of the presenter becomes so exciting, for it reveals the depth of the emptiness squinting out at us through this little window.
Taking this into account, we could perhaps say that there are three ingredients here not two – the theatrical level (the show); the covert level (the distraction mechanism that facilitates the show, which is ‘the truth of what’s going on behind the scenes’) and ‘the vacuity’ (Baudrillard’s ‘irremediable void’) – which is really just a way of talking about the entropy of the system, i.e. the information which is missing and which we have no way to know to be missing. On the other hand though we could just say that it’s ‘all just the one’ – the magic show (the false reality) is the vacuity, we just can’t see it as such! We’re staring at a vacancy thinking that there’s something there but it’s really just the vacancy we’re staring at; we think we’re eating a meal but the meal we think we’re eating is really just ‘the absence of a meal’. We’re just too bemused to see it! And what’s more, sinister, if we’re staring at a vacancy without knowing that it’s a vacancy, then that means that we’ve actually become the vacancy ourselves, even though we’d never guess it…
What ‘bemuses’ us so effectively is this thing that we’ve called euphoria. Euphoria makes the barren landscape look hospitable, euphoria makes that terribly sterile landscape (more sterile than any desert) look marvellously attractive, it makes it look as if it were positively brimming over with good things! Euphoria makes a handful of dust look like riches beyond compare! Euphoria makes the frighteningly blank vacuity look like the best deal going! One way to understand how this bemusement (or ‘enchantment’) works is to think about this whole business of goals and what they mean to us – as we have been saying if a goal is important to us only in a purely pragmatic way (if it is important only in the down-to-earth sense that it actually has in itself) then this is one thing – all is ‘above board’ and there are no glitches, no nasty surprises hidden away from us under the floorboards. There are no spooks, no ghosts to haunt us. There is also no euphoria! If on the other hand the goal in question takes on more significance than it is due, if it starts to surreptitiously subsume meaning that doesn’t belong to it, if it starts to become a counter in a game that we’re not owning up to (if it starts to become ‘a substitute for life’, in other words) then this is where the euphoria comes in! I think – on some unacknowledged level – that when I attain the goal then I am – in some unspecified sense – going to attain life!! This isn’t something that I spell out to myself, this isn’t something that I understand in any kind of an explicit way (or ever accept if someone tells me) but it is nevertheless what lies behind me feeling good. This is what lies behind the pleasurable anticipation that we place so much stock in, and which fuels so much of our day-to-day activity…
Just to repeat the point – I am blissfully unaware of what I am doing here – I just see ‘attaining the goal’ as ‘a great thing’ and that’s all there is to it. It’s good to attain goals: as everyone always says, it’s good to have goals, it’s good to put lots of effort into achieving them, it’s good to keep positive about our ability to achieve them, and so on. This whole business of ‘chasing goals’ is intensely meaningful to me – it is perennially motivating. I don’t ever say to myself that attaining the goal is meaningful to me because by successfully attaining the designated outcome I am (in some unspecified sort of a way) attaining life (which would be far too obviously stupid) but I nevertheless believe this. I believe it without allowing myself to see that I believe it. I unconsciously believe it. Consciously, I just think – in the most superficial way possible – that ‘it is good to attain the goal’. That’s what our whole culture is about, if we were to be honest about it! Our culture is all about ‘being a winner’ – although being a winner doesn’t actually mean a damn thing outside of our games, which we don’t see as games. Being a winner feels good – it generates a big whack of euphoria – but it is nevertheless completely meaningless. It’s meaningless but we are constitutionally unable see that it is. That is what euphoria is all about after all – making meaninglessness invisible!
All of this becomes particularly clear when we consider what we have been saying in terms of formal games. When we are playing a formal game it is of course only the most superficial level of meaning that we are interested in. Or to put this another way, the only level of meaning that we are interested in is the one that is assumed by the game itself, which is the theatrical level of meaning. On this level of things there is a certain outcome that has been designated as ‘the winning outcome’ and so it is not what this outcome means in itself (i.e. what it actual content is, if there is any) that matters, but what we say it means. This is the nominal level of meaning therefore – the level we’re ‘supposed’ to take notice of. When this designated ‘winning outcome’ is achieved then – as everyone knows – this generally feels very good. It feels great because we have won and winning is designated on the nominal level as the best possible outcome – the supremely advantageous outcome. So insofar as we are restricting our awareness to the nominal level of meaning (as indeed we are, if we are playing the game), successfully bringing about the winning outcome causes us to experience maximal gratification. This maximal gratification (which is as we have been saying based upon taking the most superficial level of meaning possible seriously, as if it were not superficial, as if it were the only level that matters) is what we have been calling euphoria. Euphoria is therefore what we get when we take an illusion seriously – it’s what we get when we treat an illusion as if it were not an illusion. (Or more accurately, it’s half of what we get when we take an illusion seriously – the other half being dysphoria, or ‘negative euphoria’.)
A game is worth playing because of the excitement the prospect of winning brings, and in the same way a meaningless routine is worth engaging in (or seems worth engaging in) because of the euphoric jackpot that is to be found at the end of the rainbow! It’s not so much a case of ‘the end justifying the means’ as ‘the goal justifying the method’, and since the ‘goal’ here represents life itself, what could be more exciting than this? The mere thought that we are ‘on our way’, via proven and verifiable steps is more than enough to infuse a dull old routine with sparkle! Every step we take is a step closer – every mile-stone we notch up, every box we tick is like a little version, a ‘mini-version’, of the final goal and so every defined step we take is an ‘advance’ on the big pay-out that we know is coming our way. These advances are responsible for ‘enlivening’ the tired old routine, they are what ‘breathes life’ into the wearisome round and make it worth treading one more time.
This is really an amazing trick. In itself – as we have said – the routine is just a clockwork mechanism – there’s no juice in it at all, it’s as dry and lifeless as an old dust-covered cobweb that’s been hanging there from the ceiling in an empty room for a hundred years. A routine has no nurturing substance to it – nothing to replenish the spirit. It’s an abstract entity so of course it’s sterile. How can there be any life in an abstraction – that’s like saying that writing the word ‘food’ can satisfy your hunger, or claiming that a picture of a glass of water can slake your thirst. The point that we’re making is that a mechanical routine (just like an abstract representation) can only be genuinely useful is it leads to something that is not mechanical (or if it points us in the direction of a reality that is not a formal description, is not an abstract representation). But as we have been saying that just isn’t what happens in everyday life – what happens in everyday life is that the mechanical routine leads to another mechanical routine. What happens is that the abstraction representation relates us to another abstract representation. What happens in everyday life is that the lifeless and juiceless abstraction surreptitiously replaces the non-abstract reality to which it is supposedly referring.
Jean Baudrillard speaks of this process as the ‘precession of the simulacra’; in Simulacra and Simulations (1981) he states:
By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials – worse: with their artificial resurrection in the systems of signs, a material more malleable than meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and shortcircuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself – such is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection, that no longer even gives the event of death a chance. A hyperreal henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and for the simulated generation of differences.
This is such an astonishingly significant idea that it’s a wonder that we don’t pay a modicum at least of attention to it, but we don’t! Talk of the hyperreal means nothing to us and we’re not interested in it. It’s not a word that has passed into our vocabulary- we’re all far too busy getting sucked up into it to have any curiosity about what it is that we’re being sucked up into! What’s more, this ought not really to come as any surprise – it is in the nature of hyperreality that when we’re in it we’re only interested in what it shows us (i.e. that we’re fixated upon the nominal level of meaning) and not at all interested in the heretical suggestion that the nominal is only the nominal, that the ‘show’ we’re caught up in is only as show. Hyperreality does not – by its very nature – provide us with the means, the capacity, to be interested in the suggestion that there are other ways of seeing what’s going on other than the way which it provides us with. It could not survive if we had this capacity – it could not exist if we had this capacity.
Hyperreality sounds like a very modern sort of idea – it sounds like a concept that has grown out of this age of computers and information technology but if we look into it a bit more we can see that this whole ‘theatrical reality’ business is just another way of talking about the Eastern idea of samsara. Here Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche (2007) in Bardo – Interval of Possibility speaks of samsara in terms of ‘relative truth’ or ‘fake reality’ –
…The other aspect of the bardo is the bardo of how things appear. The term here is kundzop, which is usually translated as “relative” or “relative truth,” although it literally means “fake truth”. Relative truth is fake truth because, when it is viewed by an undeluded cognition, it is seen to be unreal, to not truly exist. It is a process of bewilderment and bewildered appearances, and is continuous in the sense that it is beginningless and it has never stopped. It is constantly gaining momentum, and its power is constantly increasing, causing your bewilderment to grow over time.
Through bewilderment you experience relative truth, or fake reality, as real. What is this like? It is like being in the audience of a skilled illusionist who, through some method or through the power of casting spells, can cause an audience to see all sorts of things that are not there. The illusionist can cause you to see people, horses, elephants, houses, whatever you want; none of these things are there, but as long as you do not realize that, you react to them with pleasure, pain, disappointment, happiness, enjoyment, fear, and so on, just as though they were really there. Your experience of relative truth is this beginningless deception by the fakery or illusion of your own bewilderment.
Samsara hoovers up every last bit of our free awareness, converting it as it does to what we might call ‘attached attention’. ‘Attached attention’ is attention that can only register information if that information has previously been formatted by the categorical mind. It is the sort of ‘pre-programmed awareness’ that can only receive information if that information fits it’s inbuilt assumptions about ‘how information should come’ – if we don’t hear the information from the official news agency then we won’t pay any heed to it, if we don’t read it in our daily newspaper then it isn’t real. Or as we could also say, if it isn’t happening on the theatrical level, then we simply have no capacity to know about it. We’re looking on the monitor, on the display screen, so if it’s not coming up there (in our official ‘news-feed’) then we have no way to know anything about it. If the news isn’t coming to us in the format that we are used to it coming (the format we expect it to come in, the format we need it to come in) then as far as we are concerned it isn’t happening.
What we have been saying might perhaps seem like a fairly straightforward description of the process that is at work in distracting our attention away from ‘reality as it is in itself’ and gluing it instead to the ‘conditioned reality’ which is what we see when we go along with our regular old way of looking at things. One thing that we have not perhaps emphasized enough though is the sheer brutal coerciveness of what is going on here. This is something akin to an abusive relationship – and not just a mildly abusive relationship but the sort where you are totally in the power of some kind of morbidly controlling (and pathologically jealous) partner. This might sound like exaggeration or over-dramatization but it isn’t. Not only is it the case that there is this ‘conditioned view’ of the world – it has to be emphasized that this conditioned view ‘sucks us in and holds us’ with a truly voracious force. We see things its way because that is the only way we are allowed to see things! There is a kind of magnetic (or sticky) quality to the conditioned view of the world that pulls us in and holds us fast – in short, it traps us.
This process whereby we are held fast (or trapped) within the theatrical level of meaning corresponds to what in the East is called attachment. Attachment means ‘aversion’ on the one hand and ‘attraction’ on the other and so what ‘holds us on the spot’ is essentially the power of fear and desire. This doesn’t mean that we are constantly in a state of either intense fear or intense craving (with regard to what we imagine to be out there in the world) but rather that we are always looking at everything in terms of whether it stands to be advantageous or disadvantageous to us. In short, everything is seen in terms of ourselves…
So what this means – plainly speaking – is that we call get trapped in the samsaric (or theatrical) realm by this brutally coercive force that makes us believe (and very deeply believe) that we are this self. Aversion and attraction (or fear and desire) sound like two things – they sound like two distinct motivations – but really they are just the one thing. Really they are just ‘the self’: I like this, I don’t like this; I fear this, I crave that. It’s all the self. What do fear and desire both have in common? What is the connection between like and dislike? What possible meaning could ‘advantage’ or ‘disadvantage’ have without the one who is either to be advantaged or disadvantaged?
Very clearly, without the brutally persuasive illusion that there is the one who stands to gain (or stands to lose) this magnetic ‘prison for our attention’ won’t have any power over us, any more than a regular magnetic bottle (such as we might encounter in high-energy physics) can contain (or in any way influence) subatomic particles that have no net charge, that are neither ‘positive or negative’. Without the illusion of ‘the one who is going to incur either the advantage or the disadvantage’, the prison for the attention which is the conditioned mind will have no more power to determine our perceptions of reality than a net has power to catch air, or as a sieve has power to carry water. We might think that it is our attachments that are trapping us but it isn’t – what’s trapping us is the super-sticky illusion of the self.
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.