Our usual state of being is pretty crappy if we were to be honest about it, despite the fact that we act as if it weren’t, despite the fact that we’re generally quite full of ourselves, quite pleased with ourselves. The reason our state of being is so crappy is because we go around the whole time thinking that unreal things are real, because we spend almost all of our time preoccupying ourselves with serial unreality! What’s so great about this?
This is hardly going to be a popular view on the matter. It tends to sound disparaging and dismissive. It sounds cynical and negative. Without question it comes across as being unforgivably belittling and dismissive of our image of ourselves and so, if we’re determined to take that image seriously, we’re not going to be favourably disposed to hearing it. It’s not the case that this view is cynical or dismissive however – it is this business of preoccupying ourselves with serial unrealities that is belittling us, not someone pointing out that this is what is happening! To say that it is ‘negative’ to point out that our state of being is crappy, or to say that it is ‘cynical’ to remark that we are hooked on serial unreality as if it were some kind of drug is absurd. Pointing this out is helpful not cynical! It is as if we are travelling on a motorway to get to some city and someone happens to spot the fact that we’re going in entirely the wrong direction – what could be more helpful than this?
The reason we are so engrossed in unreality, so focussed on it, so steadfastly centred on it, is because we are constantly seeing the world through our abstract concepts, through our concrete ideas and literal language. We don’t deal with reality at all – we have no time for it because we have no concept for it! There’s no such thing as a concept which is real, an idea that is real, a thought that is real. There can’t be any such thing because all of our thoughts, all of our concrete terms and ideas are definite (or closed), and reality is not definite, reality is not closed. Since reality is not defined, since reality is not closed, how can there be any reality in our thoughts or words? As James Carse says, the Infinite Game can contain any number of finite games within it, but not vice versa…
There is nothing about reality that is ‘definite’, nothing at all. Reality is wide open to anything and everything, unreservedly open to anything and everything, just as a page is unreservedly open to whatever you might wish to write upon it, be it utter nonsense or the most profound of philosophical insights. In contrast to reality however thoughts and words are definite. Thoughts and words are opaque, which is to say, they mean what they are specified by the book of rules as meaning and nothing else. What they nominally mean is the limit of what they mean.
We could also say that thoughts and words end with themselves; we could say that they never under any circumstances go further than themselves. They mean what they mean and that’s it. One thought may lead to another, or ‘spark off’ another, but each individual thought ends in itself, is an end in itself. This is what ‘concreteness’ is all about! Concrete thought is its own limitation – it is the very fact that it is limited that makes it concrete! This is an easy point to understand, and yet we hardly ever see things this way, which is to say, we hardly ever see definitions as being limitations. If I define something then I say precisely what it ‘is’, and by the act of saying what it ‘is’ I rule out everything else. Definitions function by exclusion, by shutting the door on anything that isn’t in the definition. Because we see definition as a positive sort of a thing (as an action that results in some sort of tangible gain) we are not disposed to looking at it in the other way, which is to see the act of definition as something that results in an amazingly big loss! The loss in question is as we have said of everything else – everything that happens to be on the outside of the defining boundary. What is lost as the result of the act of definition is all connectedness to the non-abstract world…
‘Connectedness’ means of course that one thing leads to another thing, which leads on to another and another and another, until eventually all things are reached, and there are no things that are not reached. Saying it like this makes it sound like there is time involved but actually with the type of connectedness we are talking about here if something is connected to something else then it was always connected and there is no time process involved. Universal Connectedness isn’t something that we achieve piecemeal, it’s something that existed right from the very beginning, which means that there aren’t really ‘lots of things which are connected’, but only the one thing. And this ‘one thing’ isn’t strictly speaking a thing at all since things have edges (their edges being what makes them things in the first place) and when everything is innately connected there are of course no edges, no boundaries, no limitations.
Seeing edges where there aren’t any is our way of splitting up everything into things, into defined units, into abstract fragments which we can then talk about or think about – but when we do this we aren’t really doing anything at all. It just seems that we are. Rational thought is essentially a game because it assumes divisions that aren’t there – it happens to be a game with a pay-off because there is generally a correspondence between the rules it assumed and the rules the physical universe runs on, but it is a game all the same. Our way of classifying what is around us and performing mental operations on the data thus obtained can be very useful in practical matters, but at the same time it has no application to the ‘bigger picture’ of things, and because it has no application to the bigger picture (or to ‘the Whole’) we act – rather absurdly – as if there is no such thing, and this unwisely narrow focus is where our problems all begin.
The principle of connectedness (or boundary-lessness) means, as we have said, that ‘nothing is excluded’ and if nothing is excluded then this means that it’s all there! The Whole of it is there – whatever ‘it’ is, and again we don’t want to go down the road of trying to say what ‘it’ is because the only way we could do that would be to draw a line around it and with the Whole of Everything this is the one thing we just can’t do! This business of ‘everything being there and nothing being excluded’ means that what we are talking about (talking about but not defining) is actual reality and not an abstract fragment, not a regular, standardized construct of the everyday conceptual mind.
Being connected to everything, and having been connected right from the beginning, with no time-lag involved, without the need for any bureaucratic boxes to be ticked, or any forms to be filled in, without the need for any qualifications to be obtained or standards to be reached, without the need for any permission or authorization, is great news – it is the best possible news in fact since it means that we’re not lacking in anything, not deficient in anything. We’re already complete. We are participating in reality no matter what, and we can never not participate, we never can be excluded since we can’t ever disconnect ourselves no matter how hard we try. At the same time however this doesn’t change what we said earlier, which is that we live life in a state of serial unreality!
The problem is that although all our conceptualizations are thoroughly and irredeemably unreal, we are nevertheless flatly convinced that they are. We are unshakeably convinced that they are real and dynamite couldn’t persuade us otherwise. And not only are we flatly convinced that our conceptualizations are real, that our conceptually-mediated reality is the genuine article, we are also flatly convinced that there is no other reality possible apart from this one, apart from the one our conceptual mind is telling us about. We are fundamentally convinced that there never could be any reality other than this one – we are so very convinced in fact that we never even stop to take any time out to notice or remark upon the fact that we are convinced.
Just as it says in the Deuteronomy 6:15 that “The Lord your God is a jealous God…” so too is the conceptually-mediated reality a jealous god – it will permit no master in the house other than itself. The conditioned view of things permits no other perspective than its own, it allows no disagreeing or incongruent viewpoints, no alternative ‘versions’ of reality, no independent voice. In this it is like some kind of out-of-control global media corporation which has managed to crush and drive to the wall all the opposition so that what it says becomes ‘the truth’ by default, because it is the only voice there is. There are no other ‘versions of reality’ being promoted other than its own and for this reason the view it is propagating is no longer just ‘a truth’ – it is now the truth. The media corporation has in this way put itself into an invulnerable position – it cannot be questioned or doubted because it controls all the information and the one thing we know for sure in a situation like this is that the news corporation in question is not going to release any information that is going to undermine its own position, or in any way throw doubt on the veracity of its reporting.
The situation we are talking about here is exactly the one we find ourselves in with regard to the operation of the conceptual mind – or at least it is the situation we would find ourselves in if only we took the trouble to look into the matter. We don’t generally find this out however because we don’t question how we see the world, and we don’t question how we see the world because the way that we see the world doesn’t allow us to question it. The way we see the world is a closed way; the conceptual mind is a ‘closed system’.
This is very evident – whoever notices that we don’t have any way of understanding the world other than the one afforded us by our language, by our categories of thought? When was the last time you heard someone comment on the fact that the only point of view we are permitted to have is the one that is provided for us by the rational-conceptual mind? When was the last time it occurred to you that it is impossible to encounter any aspect of reality that has not been pre-digested and preformatted by the apparatus of thought? Nobody notices this. Nobody talks about it. We’re all far too busy getting on with the type of stuff that makes sense within the conceptual context that has been given to us by the apparatus of thought to actually question this context. In this culture of ours there are no brownie points given out for questioning the format.
It’s not so much that we’re saying here that the information which is provided for us by the everyday mind is ‘wrong’ or ‘erroneous’ or ‘biased’, but rather that it cannot serve as an actual substitute for reality. And yet in the absence of unmediated reality this is precisely what it does do. The conceptualized world that we live in (along with the conceptualized version of ourselves that does the living!) is a substitute for unmediated or unconditioned reality and because an abstraction (i.e. a standardized product of a formal system) has replaced reality the world we are perceiving and interacting with on an ongoing basis is ‘an unreality that we cannot see as such’.
An abstraction that can be seen as such, a concept that can be seen as such, a thought that we can see as such is not unreal – it only gets to be unreal (and to go on therefore to generate various unreal worlds) when we can’t see it to be just an abstraction, just a concept, just a thought. This type of confusion happens all the time. It happens seamlessly, on an ongoing and systematic basis! The way we can know this (if we care to know it) is by paying conscious attention to our everyday perception of reality. When I pay attention what I notice is that I am continuously agreeing with my own descriptions of the world, my own definitions of the world, my own ‘naming’ of the world. There is perfect congruence! There is complete agreement between what I conventionally label reality as being and what I perceive it to be. The two are in fact the same thing…
When the mind-created description is the same thing as the perception then what this means is that there is no actual consciousness. It takes consciousness to see that the two things aren’t the same, and it takes consciousness to see that we are taking the two things to be the same on an ongoing basis! It takes consciousness to see that we are actually unconscious, in other words, and despite the apparent paradox this is the way that things work – noticing that we have forgotten something is remembering, and being aware that we are not aware is waking up. The state of being where there is total congruent between the conventional standardized descriptions of reality and our personal perception of reality we can therefore refer to as being ‘flat’ or ‘literal’ or ‘concrete’ or ‘unconscious’.
If I didn’t automatically agree with the prepackaged version of ‘how things are’ then I would know about it, I would be straightaway able to notice this fact, because the perception of the difference between the labelling and the reality, the perception of the incongruence between the description and what is being described, would itself be my awareness, as we have just said. The difference (between ‘actual’ and ‘expected’, between ‘what I expect to see’ and ‘what I actually do see’) is my awareness, my consciousness; this is my actual conscious presence in the process of whatever it is that is going on. As Gregory Bateson says (speaking about information), this gap or discontinuity is
the difference that makes a difference.
The particular difference that we are talking about here makes all the difference in the world! It makes the difference between having the door tight shut, and having it somewhat ajar, so that a bit of sunlight and fresh air can come in. It makes the difference between ‘non-ironic’ or concrete consciousness (which is not consciousness at all) and genuine consciousness, which is always delightfully ironic, delightfully non-concrete. If the ironic state of being is full of delight, then the non-ironic or literal state is full of misery! It may not be immediately obvious why this should be the case, why the literal state of being should necessarily be a miserable or unhappy one. After all, isn’t it possible to be literal about one’s situation and yet still see that situation in a positive way? I can just as well be literal-minded in a positive or hopeful way as I could in a negative way. I could for example literally believe that my life is going to be great and that I am going to be blessed with good fortune every step of the way and wouldn’t that make me happy? I could literally believe that when I die I’m going to go straight to heaven and won’t that make me happy?
It may not be immediately obvious why being stuck in the ‘literal mode’ is going to make me miserable, it may not be straightaway clear why being ‘concrete’ is such a dreadful handicap in terms of being able to enjoy life, but it becomes very obvious, it becomes very clear, just as soon as we look into the matter a bit more closely. Being stuck in literal mode means that we have no sense of humour and this in itself ought to serve as some sort of warning about what we’re getting into here. How can I be happy without a sense of humour? Literalism is a type of ‘toxin’ for consciousness; as Joseph Campbell says in Myths to Live By –
Read between the lines! Literalism kills; Imagination quickens.
We could also say that being literal means that we have no perspective on anything – it means being trapped in every little issue that comes up like a fly on fly-paper. To have perspective is to be free and to not have perspective is to be not free. To be literal-minded is to be tiresomely, wearisomely caught up in all the unimportant details – it is to be compelled to endlessly review all these petty details, to go over them and over them as if they were the most important thing in the world! To be literal-minded means to be unable to see that they’re unimportant and because of this to be controlled by them, infinitely trivial and banal as they might be…
To be literal-minded is to be frankly lost in all of these unbelievably tedious details and thus to miss out on what really matters! What really matters is not the details, not the concrete specifications of the thing, what really matters is something entirely different, something absolutely different from what we’re focussing so hard on. To illustrate this point we can imagine a very dry kind of a biologist, a guy whose skills in taxonomy and lab-work are extremely good, who is excellent at measuring and weighing and collecting facts and figure, but who is for whatever reason incapable of going any further than this. Such a man might spend many years dissecting some little-known species of animal (which has been sent to him in his laboratory in the form of a preserved specimen in a jar) and whilst he might have amassed a formidable body of data at the end of his investigation, he would still have zero insight into the creature he is supposed to be finding out about! He will think that he has, but he hasn’t. He has missed the point – quantitative data can’t capture the essence of the animal whose dead body he has been studying. Studying a dead organism can’t tell us what life is, no matter how many years we spend dissecting it and putting it under a microscope!
The irony here is tremendous. We might also imagine – in order to illustrate the point still further – a learned professor at some world-renowned university who has spent his entire career studying the psychology of humour, and writing innumerable long-drawn-out academic papers on the subject and who – himself – happens to have no sense of humour at all. Nobody has ever even seen him smile, let alone laugh! This is exactly our situation when we are in the literal modality (or ‘mechanical’) of being. We are like this highly esteemed professor – we are glued to our much-cherished literal descriptions of the world, which we have obtained via the microscope of the rational mind, and we have put a huge amount of energy into going over these descriptions (obsessing over them in fact) in the hope of finding out something useful. And yet despite all our efforts – or rather because of them – we manage to miss the point entirely. All that we have succeeded at is in being totally enslaved by out own descriptions!
And when it comes down to the question of whether we are actually able to enjoy ourselves or in any way be happy when we are stuck in the literal modality, the answer is surely very clear. What have we got to be happy about apart from our dismally concrete ideas about what is going on? How could we be happy if we are unable to let go of our literal descriptions of life, our logical thoughts and rational beliefs about life, our plans and hopes for life and our regrets and our nostalgic memories about life? How can we possibly be happy and at the same time not be able to let go of the rational-conceptual mind? How could we be happy when we are forever missing out on the Big Picture, and losing ourselves in the details? Very plainly, this is just not going to happen. Happiness is not a category of thought, it is not a mental construct of some kind. Happiness is not in the details…
This is not to say that we won’t have false or superficial impressions that we are happy, that we are content, that we are doing well. I will be able – for some of the time at least – to entertain pleasant or rewarding descriptions of my life. I might for example be able to enjoy my own mind-created description of myself as being happy, or lucky, or well-off, or successful. I might be able to enjoy my evaluation of myself as being a person with good prospects, as being a person who is well-regarded by others, as being a person who is good and virtuous, as being a person who is correct or justified in his views, as a person who is an upstanding member of society, and so on. This sort of conceptual activity will produce pleasure and I will mistake that pleasure for happiness. I will describe my life to myself in a positive way and I will feel good about that. I will be controlled by ‘positive descriptions’ of what is going on.
But these same descriptions, these same evaluations are only going to turn around and bite me savagely in the arse a bit later on. After all, if there is one thing that is absolutely, irrevocably guaranteed in life it is this –
To the extent that I experience euphoria as a result of my positive evaluations of my situation I will also have to experience dysphoria as a result of my negative evaluations of what is happening at some future point in time.
If I believe what my mind says to me when it says stuff to me that I like to hear, then how am I not going to believe it when it says stuff that I don’t want to hear? If I swallow a reassuring story ‘hook, line and sinker’ then why wouldn’t I swallow the dismaying story, the worrying story, the frightening story to exactly the same extent? If I feel pleasure as a result of being flattered then I am going to feel pain when I am insulted…
The accounts are always going to balance at the end of the day. They have to balance – the whole thing was only ever just a gimmick after all, it was only ever ‘me trying to cheat the system’ and so how can I expect to come out with a net profit? The positive evaluation, the pleasing narrative, is as phoney as the negative evaluation, the displeasing narrative but because I have elected to believe the former, I am also going to have to swallow the latter. And because both are phoney in complementary ways, to the same extent, they cancel each other out…
If I choose to allow myself to enjoy the pleasure than comes when flattery is believed then there is no way that I can escape the sting of the insult later on. If I buy into the pleasant delusions, why wouldn’t I buy into the unpleasant ones just as much? Because I have made myself gullible enough to be taken in by the one I am also gullible enough to be hoodwinked by the latter. And so it is up/down, up/down, up/down the whole time in a perfectly meaningless mechanical fashion. This is the script, the basic format, for the unconscious life and it’s exactly the same for everyone, no matter what illusions we might have about our unique individuality! In the unconscious realm there are no individuals; in the unconscious realm everyone obeys the same script!
So whilst it is undoubtedly true that our usual way of being in the world is a pretty crappy one, this is not a cynical statement but a very helpful one! Seeing that our state of being is crappy (and not great at) all is the one thing that can free us from the perceived necessity to carry on with it!
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.