Everyday life is an exercise in ‘serious pretending’ – we start off not being serious but then – inevitably – we fall into a type of insidious seriousness that we just can’t shake off. It would be great if we could just shrug it off, and shed the onerous weight of all that serious pretending, but we just can’t. It’s settled into us – it’s got into our very bones…
We’re pretending big time and woe betide anyone who tries to tell us that we are! We’re pretending like champions and we’re going to keep on pretending. Just about everything we do is based on pretending – our whole way of life, the whole of our culture, our whole civilization is nothing more than one big systematic pretence. The pretence in question is a very simple one – we’re all pretending as hard as we can to be this ‘self’, to be this ‘fixed and deeply familiar identity’.
The thing about this is that it’s a terrible effort – it’s both gruelling and entirely fruitless. Why would we bother if it weren’t for the fact that we’re trapped, if it weren’t for the fact that we can’t at all see what we’re doing? That’s the only reason we do persist to the bitter end – we persist because we’re taking the endeavour seriously, we persist precisely because we can’t see what we’re doing. The self is a trap therefore. It is a trap that is created by ‘pretending’, by ‘trying’, by ‘forcing something to be a way that it isn’t’. Genuine honest-to-goodness relaxation isn’t an option for us therefore. ‘Giving up’ isn’t an option – there’s a ‘tie-in clause’. Once we pick up the burden we can’t put it down; to paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘we’ve waded through blood so much at this stage that returning would be just as wearisome as carrying on’.
Trying is a deadly trap. Suppose that I was told that all my troubles, all my sufferings, were caused by the fact that I am trying all the time, that I can’t stop pushing myself no matter what. Suppose I learn that I am going about things the wrong way because I am trying to force everything the whole time (instead of just ‘letting it be’), and this always backfires against me. Even if I do understand this principle (and it isn’t too hard to understand, particularly if I have already been through a lot of suffering as a result of my involuntary chronic forcing) how is it going to help me? Forcing (or trying) is still all I know, it’s still the only card I have in the pack, and so all I am going to do is try to force myself to stop forcing. All I am going to do is make a goal of having no goals or an agenda to give up having agendas the whole time. I am going to be ‘trying not to try’.
Trying not to try creates the self just as normal straightforward trying does! We unfailingly create the self either way. We create the self no matter what we do, no matter what we try to do (or try not to do). We are a purposeful culture and purposefulness always creates a self – who is it that has the purpose, after all? Who it is that want to reap the fruit of the goal-orientated action? Another way of approaching this is to think in terms of pressure. It is pressure that creates the self – pressure to do this, pressure to do that; pressure to think this way, pressure to think that way. When we put ourselves under pressure to do this or do that, to be this way or that way then we are trapping ourselves in a situation where we have to keep on pretending because we don’t know that we are pretending; the pretence that we’re talking about here being that there is the one who has to do the thing, or be the particular way. Even if we go against the rules and say that we aren’t going to do this or that we aren’t going to be this way or that way, we’re still trapped in that illusion. We’re still trapped in the same frame of reference.
So we’re all going around under pressure all of our lives and there’s no prospect of this pressure being lifted anytime soon, or even any time at all. This isn’t the ‘pressure to exist’ or ‘the stress of having to survive in a difficult world’ – it’s the pressure to keep up the pretence when we don’t know it’s a pretence. It’s the stress of having to protect and maintain this artificial construct that I call ‘myself’. It’s the stress that is inevitably generated when we’re fundamentally disallowed from letting ourselves know that the self-concept is only a concept. This pressure has been piled up on us right from the very beginning – we saw everyone else being deadly serious about life and about themselves and so of course we become this way too. We pick up on it without knowing either that we have done so or what it is that we have picked up on, and then before very long it’s all too late because we have become ‘caught without knowing that we are caught’, we have become enmeshed in the game too thoroughly to ever stand a chance of seeing ourselves clearly and simply again.
The way in which all of this is sold to us is very hard to see through. It’s the most masterful con-job there is! If someone were to come up and say that all we need to do is renounce the hoax for what it is and let go of the pernicious seriousness that afflicts us we would automatically see this as just being a form of escapism, a form of laziness or irresponsibility. This ‘philosophy’ would look to us very much like a way of legitimizing our cowardly avoidance of the burdens that life necessarily places on us. It sounds as if we’re ‘getting off scot free’ whilst everyone else – all the decent responsible-minded people – have to keep on paying their dues. We would feel guilty about ‘dropping out’ therefore and the threat of this guilt would therefore very effectively keep us in the game. This is very much like what happens when we try to escape from a dysfunctional family (or relationship) – we feel bad if we stay because the environment is so toxic but we also feel bad if we go because of the terrible guilt that comes with walking away.
Guilt is of course just another form of pressure and so what this means is that we are simply swapping one form of pressure for another – instead of the pressure of having to play the game we have to bear the guilt of not playing it. Both forms of pressure work equally well; both trap with us equal effectiveness in the illusion of ‘being this self’. If I’m under pressure (i.e. if I’m taking the pressure that is being put on me seriously, which is of course the only way to take pressure!) then there must be a ‘me’ that is taking it on. To take the pressure seriously is to take the ‘pressurized self’ seriously – what we are calling ‘pressure’ and the self that is under the pressure are inseparable, in other words. In one way we could see this as being a ridiculously obvious (and therefore quite pointless) thing to say, but in another way what we’re looking at here represents a very profound insight. ‘Pressure’ and ‘the self’ are inseparable not just because the one requires the other (like ‘running’ requires someone who is running) but because the self is pressure.
‘Pressure’ is another way of talking about ‘expectation’ so what is the expectation that is associated with the self? Actually it doesn’t matter what the expectation is just as long as there is one – the expectation is simply that ‘things be different from the way that they actually are’. The implication is that when things are different from the way they currently are then all will be solved and we will feel good and if things can’t be changed then there will be a big problem and so we will feel bad. If we anticipate success in regard to changing things this will put us into a euphoric mind-state whilst doubt (or ‘negative thinking’) will create dysphoria. Straightway however we can see that this schema is completely nonsensical – things cannot ever be ‘different from the way they are’ and so it is a fundamental form of denial to think that they can be. This is not to say that things don’t change but rather that when are in a situation and we are saying to ourselves (by implication) that we can only ever be happy when that situation changes then what we are doing is fighting reality. ‘Whatever you fight you strengthen’ says Eckhart Tolle and so instead of ‘getting things to be different’ by our efforts to change them we are actually solidifying them. If we aren’t surrendering to the present moment then we are in flagrant denial of reality and to put ourselves in the position of denying reality then this is pressure. It is pressure to change what can’t be changed, and so it is futile (or ‘toxic’) pressure…
The point is therefore that we never ‘surrender to the present moment’ – we have always got this attitude (conscious or unconscious) that we will accept it when it is right, that we will accept it when certain conditions (that we have of course stipulated) have been met. We don’t see ourselves as being in denial of reality, we just see ourselves as ‘striving towards a goal’, which is of course a totally different thing. It’s not pathological, it’s positive! This ‘positive’ or ‘goal-orientated’ attitude of ours means that we are always tense and controlled in some way – it means that we’re ‘up tight rather than relaxed’. This tenseness or unrelaxedness becomes a habit however and we very quickly find ourselves in the situation where we just can’t relax and stop being controlled – even if things do temporarily work out for us we can’t switch off. We’re ‘serious all of the time’ in other words and this state of ‘being serious all of the time’ is pretty much synonymous with what it means to be an adult in this purposeful world of ours. If we’re not being serious then people will think that there’s something not right with us!
When we are only conditionally engaging with the present moment this is ‘pressure’, therefore. We’re under pressure to ‘get things right’ – whatever right might be! As long as we have thoughts and goals and agendas then we’re under pressure (obviously) but the point of constantly having some sort of an agenda or other, either consciously or unconsciously, isn’t to improve the world or make things better for ourselves (as we might innocently think it is) – the point is to create the self. It is by resisting the present moment that we create the illusion of the self and so inasmuch as we are fundamentally unwilling to let go of this illusion (as we are) we are also fundamentally opposed to ever letting go of the pressure we are under. We can’t admit this to ourselves of course because it would sound insane (it’s like saying we are addicted to having a bad time) but it is nevertheless the case. We may say that we want to be free; we may say that we want to be happy compassionate and creative and light-hearted and so on, but if we were to be totally honest with ourselves we would have to admit that this simply isn’t true. We don’t really want to be happy because that would involve the one thing we don’t want to do – letting go of the illusion of the self. We afraid of ‘letting go’ in general when it comes down to it; it doesn’t matter what we’re letting of – the point is that it is the ‘holding on’ itself that is creating the self, even if what is ‘being held onto’ doesn’t really exist!
‘Not surrendering to the present moment’ is the very definition of futile straining therefore and it is this futile straining (this pointless resistance) that creates the extremely plausible illusion of the everyday self! This is why Alan Watts says that the self or ego is in its essence ‘a knot of futile straining’ – we think that the self gets stressed or pressurized (and that it ought therefore be possible for the perpetually harassed and beleaguered self to get rid of this stress, this pressure), whilst the unpalatable truth is that the self equals stress, equals pressure. We can relate this to Eckhart Tolle’s statement that when we surrender to what is the whole universe starts to work with us rather than against us – the whole point is that the self never does ‘surrender to the present moment’! Not surrendering to what is is how the self gets to be the self! As soon as it relaxes to what it is ceases to exist. Or rather we should say that as soon as it surrenders it ceases to appear to exist since it never was there in the first place. It only seems to exist (to itself) because of the straining that is going on, because of the ‘pretending’ that is going on…
Not taking seriously the pressure that is being put upon us to keep up the pretence isn’t a shameful abdication of responsibility, which is what the world will say it is. How can ‘not taking a hoax seriously’ be shameful or cowardly? It is the stubborn refusal to see the hoax as a hoax that is cowardly. We have banded together to say that the hoax isn’t a hoax, to say that the pretence isn’t a pretence. We have tacitly agreed to say that keeping up the pretence isn’t a pretence but the right and proper thing to do but there is nothing courageous about this – it is simply a fear-based collusion. Fear is the law and we are all busy obeying that law in everything we do. The reason that commitment to the everyday self isn’t ‘the right and responsible thing to do’ (as we are always saying it is) is because it was only ever an act. The self we take for granted in everything we do was only ever a pretence and no matter how hard we pretend, no matter how much effort and dedication we put into it, no matter how seriously we all conspire to take it, at the end of the day it’s STILL only ever going to be a pretence…
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.