to top

The Shell Identity

When we have a framework of understanding that we can be ‘totally uncritical’ about (i.e. that we can ‘take totally for granted’) then this allows us to exist! In the absence of such a framework of understanding, in the absence of such ‘a taken for granted context’, then we don’t get to exist. It’s as simple as this…




This of course explains why we are so terribly keen to have something (some kind of reassuring ‘external authority’) that we can completely believe in. It’s not the thing that we believe in that matters – that’s just a means to an end. We’ll happily believe in whatever is there to believe in, in whatever is provided for us, in whatever seems to be the ‘accepted’ thing to believe in. We’ll happily believe in whatever happens to be the ‘flavour of the month’, and so will everyone else happily believe in it, with the net result being that the ‘thing’ – whatever it is – gets to be thoroughly reified, gets to be thoroughly taken for granted. This is a kind of basic human thing to do – it’s our ‘fundamental manoeuvre’, in fact. Just to repeat the key point here – it doesn’t in the least bit matter what that ‘thing’ is because as a result of believing in it we get to feel that we exist, and that – at the end of the day – is all that matters to us.




It doesn’t do to be too ‘critical’ therefore – if we are too critical then there could be an unpleasant surprise waiting there for us, when we get to the end of the ball of string that we are unravelling. On an unacknowledged level we know this only too well and so we play it clever. We’re all very crafty in this regard and we make very sure therefore that we don’t look too closely at the world that we take for granted. We don’t want to come across that particular unpleasant surprise! We don’t want to unravel that particular ball of string! It could be said that this is the one thing that above all we don’t want to do and so this fundamental ‘inbuilt aversion’ (which is like a ‘Prime Directive’ in Asimov’s robots) necessitates a significant level of ‘damping down’ with regard to our natural criticality, our natural curiosity.




This is all very well in its way but there are inherent difficulties in this manoeuvre that we – in all probability – don’t want to be aware of. There is in fact a frankly self-contradictory difficulty in doing this. The problem is that this capacity to be critical, this capacity to be curious about the world in an active way, constitutes our essential nature (i.e. it constitutes what is most true in us) and so if we are to somehow ‘tone down’ this innate quality of ours then at the same time that we getting rid of the criticality or curiosity which threatens to get us in trouble we are also getting rid of who we actually are. So in order to save ourselves from stumbling across the ‘unpleasant discovery’ that we have been talking about we have to alter ourselves so much that we are no longer ourselves! We have lost ourselves either way, only in the first case – when we lose ourselves by being too curious – what comes after this event is a great mystery, whilst in the second case – which is where we lose ourselves by ‘dumbing down’, we know only too well what happens next. We get to be dumb!




Our basic strategy in the face of what can only be described as ‘an unaccountable mystery’ is therefore to make ourselves dumb. This is the ‘intelligent stupidity’ that Chogyam Trungpa talks about:


The animal realm is associated with stupidity: that is preferring to play deaf and dumb, preferring to follow the rules of available games rather than re-define them. Of course, you might try to manipulate your perception of any given game, but you are really just following along, just following instinct.


We take up this act of  stupidity as if our lives depended upon it (which in a certain, very limited way they do) and make our way through life on the basis of this carefully cultivated lack of critical appraisal with regard to all of the determinate structures (or ‘rules’) that make up our world. We don’t get too curious about these structures (or even get curious about them at all) and this way the structures in question get to carry on being there. And if the structures get to carry on being there, carry on existing, then so do we. The ‘secondary gain’ from this is that we get to carry on existing in the particular very limited way that we imagine ourselves to.




No one can deny that this strategy seems to work just fine, but there is a prohibitively high cost to this trick, as we have already mentioned. The cost (or ‘drawback’) is that this ‘dumbed down version of ourselves’ isn’t who we are at all. It’s just not us – it is on the contrary just some kind of vacant ‘shell identity’, just a kind of a ‘thing’ that we say is us. We say that we are this absurd thing, this absurd ‘shell-identity’, and then we proceed to live life on the basis that we are who we absurdly say we are. The fact that this has happened (the fact that we are living on a surrogate basis) puts everything on a thoroughly absurd level – although we are of course in no position to appreciate this absurdity. The absurdity in question is simply that we have dumbed ourselves down so much that we don’t have any insight (or any possibility of insight) into the way in which our conditioned existence is completely and utterly unreal. This is an insight which is actually unspeakably terrifying for us and so by dumbing ourselves down in the way that we have we have created the very thing that is the ultimate source of fear for us, i.e. the spectacle of our own non-existence…




The point therefore is that the ‘personal non-existence’ which we are in such all-consuming dread of discovering one day is the non-existence of who we aren’t anyway, so the whole thing is quite ridiculous! We are in dread of discovering that we don’t exist but the inescapable and endlessly terrifying fact of the ‘non-existence of the false or conditioned self’ was created at the very same time we dumbed ourselves down enough to foolishly believe that this ‘false self’ is who we really are. It’s all a loop, in other words – a very nasty sort of a loop that we just can’t get ourselves out of. The suggestion that ‘who we usually take ourselves to be’ is a particularly nasty tautological loop that we can’t break out of doesn’t – of course – sound in any way right to us. We can’t relate to it. What’s so very nasty about our everyday mode of existence?  What’s so terrible about it? It seems pretty much OK most of the time. But the reason this type of ‘existence’ doesn’t seem too bad to us (or even seems pretty damn good at times) is because we are so good at hiding from the fear that we have ourselves created.




The ‘shell identity’ is just too good at hiding from the terrifying (to it) fact of its own non-existence, in other words. It is too skilful, too adept at hiding from the fear that has been created by its own ability to remain stonily incurious with regard to the structures or rules which make up its world (it’s ability to ‘act dumb’, in other words). The shell-identity is just too sneaky for its own good, we could say! This is a potentially confusing subject however because we could equally well point out that the shell identity only gets to exist (in the strictly delusory fashion that it does exist, that is) by being sneaky. If it doesn’t in essence exist at all, then how can it get to believe that it does other than being very sneaky about it, other than by getting very good at spinning opaque webs of self-deception about itself? And if I – just for the sake of the argument – accept that I don’t exist – in any fundamental way – and that I just get to believe that I do by not looking at anything too deeply, and that by doing this I automatically create fear (the fear of finding out the truth), then I could ask what exactly the problem is in ‘me getting very good at hiding from the fear’ that I myself have created? Haven’t I in this way solved the problem? In other words, if I can get away with hiding from the fear, then why not?




Really what I am asking here is a version of a time-honoured question – the question being “Is it possible to successfully cheat?” What I want to know is, is it possible for me to do something that isn’t actually legitimate (because it’s a scam or dodge) and then get away without having to deal with any consequences of the illegitimacy of what I have done at some future date? What I want to know therefore is – can I escape from the consequences of my own actions?




There are two things that we can say about this question – one is that when it is asked we very badly want the answer to be yes, and two is that we can’t help knowing deep down that the answer is no. We might be able to temporarily escape the consequences that we ourselves have set in motion, but it only ever is temporary escape. By making it ‘very important indeed’ that we should exist (by investing everything in the bold assertion that we definitely do exist) we have simultaneously created the fear that we don’t, and this fear of NO can’t be gotten rid of such so long as we have the hope of YES. If I make it absolutely important (not just a little bit important) that a certain thing should be true, then I have by the same token made it absolutely important that this certain thing should not ‘not be true’. There just isn’t any way to get out of this…




I have therefore created fear by making it absolutely important that a certain thing should be true. The next thing, after having created fear, is that I have to run from the fear, I have to hide from it, this being the nature of fear (that it makes me want to run from it, that it makes me want to hide from it). Being very good at hiding doesn’t really solve the problem however – it only conceals it, and what is concealed at one time will at another time become unconcealed! So, just to sum up what the essential problem is here: on the one hand we have to work away frantically the whole time (without letting on to ourselves that this is what we are doing) and on the other hand (even with all this work) the outcome that we are working against so desperately is still going to come about sooner or later, one way or another. On the short-term, therefore, we can ‘win out’ in terms of successfully evading the fear and this can feel good if we don’t allow ourselves to see that it is only temporary. ‘Successfully’ evading the fear manifests as pleasure, as satisfaction, as euphoria. We don’t see pleasure or euphoria as ‘the good feeling we get from successfully evading the fear’ because if we did then we would be mentioning the fear and if we were mentioning the fear then we wouldn’t be evading it! We see the good feeling as some kind of ‘thing in its own right’ therefore; we see it as an actual ‘stand-alone positive commodity’. We see it as something that can be ‘bottled and sold’, so to speak, something that can be traded in. Once we see the good feeling that comes with believing that we have escaped ‘the fear that we can’t let ourselves know about’ as some kind of substance or commodity in its own right, then we can create an entire economy based on it, just as the regular economy we all know about is based upon this abstract ‘unipolar commodity’ we call money.




Just as we are motivated by the pursuit of money in the regular economy as if it were the ultimate good, the shell identity is motivated by the pursuit of euphoria (or what we might call ‘egoic satisfaction’) as if this were the ultimate good. And for the shell-identity, this sort of narrowly personal satisfaction (which is the feeling of having ‘won out’ in some way) is the ultimate good. It most definitely is. For the shell-identity it doesn’t get any better than this! And yet – as straightforward as this may seem – there is a whole other side to the story that we just aren’t focussing on. The problem is of course that we have (very dangerously) assumed that the coin we are playing for has only the one side, which the side of euphoria, the side of ‘egoic satisfaction’. We can assume this as much as we can (and in fact we have to assume in order to create a viable economy out of it) but it isn’t going to change the fact that it just isn’t true. ‘Assuming that there is only one side to the coin that we are playing for’ is not a ‘strategy’ so much as it is a ‘trick that is played against ourselves’. Euphoria doesn’t exist as a ‘stand-alone commodity’ – it is actually the flip-side of terror, which is to say, it is the good feeling that comes about when we manage (temporarily) to deny the existence of the terror that is standing right by us and breathing down our necks.




This being the case therefore – that euphoria or egoic gratification is simply the successful denial of fear, clearly the idea of treating it as if it were a ‘positive commodity in its own right’, an actual ‘thing in itself’, is quite ridiculous. What could be stupider than this? We’re treating an illusion as a commodity since the fear itself was never genuinely dealt with or solved but only ignored. We could also say that we’re treating debt as if that debt were actual wealth in itself! Euphoria is nothing else apart from ‘debt’ – it’s simply ‘pain or fear that needs to be paid back at some future date’! Euphoria is debt that we contrive to see positively because rather than seeing it as it we imagine that it is was it appears to be on the surface. And not only do we see this debt positively, we create – as we have said – a whole, fully-fledged economy out of it, elevating it to the level of the ‘ultimate good’ even though it is fear that we refuse to see as such.




Euphoria is disguised fear – it is a precarious kind of a ‘slant’ on fear which actually makes fear look highly attractive, highly desirable. Euphoria is highly attractive, highly desirable in a way that we can never examine too closely because really it just stands for a way in which we can offset or delay the adverse reality that is coming our way without acknowledging that this is what we are doing. It represents the way that we have of ignoring what is actually happening – euphoria is the currency of denial, in other words.




The situation is even more surreal than we have just made it out to be however because the fear that we are trying so hard to hide from – so hard in fact that temporary escapes from it have been converted into hard currency – isn’t itself real when it comes right down to it, We make the fear real by investing so much in running away from it!  Each time we retreat from a subjective reality we make it pragmatically real for ourselves – it becomes real for us because we have effectively barred ourselves from seeing otherwise by virtue of the fact that we have ‘turned our backs on it’. The very act of retreating makes the assumption that we are retreating from real, in other words. Retreating reifies what is being retreated from. This gives us a perfect mechanism by which we can ‘progressively withdraw from reality’: we retreat from one assumption that we have made and then we proceed to retreat from the consequences of our retreating to create yet another level of denial. We keep on ‘retreating from our retreating’ so as to create an endless series of ‘neurotic veils’, one within the other within the other, which we can hide behind. There is in this the possibility of ‘worlds within worlds within worlds’, and all of them no more than illusory escapes from reality!




This idea is curiously reminiscent of ‘the motif of the external soul’, often come across in fairy tales and myths, in which someone – often a wizard or sorcerer – puts his soul (for safe keeping) in some inanimate object which then is hidden in some other object, which is then in turn hidden in yet some other object, and so on and so forth. A typical example of this type of story is here provided by Sir James Frazer in this excerpt taken from The Golden Bough:


In the story of Seyf el-Mulook in the Arabian Nights the jinnee tells the captive daughter of the King of India, “When I was born, the astrologers declared that the destruction of my soul would be effected by the hand of one of the sons of the human kings. I therefore took my soul, and put it into the crop of a sparrow, and I imprisoned the sparrow in a little box, and put this into another small box, and this I put within seven other small boxes, and I put these within seven chests, and the chests I put into a coffer of marble within the verge of this circumambient ocean; for this part is remote from the countries of mankind, and none of mankind can gain access to it.” But Seyf el-Mulook got possession of the sparrow and strangled it, and the jinnee fell upon the ground a heap of black ashes.



Very curiously, the whole ‘negative adventure’ of escaping from reality is ultimately based on nothing because there was no one to escape! The fear from which we were originally retreating was not real until we retreated from it, but as we have said it becomes real because of our retreating. So not only is the relief that I feel when I hide from the fear not real (because it is a dodge, rather than a legitimate action that I am carrying out) neither is the fear that I am attempting to escape from. And just to add yet another layer of icing to the cake, the one who is hiding from the unreal fear (and feeling unreal relief) is also unreal, is also illusory. The euphoria that we are the recipients of when we manage to successfully forget about the fear is illusory because we have only temporarily forgotten it, and the fear itself – the fear that we are pretending so hard isn’t there – is also ultimately illusory because it is only an artefact of the original dodge which is where we pretend to exist when actually we don’t at all….




What we are looking at here therefore is a ‘hierarchy of relative realities’: the euphoric gratification which we chase is real in relation to the assumption (false as it may be) that we have escaped the fear from which we flee, and the fear from which we flee is real in relation to the assumption (also false) that there is someone there who needs to escape the fear, someone there who is feeling the fear. This is – as we have just said – the mechanism by which we retreat from reality; the reality of our situation is that there is no one there to flee, but when we start fleeing then ‘the one who flees’ becomes pragmatically real. Or as we could also say, there is no one there to do anything, but once we assume that there is, then straightaway ontological terror exists (‘ontological terror’ being just another way of talking about the ‘compulsion to flee’). Actually, when we look at it, all purposeful doing is fleeing no matter what it is we do, just as all concrete goals are fleeing, no matter what those goals might be!  Concrete goals are the projections of the reified (or ‘thing-ified’) self, which escapes from the ontological terror which is the inevitable consequence of its ‘pseudo-existence’ by chasing after these illusory goals for all it is worth…




The crucially important thing therefore – with regard to the continued integrity of the ‘game which is fleeing’, the ‘game that is controlling’, or the ‘game which is purposeful doing’ – is to be very careful not to look too deeply into what it is we are doing, or why….









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.

(Visited 23 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Comment