It’s worth going through all the ‘disadvantages’ of living on our lives on the basis of the I-Concept. It is worth going through these disadvantages quite thoroughly because not only are we extraordinarily attached to this very constrained way of life, we are also completely blind to what’s really going on here. There’s no harm going into this matter a bit more deeply, therefore! We are so ‘attached’ to this constrained way of life that we don’t actually know of any other – any other way of life is a profound mystery to us, and it’s not a mystery that we are in the least bit interested in either! The mystery that lies on all sides – the mystery that has no connection whatever with what we are so attached to – might as well not exist for us. We ignore it completely and so – in practical terms – it doesn’t exist for us. Here is a peculiar thing straightaway therefore – we live in an endlessly interesting universe and yet at the same time we aren’t in the least bit interested in it. We’re interested in exploiting it, that’s all. It is true that we will probably claim to be interested (since admitting to not being interested in the world is like admitting to have no sense of humour – no one wants to do that) but it’s plain enough that we don’t. That quality is something most of us lose when we grow up and find our place in the ‘adult’ world. We might argue that we haven’t time to be interested in the world because we’ve got so much on our shoulders – the responsibilities of adulthood and so on – but this isn’t the real reason. If someone came along and gave us a big suitcase full of money we would still be just as ‘incurious’ in our nature – we wouldn’t have to worry about how we’re going to survive from day to day but that isn’t going to make us any more interested about the world we live in! Experience shows that when all of our needs are taken care of we become more self-absorbed (or more ‘encapsulated’) than ever.
The cause of our indifference to the world around us isn’t our ‘responsibilities’ but our bondage to the idea that we have of ourselves. This state of bondage is the true ‘culprit’, if we were interested enough to want to know about it (which we aren’t). Reluctant as we are naturally are to seeing it, the I-Concept is nothing more than a crude machine – it’s a machine that is dedicated to the task of ‘looking after itself’ or ‘seeking advantage for itself’. Because this is its brief – and it most certainly is its brief – all it is ever interested in are those aspects of the world which have a relevance to its agenda of looking after itself, its agenda of ‘always seeking its own advantage’. When we said that living life on the basis of the I-Concept means living life in a highly constrained sort of way this is why – when I’m operating in this mode then all I care about is what can benefit me and this is a very shocking ‘constraint’ to be living under. This – needless to say – is a very familiar kind of thing to all of us and we usually call it ‘being selfish’ (or – in more severe cases – we call it ‘being narcissistic’). From the point of view of traditional morality this has always been concerned considered a grave failing. We are not talking in a moral way here however but in a strictly technical way – we’re talking about the state of consciousness that ensues when we identify with the machine that is the I-Concept. It’s not ‘selfish’ in the way that we very much tend to think it is because there’s no true ‘self’ there, only a machine which is calling the shots!
This machine isn’t ‘a wrong thing’, by any means. It’s a machine for doing a particular job and so it does that job, as might be expected. It does what it says on the label. From a biological point of view we most definitely need to take care of ourselves; we need to be ‘continually seeking the advantage’. That’s how we stay alive and every living thing will do this. There are domains other than the strictly biological one, other than the ‘taking care of oneself’ domain however and when all the other domains have been lost this constitutes a major psychological ‘disturbance’. It is an amputation of our true being. Saying that absorption within the I-Concept is a ‘psychological disturbance’ is too clinical a way of putting it – what we are looking at here is an out and out disaster no matter which way we want to approach it; it’s an out and out disaster because when we are only interested in that aspect of the world which has relevance to our own needs then we are not actually relating to anything outside of ourselves – we are therefore in the state of being ‘wholly encapsulated’, wholly ‘insulated from reality’, and this is not a healthy situation to be in. This is actually a very ridiculous situation to be in! When we are encapsulated like this we don’t notice that we are cut off from reality; we don’t notice our alienation because we are so engrossed in the matter at hand, which is ‘striving for advantage’ and ‘struggling to avoid disadvantage’ and this pursuit is so ‘interesting’ for us that we don’t miss the fact that we are not actually aware of ‘reality as it is in itself’. We couldn’t care less about that. We are not interested in ‘the world’, in other words, we’re interested in ‘ourselves’. The latter state of affairs – we might say – efficiently substitutes itself for the former.
A simple practical example of how this happens is provided by the very familiar human activity of gambling – suppose I am throwing dice on the floor and a large stake of money is hanging in the balance. At this point in time all my attention – obviously enough – is on the outcome of this throw – this is what is interesting to me, not anything else in the whole wide world. It’s not even that I’m ‘not interested’ on anything else, I’m not aware of anything else. At this point in time nothing else exists for me – the universe has been simplified down to the trivial uncertainty of whether my throw is going to be a winning or a losing one and this is the state of ‘absorption in a game’. There’s more to this than meets the eye however – an inversion has taken place here which we never actually pay any attention to. We aren’t spotting the great significance of what’s going on here. Beforehand, I was interested in the world ‘as it is in itself’ (which is to say, the impersonal world, the world that has got ‘nothing to do with me’); now, I am interested in the way the dice will fall. I’m not interested in the way the dice will fall for their own sake however – that’s actually not a very interesting thing – I am interested in this very trivial event for what it means to me. That’s what makes it so absolutely fascinating for me – the fact that it has huge relevance to me personally. Thus, beforehand I am interested in the big wide world and now I’m only interested in myself and the latter ‘focus’ has very effectively substituted itself for the former.
It isn’t actually true to say that I’m ‘interested’ in how the dice will land either, not if we want to use the word correctly – ‘interested’ means that I am open to whatever is happening, that I am ‘interested in what is happening for its own sake’. This is not at all the case when we’re talking about gambling however – what I’m doing here is projecting my own agenda very intensely on the situation and so I am ‘interested’ in seeing if my agenda is met or not. I’m ‘chasing a good feeling for myself’ and that is all I care about; this is an obsession therefore rather than a healthy interest in the world and the defining feature of an obsession is that it is purely compulsive – we aren’t fixating on whatever it is that we’re fixated upon in any free or volitional way, but because we have to, because we are being acted upon by forces that are bigger than we are. So when we are living life on the basis of the I-Concept all we care about is maintaining the ‘I-Concept’ and there is absolutely no freedom in this – we are slaves to that construct all the way and being a slave is all that we know. ‘Life’ for us – in this identified state of being – means obeying the dictates of the I-Concept to the very best of our ability. This is the beginning and the end of it.
That is the objective view of what’s going on but we don’t experience it like this – we – of course – subjectively experience ourselves as being fully autonomous beings, as being free agents, etc., we even define mental health is being that state in which we can enact our goals in an effective and unimpeded way (even those these goals belong to the I-Concept and not us). When we talk about ‘mental health’ what we actually mean is that ‘the machine is running in an unimpeded way’ – we’re talking about the mental health of the I-Concept, in other words. This formulation of what good mental health means involves a complete lack of awareness regarding to the truth of our situation therefore since the truth of our situation is that we are existing in the ‘identified state’ that we have just described. ‘Ignorance is bliss’ so it is said, and clearly – as far as we’re concerned – ignorance is also equivalent to a state of good mental health! Although our subjective experience of being in the world is as ‘autonomous beings’ or ‘free agents’ this is a very thin veneer – this subjective impression that we have is illusion through and through and the reason we can say this is because all we ever do in life is obey the dictates of the I-Concept (obviously enough). If the I-Concept were ‘who I really am’ then this would be an entirely different matter but the I-Concept is a mere mechanism, it’s ‘a machine’, as Gurdjieff says. This isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be there or that is no place for it (as we have just said), but simply that it shouldn’t be calling the shots. When it does call the shots then what happens is that our world shrinks and shrinks until we end up in the terrible situation where we are ‘entombed in the I-Concept’. When this construct is our master then it becomes our mausoleum. Matthew 23:27 seems to be unpleasantly relevant here –
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
One very clear way in which we can become aware of our true status as regards the crucial question of ‘who is calling the shots’ is provided by addiction. In addiction we get to know very well that we aren’t the master of our own house and this is a truly appalling discovery – losing our freedom ‘on the outside’ by being jailed is one thing, but despite our loss of external liberty we are we still feel that we are ‘free on the inside’ – even if we’re not – but to gradually be made aware that our will can be subverted at the drop of a hat is quite another thing. We don’t want to admit this to ourselves (and we hang onto the delusion that we are free agents for as long as we can) but eventually, in most cases at least, we are compelled to accept the truth that is staring us in the face. People suffering from overt addiction are – by and large – looked down upon in society and addiction is seen as a completely reprehensible state of affairs. Our compassion for those in this situation is outweighed by our contempt and condemnation, on the whole. This is however a manifestation of hypocrisy on our part inasmuch as overt addiction is only making visible a psychological principle that is true for all of us. Not only is it the case that we are all slaves to the I-Concept’, the values of our society are such that we regard this state of affairs is being ‘the right and proper way to be’. Our culture supports this heteronomous mode of existence, in other words.
The ‘state of being’ (if we can call it that) which is smiled upon by our current civilisation is one in which we are completely absorbed in our own needs and are not at all considered concerned with the bigger picture therefore. To a certain extent, to be concerned with our own needs is of course perfectly healthy – we need food and water and safety from harm, and so on, and this is part of what it means to be a human being. As has often been pointed out however, modern culture works by creating an unlimited number of artificial (or ‘conditioned’) needs which we are kept busy servicing. We call the ability to meet these proliferating artificial needs ‘having a good standard of living’. Our whole economy rests on the basis of keeping these needs supplied and the continual expansion of this economy is our god. We won’t hear a word against it. The price for this set-up is grim indeed however – very ironically, we have now identified a new mental health condition which we term Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is ironic because the whole thrust of our consumer-based culture has been to produce exactly this state. When we see what it is that we have created – in its ‘uncamouflaged’ form, so to speak – then we recall recoil in horror and treated at as if it were just some new psychiatric condition that we have just uncovered, just like an entomologist in a faraway country who has discovered a hitherto unknown species of spider. Our pathologically compartmentalised way of seeing things facilitates us in doing this (i.e. it facilitates us in not ‘joining up the dots’). If we do ‘join up the dots’ however then we see something very interesting – what we see is that our whole way of life is geared towards engineering a special state of ‘mental ill-health’, the special and specific state of mental ill-health which enables the structures and systems that make up our society to keep on functioning. We continue not to see what is going on here however – we contrive not to see that human beings are fodder for the systems that exist in society (rather than the systems existing for the benefit of human beings) and we also contrive not to see that this state of ‘narcissistic encapsulation’ is a result of social engineering, which it very clearly is. There is zero incentive to add two and two together to produce four in this way, for very obvious reasons. Who wants to hear this, after all? Some things are just ‘too big to question’ and our mode of social organization is precisely this…