We can’t wait to spend the gold! We love spending the goal – it is our favourite activity, it is our favourite thing to do.
Why shouldn’t we spend the gold, anyway? What’s gold for if not spending? It doesn’t seem to make any sense to say that we shouldn’t spend the gold. That would be just too disappointing – that would take all the wind out of our sails in one go. We want to spend the gold. We love spending the gold. Not only is spending the gold our favourite activity, it’s just about the only thing we know how to do…
There is a problem with spending the gold however, no matter how loathe we might be to admit it. The problem with spending the gold is that whilst it feels good at the time, it doesn’t feel so good later on! In fact it feels the opposite of good – it feels thoroughly lousy. It feels as bad as bad can be. This might not be the case (hypothetically speaking) if what we had bought for our gold was something worthwhile, if it was genuinely worth the price, but that just isn’t the way it is!
The thing about ‘spending the gold’ is that what we’re actually buying is a whole bunch of appearances, and so the deal’s never going to be as good as it’s cracked up to be. It’s all a kind of charade. We’re buying the image of happiness, we’re buying the image of a good time, not the actual thing itself! Buying the actual thing itself was never an option. No genuine value can ever be bought – we can have it ‘bestowed upon us’, so to speak, but we can never purchase it, no matter how hard we try. It might be a very old cliché but it’s true: all the gold in the world won’t buy happiness.
‘Purchasing’ in this context means ‘controlling so that we can obtain the result that we want, the result that we have in mind’. But because it is only ‘the result that we have in mind’ (because it is only a projection of our own unconsciousness, our own unexamined assumptions) all we’re going at end up with – if things work out right – are these assumptions! If we’re buying what we have in mind then naturally this is never going to take us out of our mind. Relating to the world on the basis of the categorical mind can only ever embroil us in our own unexamined assumptions, and this really isn’t the same thing that we think it’s going to be. Assumptions never turn out to be what we thought they were – this is a law of the universe! As Heraclitus says, ‘nature loves to conceal herself’. Appearances are only ever appearances.
If it is the case that we are only buying the image of happiness, the image of ‘having a good time’, then this raises the question as to why we would be more interested in purchasing the ‘theatrical appearance’ than we are in the genuine article. How could we possibly be more interested in the mere appearance of happiness than we would be in the real thing? This doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. There is however a very good answer to this question – images can be bought and sold, images are subject to control and manipulation, images can be stored or ‘held onto’, whilst reality can’t. Reality (any sort of reality) is actually a very slippery kind of a thing – it’s not the kind of thing we can lay our hands on even for a moment, far less hold within our grasp. It can’t be secured – it is an ‘unsecured asset’, if there could be said to be such a thing. We can’t own it, we can’t lay any claim to it, we can’t parcel it up and say “This bit belongs to me and that bit belongs to you”. We can’t measure it or quantify it in any way, we can’t specify it and neither can we authenticate it as being ‘what anyone says that it is’. We can’t actually do anything with it and so from this point of view (the point of view of wanting to do something with it) reality isn’t of any interest to us! This is why we value our constructs over reality itself.
Reality is a lost cause as far as manipulation is concerned. It is what it is and there is no saying what it is. It doesn’t play ball, it doesn’t flatter us by confirming any of the thoughts or ideas we might have about it, and so it is – it doesn’t give us anything to go on. Reality is like a person who won’t join in any game with us, when games are all we are interested in; it is, as Chogyam Trungpa says,
complete all-pervading space, everywhere, irritating.
If we want to play games of control, then we have to make do with appearances. And the fact of the matter is that we really do want to play games of control! The interesting question here, then, if we want to go deeper into all of this, is why we are so interested in control, why we are so interested in playing games. Superficially, we could answer by saying that it feels good to be in control, that there is a rewarding feeling of security in being in control. We could point out that there is an intensely gratificatory element in knowing that we are effectively in control of the situation – in knowing that we have the capacity to be effectively in control. It feels good to avoid risk. This is perfectly true but it still doesn’t explain why we feel good, why there is this gratificatory element to being ‘the effective controller’. An evolutionary theorist would no doubt argue that because there is a ‘fitness’ value in being a good controller it is hard-wired into us by the process of evolution to enjoy being in control (i.e. good controllers are better at surviving and better therefore at passing their genes on). This still doesn’t go deep enough though – in fact it misses the point entirely. The real reason (we could say) for controlling is that it is through controlling that we get to create the self.
If I can get a response from the environment that has a relationship with some action of mine, some thought or some intention of mine, then this is clearly going to confirm for me the idea that I exist. This is basic confirmation: I can control, therefore I am. And conversely, if nothing I do or think or intend elicits the slightest response from the environment, then this ‘lack of feedback’ doesn’t confirm for me the idea that I exist, and so this is not going to feel good, is not going to feel gratifying. This is what Chogyam Trungpa means when he says that all-pervading space has an ‘irritating’ quality to it – space refuses to confirm my existence as a ‘centralized ego’. No matter what I do, I can’t elicit the confirmation I need to feel that I actually exist. Structure has the possibility of confirming my existence (if I can ‘match’ it, or ‘synchronize’ with it) but all-pervading space doesn’t…
In a rough and ready kind of a way, we can easily see how control re-affirms a sense of identity, a sense of ‘importance’ – if I am the boss and everyone else what I tell them to do then straight away this makes me ‘like I’m somebody’! And conversely, if everybody ignores me, then – as everyone knows – I get the distinct feeling that I don’t exist. This is of course why emotional game-players love to manipulate the emotions of these around them – this way they get to feel that they exist…
But this principle also holds good in a more subtle sense – if I have a theory of the word, an idea about the world, and I get confirmation back that my theory or idea is correct, then this also is a form of control. This also confirms my existence. I am ‘one-up’ (as Alan Watts says) on world by being able to predict what will happen if I do X, or if I do Y, and this sense of being one-up on the world reinforces the sense that I have of myself as being a ‘centralized ego’. The unspoken logic is – ‘my theory about the world is right, therefore I exist!’ A centralized ego can’t be a centralized ego unless it controls – it is as simple as this!
In terms of control in general therefore, we could say that the logic is ‘I am a successful controller and so I exist!’ When I manage to pull off the ‘successful control’ thing then I feel myself to be particular type of centralized ego known popularly as ‘a winner’ – I am a ‘winner self’! I don’t have to control successfully to feel that I exist either: this actually works the other way around too so that if I fail to control things successfully I stop being ‘one-up’ and become ‘one-down’ instead (so to speak) and this gives rise to the reified perception of myself as being what in popular parlance is referred to as ‘a loser’. This therefore is the ‘loser-ego’, the unlucky or jinxed ego!
So this business of trying to be in control the whole time works very well – it even works when it doesn’t work! All I need to do in order to create the reified sense of self is to get sucked into the business of trying to be in control and I’m away; whether I seem to succeed or seem to fail it makes no difference because either way I have affirmed my existence as a ‘centralized ego’, as Chogyam Trungpa puts it. In one way this is very neat explanation of what is going on, but in another way we might object that the whole scheme is rather ridiculous – we asked why it is that we like playing games and controlling so much, and then we answered the question by saying that it is through controlling that I get to create the self. But this doesn’t make sense because it is only the self that has the motivation to control, and so the motivation can only come about when there already is a self! And contrariwise, if there isn’t a self, then there will be no urge, no desire to control because it is only ever the self within which this urge, this desire originates in the first place! So really we’re not talking about linear causation here at all (since there’s no way for it to get started) but simply a self-perpetuating loop of logic…
This paradox (the paradox of tautological self-creation) might seem to throw doubt on the scheme that we are setting out here, but if we take a wider view we can see that this is simply how it always is – the entire world of form arises via tautological self-creation, all logical certainties (across the board) come about via tautological self-creation. We run into this time and time again: everything’s a paradox! The rational mind can only operate on the basis of categorical precedents, and yet it itself is responsible for putting these categories in place. The realm of logic can similarly only exist when some kind of ‘starting off point’ is decided upon, and yet without logic there can be no such thing as a starting off point to anything any more than there can be an ‘end point’. Without logic there are no beginnings and no endings, no ‘correct’ and no ‘incorrect’. Without logic there are no boundaries. Or if we put this in terms of a ‘starting paradox’ we can say that the domain of rules (which is what logic is) cannot be entered, cannot be ‘broken into’, unless there is a rule saying that it is lawful to do so and outside the domain of rules (outside logic) there are of course no rules. Logic can’t start unless it is preceded by logic so it too is a ‘self-creating circle’, therefore.
We could make the same point about the material universe and the space-time continuum within which it exists – the space-time continuum can only be said to have ‘come into being’ once it already exists, otherwise there is no space and no time so the idea of it ‘coming into existence’ is quite meaningless. We can say that there ‘is’ physical universe without any fear that someone will come up and point out the error in our statement, and yet the universe only exists within the provisional ‘space-time bubble’ that it itself assumes. This is of course a very perplexing sort of a thing to consider and yet we cannot deny it because outside of its own ‘taken for granted’ context, the universe never started, and neither will it ever ‘end’. Beginnings and endings only make sense within the continuum of logic which comes into being at the same time the physical universe does. So if everything else (everything else in the realm of form, that is), is a paradox, then it is hardly surprising that the self too is paradox, that the self too is a tautological loop of logic, like the snake that eats itself…
The bottom line therefore is that the only way the self can carry on being the self is through controlling, and so we can say that this is why ‘being in control’ engenders a highly pleasurable (or indeed rapturous) feeling of security. But this is a process with a fatal glitch hidden in it – a glitch that comes about because the essential paradox which aren’t able to spot. The point is that ‘controlling’ and ‘getting to be a self’ constitute a very tight loop – so tight, in fact, that there isn’t any actual space in it. And if there isn’t any space in the ‘process’ (so-called) then this is just another way of saying that it never happened.
When I am able to control successfully then this feels good and this is what we might call the euphoric stage of ego-creation. It’s all good at this stage and the more I can control the better it feels. ‘Total control’ seems to be synonymous with total rapture, total euphoric security. In Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism Chogyam Trungpa (1973) talks about the centralized ego wanting to make ‘a nest’ for itself:
It is ego’s ambition to secure and entertain itself, trying to avoid all irritation. So we cling to our pleasures and possessions, we fear change or force change, we try to create a nest or playground.
It is by getting rid of all irritations, getting rid of all ambiguities or uncertainties that we seek make ourselves feel secure and so ‘total control’ is necessary to create the perfect nest. But the things is that this proposed nest ‘isn’t’ as comfortable and cosy as I have been imagining that it would be – in fact its something of a let down. It’s actually a kind of disastrous mirage! As long as I’m playing the game, playing the game, playing the game (the game of ‘building the nest’) then I can hang an awful lot on the ultimate goal. I can hang everything on the ultimate goal, in fact. I can make ‘winning at the game I am playing’ mean ‘the answer to all life’s problems’. As a result, as I approach ‘the final furlong’ (as I approach the supposed point of maximum control) it really does feel that I am solving everything, which is an extraordinarily attractive proposition to me. All my angst is going to be sorted out once and for all, all of my worries are going to be laid to rest, all of my hopes and yearnings are finally going to be realized, and so on. What could be better than this, therefore? This is the ultimate jackpot. Everything I’ve ever wanted to be free from is finally going to be gone out of the picture, and everything I’ve ever wanted to gain is finally going to be achieved. It’s all there in the one basket and so as I approach this basket I find myself in the grip of a terrible compulsion, I find myself in the grip of a terrible craving. Nothing else matters apart from getting my hands on this prize…
So there is this magnetic pull towards the goal of being totally in control. As we’ve said, the golden moment of ‘winning’ has the property of being able to subsume ‘all outstanding issues’ and this property that hypnotizes me when the fever of ‘wanting to win the game’ gets a grip on me. It doesn’t matter what the game is, or what I am trying to control – any goal (no matter how arbitrary) can take on this alluring sheen. Any goal can become a ‘surrogate solution’ for all of life’s difficulties. Naturally enough, therefore, when we do get to win this feels very good indeed. Hitting the jackpot feels amazingly good – addictively good, in fact. But because the so-called ‘ultimate goal’ is only a surrogate, obviously the glorious moment fades away pretty fast. It can’t lastbecause it isn’t really what it’s been cracked up to be! I’ve been running full-tilt at a façade so when I actually hit the façade I’m not actually going to get anywhere (I’m just going to go straight through it) and so the only possibility open to me after this let-down is for me to find another surrogate goal, another game to play, another attractive façade to tilt at. Or I could just start playing the same game all over again, in the fond belief that this time it’s going to be different, that this time it’s going to be ‘for real’…
The period of time in which we are approaching the attractive façade (and are able to believe that we really are getting somewhere this time) constitutes the euphoric phase of the self, the euphoric phase of the ‘centralized ego’. Following on from the metaphor that we started off with at the beginning of this discussion, we could say that what ‘spending the gold’ comes down to is controlling to as to create the self. Or as we could also say, ‘playing the game so as to create a self’. This is in the first instance a euphoric process, which means that we will never question it. Spending the gold is euphoric. Who questions euphoria? We will keep going with whatever it is we’re doing, we will stick with it for all we’re worth. Euphoria is the pleasant phase of unconsciousness, the phase that draws us in, the phase that seduces us. When we’re euphoric then ‘it’s all good’. In spending the gold there is of course the impression that we are getting something in exchange, and what we think we’re getting – although we don’t see it as clearly as this – is the self.
There is no doubt that this is what we are purchasing for ourselves with our precious gold, but what there is (or ought to be) doubt about is whether the self is actually such a good thing to want to purchase! After all, we only ever see the shiny side, the attractive side. Once the deal is done, once the transaction has been made, then this is when we get to see what exactly it is that we have purchased. There is of course the initial honeymoon period in which everything seems rosy but once this passes we start to find out a little about the other side of the coin. The ‘other side of the coin’, needless to say, turns out to be not we had bargained for! For the euphoric phase to be truly euphoric we have to believe that what we are yearned after is truly worthwhile – we have to believe that ‘we can’t live without it’, so to speak. This is implicit in the nature of desire. But straightaway we can see the flip-side of this situation because if I really and truly believe (in a very fundamental way) that what I am striving for and yearning after is absolutely necessary, then if I can’t secure it then the pleasure that comes with winning is replaced with the inconsolable anguish that comes with losing. If winning is real, then so too must losing be. I can’t have the one without the other – if I wish to be a slave of desire then I must also enslave myself to fear.
The self, we have said, is created by controlling, which is the same thing as saying that it created by the unquestioning belief in whatever goal is to be achieved. For the self to create itself, and maintain itself, it has to be fundamentally incurious about its desires, in other words. It must not reflect on the desires that it experiences, only act on them. This doesn’t seem to be a problem in the first of (euphoric) phase of self-creation, but corollary to this is that the self is also going to be incurious about its fears. It cannot reflect on what fear means, it can only slavishly obey it. By putting ourselves in the power of desire therefore (which we do in order to experience euphoria) we also place ourselves in the power of fear.
So the self is that which is ruled absolutely by desire and fear. Where it not so ruled, then its integrity as ‘a self’ would be compromised – it would in fact cease to be ‘the self’. We can thus say that to the same extent that being ruled by desire provides us with the possibility of experiencing hard-core euphoria, it also provides us with the possibility of experiencing hard-core dysphoria, and the self is euphoria just as much as it is dysphoria. In answer to the question as to why we shouldn’t ‘spend the gold’ therefore, we can answer that what we are buying with it always comes down to ‘pain and pleasure in equal amounts’, which is not really what we want. There’s no net profit in it, after all…
But maybe this isn’t so bad? Isn’t this what life is all about, after all? Pleasure and pain, joy and sadness? We do tend to realize that we can’t have one without the other. The point that we so often miss is however that pleasure and pain aren’t the same things as joy and sadness. They are conditioned analogues. Joy is not something that the self can experience, strange as it may sound to say so, and neither is sadness. The concrete self can only ever experience various shades of euphoria and dysphoria, which it will call ‘joy’ and ‘sadness’ – actually, both euphoria and despair are (as we have just said) simply the two sides of itself! The concrete self can only ever experience itself, therefore – it lives exclusively in a world made up of its own projections, its own hopes and its own fears.
Euphoria and dysphoria are ‘conditioned states of being’, which is another way of saying that they are not real – they are only real in relation to the self, and the self is not real! This is why they can be said to have ‘conditional reality’ – they are real only to the extent that the self that experiences them is real. So as Wei Wu Wei asks in Open Secret, “Who is there to suffer?” –
Who is there to suffer?
Only an object could suffer.
I am not an object (no object could be I), and there is no I-object nor I-subject, both of which would then be objects.
Therefore I cannot suffer.
But there appears to be suffering, and its opposite, both pleasure and pain. They are appearances, but they are experienced. By whom, by what, are they experienced?
They are apparently experienced, and by means of an identification of what I am with what I am not, or, if you prefer, by what we are not, illusorily identified with what we are.
Whatever intensity sensations may appear to have, in the dream of manifestation they are effects of causes in a time-sequence, and apart from the time-sequence in which they develop they are not either as cause or as effect.
There is no one to suffer. We appear to suffer as a result of our illusory identification with a phenomenal object.
Let us at least understand.
What we are is invulnerable and cannot be bound.
One last question that we might want to ask is what is the gold that we are so keen to spend, and what would be the use in hanging onto it? What good would it do us not to spend it? The best answer might be to say that the gold which we can’t wait to spend is our inherent freedom, which is the freedom we have not to be identified with ‘phenomenal objects’. Not spending our inherent freedom doesn’t mean that we are mean and miserly. We’re not being miserly because there’s no one there to be a miser! We can’t hang onto intrinsic freedom because intrinsic freedom is not something we can hang onto. That would be like ‘hanging on to not hanging on’. And anyway, as Wei Wu Wei says, there’s no one there to hang on to 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.