We don’t tend to think very deeply about what the word spontaneity actually means, what it actually implies. We know that a spontaneous process is a process that happens by itself. We know that a spontaneous event is something that can’t be produced to order when and how it suits us, and that we don’t have any way of predicting it, any more than we have a way of manufacturing it to order. But knowing this opens up more questions that it answers. After all, how does spontaneity pull off this trick – how do spontaneous processes manage to be spontaneous? If there are no instructions, no guidelines telling the process how to happen, then how does it know how to happen? And if there is no causal agency triggering a spontaneous event, then why does it happen? How can something just ‘happen’?
The answer to all these questions is very simple – we don’t know. Nobody knows, not even the smartest scientist in the world knows. The spontaneous event is opaque to our knowing, it is like the classic black box which is designed not to be looked into. It is entirely removed from any possibility of us getting any sort understanding of it, however rudimentary. It is utterly and completely immune to us getting any handle on it whatsoever, no matter how hard or how long we work at it. It may sound rather strange to make such a definite assertion, it may come across as being unreasonably dogmatic and not at all open-minded, but the proof of our assertion is perfectly straightforward – if we could understand what is going on in a spontaneous process (which is to say, if we could in some way construct a theory or model of the process in question) then it wouldn’t be spontaneous after all since the definition of spontaneity is that we can’t model or predict it. If we could understand what was going on in a spontaneous process then it would actually be a causal (or directed) process, i.e. process that obeys rules. This is really just a restatement of a well-known mathematical principle, if we could call it that, which is the principle that one cannot algorithmically specify a random number since the definition of a random number is that it cannot be arrived at via a series of logical steps. The only way to arrive at a random number is randomly, by accident, which is (unsurprisingly) why we call it ‘random’. We can arrive at a random number alright – there is no problem there – but we can’t do it again, deliberately. The steps involved can’t be reproduced to order because there aren’t any steps.
One possibility that arises at this point in the argument is to suggest that maybe so-called spontaneous processes only appear to be spontaneous to us because we don’t yet understand the steps – maybe the rules that govern the process in question are just inaccessible to us, for whatever reason. An example of this sort of thing is when we sneeze or hiccup – such events occur without us intending them to happen and they very often take us by surprise but they are nevertheless governed by rules. They are ancient biological reflexes that are encoded into our nervous systems, and that bypass the conscious mind just as heartbeat and kidney function do. But the thing about sneezing and hiccupping is that they are very straightforward mechanical procedures which are pretty much the same every time and so they don’t really look that much like spontaneous processes really once we get to thinking about it. A much better contender would be some kind of radical insight occurring to a philosopher or scientist, an insight which does not represent a logical development of existing ideas or theories. If the insight had been merely a logical development then we could argue that maybe the persons brain had merely been working away on the problem by itself, so to speak, and that the finished product of the sub-conscious computational process had simply popped up into consciousness when it was ready, just like a slice of toast pops out of a toaster when it is done. But if the idea in question is radical, as all key insights in science and philosophy have to be if they are going to take us somewhere new in our thinking, then we cannot get around the issue by saying that the brain had just been following established computational rules. Radical ideas always come out of nowhere, out of the blue, without any intermediary steps or stages, and this is of course precisely what makes them radical.
If everything proceeded logically from everything else – which is to say, if all positions were linear developments or extrapolations of all other possible positions – then the universe would simply be a logical continuum. This being the case, nothing at all would ever be truly ‘radical’ and there would never be any possibility of anything happening that could be considered genuinely surprising, since every event would already been inherent in the preceding event. This is the world of linearity, where change or movement occurs according to understandable rules. In a deeper sense, change that is governed by rules is not change at all since the rules underlying the change do not themselves change. So a logical continuum is a world without change, a world in which there is never any possibility of movement. The only genuine movement would be discontinuous movement, which is to say, movement from one position to another position that is not linearly or logically related to the former. This sort of radical movement, or radical change, cannot as we have just said be governed by a rule because a rule cannot take us anywhere outside of itself – if a rule took us somewhere that was not already inherent in itself (which is to say, if it took us somewhere ‘by accident’) then it would not be a rule. It would not be a rule because it would be contradicting itself, disobeying itself, disagreeing with itself, and this – needless to say – is something that rules, by definition, never do. Just to sum up what we are saying there then, if the universe were a logical continuum (a logical continuum is in essence a collection or group of non-random numbers) then there would be no such thing as genuine movement. This would be a static universe, a universe in which all change is merely an illusion, a universe such as that envisaged by the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides. Furthermore, it would also be the case that such a Universe would be a tautology, since it is at all times nothing more than a restatement of itself. To say that a statement is a tautology is to say that it is entirely redundant – it has a redundancy content of 100%, which is a technical way of saying that it has ‘zero information content’, since information is quintessentially defined as ‘non-redundancy’. So what we are looking here is the very uninspiring spectacle of a universe with no randomness in it at all, no possibility of change or movement in it at all, and no actual information content. And this is the type of universe that we would be wretchedly inhabiting if there was no such thing as genuine ‘spontaneity’ – if all spontaneity were an illusion.
It is easy to see why we would assume that the universe we live in is primarily a directed phenomenon, and that spontaneity – if we accept that there is such a thing at all – is only of secondary importance. The majority of what goes on in the universe appears to be running along on prescribed tracks, after all. Natural processes all seem pretty much repetitive and predictable and this of course constitutes the mechanical (or ‘Newtonian’) paradigm, which was not seriously challenged until fairly recently in the history of science. But ever since quantum theory made its advent in the nineteen twenties randomness has been leaking inexorably into the previously water-tight Newtonian universe. ‘Spontaneity’ in natural systems generally goes under the term ‘chaos’ or ‘randomness’ and we know from chaos theory that non-linear processes play a far more significant role in the world than everyone used to think – all complex systems, from the weather to the movement of the tectonic plates to the size of the various plant and animal populations making up ecological networks all fluctuate in a way that is essentially chaotic. Moreover, this isn’t a problem, or disadvantageous in any way – on the contrary, it is highly advantageous because non-linear or chaotic behaviour is how natural processes get their fluidity, their infinite unfettered adaptability. Just as spontaneity is a valuable element in human behaviour because it allows for a playful, ‘theory-free’ (and therefore unprejudiced) exploration of the possibilities inherent in life, so too is non-linear behaviour crucially important in physical systems because it allows them to change in a fluid, unprejudiced way that would otherwise be entirely impossible.
But even saying this isn’t going far enough. We are still understating the crucial significance of spontaneous processes in the world in which we live. We could go so far as to say that the universe itself – in its very essence – is a spontaneous process, that the universe, taken as a whole, is one big spontaneous event. We can define spontaneous events by saying that they are events that happen without having to be told to happen. In other words, they happen of themselves, not because they are in any way obliged to happen by some sort of external authority, or by a logical process of cause-and-effect. It could also be said therefore that spontaneous events or happenings are ‘inexplicable’. Saying this is not at all satisfactory to us because – for the sake of having what we might call ‘psychological closure’ – we want everything to be explained, or at the very least to be explicable. If something happens because there is a rule or precedence saying that it should happen then that something is of course ‘explained’ by the rule. When some sort of a phenomenon occurs we can point to the rule that lies behind it and this explains the whole thing – the phenomenon in question is no more than the working out of the rule, the manifestation of the rule. But with a spontaneous process this is simply not possible – a spontaneous process does not happen because there is a rule saying that it must happen, it ‘happens because it happens’. This is just another way of saying that the best explanation of why the event happened is the fact that it happened. The event itself is its own boss, so to speak, and there is no ‘predictability’ about it at all.
So going back to the universe as a whole, we can say that it ‘happened because it happened’. It didn’t have to happen, it just happened of its own accord. This doesn’t as we have said sound at all satisfactory to the rational (or ‘rule-based’) mind but if we go outside of that mind for a moment, and utilize instead our spontaneous mind, we can see that there is a profound and beautiful elegance to this idea. The other, more familiar, idea – the idea that there was a reason for the universe happening, that it happened because some law which we might not at the moment understand made it happen – is simply not tenable when we reflect on it carefully. After all, if there was a logical reason or a rule which obliged the universe to occur then that reason or rule would have to be part of the universe, it would have to be part of the universe precisely because there is a logical continuity there. If there is a logical continuity between cause and effect then both cause and effect are part of the same ‘continuum’, i.e. they are not in any way separate. This kind of argument is well known to astrophysicists and cosmologists, and can also be expressed in terms of the ‘space-time continuum’. When the universe came into being it wasn’t just the case that the universe popped into existence, via the very singular event known as the ‘Big Bang,’ but rather that the whole framework, the whole space-time continuum ‘popped into existence’.
Now this immediately creates an insurmountable problem in thinking about that event in a logical way. If I ask “When did the Big Bang occur?” this question is straightaway rendered meaningless since ‘when’ relates to the space-time continuum that we are talking about as coming into existence. I might as well ask, “Where did the Big Bang occur? This is even more obviously a totally stupid question since all ‘wheres’ (just like all ‘whens’) only came into existence when the space-time continuum itself came into existence. So all the logical angles that we might take up on the matter are immediately rendered defunct. All possible ‘explanations’ are immediately shown up to be nonsensical since all possible explanations only make sense within the logical continuum that we are trying to get outside of. The only thing we can say about the cosmic bubble which is the space-time continuum is that it came into being spontaneously – i.e. it didn’t have to come into being, because of whatever serious reasons, but rather it came into being playfully, because it could. In the first case – utilizing our normal, everyday way of thinking about things – the event known as ‘the universe’ occurred because it was constrained to do so, it happened because it ‘didn’t have the freedom not to happen’, whereas in the second case the universe came into existence quite freely, because it was just as free not to. From a rational point of view the second explanation is highly troublesome, and extraordinarily uncomfortable to try to get to grips with, but from an intuitive (or spontaneous) perspective it is entirely satisfactory, if not to say profoundly elegant, and no more need be said on the matter.
Because the Big Bang was itself a spontaneous event – and, as we have argued, there is no way in which it couldn’t have been – everything that happens within it is also, ultimately, partaking in this same spontaneity. Alan Watts makes this point by saying that everything that happens after the Big Bang is still that same Big Bang, and so we too – each and every one of us, no matter how unspontaneous we might seem to be – is also that same Big Bang. It’s all that same Big Bang – after all, what else is there for anything or anyone to be? Following on from this line of argument, then, we can state with the utmost confidence that each and every one of us is in our very essence pure, unmitigated spontaneity. What this means – just to reiterate the central point one more time – is that we are all ‘happenings that happen by themselves’, without the need for there to be any external authority to be issuing instructions or orders. If I am just ‘a happening that happens by itself’ then this changes my way of looking at myself (and what this business of ‘living’ is all about) by 180 degrees. It isn’t possible to think of a more radical shift in the way I think about things. After all, in the directed mode of consciousness, as we have said, my understanding is that I do stuff because I have told myself to do it. First I instruct myself to perform some action, and then – if all goes to plan – I perform it. Or to put this in slightly different way, first I have a logical reason for doing something, then I conceive the intention to do it, and then, I enact the intention. The directed modality thus places the responsibility of everything I think and do on me, and this somehow doesn’t seem at all bizarre to me.
The directed modality is very easy to understand: If anything is to happen, then I must first instruct for it to happen, and if I haven’t specifically asked for it to happen, then it can’t happen. So used are we to thinking this way that it doesn’t seem strange to us – we assume that this is the way that the whole world works. We assume that nothing ever happens unless it has been told to happen, or made to happen, by some ‘effective causal agent’. The only thing is, as we have just said, the world isn’t that way at all! What is more, when we try to make ourselves work in this way then we run into all sorts of problems. The sort of problems we run into then are the problems that would be deeply familiar to anyone with a knowledge of neurosis and neurotic mental suffering – problems that come under such well-known headings as anxiety, addiction, alienation, obsession, frustration, guilt, boredom, meaninglessness, depression, and so on. We are trying to take over a job that we never should have tried to take over and when we do take it over, we find that we cannot then step back or disengage – we find that we are now in the unenviable position of having to keep at this job full-time, lest things fall apart around us. And – as if that were not bad enough – we inevitably find that we aren’t actually succeeding anyway, and that everything is going to wrack and ruin anyway, and we are pressurized therefore to keep ‘upping the ante’ and trying harder and hard to get things under control. And even when we do find that we aren’t able to run the ship ourselves we still can’t ‘let go’ of our compulsive neurotic controlling of ourselves and the world because above all we fear the catastrophic result of not controlling. We can’t succeed at the task we have set ourselves, but neither can we opt out, and this terrible impasse constitutes the essence of our dilemma. It is possible to argue therefore that the entire spectrum of neurotic distress is brought into existence purely as a result of trying – out of lack or trust and lack of understanding – to replace the spontaneous with the directed, which is always a vastly inferior (in fact jinxed) product.
Just as the universe, taken as a whole, is a spontaneous event which is not dependent upon an external agent or authority to make it happen, so too is each and every one of us. We get so used to living life in a purely goal-orientated mode, thinking that stuff will only happen if we instruct it to happen, that the idea of spontaneity in behaviour and thought becomes relegated to a very minor role – it becomes little more than a sort of an oddity or curiosity that pops up from time to time but is of no major significance. We can get by without it if we have to. We are even starting to adopt a way of thinking – currently typified by the school of psychology known as ‘evolutionary psychology’ – which says that there isn’t any such thing as genuine spontaneity (which is to say, behaviour that is truly purpose-less) and that what looks on the surface like spontaneous activity, such as humour or creativity, actually serves a deeper evolutionary purpose and has been programmed into us to serve this purpose. If this viewpoint were true, then everything about the psyche would be directed, it would be a pure mechanism and nothing more, with nothing genuinely unpredictable about it at all. The discipline of psychology then gets reduced to a type of mechanical engineering, or software engineering, and anytime anything goes wrong all we need to do is to identify the fault, consult the original blueprint, and then correct it.
This directed paradigm also means that our approaches in psychotherapy become mechanical in nature – if the psyche is functioning wrongly, so to speak, then all we need to do is direct it correctly (i.e. feed it the right instructions instead of the wrong ones) and then good mental health will be restored. Needless to say, there is a tremendous amount of security in this sort of a belief about how the mind works – the feeling of being in control is what we are always hankering after one way or another, and having total understanding of our own psychological processes, along with a tool-kit of ways to correct these processes when they go awry, is extremely appealing to us. If the psyche is not a mere rule-based mechanism, and is in fact a spontaneous or self-organizing process as Jung maintained, then attempting to meddle in it and ‘correct’ it will inevitably give rise to worse suffering than ever. To say that the psyche is a spontaneous phenomenon, like the universe itself, means that we have no role to play in its functioning other than to trust it, and thus not continually try to interfere with it in accordance with the incredibly limited (and incredibly insecure) viewpoint of the ‘disconnected executive agent’ which is the rational mind. From the perspective of a non-rational psychologist, therefore, it is readily apparent that it is the attempt to correct the psyche, via whatever rules and procedures we have at our disposal, that constitutes the ‘problem’ rather than the situation that we have identified as being the problem. Or we might say, the problem isn’t the problem, the problem is the fact that we have a problem with the problem.
So what exactly happens when we try to take control of the spontaneous self, and coerce it into working the way we want it to? Jung’s approach – very roughly – is to say that the unconscious psyche rebels against us, in any number of ways. Just as we close in our goal, and put all of our effort into finally attaining it, some unruly psychological factor comes into play and jinxes us. I might start being unduly influenced by some random element or other, I might unaccountably start doubting my ability to achieve the goal in question and become smitten with anxiety. Or having successfully achieved all my goals I might then find that my taste for them has quite departed and I can gain no satisfaction whatsoever from my achievement – after all, I rely on the psyche for supplying me with my appetite, my enthusiasm, my taste for life. In general, and not necessarily Jungian, terms we could say that when we try to turn the spontaneous psyche into a mere puppet of the rational mind, what happens is that there is resistance, and things cease going smoothly. What would otherwise have been achieved effortlessly now becomes heavy going, like rolling a boulder up a steep hill. In the end, if I persist, the best I can hope for is a very unsatisfactory simulation or copy of what I was trying to achieve.
A good example of what we are talking about here is provided by the efforts of the Church to instil a sense of morality and a standard of moral behaviour in the general population. The doctrine of Original Sin means that we are seen as having a default position of being prone to immorality, and this of course necessitates staying in control the whole time so that our sinful nature cannot assert itself. If we are to stand any chance at all of not falling into the pit of suffering that awaits all sinners, we must be continually cajoled and coerced to be good. We must be pushed and threatened and generally brow-beaten every step of the way – as we are reminded time and time again – there can be no ‘let up’ on the constant moral effort, lest the enemy see his chance and lead us away from the correct path.
All of this might not exactly be a barrel of laughs, but then again whoever said that religion was supposed to be fun? Being a moral human being is a very serious business and the big stick is ultimately justifiable by the noble end that is being served, the salvation of men’s souls. Once deliberate or purposeful morality is set up it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, it becomes self-validating. Once we have taken over the natural process ourselves then it seems that we have no choice but to carry on with our controlling – we need to be cajoled and coerced, we can’t do without the stick, without it nothing will happen. We have – so to speak – become addicted to it. Because forcing sets up immediate resistance in the psyche (i.e. what I say to myself I can’t have, I immediately want) this means that once I start standing over myself with a big stick then I can’t stop. I can’t stop being hard on myself because as soon as I do then I find that I am slacking off, reneging on myself. I can’t let up on myself because when I do let up the pressure I straightaway stop doing all the things that I ‘have to’ do. It is as if my mind has become incorrigibly lazy, incorrigibly reluctant to do anything that takes any effort. It has become addicted to (i.e. dependent upon) being bullied to do everything and so without this external ‘bullying’ force it no longer operates.
Something has clearly gone very sadly wrong here. Life was clearly not meant to be like this – life was never meant to be a forced march, conducted in misery, carried out under protest. But the ten million dollar question is very obviously how I am to go back to the spontaneous way of living, which is where I do things because I deep-down genuinely really want to do them rather than doing them because I will feel guilty if I don’t. But this is of course exactly where I am stuck because all of the wrong forces, all the wrong motivations, start to come into play precisely at this point. First I start to put pressure on myself to change my ways, to stop being the rotten neurotic way that I am, and then – inevitably – I start to feel guilty about the fact that I am failing in this task, failing in my duty to become well, to change my neurotic, compulsive ways. What is happening here is very plain to see – if only I had the perspective to see it. What is happening here is that I have, without realizing or noticing that I am doing it, turned the business of being spontaneous into a duty – something that I very seriously have to do. So under the flag of promoting spontaneity I have brought in even more repressive legislation, even more dreadfully restrictive rules and regulations; under the pretext of freeing myself up to become more spontaneous I have taken away yet another ‘basic freedom’ from myself – the freedom to be non-spontaneous, the freedom to be not free. I simply don’t have the insight to see that no one can become spontaneous by taking away the option of not being spontaneous, which is to say, that no one can become spontaneous on purpose.
All of this is fine, but one might still wonder what all this business about spontaneity and the so-called ‘spontaneous self’ comes down to? There is something very peculiar in the idea of spontaneity, if we go into it deeply enough. After all, if I am being spontaneous then I am basically doing stuff without telling myself or instructing myself to do it, which naturally tends to make me wonder who it is that is living my life? If I am not doing it, then who is? If it was me in the driving seat, pulling all the levers, pressing all the buttons, calling all the shots, making all the decisions, then I would know that it is definitely me who is living this life. There would be no question about it. This sense of affirmation of the self or agent that makes the choices and runs the show is what gives the directed mode of awareness its appeal – feeling in control naturally gives the controller a solid sense of security, which tends to be extremely attractive proposition. There is no mystery in this – if you ask “Who said that?” then I straight-away reply that I did, that it was me that said it. But if I come out with something spontaneously then I can’t in all honesty say that it was me who said it because I didn’t know what I was going to say until I said it. How can I say that I was the casual agent, the responsible party, if I didn’t intend to say whatever it was that I came out with, and had no idea that I was going to say it? That would be the same as me taking the credit for something that somebody else wrote – it would be entirely wrong of me to do that. It wasn’t me at all really, which is always the case when we are talking about creativity, or any type of spontaneity at all. Thus, the spontaneous self – who I ‘am’ when I am spontaneous – is simply not me. The spontaneous self is the ‘not self’.
This is taking us into very strange territory, if we are willing to follow through thoroughly with this line of enquiry (which generally speaking we aren’t!) What we are basically saying is that my true self, which is who I am really, authentically, underneath who I mistakenly think I am, who you think I am, is not me at all! Generally speaking, this suggestion doesn’t tend to make a hell of a lot of sense to us, but it follows on perfectly well from what we have been talking about so far. Normally, as we have been saying, I treat myself – which is to say, just to avoid any confusion here, my authentic or spontaneous self – as a kind of a ‘puppet’ which can is to be controlled and regulated and manipulated in any way which the rational mind sees fit. This way of expressing the situation sounds extremely peculiar to us precisely because of the ongoing and deeply rooted confusion about who I really am. We are arguing in the course of this discussion that the true self, so to speak, is the spontaneous (which is to say, the whole) self, what Jung calls ‘the psyche’, or the ‘Self-with-a-capital-S’. What we are arguing here is that the psyche is quintessentially self-organizing, just as the universe taken as a whole is self-organizing. Like all wholes, the psyche is ‘an event which is its own boss’, which is to say it is not the puppet of anything outside of itself, it isn’t a sort of billiard ball ricocheting on a vast billiard table from predetermined point A to predetermined point B in accordance with the laws of cause and effect. Jung makes this point by saying that consciousness is on a journey towards ‘an unknowable goal’; quantum physicist David Bohm expresses the same idea (or a parallel idea) when he says that the universe, taken as a whole, is an unbroken flow moving from one unknown to another.
It is fair to say that we don’t feel very comfortable at all with this type of idea, which is the idea of what Buddhism calls ‘groundlessness’. We want very much for there to be a ground, because then we know where we are. We want for there to be an absolute unquestionable basic framework within which everything happens, so that we can have the possibility of knowing what is happening, describing what is happening, analysing and evaluating what is happening. We want a framework because that allows us the possibility of understanding what is happening, predicting what is going to happen and then – ideally – controlling (or directing) what is going to happen. So here we are back talking about the rational mind again, which is what I almost always identify myself with as being the basis or root of ‘who I am’. When I think about myself at all, I think about myself in a rational way, which means that the underlying psyche – which is the mother of the rational faculty, just as it is the mother of anything else one might want to mention – is completely invisible to me, because it is ‘off the map’ and only stuff that is ‘on the map’ is visible to the rational viewpoint. Not only is the whole self which is to psyche invisible to me when I am in my rational modality of consciousness, it is utterly incomprehensible to me. Since the spontaneous or ‘whole self’ is both invisible and incomprehensible to me when I am identified the rational mind, I can in no way perceive it as ‘myself’ – I can in no way perceive it as ‘who I really am’. If I did start to perceive it (in a dream perhaps, or in an ‘altered state’ of consciousness, it would almost certainly terrify me and I would relate to it as a very dangerous threat. The only way that it wouldn’t terrify me is if through previous experience I had come to know it as my own true nature, and could recognize it as such. Generally however, the spontaneous self is excluded from the rational mind and is not experienced at all, at least not directly.
It is for this reason, therefore, that we can make the unorthodox assertion that the ‘Self’ who I really am, is not the self I commonly experience myself to be. From a naïve perspective, the statement that I am not the ‘me’ that I know myself on a daily basis to be is shocking, and it is moreover so shocking that we are extremely unlikely to entertain it even for a second – it sounds much too crazy to accept. From a more psychologically-minded perspective however, there is nothing bizarre or crazy about it at all, even thought the actual experience of the truth that we are talking about is always profoundly shocking – in fact there is no way that it can’t be! The idea that my ‘self’ is a stranger to me, that it is a sort of ‘alien within’, is as we have said hard to entertain because we are so identified with the rational perspective. From the perspective of the rational mind everything is known and matter-of-fact and there is nothing mysterious about the whole thing at all. Any talk of this mysterious unknown ‘spontaneous psyche’ sounds very airy-fairy, the very idea sounds quite laughable in the cold light of rational thought. This is because rationality deals in the currency of hard certainties, it deals only in proven evidence and black-and-white facts, and thus it does not take kindly to all this sort of talk about consciousness (or the universe) being a whole unbroken movement from an unknown origin to an equally unknown (and unknowable) destination. All of that stuff is actually an anathema to the rational mind – it is the very sort of thing it really can’t abide, the sort of thing it would like to ‘pooh-pooh’, to firmly stamp out. The rational mind likes known goals and known points of origin, it likes movement that can be expressed in the form of linear equations, movement that ‘never leaves the graph.’ It likes defined and reliable methods or procedures that allow for change in a predictable and controllable way and it definitely doesn’t like change that happens by itself, change that takes us unpredictably into the complete unknown. It doesn’t like spontaneity, in other words, and it wishes it could prove that it doesn’t really exist.
Instead of saying that I am identified with the rational mind, we could simply say that I am identified with my thinking, my concepts, my ideas about the world and myself, my ‘conditioning’, my habits and routines. All of these come down to the same thing – they all come down to the way in which free consciousness has been packaged or contained and made to flow in regular predictable channels or pathways, made to fit into the established pattern. This is what the directed mode of awareness is all about – it is all about spontaneous consciousness being ‘told what to do’, just as the citizens of a fascist dictatorship ‘are told what to do’ (or, to give a more subtle example, it is similar to the way in which members of the global consumer mega-culture are instructed by advertising images and by their conditioning in general that they should be buying stuff the whole time, and feeling like losers if they can’t). This business of identifying with our patterns – the patterns that constrain and limit us, the patterns that hem us in on all sides – is more than just being ‘told what to do,’ not only is consciousness regulated and contained so that it flows obediently in certain, specified channels or pathways, it is led to believe that the pattern it conforms to is the only way to be, the right way, the one and only true way, and so on. In short, the particular limited pattern that we are imprinted with is represented not as ‘a particular limited pattern’ but as the whole world, as being the whole story. This being the case, we are not being limited by our conditioning at all, but helped, and this is the way human societies have always represented themselves and their particular world view, over the millennia. The word that is usually used is ‘education’ or in the more old-fashioned language, ‘instruction’. If I knew that I was being coerced to see the world in a particular limited (or ‘biased’) way, then I would know where I was, and I would undoubtedly think about rebelling against this coercion, this bullying. But if I think that the limited world-view that I am being steered into is the right and proper way, that it is the only way, and that I am being helped by a benign system rather than being hoodwinked by a malign one, then what chance do I have? Even if I do start going against the prescribed pattern, or failing to achieve it, I will only feel guilt, I will recriminate against myself and hate myself, and this guilt and self-hatred will bind and imprison me more than ever.
The curious – if not downright sinister – thing about all of this is the way in which my very understanding of (and therefore perception of) myself is conditioned by the particular limiting perspective that I have been imprisoned within. The spontaneous self is still there of course – it is not going to go away because it represents the ultimate unconditioned reality – but it has been put in a very subordinate position. The rational mind lords it over the spontaneous self the whole time – it thinks that it knows what is best, that it knows what life is all about and what life should be all about, and it doesn’t have time for anything else. Its goals, its agendas, its plans, its preoccupations rule supreme and very little else gets a look-in. Everything is controlled, everything is regulated – ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. Anything that happens that is not part of the plan is distrusted, feared, condemned, demonized, fought against, repressed, and so on. This is the life of the rational mind, which is the life of rational self, and it is a life – or rather ‘sort-of-a-life’ – that is surely deeply familiar to all of us! But even when we describe the life of the rational self in this rather unsympathetic way, it may still not be entirely obvious what the problem is. Why shouldn’t I rule the roost? Why shouldn’t I have my way? Why shouldn’t I live life on my terms, as the adverts always love to say? Why shouldn’t I struggle to achieve my goals and realize my dreams? The answer to all questions of this sort is very simple – the problem is that the dreams in question are rational dreams, and these goals and plans and agendas are not actually ‘mine’ at all, but have been programmed into me by the limiting perspective that I have been conned into accepting as ‘the right way to look at life’, just as the main character in the film The Truman Show (Truman Burbank) was conned into accepting that the totally artificial and totally constrained life which was all he knew the actual genuine reality, and not a put-up job.
The deeply curious – if not to say down-right sinister – thing about all this is that when the spontaneous psyche is turned into puppet by the rational mind (or by the rules and regulations, the ideas and beliefs, the habits and the routines, that make up the rational mind) I ‘think’ (!) that it is me who is doing the puppeting, that it is me who is doing the directing or controlling, and this of course makes it alright because ‘I am the boss’! But the truth of the matter is of course that I am directing or controlling the show that is my life in accordance with a system of rules, ideas, beliefs, etc, that I take totally for granted as being ‘the only possible right way of looking at things’, and this set of rules is – as we have been saying – my conditioning, my programming. So when I direct myself in accordance with the rules that make up my conditioning, who is doing the directing? When I control my life in accordance with the beliefs that I have been programmed with, who is doing the controlling? When I struggle to obtain goals or dreams that have been defined for me by some external authority, who is the boss here? And when I suffer because I am unable to obey the wretched habits and routines that I have been obeying all my life, where is the freedom or autonomy in this?
When I am in the directed mode of awareness I tell myself what to do the whole time, I issue instructions to myself regarding this, that and the other, and when I am able to carry out these instructions correctly I obtain a pleasant feeling of security. I feel good about this. I feel in ‘control’. But as we have been saying this comfortable feeling of ‘being in control’ is actually an absurd sort of an illusion – it is an inversion of the way things actually are because it is not really me telling myself what to do but the set of rules that I have identified with and internalized. I am not the boss at all, even though I am able to get away with imaging that I am. The actual boss is what David Bohm calls the ‘system of thought’ because it is this system that I am using as my yard-stick, as my basis for deciding what is important and what is not important, what I should attend to and what I need not attend to. The system of thought is like my sat nav – it tells me what to do and I do it. I am so very used to this, to listening to the sat nav telling me what to do, that I think it is me thinking. I think that it is me planning, that it is me setting goals for myself, that it is me getting anxious and stressed out when I can’t attain them. But it isn’t me – it is the set of rules that I have internalized, it is the ‘rational introject’ which David Bohm calls the system of thought.
Because I am so very used to going along with the rational introject (introject is psychological jargon for something inside me that is not me, but which I think is me) it has become my ‘self’. The inversion of consciousness that happens as a result of the process of identification means that the system’s goals become my goals, the system’s way of thinking becomes my way of thinking, and if anything gets in the way of these goals, or if anyone disagrees with this way of thinking, I take it very personally indeed. And if someone comes along and tells me that my true self is unknown to me, and that I am actually the helpless puppet of a lot of stupid conditioning I am sure as hell going to take this personally too. My pragmatic day-to-day experience of myself is of a free and self-determining agent and for this reason I am hardly going to like it very much if someone comes along and tells me that my comfortable sense of being a self-determining being is an illusion caused by the automatic or unquestioning way in which I obey every impulse (i.e. every instruction) that arises in me as a result of my conditioning, as a result of my learned pattern of how to interact with the world. I am not just going to be indifferent to this idea, I am going to be extremely resistant to it – no one likes to be a robbed of a comforting illusion, after all, and the illusion of a volitional selfhood is a very comforting illusion indeed. As long as I can get to realize my goals, and fulfil my plans, I am as a rule very contented indeed. This pretty much corresponds to what we refer to in popular parlance as ‘being a winner’ and as long as I can get to be ‘a winner’ instead of ‘a loser’ I am happy. I am made-up. The one thing that I am certainly not going to be doing is questioning anything, or investigating anything.
Of course, as we all know very well that things don’t always work out according to plan. In fact life’s speciality seems to be getting in the way of our plans, and making sure one way or another that things don’t work out as we would like them to. This doesn’t upset the applecart in the least however because we simply redouble our efforts and keep on trying in the hope that things eventually will work out. An excellent example of this ‘diehard’ type of motivation is the way in which we keep on buying lotto tickets, week after week, year in and year out, perennially hopeful that one day we will have the winning number. And even if it becomes abundantly clear to us that we have been thwarted in our hopes, we cling with equal fervour and equal determination to the idea that we should have been allowed to obtain them, that it was deeply unfair that we were obstructed in this regard. So even irrevocable failure doesn’t mean that we let go of our expectations, the expectations that were given to us by our thoughts, and what happens here is that hope gives way to resentment, bitterness and despair. Hope and despair both take the same expectations, the same rules, very much for granted and so both states of mind are equally ‘unquestioning’ of the way of thinking that put those rules and expectations into our heads. Even then, therefore, when we can’t exert much if any external control over our lives, we still have the ‘fall-back position’ of exerting internal control, which is to say, believing that such-and-such should have been the case, or – in the case of guilt – that I should have done such-and-such, and so on. In general, I feel good when I am able to fulfil the rules that make up my conditioning (when I am able to obey the impulses) and I feel bad when I am not able to fulfil them, and this constant unremitting up-and-down see-sawing between being in ‘good form’ and being in ‘bad form’, being euphoric and being dysphoric, makes up the vast majority of the ongoing emotional drama that makes up my life. My mood (and thus how I see the world) is determined by my ‘attachments’ in other words, and to what extent life allows me to act in accordance with them.
What we are saying here then is that my conditioning, my attachments, are just as powerful when things go to plan as when they don’t, and so we are bound to draw the conclusion that my psychological status as being a conditioned (or ‘unconscious’) human being is hardly likely to change, no matter what befalls me. If I wanted I could make a conscious effort to challenge the unconscious unexamined rules that govern my life, but seeing that my interests, my goals, are determined by my conditioning in the first place, it is not really on the cards that my conditioned or programmed way of looking at things is going to prompt me to question that very same conditioning, that very same programming. In short, if I had free volition – which is to say, if I was my true spontaneous or free self – then I could question why I have to follow the particular conditioned pattern of thinking and behaving that I always do follow, but then if I had genuine volition and was my true spontaneous self, then I wouldn’t need to be challenging my conditioning. When I am not free in my thinking then I can’t see that I am not free, and so the question of how to free myself never arises. I have no interest in talk of ‘conditioning’ or ‘attachments’ and the like. Such talk sounds to me like philosophical or – even worse – mystical clap-trap – all I want to do is get on with the important business of living my life, according to my taken-for-granted ideas about how it should be lived. In order to be interested in being free in my thinking, free in my perception and understanding of life, I must first have the freedom of thought to allow me to be interested. Unless my consciousness is ‘free’ – i.e. spontaneous, or ‘unchecked’ – I am unable to be genuinely curious about anything, and what is more, I am not even going to be curious as to why I am so totally lacking in curiosity.
If this is the case, then the big question is how we ever get to be free. There are several approaches we could take on this. One is to say that whilst the rational mind is extraordinarily thorough and persistent in the way in which it continuously monopolizes our consciousness, and doesn’t let us ‘off the leash’ to allow us to pay attention to anything that isn’t on the agenda for what we should be pay attention to, there are still going to be gaps. This is like being in school and having very strict teachers – no matter how strict and thorough the teachers are, and no matter how efficient their ‘system’ is, there are still going to be times when we can play about, misbehave, and generally disregard the authority which for the most part governs what we do and don’t do during the day. Even under the spirit-crushing rule of a totalitarian dictatorship people will find ways to be free; there are always going to be times – unless the rule of the rational mind has become terribly strong, as in the case of extreme neurosis – when our natural goal-free spontaneity will return to us and we will momentarily cease be the serious-minded, sensible, and more-or-less humourless adults that we usually are. We could also try to answer the above question by saying that the spontaneous self has the ultimate ‘advantage’, so to speak, in that it is not bound by linear time in the way that rationality is. The directed or conditioned self lives entirely within the framework of the system of logic which it takes for granted – indeed, it cannot exist outside of this framework. But the framework isn’t the whole of reality (in fact it isn’t even a substantial part of it) and so the rational mind has the difficult job on its hands of ‘papering over’ the cracks the whole time, so that the spontaneous universe (or the spontaneous psyche) cannot erupt through, spoiling its neat little scheme of things. A classic example of when the Psyche does breach the defences of rationality is at night, when we are asleep and the rational mind is no longer there to edit reality. Although a lot of dreams are mundane fragments of our everyday rationally-constructed trivial existence, a significant proportion of our dreams are made up of what Jung called ‘big dreams’ – dreams which shake the very foundations of our little world, and remind us that there is far more to life than our everyday mind would have us believe. This kind of eruption of the unconscious mind can happen during the day as well, but it is much more easily disregarded, discounted, and generally swept under the carpet when the rational mind is in charge of the show.
But going back to the idea that rationality and logic is bound by linear time, whilst the Psyche is not so bound, we can see that this means the spontaneous self doesn’t actually have to play the same sort of ‘waiting game’ that the rational self does. The rational or directed self is all about waiting – the whole idea behind having goals (which it is continuously directed towards) is that there is going to be a lot of waiting around as we wait for these goals to be realized. This waiting can be pleasant, or it can be unpleasant, it can be confident, or it can be anxious, all depending upon how the game is going for us. And the key thing about the game of the rational mind is that even when the goal is attained, we are still stuck in linear time, we are still stuck in the frame of mind which either looks forward to something, or looks backwards at something, but which can never simply let go and enjoy the present moment. This is a phenomenon with which anyone that has ever had any experience of meditation will be familiar – the one place our minds have no facility to be in is the present, because it is not part of any framework. The past is charted and documented and has been allocated its proper place in our understanding of the world, likewise the future, although unknown and in this sense uncharted, is populated more-or-less entirely by our projections, by our plans and ideas, our hopes and fears. The present moment is by contrast uncharted, it is still happening, it is unfolding right now, and thus it is out of our control, it has not yet been relegated to history and it is no longer in the realm of our future projections, and for this reason the rational mind is very uneasy with it. All it can do in order to regain control is to frantically evaluate (in its own terms) everything that is happening, and even if nothing is happening – it comments on this too and says in a plaintive voice that it is bored. It is also a matter of common experience that even when something wonderful is happening, something I value, I still find it very hard stay in the present moment – which is where the happening is. Because I am so used to planning and calculating and analysing and checking my mind won’t switch off, it doesn’t want to be dispensed with and ‘hangs in there’, even if by so doing it ends up spoiling the moment.
The spontaneous self, on the other hand, has nothing to do with planning and waiting, any more than it is given to evaluating and commentating, and so it is not going to get tired, or fed up like the directed self is, which lives for its goals, and cannot function if they are taken away from it. In a word, the spontaneous self is patient, which is something the directed self never can be, although it can play a shrewd waiting game as well as anyone. So although the directed self is restless and cunning, aggressive and forceful, the Psyche has the immense advantage of being endlessly patient, unconcerned about time. Jung is on record as saying the he felt that the Psyche somehow exists outside of that ubiquitous set of constraints which we call the space-time continuum, and this fits in with what we been saying, which is that the tangible or material universe came into being quite freely, quite spontaneously. This is another way of saying that the state of freedom (which quantum physics refers to as ‘non-locality’, or ‘independence from space and time’) is prior to, or primary with respect to, the material universe, which gets to be ‘material’ purely by virtue of the fact that it – for the most part – obeys the physical laws that came into existence at the same time the universe did, and thereby ‘does what it is supposed to’.
There is thus a parallel between the determinate reality of the physical universe and the determinate reality of the rational mind, just as there is a parallel between the original rule-less (or ‘symmetrical’) state of what Buddhists like to call ‘neither being nor non-being,’ and the spontaneous or self-organizing Psyche. Thus, whilst my everyday conditioned self is both local and determinate, who I am really is non-local and completely indeterminate (since it is independent of all possible determinations, all possible frameworks). Which means that the Self I do not know myself to be, the mysterious Psyche that is ‘the stranger inside of me,’ is nothing other than the universe itself – or rather, that is nothing other than that prior reality (inasmuch as we can speak of a reality that is outside space and time as being ‘prior’) from which the tangible, visible universe sprang, that ‘prior reality’ which the Gnostic Gospels speak of as ‘the immortal realm of Barbelo’ or ‘the eternal Aeon’ and which William Blake seems to be referring to as Eternity in his poem of that name –
He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.
There is another reason – which we have not yet gone into – why the fortress of the everyday rational mind is not as impregnable as it may appear to be and this reason is alluded to in Blake’s poem. When the spontaneous realm is transposed into the confines of the static, predetermined categories of ‘the framework’ it sickens and dies; spontaneity can be persuaded to take root and thrive in the arid desert-like conditions of unmitigated rationality, which by its very nature insists on defining (i.e. controlling) everything itself, and will not tolerate any gaps whatsoever in its ‘continuum of certainty’. Uncertainty, which is to say the possibility of free movement, movement that is not confined to run along pre-ordained tracks, is the air we breathe and without it we suffocate, we choke on our own waste products. Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, his seminal work on mythology (myths and fairy-tales being the ‘voice of the spontaneous mind’, so to speak) describes what happens when we stubbornly remain within the safe bounds of the known world, the matter-of-fact consensus reality of everyday life, and ignore the eerie call of what lies beyond –
Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless – even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire of renown. Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his Minotaur. All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration.
We can also look at the degenerative process that sets in when life is constrained within a nice secure framework in terms of the surreptitious substitution of a vastly inferior analogue for the genuine article, as we suggested earlier on in this discussion. Just as a fairly rough-and-ready way of talking about this process, we could say that the living, vital, active quality of the spontaneous realm is ‘translated’ into the strictly mechanistic terms of the directed realm (which may be thought of as a sort of digital simulation such as might be run on a computer system) it ends us being represented or portrayed in terms that are flatly contradicting of its inherent free or ‘fluid’ nature. The terms which it is represented in are fixed and completely non-fluid, being as we have said strictly mechanical in nature and only proceeding along those pathways that have been specified in advance as being lawful ones. Another way to look at the translation process that we are talking about here is to say that it involves the representation of the processes that take place in an open system in closed terms, which means that what we see as a result is a kind of parody or mockery of the original. If I happened to be a meteorologist or a cosmologist and I run a simulation of the world or the universe on my computer system in order to try to find out something by this exercise then that simulation would not be a mockery because I – and everybody else – would know it to be a simulation. But if I, on the other hand (just to take a science fiction-type theme here) were to be some kind of classic ‘mad scientist’ out of a comic book who has in his possession a quantum computer with untold trillions of times more processing power than all of the computers currently in existence put together, a beast of a computer capable of simulating within it the entire planet down to the very last pair of dirty socks, the very last grain of sand, the very last mote of dust, and then I somehow – and this sort of thing is of course pretty much child’s play for a true evil genius – up-load the whole of the human race into my computer program and trick them into thinking that my simulated world is the genuine article, then this ‘simulation which doesn’t let on that it is a simulation’ would indeed be a parody or mockery of the real thing.
This might seem like a strange sort of a notion to anyone who is not a science-fiction aficionado (it is more or less the same idea as that put forwards by Ian McDonald in his novel Brasyl, only instead of a mad scientist the controller of the simulated universe is a highly conservative all-powerful organization not dissimilar to Philip Pullman’s Magisterium in His Dark Materials trilogy) but it is actually nothing other than the ancient Gnostic myth of the False Creator, a myth that goes back many thousands of years and takes many different forms of expression. The false or inferior creator, who is sometimes known as the Demiurge and at other times goes under the name Yaltoboath, or sometimes Satanail, usurps the ‘Hidden Father’ in some sort of cosmic coup, and creates a very shoddy copy of the universe, which he then passes off as the actual genuine universe, effectively pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes and putting himself in place of the true Creative Principle. This is the essential idea behind Gnostic Christianity, as exemplified by the ‘heresies’ put forwards by the Bogomils, the Manicheans, and the Cathars, who all describe a type of an archetypal process whereby the Kingdom of Darkness attacks and subsumes the World of Light, and then proceeds to trap and imprison living beings – who all have within them the original spark pertaining to the World of Light – in that dark Kingdom.
A modern version of this archetypal idea is contemporary philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal, which we can roughly synopsize by saying that it involves process whereby a simulation of reality completely takes over and at the same time does away with the necessity to have an underlying reality at all. This is like a map that replaces the territory, so that in a sense it now becomes the territory, since it is all there is. The hyperreal becomes unchallengeable by murdering reality, which is a crime that goes unnoticed – it goes unnoticed because nobody misses reality. No one misses reality or laments its passing because we have been provided with a surrogate, a substitute, a copy – albeit a terribly inferior one. This brings us back to our own formulation of the degenerative process that sets in when the free movement of the spontaneous realm is modelled or analogized by directed (i.e. ‘rule-based’) movement, which is an inversion of spontaneity rather than an honest representation. We can clearly see how it is an inversion rather than a true or accurate representation by talking about change instead of movement. Spontaneous change is change that cannot be predicted in advance, it is a event which cannot be modelled – or we could say that the only thing that can model the event is the event itself (as Robert Anton Wilson says, ‘the only thing equal to the universe is the universe’). Directed or rule-based change, on the other hand, is quintessentially predictable. Rule-based change is predicted exactly and completely by the rule that defines it. This is of course why rule-based change is called ‘linear’ – it is called linear because it never departs from the straight line that is that rule’s extrapolation in space, not ever. Linear change is change that never departs from the rule that defines it, which means that it is not change at all – it is not change at all because nothing actually changes. So – just reiterate the point that we are making – the model of reality that the rational mind provides us with is not a true model at all, but a thoroughly misleading one.
Not only is the rational model of reality misleading, it is entrapping because it always leads back to itself. It is a closed system – it doesn’t have any exits. We could also say that it is ‘self-referential’, which is a way of saying that it does not contain any referents to anything that is not itself. Within the terms of the system, we cannot interact (or think about) with anything that is not that system, but we have no way of seeing that this for the tremendous limitation that it is because we assume the system to be everything that there is. Thus, the alchemists speak of the aerial spirit Mercurius who descends from the ethereal realms into the dense and containing world of matter, and is contained himself, free spirit though he is. The following two verses are from a poem by the alchemist Fra Marcantonia Crasselame, taken from Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis:
If I be clearly understood, your unknown Mercury is nothing other than a living innate universal Spirit which, ever agitated in aerial vapour, descends from the Sun to fill the empty centre of the Earth; whence it later issues forth from the impure Sulphurs and, from volatile, becomes fixed and, having taken form, imparts its form to the radical moisture.
But where is this golden Mercury, this radical moisture, which, dissolved in sulphur and salt, becomes the animated seed of the metals? Ah, he is incarcerated and held so fast that even Nature cannot release him from the harsh prison, unless the Master Art open the way.
Jung, in his discussion of this text, goes on to say:
It is an age-old mythological idea that the hero, when the light of life is extinguished, goes on living as a snake and is worshipped as a snake.
This significance of this statement is that it refers to the idea of a ‘lower analogue’ – the snake is the lower analogue of the hero, which means that the snake (or worm, or subterranean dragon, or whatever the case may be) may one day transform back again into the hero, like the phoenix miraculously appearing from the ashes. So when the spontaneous psyche is reproduced within the terms (i.e. the fixed categories) of the defining framework of the rational mind, it becomes a lower analogue of the original, and this ‘lower analogue’ is the directed or purposeful self which we usually take ourselves to be. The aerial spirit Mercurius has now become earthbound – he has become a subterranean crawling creature who has forgotten who he is and where he comes from. Looking at this mythological degenerative process from a psychological point of view, we may say that the spontaneous or free self has become ossified, calcified, concretized. Its life – once sublime and weightless – has now become laboured, ungainly, deliberate, calculated, cautious, dull, duty-bound, guilt-ridden, frustrated, and fundamentally thwarted. The spontaneous self has become conservative in its outlook, attached by unacknowledged fear to its established and irredeemably dreary pattern of thinking and behaving. Politically speaking, it has transformed from a radical anarchist to a republican. It has turned from a bohemian into a red-neck, from a poet into a bore. King Poseidon has turned into a powerless worm in a worm-garden, moving puppet-like this way and that with every witless breeze that blows, with every current that stirs, with every opinion or fashion that happens to be in vogue.
Within this surrogate realm, where all the values have been turned upside-down, where in the letter replaces the spirit, and the stripped-down form – like a grinning skull-mask – replaces the content, everything proceeds as it was before, only it is not as it was before. Everything carries on just as it did before the fall, only everything about it has changed. One way to talk about what has changed is to say the most important thing of all has gone missing, has been stolen away. Unable to discern the loss we carry one blithely, but the whole point of life has been lost, leaving only a pestilential plethora of rational goals, rational agendas, rational ideas and rational dogmas, in its place. We obey the letter of the law, but – if only we could admit it to ourselves – we don’t have a clue as to why we are doing what we are doing. All we can do is point to our rational explanations, as if that explained anything at all. Or we say that we have always done it this way, since time immemorial, and will on the strength of this habit (known to us as ‘tradition’) continue to do it. Even though everything outwardly continues just the same as it ever did, a type of rot or degeneration takes place on the inside; we could try to express this idea by saying that when transposed or translated into the mechanical (or purposeful) realm, my soul quails within me, and goes into some sort of sleeping state. Denied any non-mechanical interaction, and denied any recognition whatsoever of its true nature (or even of its existence at all) my soul retreats deep within me and leaves what is left of me after its departure – the inane and graceless mechanical husk that now passes for me – to ‘get on with it alone’, to get on with the empty charade of whatever it is that passes for life these days. This is of course a description of the phenomenon of ‘soul loss’, which is needless to say a profoundly unfashionable notion within the current overly rationalistic intellectual and academic climate. Sixty years ago Jung warned in his only popular book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, of the grave danger inherent in an exclusively ration approach to life; these days Jung and his ideas – not to mention his warnings – are unfashionable, and passed off in modern psychology courses with the briefest of dismissive summaries.
All of what we have been talking about in the last paragraph does sound strangely familiar, however, from the point of view of anyone who has ever had any experience of what is called depression, which is seen to be an illness (like diabetes or diphtheria) caused by some sort of electro-chemical brain malfunction. When I am depressed I actually do experience the life that I ordinarily am quite happy to lead as being a pointless mechanical routine, I actually do experience myself as being a phoney, as being a hollow man, and – in severe cases – as being a dead husk that is somehow rotting or decaying on the inside, giving off the foulest of smells. I experience myself as not belonging to life, as being fundamentally disconnected from life, as being alienated from it, undeserving of it. All of the perceptions that I have when I am depressed are written off as being symptoms of a pathological process and thus quite untrue; everything I say about myself when I am depressed is dismissed as being ‘only the illness talking’ – which is a relief for everyone else because this type of talk is naturally very hard to take. If we happened to be a culture that did acknowledge that we have a ‘spiritual’ (for want of a better word) aspect to ourselves – i.e. an aspect that is not merely mechanical and therefore capable of being ‘explained away’ – then we would be in a position to understand the experiences of a depressed person as being due to the loss of the essential spiritual or non-mechanical component, but because we assume as a technological culture that the whole universe is a mechanical phenomenon (without ever coming right out and saying it, because we take it that the point is so extremely obvious that it need not be stated) this way of looking at depression is not permitted to us. And it is of course this assumption, the assumption that the whole universe is mechanical (i.e. non-spontaneous) that I am living out when I am depressed. Everyone else, all the people who are not depressed (or not yet depressed, at any rate), have somehow been spared the inevitable psychological consequences of this profoundly uninspired world-view – probably because they have managed to distract themselves with this, that and the other, and have thereby simply not gone into it. And who would want to go into it? Clearly it is much better to stay superficial, and concentrate on distractions and entertainments. Dwelling upon the fact that we are mechanical creatures, mere biological robots, enacting pointless pre-programmed routines in an accidentally-created mechanical universe until eventually our circuits burn out and we die is not exactly going to cheer anyone up. Our very culture – composed as it is on the one hand of a fundamentally sterile and ‘spirit-denying’ outlook and on the other hand of a very extensive collection of technologically-advanced ways of endlessly distracting ourselves – is a recipe for depression.
Being pinned-down in the all-defining framework of the rational mind means that everything is known and that anything that is not known does not exist – only trivial uncertainty exists. Within the framework there us no ‘freedom from the known’ (to borrow Krishnamurti’s phrase) and because the framework does not represent itself as a framework, a mere arbitrary viewpoint, but as the whole of everything, we get used to making do with trivial freedom – which is the freedom to choose between known alternatives, and try to distract ourselves in this way as best we can. Trivial uncertainty may be seen as an inferior analogue of the genuine article – it is ‘inferior’ because, when it comes right down to it, it is not uncertainty at all but a re-branded version of determinism. It’s the same old product, the only product the system ever sells us, only it is endlessly repacked to try to make it look like something new, something exciting. The thing that the framework denies, makes inaccessible to us, is radical uncertainty, which is simply another way of talking about spontaneity. Being cut off from radical uncertainty, which is our own spontaneity, is being cut off from the heart-beat of reality, from the life-giving flow of reality, and in the absence of this heart-beat, this flow, we feel empty, alienated, isolated and quintessentially lonely. We feel dull, wearisome, and heavy, lacking in some vital spark which we no longer have a name for. We fight against an all-pervasive sense of meaninglessness, we struggle against a tide of ennui, having to fight harder and harder to keep ourselves entertained and distracted so that we don’t have to tune into all these unpleasant (if not downright horrific) feelings. Even if we turn to religion, it is almost inevitably going to be a mechanical (which is to say dogmatic or literal) religion that we turn to, which is only more of the same old dull rational stuff, dressed up in a different way. This too is simply a distraction from the pain of meaninglessness, a frighteningly humourless and ultimately unrewarding neurotic pursuit. Everything we do to help ourselves has the same result because everything we do we do on the basis of that same old fixed viewpoint, the viewpoint which is itself the cause of our troubles.
The neurotic escape has a finite utility, a finite workability, a finite lifespan – it is an apparent escape that gradually becomes less and less tenable, even in its own narrow terms, and so sooner or later it will fail me, it will reveal itself to be nothing more than a dead-end that I have enthusiastically hurled myself down. The way that this happens is that my comfort-zones start to fail – what used to bring me relief, however momentary, now brings no relief at all, only fresh pain, but I carry on enacting the routine because the routine is all I know. It is as if the routine has a mind or will of its own – it enacts itself through me. The whole time I was successfully avoiding, and obtaining pleasure as a result of chasing my distracting goals, I was building up a reservoir of un-experienced suffering and as this inner reservoir of untapped pain grows my need to distract myself also grows. The stakes are raised and the business of having to play the neurotic game – whatever it is – becomes more and more serious, more and more humourless and grim. As I start to lose the ability to enjoy my distractions, my entertainment, my activity becomes driven, with more than just a tinge of desperation to it. It also starts to become counterproductive. What we are talking about now is a different class of neurotic suffering, one that has to do with a failure of activity or ‘doing’ rather than what we might call the failure of ‘being’ that occurs as a result of the perception of one’s lack of authenticity and lack of meaningful connection to the world. Failure of being is where my unexamined (and ultimately delusory) idea of myself becomes untenable and I feel that I am no longer a ‘going concern’ – I no longer feel that I am a worthwhile or valid centre of the universe and I simply haven’t the heart, the appetite, to carry on with my incessant goal-orientated activities. Failure of activity is where I still thing that I am ‘worth it’ (as it says in the cosmetics ad), I still perceive my goals as being vitally important, but what comes in to spoil everything is the growing suspicion that I am no going to be able either to effectively obtain the outcomes I desire, or avoid the outcomes I fear. This type of failure of the integrity of the neurotic game shows itself through struggle, and with that particular type of struggling that carries with it the secret knowledge of its own futility. The comfort zone of ‘apparently effective action’ has been punctured, it has been fatally compromised, and this failure is what we call anxiety.
Failure is implicit in all purposeful, logically-conceived action, even if this sounds, as it does to most ears, like an unnecessarily and gratuitously negative way of looking at things. The rational-purposeful world that is provided for us by the static framework of reference possessed two intrinsic flaws, we might say, one flaw being that the ontological basis is tautological (as are all constructs of a closed system) and therefore quintessentially hollow, and the other – which is really the same flaw seen in from a different angle – is that the raison d’etre of the purposeful realm, which is to reach specified states (or acquire specified outcomes) via the appropriate strategic methodology, always founders on the rock of inherent paradoxicality. In simpler terms, we could just say that all goals are necessarily paradoxical, in the same way that all categories are necessarily tautological, since they are derived via self-referentiality. The reason goals are necessarily paradoxical is because they are an embodiment of certainty and all certain (or definite) statements are bound to flatly contradict themselves – that is inherent in them.
The ‘self-contradicting’ nature of all rules, all definite statements can be readily demonstrated mathematically, or philosophically, but before we do this we will try to demonstrate how the principle of self-contradiction works by reference to practical, everyday situations – the sort of situations that arise as a result of neurotic endeavours and the entanglements we get caught up in as a consequence of these endeavours. When I am living within the remit of what we have called ‘the framework’ the one thing I always want to do is to ‘optimize my game’ – I always want to obtain more and more control over outcomes. Control is my ‘holy grail’, so to speak, I always want more of it and I always strive to reach the optimum position of having total control. This is how I get my sense of security – everything is already ‘nailed down’ by virtue of the fact that it is defined within the context of the fixed framework but I want to nail it down even more. I want to make sure that it’s mailed down. I want certainty, I want to be absolutely sure, and all my efforts are directed towards this end. But something very strange and unexpected happens just at the very moment when victory seems within my grasp – what happens is that the inert substance of the mechanical realm, which up to this point had been utterly passive and compliant with my wishes, suddenly comes to life and turns violently against me. It twists within my grasp like an old rope that has unexpectedly turned into a fully grown diamondback rattlesnake – seven or eight feet of solid writhing muscle. Far from being compliant to my wishes, it pulls free from my sweaty hands, it turns around in my grasp with effortless sinewy power and – in a nightmarishly fast blur of motion – it strikes straight at me with its formidable, venom-injecting fangs…
It sounds obviously wrong to say that the physical material which makes up our world comes to life in some way and ‘rebels’ against us if we push it too far. Other people may rebel against us if we push them too far but material doesn’t. Our experience is invariably that we can push material as far as we want – its ‘compliance’ has no limits. The material world is after all inert, it is the clay on the potter’s wheel, it is the putty in our hands. Does the brick turn against the brick-layer? Does the baker’s dough rebel against being kneaded? Does the clay try to turn the tables and mould the potter? Life would be impossible if this sort of thing happened, if the inanimate, in retaliation for millennia of oppression, rose up against us and struck back. This sort of rebelliousness is however exactly what we find on the atomic and subatomic scales of existence as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Relation makes clear – if we attempt to define all the parameters relating to some subatomic particle we find that gains with regard to one variable inevitably go hand-in-hand with losses in relation to clarity of resolution with the complementary variable and so our struggle for ‘all-round definition’ proves to be a doomed one. So-called ‘material’ rises up against us, in victorious rebellion against our arrogant attempt to pin it down, and what this failure on our part really demonstrates is that we are thinking about reality in an incorrect way. We think that there is an actual separate, independently existing particle out there to be measured and located and analysed and all the rest of it, but the notion of ‘particularity’ is simply that, a notion – and not a very realistic one at that. Nature’s rebellion here is not against us, as such, but against our lazy and ill-considered theories of her, and when we attempt to shoe-horn her into our crappy categories, as if there were no difference between our logical categories and reality itself, we will one day find to our surprise that there is indeed a difference, and a very big one at that (even if we do manage to ‘get away with the approximation’, so to speak, most of the time.
The difference is that whilst our way of thinking about the world naturally tends to separate ‘things’ and put them in conceptual boxes (which is what language does) nature hasn’t the slightest interest in doing this – there are no things in nature, any more than there are boxes to put them in. If we could accurately measure all the parameters relating to a ‘particle’ then there would be such a thing as a separately existent particle, a ‘physical entity’ of some sort which could be considered on its own, in its own right. The attempt to derive such a physical entity arises out of our ‘framework-based’ thinking, out of the abstract viewpoint of the rational mind. According to this viewpoint reality ought to be resolvable into basic units that can be treated as separate things – we don’t see that ‘separation’ is something that we impose apon the world for the sake of convenience. If we could resolve the universe into basic measurable (or definable) components this would constitute one half of our ‘assault’, so to speak, on nature. The other half of the assault would consist of the elucidation of all the rules and laws governing the possible interactions of the basic units, and when these laws do get to be discovered, then at this point we have the whole shebang, reality itself, sewn up. To a certain way of thinking – the predominant way of thinking at this point in time – success in this endeavour would constitute the ultimate triumph of science (by which we really mean the ultimate triumph of the rational intellect). The highly elusive ‘theory of everything’ would at last be ours, though what exactly we would do with it is another question. What the discovery of the long searched-for TOE would mean is that there would be no such thing as spontaneity – spontaneity would have been successfully eliminated, shown to be a false idea, a superstition or a myth, a childish, immature fantasy and no more. Conversely, what the practical impossibility of isolating basic separate (and thus knowable) units of reality very much appears to demonstrate, is that we don’t live in a causal, determinate, ‘particulate’ universe at all, but in an undivided, spontaneous one. And we can go outside of that undivided spontaneous universe to measure it, to define it, to control it, because we are that undivided, spontaneous universe.
The macroscopic universe with which we are familiar is, as we all know very well, perfectly obedient and well-behaved and does not either run away when we try to grab it, nor turn around and bite us (even though we might suspect at times that it may be getting up to something funny when we aren’t looking, like Itzhak Bentov’s ‘wild’ pendulum, or like the cocktail drinking cows in the cartoon by …..). That kind of stuff only happens when we start interacting with what is around us in an extremely precise way, as a particle physicist would do. But when we talk about the malleable clay which we deal with every day we are not really talking so much about the physical universe as we are talking about our descriptions of that universe, the statements we make about it. It might seem a bit peculiar to suddenly jump from the world to the statements we make about the world in this way but the truth is of course that we don’t deal on a daily basis with reality as it is in itself (whatever that might be) but with our thoughts about reality. We have a cognitive map or model about reality which we impose, or super-impose, upon reality to act as a guide for our consequent pattern of interaction with it. So we could say that it is my statements about the world that are compliant to my wishes, and which are very much akin to malleable putty in my hand. One only needs to look around to see the bewilderingly diverse range of beliefs and ideas that people have about the world to see the truth in this – it is one and the same world but us human beings have at one time or another during our history entertained just about every belief about that world that it is possible to entertain. Each one of us exists in a private bubble of subjective impressions, the impressions in questions being governed by the arbitrary assumptions that we have made at some time or other and then promptly proceeded to forget about as if we never made them at all. These assumptions completely determine the nature of our thoughts and ideas about the world, and so we may quite reasonably say these thoughts and ideas are compliant to whatever assumptions that happen to get lodged, in whatever random way, in our heads. This is – therefore – just another way of saying that we can look at the world any way we want.
Although I have the freedom to look at the world any way I want, and interpret the events that happen in it any way I want, this freedom is only good up to a point. If I ‘push it too far’, so to speak, then I will discover that something shockingly unexpected happens; I will find out – much to my horror – that my thoughts (i.e. my intentional statements about the world) will turn against me. ‘Pushing it too far’ means trying to be too definite about things. Suppose that I want to be absolutely certain about something or other, suppose that I want to totally nail it down so that there is no chance whatsoever of it getting away from me. What happens then? A good example to start off with is that of the zealot, the fanatic, the fundamentalist. The terrible certainty of the zealot is the manifestation of his all-out, super-forceful attempt to say ‘what it is all about’, ‘what the story is’, ‘what the one true religion is’ and ‘what that one true religion tells us to do’, etc. He knows what he wants and he is going for gold, he is putting everything he’s got on it, but at the very last minute, just as success seems within his grasp, something funny happens – although he himself will probably be the last person to be aware of this turnaround. The turnaround in question is easy to describe – the more he declares that he is right, the more wrong he seems. The more forcefully he asserts what the truth is, the more palpable the lie becomes. Although on the outside I may seem to be putting on a highly impressive display of strength, confidence, and commitment (all things that we value very highly in our culture) the very fact that I need to exert myself so mightily betrays my true inner situation. I wouldn’t have to put on such an extreme display of strength if my position wasn’t so very weak; I wouldn’t have to put on such a show of confidence if – underneath – I didn’t have any confidence in what I was saying at all. The truth of the matter – which is more than obvious to anyone with even a smidgeon of psychological insight – is that I am totally unbalanced. I am eaten up on the inside by doubt that I do not have the courage to face, and which I am therefore doing my best to deny. My forceful assertions that I am definitely right and that what I am asserting is an absolute fact is simply an act of compensation for the opposite viewpoint – I have to go on asserting, asserting, asserting until I am blue in the face. I have to stamp my belief on others because – at heart – I don’t believe it myself. What I naively expect to be my ultimate self-saving validation (i.e. my super-emphatic, super-energetic pronouncement) is therefore no validation at all but the exact opposite – it is a flag demonstrating to the world in no uncertain terms what an empty-headed fool I am.
The example of the zealot who unerringly sinks himself with his own zealotry is a classic illustration of how the truth runs away from us when we try to pin it down. If I insist that what I am saying is the absolute truth, then it sounds phoney, even if what I am stating is true in some sort of limited, factual sort of a sense true it still sounds false. This principle really comes into its own with the ‘deeper,’ more philosophical types of truths – the more profound a truth, the less susceptible it is to being stated in categorical terms (which makes sense since logical categories cannot really be expected to partake in any sort of profundity, being nothing more than mere abstractions, albeit sometimes pragmatically useful abstractions), and the more elusive it becomes as a result. As the Taoists say, ‘when you try to accord with the Way, you deviate from it’. This is the principle of the mercurial truth – according to the alchemists Mercurius flees like the ‘fugitive stag’ the moment we start to chase after it, guaranteeing our continual unremitting frustration for as long as we persist in trying to catch (or ‘define’) it. Both Taoist and Hermetic wisdom tends to sound very peculiar to our modern, rational outlook (and not like what we would consider wisdom at all) because we are used to dealing with truths as if they were fixed in position. But the only truths that are ‘fixed’ in this way are those truths that we create in relation to our own implicit framework of reference, which we have to conveniently assume to be universally valid in order to be able to make use of it in this way. Thus, our statements about the world take for granted the ‘truth’ of the framework we are using, in order that they themselves might be true, and within this very limited context of meaning we can get away with this sort of trickery. But since the system of reference we are utilizing is itself only an arbitrary construct – i.e. because it is the result of us choosing to look at the world this way – the mass of definite (or ‘fixed’) truths that we surround ourselves with for the purpose of conveniently orientating ourselves are not really fixed at all. They are only fixed or certain in relation to the rules of the game that we ourselves have elected to play by, rules which are not in the least bit fixed, but totally arbitrary. So whilst we can ‘get away with’ asserting relative truths (i.e. I can say that ‘Such and such is definitely true within the terms of the game that I have freely elected to play’) when we try to go further and turn those ‘relatively true assertions’ into ‘absolutely true assertions’ we run into big trouble. And we are pretty much bound to try to do this since assertions of relative truth really don’t provide us with very much at all in the way of satisfaction, orientation, or security, as the above example illustrates. They say something, but then immediately qualify what has been said, and the net result of this ‘statement plus immediate qualification of the statement’ is of course that nothing is really said at all.
The same essential glitch comes to the fore every time I try to obtain a type of certainty or security that is not legitimately possible in a groundless universe (i.e. a spontaneous universe) and this glitch constitutes the basic self-defeating pattern inherent in all forms of neurosis. We can give a few simple examples just to make the point. Suppose I wish to make absolutely sure that I have locked the front door properly when I leave my house in the morning. As I walk away I realize that I am not 100% sure that I have locked the door, which is in itself reasonable enough since we can never be totally sure about anything. So what I do in order to assuage this doubt is of course to walk back and check it. But then when I walk away the second time I realize, also quite legitimately, that I cannot be 100% sure that I have correctly checked whether I locked the door or not. So then I walk back again to ‘check my checking’, as it were. This locks me into an infinite regress of checking since each time I check my checking, I then have to go back and check my checking of my checking. There is not way to get to the end of this checking behaviour because that would require absolute certainty, which is the one thing I can never obtain. If I could be content to leave a little bit of uncertainty there then I would be able to get on with my life, but when I am unwise enough to insist on total certainty then I get caught up in the infinite regress of OCD. ‘Total certainty’ is an abstraction, an illusion ‘in whose honour I go mad and rave’; it is a fantasy that doesn’t exist in the real world and the best approximation I can come up with in non-abstract reality is an endless repetition of some behaviour or other, which fills up all the available space and doesn’t allow me to get on with anything else. This is like a computer trying to compute a non-computable problem – life comes to stand-still, it grinds to a halt, it falls into the gnashing jaws of paradoxicality, which is the universe’s way of telling us that what we are trying to do is simply not possible.
Another example of ‘getting stuck trying to do the impossible’ is provided by anxiety. What I am trying to achieve in anxiety is to obtain the abstract goal of ‘zero risk’ – there is a degree of risk inherent in everything, just as there is a degree of uncertainty, and as long as I am able to accept this basic, irreducible level risk I will not get stuck. But in anxiety what happens of course is that I insist on eradicating all risk, and so my thinking (and my behaviour) is geared towards arriving at this abstract, illusory goal. My mind goes into over-drive trying to compute some way around all the risks inherent in life, trying to solve problems before they actually happen. Very quickly, all the possibilities I need to compute in order to stay head of the game (to stay ahead of the unfolding of reality, rather) outstrips the power I have to compute stuff, and this is going to happen no matter how much computing power I’ve got at my fingertips (or wherever else I might have it) for the very straightforward reason that – as Robert Anton Wilson says – “the only thing equal to the universe is the universe!” (or as Paul Davies puts it, ” the universe is its own fastest computer.”)
The bottom line is that no matter how much we’d like to ‘shut down reality’ (because of the terror that grips us when we are confronted by it) we can’t – this just isn’t going to work for us. We try our damnedest to obtain the illegitimate security of ‘knowing what reality is’ but no matter what strategies we bring to bear our efforts are always going to backfire on us one way or another. We can’t turn the spontaneous universe into a simulation because the more we exclude spontaneity the more paradoxical and self-contradictory everything becomes, until we find ourselves as we have said in the very jaws of impossibility – and paying the forfeit that comes to all who go all out to achieve an impossible thing, and make it not just very important that they should be able to do so, but absolutely vital!
The simulation is not content just to be a simulation, it wants to be the thing that is being simulated! The magician’s apprentice (who is really only fit for sweeping the floor and cleaning the glassware) wants to be the magician himself. The rational-purposeful ego (which understands nothing about what is going on, although it thinks it does) wants to take over from the spontaneous psyche, and it doesn’t just want to ‘take over’, it wants us to believe that there is no such thing as ‘a spontaneous psyche’.
But the thing is that not only is what we are trying to do ‘a complete non-starter’ – it would be an absolutely terrible idea even if (in the impoverished realm of our imagination) it were possible! It couldn’t ever work, and it would be an appalling disaster even if it could. Really – if the truth were known – the only reason that we’re ‘going for it with all guns blazing’ in the way that we are is because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of the spontaneous universe and so we want to subdue it with our rational knowledge. We’re afraid of the spontaneous psyche so we say that there is no such thing. But the motivation for all our endeavours in this direction is only fear – even though we’ll never admit it to ourselves. We are afraid of reality!
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.