We live our lives in servitude to meaningless mechanical patterns of thinking and behaving, which we manage somehow to dignify. We dignify them so that they do not appear like meaningless mechanical patterns. Instead of seeming meaningless to us, these dead patterns or routines appear pretty much to be the sacred touchstones of our existence. They appear to be the exact opposite of meaningless – they appear to be central, vital, urgent, important; they appear unquestionably meaningful. The one question we do have in life is not “Why is this pattern of thinking or behaving meaningful?” but “How may I best continue with it?” ‘How?’ replaces ‘Why?’ In a profoundly non-philosophical technological culture such as ours it is all about ‘the how’. We are crazy about the how, obsessed with the how, intoxicated with the how. Start asking “Why?” too often and people will look at you as if you have gone funny in the head.
Rather than seeing my automatic patterns of thinking and behaving as being essentially empty and unpleasantly ‘spookish’, like an old and deeply familiar cliché which slips so easily into my speech and rests so naturally (albeit meaninglessly) within the groove which it has etched into my mind, I see these patterns as the all-important fulcrum around which the whole world revolves. I see the dead rules that govern this ceaseless mechanical activity as being a sort of vital ‘source code’ or ‘key’ – the precious blue-print for life. I put them on a pedestal. What I do in order to dignify these random mechanical reflexes is to take them absolutely for granted and make sure that I never question them, nor – if I can help it – allow anyone else to do so. This extremely crude (but nevertheless highly effective) strategy is called human culture.
Dignifying the random mechanical patterns which I lead my life in helpless servitude to by investing them with false meaning is one way to get by under the circumstances, but it is a way that comes at a price. This price is not clear to us – in fact we have no conception of it at all – but it is there nonetheless. The price is this. If I have invested the mechanical pattern with meaning or value, so that a certain particular manifestation of it is now highly important to me, cherished and celebrated by me, then I am now subject to all the other aspects of the manifestation of this pattern, whether I like them or not. Because all mechanical patterns are waves or vibrations (which is to say PLUS / MINUS oscillations) then if I am in a state of servitude to a particular pattern such that one phase of its oscillation is valued to me as the nominated ‘positive outcome’, then any pleasure that I get from the positive outcome is going to be cancelled out by the displeasure that I get later on from the mechanical reversal of this valued outcome. If the successful elicitation of the desired part (or phase) of the all-important pattern produces a tremendous feeling of satisfaction, then the unwanted reverse-phase of that same pattern is going to produce dissatisfaction to an equivalently intense degree.
The pleasure or satisfaction that I obtain from what I see as the ‘good outcome’ doesn’t really have anything to do with me. It doesn’t really have anything to do with anything. It is ‘mechanical pleasure’ – I have arbitrarily designated some outcome or other as being the right one, the good one, and then when it actualizes in reality I feel pleased, I feel vindicated, I feel happy. I feel that this outcome has something to do with me but that is of course only because I have freely chosen to identify with it. I could equally well have chosen to identify with some other outcome, in which case it would be a completely different picture. This is like me picking a team to support and then being totally ‘over the moon’ when ‘my’ team wins. It is only ‘my’ team because I have arbitrarily chosen to pick it, and so the pleasure that I obtain when my team does well must also be arbitrary. This is meaningless pleasure, mechanical pleasure. It doesn’t really have anything to do with me at all, I just pretend that it does.
Flipping a coin is another example of this sort of thing: if I call ‘heads’ and the result of flipping the coin is heads, then I am delighted. I have ‘won the toss’ and so I feel justifiably triumphant. But if I had called ‘tails’ and the coin had landed tails then I would have felt equally vindicated, equally triumphant, and so clearly my pleasure has nothing to do with the actual outcome itself. I am not interested in the actual outcome at all – I am only interested insofar as it confirms the choices (or ‘assumptions’) that I have made in this matter. I am only interested in the outcome insofar as that outcome flatters me, insofar as it supports or vindicates the exercise of my personal will in this matter. It is ‘all about me’, in other words.
Thus, we can say that the actual ‘specifics’ of what my personal will desires to happen, or not happen, does not matter in the ultimate analysis – what does matter is that this act of will should be satisfied, agreed with. What does matter is that the ‘free choice’ which I have made (and then identified with immediately so as to create the illusion that there wasn’t any element of choice involved) is proved to the right choice (even though I am not admitting that it actually was a choice). My underlying ‘random bias’ in the matter is echoed and therefore confirmed by the outside world and this makes me feel good because it effectively assuages my hidden insecurity about this random bias – the insecurity that arises inevitably out of my denied awareness that the choice actually was random.
So what I am really doing in the act of ‘identification’ is to establishing a false connection, a relationship where there is none. Again, this is exactly the same thing as randomly picking a football team to support. A random connection is no connection so I can’t leave it at this because then there will be neither satisfaction nor dissatisfaction in it for me. I don’t come into the picture at all, in other words – if the team wins I won’t feel good because there is no reason for me to feel good, and if the team loses the same thing applies. It’s an irrelevance either way. So what I do to get around this is to create a personal connection by identifying with the team. Identification involves two steps (or moves): firstly I make the choice and secondly I conveniently forget that I actually made this choice. This is what James Carse calls self-veiling. It is then as if I had always supported such-and-such a team; it is as if there could never have been any possibility of me not supporting them. As far as I am concerned it couldn’t ever have been any other way…
Another image we could use is that of a wheel turning. I (freely) say that when a white spot painted on the rim of the turning wheel reaches its zenith, its highest possible point, then this is a very good thing. So when the white spot reaches this point I am overjoyed, I am triumphant, I am ‘over the moon’ about it. But as just surely as the white spot will reach its zenith it will also reach its nadir and then when this happens I will be cast down in my mood to the exact same extent that I was raised up before. There is – furthermore – no way in which I can get to enjoy the victory of ‘good outcome’ and yet not be corresponding crushed by the defeat of the ‘bad outcome’ later on. The two possibilites are mutually dependent. Both victory and defeat are legitimate categories within the game – the one following on the heels of the other just as (to use the Buddhist metaphor) a cart follows the horse that draws it.
When I win I feel good and when I lose I feel bad, but I can no more separate winning from losing than I can separate zenith from nadir. I can no more separate ‘obtaining the goal that I have set for myself’ from ‘not obtaining it’ than I can separate UP from DOWN. Once I buy into the game then I am bound to take the negative or unwanted outcome every bit as seriously as I take the positive or wanted outcome – if I want the one then I have to have the other and there is no getting away from this. There is no way, not even in a million billion years of trying. If I want to enjoy the sweet taste of victory then I must also taste – in equal measure – the bitter taste of defeat. Thus, if I identify with the mechanical system in question so that ‘its fortunes are my fortunes’ and I label a certain phase of the lawful operation of that system as being the ‘valued outcome’ (i.e. what I want to happen) then the wonderful sense of elation (or euphoria) that I experienced when the white spot reaches the highest part of its swing is going to be exactly cancelled out by the cruelly punishing dysphoria that follows when it inexorably moves away from zenith of its flight and heads inexorably towards the nadir. It’s all the one movement really, but I just can’t see that.
The reason in can’t see that it’s all just the one movement (i.e. the wheel is turning in a deterministic or mechanical fashion) is because I don’t have the necessary perspective. The business of ‘identification’ necessarily involves a global loss of perspective – it wouldn’t be identification otherwise, it wouldn’t be identification if I were able to see what is going on from outside of the closed context of meaning that is assumed by the mechanical system in question. Losing the perspective that allows me to see that the turning of the mechanical wheel is ‘all just the one movement’ happens at the same time that I lose the freedom to see that I chose to link my fortunes with that of the mechanical system, that it didn’t have to be so. Both of these losses are actually one and the same loss.
In order for identification to take place it is necessary for me reduce the scope of my vision to the point that I cannot see the arbitrary construct to be an arbitrary construct – this is the point at which ‘the random statement’ becomes ‘an absolute immutable law,’ the point at which a way of looking at the world becomes the way. Once my scope of vision has been reduced to this degree then my world gets ‘shrunk down’ (or ‘minimized’) without me having any way of knowing that it has shrunk down or minimized. There is an invisible and therefore unquestionable centre to my world, the centre being the arbitrary position that I have now ‘taken for granted’ and turned into an absolute immutable law. An ‘absolute immutable law’ is the same thing as ‘a position that has become fixed forever’; it is a position that can no longer – by virtue of the fact that it can never be changed – be seen as merely one particular position out of infinitely many others, but instead becomes something else entirely, something quite different. Its character is inverted – it used to be a living metaphor but now it is a dead dogma.
By being ‘fixed’ or ‘final’ in this way the arbitrarily chosen location or viewpoint (which is ‘one single signal’ out of what Robert Anton Wilson refers to as ‘the infinite ocean of signals’) becomes the invisible centre of my world – and this invisible centre is at the same time both the limit or horizon of my world. Between invisible centre and invisible limit there is no space, since both centre and limit are one and the same thing, aspects of the same logical continuum, and yet it is within this ‘space that contains no space’ that I am now bound to live out my life. The infinite has become finite – fixation has replaced mobility and stubbornly immovable stasis has somehow become ‘the supreme virtue’.
The global loss of perspective that is involved in the ubiquitous process of identification produces within me a particular type of ‘blindness’. John G Bennett speaks of this blindness in terms of the inability to see that any given pair of opposites are always going to be fundamentally and irrevocably inseparable. Because of this constitutional blindness with regard to the identity of opposites, our purposeful activity is always geared to achieving one opposite but not the other. As Bennett (1961, P 167-8) explains here –
The Reactional Self can experience the action of only one Cosmic Impulse at any one given time. When it experiences the affirming impulse, it is unaware of the denying force that opposes it. This produces a positive reaction that is manifested through the automatism of the Material Self. Likewise, a denying impulse produces a negative manifestation. In these reactions, there is no choice, and no decision. There is polarity, but only one pole is situated within the Self.
The fact that the self is identified with only one pole means that it is always trying to ‘thrust away’ the other pole. One pole is wanted, the other pole unwanted. One is to be actualized, the other denied. But because both the wanted and the unwanted poles are fundamentally inseparable the attempt to have one but not the other is simply going to set up an oscillation. Because in reality I do not have the freedom to thrust away the unwanted opposite the attempt to do so creates a ‘vibration’ – a constant cycling of YES and NO which is a clear manifestation of the impossibility of what I am trying to achieve, if only I had the perspective to see this.
Gurdjieff says that YES and NO are the two ends of the same stick: thus if I secure the YES end of the stick for myself I have also secured (however unwittingly) the NO end for myself at the same time. Or we could think in terms of a playground swing – if I vigorously thrust away the swing because I don’t want it, then of course it is only going to come back to me all the more forcefully. I can’t say NO without getting a YES back a bit later on. I can’t deny without affirming, nor affirm without denying; the best I can hope for is a bit of leeway before my affirming is denied, or before my denying is affirmed, even though I do not – because of my blindness with regard to the identity of the opposites – see this that this is the case. Instead, I am always jousting for the prize of the ‘isolated opposite’, the stick with only the one end, the swing that goes one way but not the other. This hallucinatory prize is pretty much all that I care about and the more that it slips through my fingers the more desperately I want it!
Euphoria, we might say, is the gratified state of mind that comes about when I think I have succeeded in obtaining the opposite that I want, the specific outcome that I want. This gratification is intensely pleasurable because I believe that I am finally getting what I want, that what I have secured for myself via my efforts is permanent and can never be taken away. If I was clearly aware that what I have achieved (the desired outcome) is only a very temporary sort of a thing, a state of affairs that is shortly to be reversed, then there would be no euphoria, not even the tiniest little smidgen of it. Euphoria is a product of ‘polarity blindness’, in other words. It is a commodity (and a very highly prized commodity at that) that is manufactured by our one-sided way of looking at things. It is the good feeling that arises as a result of our deluded perception that there can be such a thing as an isolated (or ‘uncompensated’) opposite.
The same applies for dysphoria. Dysphoria is the disgruntled or frustrated state of mind that arises when I think that the outcome I want has slipped through my clutching fingers. Or we could say that it is the ‘displeased’ state of mind that arises when I obtain (or am saddled with) the opposite that I don’t want. Dysphoria is ‘negative gratification’, it is a punishing rather than a rewarding state of mind and it also arises out of the delusion that there can be such a thing as an ‘isolated’ (or ‘uncompensated’) opposite. Just as much as euphoria is the consequence of ‘polarity blindness’ so too is dysphoria – in fact dysphoria is no more than euphoria reversed, the flip-side of the same coin, the other end of the same stick. Inasmuch as we prize and celebrate euphoria, we prize and celebrate dysphoria. Inasmuch as we devote much of our time to chasing pleasure (or satisfaction), we are devoting our time to chasing pain (or dissatisfaction). We pursue suffering with indefatigable commitment and unrelenting determination! This verse portraying the words of the Buddha taken from Sir Edwin Arnold’s celebrated poem The Light of Asia makes this very point –
Ye suffer from yourselves. None else compels.
None other holds you that ye live and die,
And whirl upon the wheel, and hug and kiss
Its spokes of agony,
Its tire of tears, its nave of nothingness.
The inevitable cancelling out of the one opposite by the other means that the euphoria-dysphoria economy is always going to be an overall nullity even if our lack of perspective makes us profoundly blind to this fact. The euphoria-dysphoria economy (which is our whole world, just so long as we’re operating out of the goal-orientated, rational mind) is always going to be an over-all nullity even though if we take a ‘snapshot’ at any one point of time both euphoria and dysphoria seem to manifest themselves as ‘uncompensated’ realities, to use J.G. Bennett’s terminology. Seen with zero perspective, zenith and nadir appear to be separate and independent entities.
The ‘separation of the opposites’ isn’t just something we do or try to do from time to time (every time we set ourselves a goal of achieving something or other, for example), it is something we do the whole time. The ‘separation of the opposites’ is a continuous process – it is a ‘work in progress’, a ‘non-terminating project’. This particular endeavour constitutes as Jung has said the basic most fundamental operation of the rational or logical mind. This is what the rational mind is all about. This is not hard to demonstrate if we consider the indisputable fact that every time we have a rational thought it has to be the case that there are mental categories of one sort or another involved. The rational mind is like a billiard table with lots and lots of pockets in it, pockets into which different coloured balls can be slotted according to a fixed set of processing rules regarding ‘which type of ball goes where’. The billiard balls correspond to the flow of sensory/perceptual information that is constantly coming into the system and the pockets in the table correspond to the various mental categories which the system uses to process the incoming information flow and thereby ‘make sense of it’.
When a particular batch of incoming sensory/perceptual information gets sorted out into a number of categories the particular sequential pattern of the categories involved in this information-processing operation can be used to code for whatever event or element it is that is associated with the perceptual data that came in. We can then therefore use this sequential arrangement of categories to talk about the situation that gave rise to it as a type of convenient short-hand. We can use a logical system made up of many such ‘category-combinations’ as a language to talk about all the situations that we might conceivably encounter in day-to-day life. A language does more than just give us a way of talking about commonly encountered situations though – it actually creates an entire self-consistent world. By talking about the world it creates the world that it is talking about, which is – it need hardly be said – a weirdly redundant sort of a situation.
What gives the system of language the property of being able to give rise to an actual world is its self-consistence. Saying that a system is ‘self-consistent’ is a way of saying that it seamlessly joins up with itself in the same way that an individual link in paper chain made up of many such links seamlessly joins up with itself. If you happened to be some abstract hypothetical sort of a creature that lives on the inside of a two-dimensional loop then it would be the fact that the loop joins up with itself that makes this abstract domain into a world. By extension, then, if you happened to be an abstract hypothetical sort of a creature that lives on the inside of a three-dimensional loop (which is to say, on the inside of ‘a hollow spherical surface’) then it is the fact that the inside of the hollow spherical surface has the property of having no seams or edges which makes you feel that where you are living is ‘an actual world’.
Any given self-consistent logical system is guaranteed from the onset to be ‘seamless’ or ‘edgeless’ in this way. This has to be the case because a system of logic can never refer to anything that is not within its lawful domain, which is to say, within the abstract domain that is made up of all the locations (or ‘possibilities’) that are permitted by the rules governing it. Thus, we can travel around and around that domain and at no point will we ever encounter any indication or suggestion that that there is anything else anywhere other than this domain. The domain in question will therefore constitute the whole world for us. And yet even though from a pragmatic point of view we will never come across any information relating to anything outside of the system (any such information would be ‘logically inconsistent’ and therefore not allowed) this doesn’t of course mean that there isn’t anything outside of the system. Moreover not only is it the case that the formally defined or described world that is found within the loop isn’t the only reality that exists, but it is also true that if we were to make a ratio of the ‘richness of possibilities’ that exists within the self-consistent logical domain to the ‘richness of possibilities’ that exists outside of this domain (outside of the loop) then this ratio would not be expressible in finite terms.
In other words, the ‘range of possibilities’ that exists outside of the logical system is infinitely richer than that which exists within that system. There is by definition only the one possibility to be found within the self-consistent system of logic – that is what ‘self-consistent’ means – and so this cannot by any stretch of the imagination be spoken of as a richness of possibilities; on the contrary, it can only be spoken of as an impoverishment of them, a deficit or lack.
Actually, when there is ‘only the one possibility’ this isn’t really any sort of a possibility at all since at least one other (independent) level of description is needed to be able to provide perspective on the first one. Without any perspective we can make any sort of a statement at all, with the greatest of ease in fact, but no statement that we make will ever mean anything. With zero perspective all statements are guaranteed redundant. The lack or deficit of any other level of description (any other ‘possibility of seeing things’) translates into information loss, therefore. Thus, what we are actually talking about here is the realm of the abstract and so naturally it follows the ‘relationship of the abstract to the non-abstract’ is not a genuine relationship at all. A two dimensional painting of a hat does not to any genuine extent represent to the actual reality of a hat, the menu in a restaurant does not in any genuine way represent the reality of the food that is being offered, the much searched-for ‘unified field equation’ (if any such thing existed or could exist) would not in any way represent the reality of the actual physical reality, and so on.
‘Only the one possibility’ isn’t even any possibility really because freedom is needed before there can be anything. If I say that only one possibility is allowed, the possibility which is specified by the system of logic, then what I am saying is that no change is allowed. Or to put this another way, what I am saying is that only the possibility of ‘no change’ is allowed. But what is ‘no change’? Is ‘no change’ really a possibility at all? Informationally speaking, if there is never any possibility of radical change (i.e. change that goes beyond what is permitted by the system) then this means that nothing that ever happens within the system is unpredictable, and that is just another way of saying that the system has ‘zero information content’. Saying that the system has zero information content is a polite way of saying that it doesn’t exist – that it is an illusion, a ‘conditioned reality’, a superficial appearance and nothing more. If I specify something completely (if I say that ‘such-and-such’ has to be ‘such-and-such a way’) then I squeeze the life out of it. I transform ‘the real’ into ‘the abstract’ via a process of cataclysmic information loss. I end up with a world made up of definite statements, definite descriptions, definite terms and the thing about definite statements, definite descriptions and definite terms is that they are at all times inherently and irreducibly self-contradictory.
Squeeze reality hard enough (put it through a mechanical wringer so that all the juice runs right out of it) and it turns into a type of ‘stone’ – the stone of ‘certainty’. But certainty is really just a way of talking about informational impoverishment, and we are not just talking about informational impoverishment in the sense that there is possibly a tiny residual bit of information left in it somewhere, albeit perhaps only a very desiccated and unrepresentative remnant of it. This is information impoverishment in the sense that there simply isn’t any information there, not even a little bit. When this happens we end up with the ‘possibility’ of being able to make absolutely authoritative definite statements, and this ‘possibility’ is what logic is all about. But these absolutely authoritative definite statements are self-referential and tautological, they are therefore devoid of all information and the way that this deficit or lack of information expresses itself is through paradoxicality, which it to say, through inherent and irreducible self-contradictoriness.
Paradoxical or not however, we can then proceed to charge ahead like bulls and use these definite statements or descriptions to construct an entire self-consistent world for ourselves. We can then very easily live out the entire course of our lives within the bounds of this formal world, this world that is created by our self-consistent system of describing reality. This paradoxical formal world is what David Bohm calls the system of thought, Jean Baudrillard calls the hyperreal, and Eastern metaphysics calls samsara. We can very easily live out the whole of our lives in this abstract realm and ‘never know the difference’, so to speak. Our closed language, our closed way of describing or thinking about reality becomes the reality – only it isn’t a reality at all because it is self-contradicting.
This language, this system of thought, is what constructs the hyperreal universe in which we live. But the language, the system of thought, is in turn created out of categories, and categories – beyond any shadow of doubt – are created by boundaries. Boundaries in turn are – as we have said – created via the separation of PLUS and MINUS, YES and NO. Boundaries are ‘sorting devices’ – all information that matches the criterion, the rule, is accepted and all information that doesn’t match the rule that is the boundary is thrown away, dumped, disregarded.
What this means is that the very beginning of this ‘chain of creation’ whereby the world we know is created is founded upon an impossible act – the impossible act of separating the opposites. The opposites never were separated at all. They weren’t separated because they can’t be separated – instead, we have simply created a special kind of blindness for ourselves. The type of blindness we have created for ourselves is the type of blindness that prevents us from seeing that every stick has two ends, that every boundary has two sides. This is the type of blindness therefore that prevents us from seeing that every time we utilize the ‘sorting device’ of the one-sided boundary to manufacture a positive definite statement for ourselves we simultaneously incur the corresponding negative definite statement.
The basic building blocks that make up our known reality are little units of positive certainty – logical statements about the world that we have assumed to be true and which we have built upon with yet more logical statements, tiers upon tiers of logical statements. Put all together, these basic buildings blocks create a tremendously imposing structure. If we hadn’t questioned any of the little building blocks then for sure we aren’t going to question the massive authority of the overall structure, which is the world that we live in. We don’t question this world, this imposing formal system, we adapt to it – we unreflectively obey the rules that are built into it, we unreflectively observe the limitations that it is founded upon. Quite apart from its tremendously imposing and massively authoritative influence over us, we have invested so much of ourselves in this structure or system that if we were somehow to find out that it wasn’t real in the way that it sets itself out as being then this would constitute the ‘worst possible news ever’. Such a discovery would seem like an unthinkable catastrophe to us.
But what have completely glossed over in all this (in this all-absorbing super-engrossing endeavour of ‘creating a formal world’ or ‘creating a positive universe’) is that the whole thing is like a mighty castle that has been built upon the finest, most powdery sand you could ever possibly imagine. The formidably impressive edifice of positive certainty has – very unwisely – been built upon the shifting sands of infinite relativity and this means that all of the painstaking work we have put into constructing it and endlessly reinforcing it is bound to be in vain.
What we failed to see at the beginning (and still fail to see now) is that every little unit of positive certainty is paired with the corresponding little unit of negative certainty so that the overall structure is at all times perfectly null, perfectly compensated. What we cannot see is that every definite statement is a pendulum, with a [+] phase and a [-] phase, and that the enactment of a definite statement is a mechanical vibration, an endless recurring +/- oscillation.
Behind of our constitutional ‘rational blindness’ in this regard we completely fail to see that what we gain on the swings we invariably lose on the roundabouts.
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.