There is nothing personal in anything. No matter how hard you look, no matter how persistently you search, you will never find anything personal in anything, anywhere. The reason you won’t find anything personal in anything is because there isn’t anything personal there to find. There isn’t anything personal about life – there never was and there never will be.
This point needs a bit of emphasis because we are so very convinced of the opposite. We are convinced that there is something personal about it – we think that it’s just about as personal as it can get!
How much more personal could it get? Here is me, and there is life happening to me! If I get a lucky break then this is personal because it is me that gets the break rather than someone else, and if life dumps on me then this too is deeply personal because it was me who has to take the crap and get on with it and not the guy next door.
But there is a trick to this – something that we can’t immediately see. The way we get life to be personal this way is by having a very specific set of likes and dislikes; these then become my likes and dislikes and this particular pattern of preferences (the profile of things that I am attracted to and things that I am averse to) says who I am.
The profile of likes and dislikes that I have adopted gives me an angle on life and that angle is me! Life can be seen as a broad range of possibilities (an unlimited range of possibilities, in fact) but rather than ‘going along happily’ with whatever possibilities that come along I am partisan. I am pleased if those possibilities which correspond with my ‘likes’ come up, and displeased if they don’t. I am happy when the universe agrees with me and unhappy when if it doesn’t.
I am biased, in other words and it is my set of biases that determines how I feel about what happens to me, that determines whether I am to feel good or bad in any situation. So at this point life all of a sudden becomes very personal – either things go well for me or they go badly; either fortune smiles upon me or bad luck dogs me everywhere I go. In the first case I feel on top of the world, I am over the moon, I am walking on air, I am delighted; and in the second case I am gutted, I am fed up, I am miserable, I am down in the dumps, and this very familiar ‘up versus down’ dynamic is what ‘personal’ is all about…
When things go well instead of badly, when I am a winner rather than a loser, then this of course personally validates me. It gives me the boost to my self-esteem that I need; it is the sweetest possible news for my insecure little ego. More than just giving my ego a boost, being lucky (or being a winner) makes me feel like somebody rather than just some nondescript hapless invisible nonentity. It is the golden charm, it is the ‘touch’ that we have all been waiting for, it is the sparkling sprinkle of magic fairy dust that turns my life around. It is therefore as if the magical kudos of success bestows upon me the much-craved boon of actual existence, actual being.
But if winning affirms my existence, then so too – perhaps unexpectedly – does losing. ‘Losing’ is after all after all just as much a valid category in the game as winning and so having a hard-luck story re-affirms my identity every bit as much as having a good luck story does. The logic is backwards, but it is logic all the same – if I am a loser, then there must somebody there to be that loser and so I must be somebody after all!
This logic is what lies behind the whole notion of luck. People have always been fascinated by the idea of luck – luck is the golden charm that everyone wants to be touched by. This undoubtedly was as true ten thousand years ago as it is now, but just because everybody talks about luck that doesn’t of course mean that it is real thing. A bit of perspective is all that is needed to show that it isn’t in fact any sort of a ‘real thing’, and that – despite our conviction to the contrary – there isn’t any such thing as ‘luck’ out there at large in the universe. This is very easy to show – luck after all only has any meaning in relation to the very specific framework of the game that is being played, it is only meaningful to ‘the one who plays the game’. If I wasn’t playing the game of ‘profit or loss’ then what would I care about luck?
When I talk about luck I am talking about gain and when I talk about gain I am talking about me. This is such an obvious point that it is very hard for us to see it. But what we are saying here is that ‘luck’ is just a projection of myself, just as ‘bad luck’ is. It doesn’t objectively exist out there, it’s just my own projection. I arbitrarily impose the idea on the universe. If I did not assume myself to be the absolute centre of the universe then any luck that I might or might not have would not seem so relevant. If I wasn’t looking at things exclusively from my own personal perspective then the idea of ‘luck’ wouldn’t seem so overwhelmingly significant – in fact without this perspective it wouldn’t seem significant at all. ‘Luck’ is thus a virtual concept which is only meaningful when I buy into the idea of my narrow viewpoint as being the only viewpoint that matters. Luck only makes as much sense as it does when the arbitrary idea of ‘me’ is my exclusive focus of concern…
Conversely, we could say that by bandying about the term luck as we do all the time we surreptitiously validate (or ‘smuggle in through the back-door’) the concept of the one who either is, or is not, lucky. We reify the concept without drawing attention to the fact that we are reifying it. When ‘the one who is either lucky or unlucky’ has been validated (or ‘reified’) in this way then life has been personalized.
Looked at one way, this is a great thing – when this reified sense of identity is being flattered (i.e. when things go according to plan) then this feels fantastic and I can’t get enough of it. When I am being insulted to the core, however – when the universe is clearly treating me like a joke, taking the piss out of me, humiliating me – then this is a different story entirely. Being up is great but to the same extent that being up is great then being down is utterly miserable. Thus, I might take life personally for the sake of the good feeling that I get when my ‘viewpoint’ (i.e. my arbitrarily-chosen set of biases) is flattered, but later on when I am repeatedly getting the rough side of the deal, when life is making a running joke of me, I might wonder if this is what I really want after all…
No one succeeds all the time. If we did then the taste of success would become insipid to us, it would become stale and flat like a plastic bottle of coke that has been left sitting in the cupboard for a week with the top not on properly. Success itself defeats us, in this case. In any event, very few have what might be called ‘continuous success’ and for those that do – icons of sport or fashion or pop music, or whatever – their ‘success’ is of course a real or tangible quality for others rather than themselves. It is a myth that we naively buy into. In reality if we are flattered one day it is only to be insulted the next, so where is the satisfaction in this? If I am up one day only to be down the next, then there is no net gain to be had out of the ride. The idea that I will one day win admission to that exclusive club of All-Time Winners, those lucky ones who are never to be thrown off their exalted pedestals, begins to look remarkably unlikely when I actually start to examine it.
All in all, there are very many more ways for the universe insult me, to ‘go against me’ than there are for it to flatter, or ‘agree with me’. As is always the case with a specific set of preferences, there are incalculably more ways for things to ‘go wrong’ than there are for them to ‘go right’. This is a bit like trying to win the lotto – there might be something like 15 million wrong combinations of numbers you can pick, and only the one right combination. And to cap it all, no matter how well – or how badly – we get on in terms of actualizing our preferences (i.e. ‘getting the universe to agree with us’) we still have to undergo ‘the final insult’ of dying, which for the reified (or ‘objectified’) self has got to be an insult since there is no way that my personal death can be seen in terms of the universe ‘supporting’ that particular specific set of biases that I choose to look apon as being me. For the reified or conditioned identity, the only truly meaningful way that the universe could ‘support’ it, ‘flatter’ it, or ‘agree with’ it would be by making it immortal.
This might sound ridiculous but, on the other hand, immortality is of course what every ego, every fixed identity, every conditioned notion of self aspires to (albeit very much ‘on the quiet’, without ever going quite so far as to admit the fact to itself). Not only do I as a conditioned identity secretly aspire to immortality but deep down in the murky secrecy of my own unconscious or unexamined beliefs I actually believe that I am immortal. This is after all what the denial of the reality of our own personal death (which we all practice, whether we like to admit it or not) is all about – it is pretending to myself that I am immortal whilst taking great care the whole time never to actually focus on the utter insanity of what I’m pretending.
But the point we are making in all this is that the business of ‘taking life personally’ is really only a game. We can see that it is only a game (a game which we choose to play and then forget that we have so chosen) by considering the inarguable truth that the sticking points we stick with, the values we say are so very important, the ideas we say are right, and so on, could just have easily have been otherwise. I can pick any sticking point as a ‘sticking point’ and then stick fast to it (like a limpet on its rock, or an orthodox believer with his belief). I can say that anything is ‘very important’ and then act as if it was. I can say that any idea or belief is ‘right’ and then get very upset indeed if you disagree with me…
Whenever the values that I enshrine are arbitrary, then what I am doing is ‘playing a game’. And given the infinite diversity of values that I could have chosen to enshrine, angles that I could have taken, stances that I could have adopted, how can I possibly be foolish enough imagine that my particular enshrined values, my particular position or stance is not arbitrary? And yet to see this truth, to actually become aware of it, is the most profound and unnerving of shocks. It is devastating. To plainly see that everything seems right or normal just because I have chosen for it to seem right or normal (that the world which is so real to me only seems real because I habitually look at it in the way that makes it seem real) is something truly weird, something truly uncanny.
It is freaky to see this, it injects a frightening amount of perspective; it induces the most extraordinarily vertiginous of feelings; it means that everything I see as being unshakably, unquestionably true (so much so in fact that the question as to whether it is true of not never arises in the first place) doesn’t actually have to be so at all…
This is the biggest shock anyone could ever have – they don’t come any bigger than this. This extraordinarily shocking awareness ‘comes out of nowhere’, it comes from the direction we least expect – a direction we didn’t even realize to be a direction – and then it hits us hard, harder than anything has ever hit us before. How to quantify the sledgehammer impact of reality upon a frail illusion, an illusion which – until that moment – hadn’t ever had the slightest intimation that it was an illusion? This is the biggest surprise in the world, bar none. At that moment, everything we know and trust in is taken away, leaving behind not even the wispiest spider-web strand of comfort for us to grasp hold of.
But all that has happened really is that there has been a shockingly huge injection of perspective – what came at me from an unexpected direction (a direction I didn’t know existed) was perspective, what hit me harder than anything has ever hit me before was perspective, what erased my whole world (as if it never existed) was perspective…
What all this hitherto unsuspected perspective shows me is that there isn’t anything personal about life. There never was and there never will be. When I walk mindfully down the street – if I pay attention, if I am actually present in the walking – then I will see that there is a ‘walking down the street’ but no one who actually does the walking. The idea that there is someone there doing the walking is a convention of speech, a bit of abstract terminology, an unwarranted inference, the result of lazy thinking, an erroneous assumption due a long-standing habit of careless inattention.
There is only the ‘flowing-ness’ of what is going on, without any trace whatsoever of any fixed or static elements in that ‘flowing-ness’. This is a matter of direct perception – no one ever perceived their own static ‘self’, only the flowing motion of their ever-changing perceptions. This is like a wave – we can talk about a wave as if it were an actual ‘thing’ that travels along the surface of the sea but it isn’t, that is only an optical illusion. In reality there is no wave that travels; the wave is always new – only the disturbance travels, and the disturbance isn’t a concrete thing. Thus, there is no ‘me’ walking, and there is no street to be walking down. There is only the on-going flow of ‘things happening’ (only there aren’t literally any ‘things’ to happen, any more than there is a ‘place’ for them to happen in).
There is a river flowing but it is a river without any banks. It is ‘change without a context’. There is a river flowing but we cannot stand outside of it precisely because there are no banks to stand on. If we could stand on one of the river’s bank to survey the whole process (to get a bird’s eye view of it, so to speak) that would be great – or so we very much tend to think. We would really know what was going on then. We’d have an objective viewpoint, a measuring stick. We’d have it covered. We’d have an angle…
But finding a fixed standpoint outside of the river to look at things from, and then use as a basis to measure the flow (and thus see what is good and what is bad) is the same thing as ‘taking life personally’ and taking life personally doesn’t tell us anything about the river at all.
Taking life personally just means that we keep going around in tight circles. As Alan Watts says, taking life personally means that we are forever trying to outrun (or outmanoeuvre) our own shadow. It means that we’re trying to see everything from a fixed basis or context that doesn’t exist.
There is a river flowing but we cannot measure that flow, or survey it, or grasp hold of it, because we ourselves are that same flowing river.
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.