The self is created by the process of denying pain, denying fear, denying insecurity. If ever the situation arises where I am not in the full-time business of pain denial, fear denial and insecurity denial then it is absolutely the case that I will no longer have a self, be affiliated with a self, be attached to or identified with a self.
The way in which the self is created, via the tried and trusted mechanism of denial, is very straightforward and easy to explain. A membrane is formed, a type of ‘one-sided boundary’ within which we do not ever look. We look outwards, but under no circumstances do we ever look within. It is not that we deliberately don’t look within, at whatever it is that lies on the inside of this enclosing membrane, but rather that we absolutely do not know, or cannot conceive, that there is any such possibility. If you ask me to ‘look within’ the one-sided boundary that creates the self I will inspect the banal contents of my trivial rational mind and then imagine that this cursory self-inspection constitutes a genuine ‘looking within’. Nothing however could be further from the truth. I am not looking within at all, I am ‘looking without’, just the same as I always do. I am looking at what lies on the outside of the boundary of denial because that is the only place I know to look, the only place I am allowed to look. Looking within doesn’t mean checking up to see what I have there in the cash register of the rational mind. The rational mind exists on the outside of the ‘invisible mental membrane’ that we are talking about. My whole life – insofar as it is mediated by the rational-conceptual mind – exists on the outside of this membrane, this one-sided boundary. That’s why we call the one-sided boundary a ‘one-sided boundary’ – because as far as I’m concerned there isn’t anything on the inside, because as far I am concerned there isn’t any sort of a boundary there at all. There exists in other words a state of ‘absolute neglect’ with regard to the fact that there is an inside, that there is another side to the boundary or limit which we don’t acknowledge in the first place. It is this absolute neglect that creates the one-sided boundary, and it is therefore this absolute neglect that allows the rational mind to operate as the rational mind. Without this neglect, without this mental entropy, there is no rationality.
Taking a one-sided view of things creates the rational mind and at the same time it creates a sense of pressure or urgency with regard to the fulfillment of the goals that rationality nominates as being ‘important’. Goals are a projection or reflection of the underlying rational viewpoint, but along with the black-and-white unambiguous definition or statement of these goals comes the demon of compulsivity. Compulsivity and rationality are inseparable – the rational mind is a compulsive mind, forever driven by the arbitrary notions of RIGHT and WRONG that it has haphazardly adopted and then proceeded to act upon with the utmost seriousness. The rational mind is a humourless mind – quite lacking in either a sense of irony or the ability to laugh at itself. The humourless compulsivity associated with the rational mind might be said to derive from the essential mechanics of the rational apparatus, which is to say, from the basic ‘raw non-negotiable necessity’ that rationality is founded upon. This is really just a way of talking about denial and so what we are saying here is that rationality is based on denial, just as we said that the self is based on denial.
Denial of any sort always creates ‘pressure’. That is the whole thing about denial. Denial equals pressure – it equals the pressure to keep on denying. Denial is ‘its own necessity’ – it creates its own logic and then once we start taking this self-creating logic seriously there is no way out, no other option apart from carrying on with it. All I can do from this point on is to keep on trying to do a better job of the denying, keep on trying to optimize it. Denial is ‘tautological’ in that it creates the need for itself – if I am going all-out to block something out then the very fact that I am doing this sends the message that there is something out there that very seriously warrants being blocked out. This however is an ‘unconscious message’ – it has to be an unconscious message because the blocking out, the denial, is not being consciously acknowledged. It is of course entirely redundant to say that the denial in question is not being acknowledged – if it were being acknowledged then it wouldn’t be denial. Unconscious messages are more than just ‘messages’ however; they are rules or commands that we obey instinctively. They are absolute imperatives that we obey without ever realizing that we are even obeying anything. Unconscious messages shape our world – they determine what will and what will not constitute our world. They create our reality for us.
An unconscious message is a rule that cannot be questioned, and unquestionable rules equal compulsion. A compulsion is two things – it is the promise of satisfaction and pleasure if we successfully obey along with the threat of frustration and pain if we do not. Ultimately this comes down purely to ‘avoiding the stick’ – the satisfaction we obtain as a result of successfully obeying the compulsion is the satisfaction of avoiding the stick. The pleasure arises out of the avoidance of the pain. So compulsivity – in essence – is all about pain and the non-negotiable need to avoid that pain. But we can also say that compulsion arises out of the denial of pain since when we are successfully obeying every compulsive impulse that comes along we do not know that the motivation that underlies our thinking and behaviour is the need to avoid pain, and if anyone suggested such a thing to us we would completely deny it. After all, if I were to acknowledge that I am thinking in such-and-such a way or acting in such-and-such a way so as to avoid pain, then this would be the same thing as admitting that my purposeful thought process and the purposeful behaviour that follows on from this is not free at all, but strictly ‘mechanical’ or ‘driven’ in nature.
No matter how many people you might question on the street, it is virtually a 100% probability that no one you speak to will ever say that they perceive (or in any way understand) their purposeful activity to be mechanical or driven in nature. The contrary is true – we all perceive and understand our purposeful activity to be authentically volitional and the suggestion that it is not is rejected out of hand. And yet when I operate exclusively out of my rational-purposeful mind I am devoid of the slightest trace of true volition. Our default modality – which we have to work extraordinarily hard to escape even temporarily from – is that of the unreflective compulsion-driven machine, as spiritual teachers throughout the ages have always maintained. To give only one example, G. I. Gurdjieff is quoted in P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous as saying –
Without self knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.
Instead of talking about the ubiquitous purposeful or unconscious self (which Jung refers to as Everyman) being produced as a result of the denial of pain, we might just as well speak of it arising as a result of the denial of fear. Again, we can trace the origin of fear back to the basic mechanics of rationality. As we have said, rationality operates on the basis of one thing and one thing only – the sorting device known as ‘the one-sided boundary’. The one-sided boundary is a limit beyond which I cannot see, but more than this it is a limit of whose existence I am sublimely unaware. Another way of putting this is to say that it is an ‘unexamined rule’. Behaviour that occurs around an unexamined rule (or a set of unexamined rules) is technically known as a game. A game therefore is when we try as hard as we can to obtain a specified or fixed outcome without knowing or wondering why exactly it is so important that we do so. We just know that it is the best possible thing to obtain the goal, and the worst possible thing to fail to obtain it. We just know that winning is good and losing is bad and that is all we need to know in order to play the game. Knowing or wanting to know more than this would detract from the game because it would inevitably erode the assumptions that we need make in order to play. The great thing in playing a game, in other words, is not to reflect philosophically on what we are doing or why, but only reflect ‘technically’ – so to speak – on how we may contrive do it better.
Calling a game ‘a game’ normalizes what we are talking about here because the idea of playing games is one that is very familiar to us. We think we know what games are but the truth is that we have never bothered to think particular deeply about it – that would be far too philosophical for us and we are not a philosophical culture. In succinct terms, games are all about two things – limitation and compulsion. The world we are given to operate within is limited, the repertory of actions that are open to us are limited, and out of this limited world and limited range of possibilities we are provided with a goal which we are to try to obtain. The fact that the goal or desired outcome in question has been specified for us by the game, along with the fact that not trying our best to obtain it is not an option, adds up to compulsion. Compulsion can therefore be defined as ‘predetermined’ or ‘unfree’ motivation. Games are all about programmed thinking and programmed behaviour and in programmed thinking and behaving there is no room for anything other than trying to think or do whatever it is that has been laid down for us to think or do. Anything else isn’t the game and so there is just no space for it, no provision for it, no possibility for it.
But the crucial point here is that not only is there no possibility for anything else, there is also no possibility for realizing that there is no possibility for anything else. Within the game there is no space for the awareness or perception that there are possibilities which are excluded by the game – if such space existed then it would have to be the case that the game contained possibilities that are not in fact specified by the game, and this would be a total contradiction in terms! Most succinctly of all, a game is a closed situation, a closed world, a closed set of possibilities, and the thing about a closed situation, a closed world, a closed set of possibilities is that it cannot contain any referents to the fact that this is the case. Were a closed system to contain any reference to the fact that it is closed then it wouldn’t be closed at all.
We can apply the same principle to ‘compulsion’ (which is to say ‘unfree’ or ‘predetermined’ motivation) and say that just as we do not know a game to be a game when we are in it, so too we are not aware of operating under compulsion even though this is in fact the case. This is demonstrably true – after all, if I am going all out to succeed in whatever game it is I am playing and all I can think about is how great it would be if I could win, how absolutely marvellous that would be, how it would mean so very much to me, etc, then there is in all of this no mention anywhere of ‘compulsion’ or ‘lack of freedom’. And yet by definition it has to be compulsion because that is how games work – because that is the only way games work. Games equal invisible compulsion.
So what is going on? How come I don’t experience myself being constrained and compelled in the way that I undoubtedly am being? I experience myself as ‘wanting to win’ with every atom of my being, I perceive this goal state as being personally meaningful to me in the most intense possible way, and yet this is clearly not the case. It cannot be the case because both the goal and the context within which the goal exists have been provided for me by an external authority; I am living in a simulated world and there is nothing of me in that world! There is only ‘me in it’ inasmuch as I have slotted myself obediently into the allocated structure, but then what this means is that it isn’t me at all. It is only the ‘imposed external structure’, which does not appear to be an imposed external structure (or authority) because I have passively identified with it.
A game is just like ‘somebody else’s life’ in this respect (if we could put it like this)- I step into it and then when I have stepped into it everything they like I like, everything they don’t like I don’t like. Their goals are my goals, and their concerns or preoccupations are my concerns or preoccupations. The only freedom I have in this is the freedom to try as hard as I can to attain their goals in a successful fashion, to live their life successfully, but no matter how much I throw myself into the endeavour and no matter how well I do at it, this won’t make their goals into my goals, and it won’t make the other person’s life my life. The idea of being able to ‘personally succeed’ at someone else’s idea of life (which is to say, within some standardized simulation or tokenistic version of life) is clearly nonsensical in the extreme. There is only the illusion that this is possible and it is to this intoxicating illusion that we are addicted in games.
The ‘game’, the ‘structure’, the ‘simulation’ which I am passively identified with in the state of unconsciousness is really only an extrapolation (or ‘extension’) of the rule. The rule is the rule because there is zero freedom in it. The rule contains within it the freedom to do only one thing: I can do whatever I like just so long as I obey the rule. The rule is the rule because it rules, because it rules absolutely in fact. If there were to be any leeway in this at all, any possibility – however slight – that something might happen that has not been preordained to happen by the rule then the rule would not be a rule at all. The rule (the definite mathematical statement) is the quintessential game, the quintessential structure, the quintessential simulated world. Seen from the outside, it is an absolute imposition because it cares nothing for anything that is not itself; it knows only itself and is oblivious to all else and that is how it gets to be what it is.
This is where the inversion of freedom comes in: seen from any viewpoint that is not it the rule represents an absolute lack of freedom, but from its own viewpoint this is not at all the case. From its own viewpoint the rule contains ‘maximized freedom for itself to be itself’, and since ‘itself’ is all it knows about, this is as a good a type of freedom as it is possible to get anywhere. From the perspective assumed by the rule therefore, the absence of freedom is perceived as the honest-to-goodness genuine article. Thus, when I identify with the rule, adopt for myself the same narrow viewpoint that it takes for granted, then I do not perceive myself to to be ‘living under absolute compulsion’, but rather I perceive myself to be perfectly free. I perceive myself to acting under my own volition, working towards goals that are personally meaningful to me, organizing my life according to how I myself think it ought to be organized, and so on, and yet the whole time I am only ‘ever obeying the rule’. I perceive myself to have the freedom to do whatever I want but in reality I only ever have the freedom to attempt to realize or attain those aims which the all-determining and all-pervasive external authority of the system has itself previously placed in my mind.
The ‘unfree motivation’ which invisibly underpins the reality of all games is more commonly known as fear. John G. Bennett says of fear that it is not an emotion, or a feeling, but ‘a negative state of will’. It is the state in which our will or volition is entirely controlled by some extrinsic force, a force that ‘wills’ for us, so to speak. We could also say that fear is an unexamined motivation in that I hurry to obey it but never wonder why I must. I know that there is an outcome that I must not let happen but I neither know what that outcome really is nor why it is so extremely important that I should avoid it. Fear is therefore just another way of talking about ‘the unexamined rule’, the rule that I am not allowed to question, or even look at. Games are as we have said all about unexamined rules – the point of a game is to act unreflectively on the basis of the rule, not to get curious about why I have to act on this basis and no other. The reason I am ‘incurious’ is because I am afraid, and this is also the reason why I am so unreflective or incurious about my remarkable lack of curiosity.
As a handy ‘rule of thumb’, we can say that when I do act unreflectively on the basis of the rule I am in the ubiquitous modality of psychological unconsciousness, and when I start to get curious (or ‘reflective’) about the rules that govern my thinking and behaving I am starting to become conscious. As Jung puts it, ‘out of conflict comes consciousness’. When I do obey the rule then I am not aware of being afraid, I do not experience myself conforming to an external motivating force. When I am in the unconscious mode I will insist that what I do I do out of my own free volition. If ever however I cannot for whatever reason ‘obey the rule’ then I start becoming aware of the rule. When this happens I experience the extrinsic motivating force for what it really is; I start to become aware of it as a force originating from outside of myself – a force that I am absolutely powerless to stand up against. This force is what we call fear, and so fear is therefore the ‘prime mover’ or ‘prime motivator’ behind all unconscious life. A short-hand way of expressing this idea this is to say that unconscious life is no more and no less than the denial of the reality of fear. An equivalent statement to this would be to say that the self is the denial of fear, which is of course what we started off saying.
The final angle we are going to take is the angle of insecurity. Suppose, just for the sake of the argument, we say that I don’t really know who I am (which is to say, I don’t really know what it is that is safely enclosed within the membrane or boundary of the self, or even if there is anything enclosed there at all). Because of this fact I naturally get to feel acutely insecure on this point; maybe ‘who I am’ is nothing very much at all – maybe it is something rather useless or crappy. Maybe it isn’t anything – maybe the whole thing is just a huge hoax. This fundamental insecurity is impossible to lay to rest; it is impossible to resolve or sort out in any way because I can’t actually look within the one-sided boundary to find out. That is after all the one thing that by the rules of the game, I am forbidden to do. And yet at the same time the self has been set up by the rules of the game as the supreme value – it has been assumed or taken for granted as the fulcrum, the centre of everything. This puts me in a terrible double bind because whilst on the one hand I have to base my whole life on the idea that what lies within the membrane of the precious ego-boundary is the ‘centre of everything’, the ‘supreme value’ I can’t actually check up to make sure that this assumption is true. This is therefore a bit like telling me that I have shares worth one billion dollars and that they are all mine, to do with as I will, and then telling me that there might be a financial stock-market crash at any moment, a crash which will completely wipe out all my holdings and turn me into a pauper overnight. I don’t know whether to be euphoric or crippled with anxiety!
On the face of things my situation is marvellous: I am led to believe that there is something of absolutely fantastic value there in my grasp, a real treasure, the prize of prizes. But underlying this positive message there is the very real possibility that none of it is true and so I am caught between the overtly confident ‘positive message’ and the covert or unstated fear that it’s all just a lie, that I can’t rely on it at all. The explicit message is that what is enclosed within the one-sided boundary is something very special indeed – the ‘centre’. This is a positive statement, a definite assertion of fact. The insecurity attending this definite assertion of fact is simply the inverse statement, the antithetical assertion of fact. Maybe what I have securely enclosed within the encapsulating boundary is not the centre. Maybe it is just an arbitrary point on the page – one location out of endless quintillions of other possible locations. If this is the case then it can’t be the centre. If anywhere would have been ‘the centre’ then what I am calling the centre isn’t at the centre at all; it isn’t a special location but – on the contrary – a thoroughly ‘non-special’ one. There can after all only be one centre, just as there can only be one ‘Head of State’. If everyone in the country was the Head of State then there would be no Head of State. If everywhere is the centre than there is no centre. If everywhere is the centre then the term loses its meaning entirely.
The ‘virgin page’ into which I am randomly sticking the compass point is the set of all possibilities, the Universal Set U. The single point which I am precisely and definitively locating is the rule which is selected and then never again questioned. This is – in other words – how the finite is created out of the infinite. What is being denied in this operation is precisely the insecurity of seeing that any point could have been chosen, that there are an infinity of possible points out there and that all these points are equally good. The rule is the limit, it is the boundary beyond which we cannot go. In order for the rule to be the rule, in order for the compulsion to absolutely compel, in order for the game to be the game, we must not be allowed to see that the starting-off point is only arbitrary. So we can say that the game which we are talking about here (which is the ‘game of the self’) is the game of pretending that what lies within the enclosing membrane really is special, when the plain fact is that it is nothing of the sort. I am acting as if this unique position or viewpoint were ‘the centre of the universe’ when of course it is not.
In order for me to ‘act’ as if this is the case when the truth of the matter is that it is not, all that is needed is for me to obey the rule of ‘not checking’ – this is the crucial requirement that has to be in place in order for the game to continue. The only thing about this however – as we have already said – is that if I am investing totally in the proposition that such-and-such is the case but I am banned at the same time from ever checking up to actually see if it is the case, then this puts me in a very uncomfortable situation. There is huge insecurity here, insecurity that is caused by ‘lack of substance’, insecurity that is caused by me having to go around making very loud and definite assertions the whole time when I don’t have any grounds for making them. This insecurity won’t let me rest, it translates directly into pressure or compulsivity, it drives me on and on and on in the perpetual attempt to keep generating validation. In a nutshell, the fundamental insecurity of the game won’t allow me to stop – after all, if I ever do stop then I will straightaway start to see through the charade of it all.
The game requires, therefore, that my attention is directed ever-outwards, out onto all sorts of proliferating issues and tasks and problems and crises and concerns. The game provides me with a never-ending supply of jobs that need taking care of, responsibilities that need attending to, duties that need to be fulfilled, and so on. My nose is always kept to the grindstone for the simple reason that if it wasn’t then I might start to notice the hollowness of the whole thing. Unrelenting pressure is the name of the game, unrelenting pressure is what keeps it all going, unrelenting pressure is what keeps me from seeing through the apparently meaningful facade. Needless to say, all of these proliferating issues and tasks and problems and crises and concerns all seem perfectly legitimate to me. I take them all very seriously indeed – I don’t suspect for a second that they might be red-herrings, that the whole thing might be a smokescreen. I try as hard as I can to successfully obey the pressure that is placed upon me and in this never-ending struggle I in no way experience myself to be ‘a slave’. I don’t experience myself to be a slave because I have identified with this pressure, which means that I believe it to be nothing other than my own volition, my own will, and not some external will that has been imposed upon me. My whole life – insofar as it is lived on the basis of the purposeful self – is no more than the constant struggle to obey the external (or ‘extrinsic’) motivation under the false impression that it is my own volition, my own free will. As far as my rational understanding of the situation goes, all of this ‘proliferating purposeful activity’ represents my attempt to live my life according to how I see fit. Thus, when I am able to successfully enact the purposeful activity I feel good, and when I am not able to do this I feel bad, which is a very curious inversion of how I would see things if I was able to see the truth of what is going on.
My conscious motivation is to try to obtain the goals in question because I believe them to be my goals. This overt level of meaning is nothing if not straightforward. Unconsciously however, what I am trying to do is to disprove something that – deep-down – I suspect to be true. Or we could say that I am trying to compensate for my unconscious doubts. In other words, I am perpetually trying to validate my underlying assumption, the assumptions that I am too scared to ever actually check up on. When I succeed in some task (when I ‘win’ in some pointless competition, some pointless game) then this victory constitutes validation for me and I feel good about myself for this reason. The victory constitutes what we might call ‘tokenistic confirmation that I genuinely am whatever it is that I am trying to say I am. Out of my bottomless fear and anxiety that I am not what I have so unreflectively said that I am, I keep on having to emptily assert the fact, over and over again, via acts of self-assertion. I have to keep on ‘being right’ (or being ‘a winner’) because ‘being right’ or ‘being a winner’ is my way of trying to prove to myself that my underlying crucially-important assumption of ‘positive selfhood’ is valid.
My whole life can all-too-easily get eaten up by this insatiable need, so that everything I do becomes nothing more than the ‘empty effort to succeed’. In most cases this endeavour is of course bound to fall flat on its face with the inevitable result that I feel like a failure, a loser, an unworthy or un-validated human being, but even if I were to succeed and become a superstar or a millionaire this would still be a joke since the entire endeavour was only ever a compensation for my deeper awareness that I never was and never could be who I am pretending so hard to be. The very idea of being a ‘successful individual’ – an idea so beloved by our culture – is a fantastic joke since the so-called ‘individual’ who wants to be successful was only ever a preposterous myth in the first place. Who I am is not some paltry shrunken disconnected petty-minded ‘skin-encapsulated ego’ (as Alan Watts puts it) but the Whole of Everything – I am ‘Homo Maximus’ , I am Adam Kadmon, I am Plutarch’s Macroanthropus. Who I am is the ‘Cosmic Self’, and the Cosmic Self, understandably enough, doesn’t have any desperate insecurity-driven need to prove itself. The Cosmic Self has no inbuilt need to try its hardest to be ‘a winner’ – it has no burning inner drive to prove itself to be ‘a success’ rather than ‘a failure’!!
When I am unaware of my true nature is it inevitable that my whole life becomes nothing more than the infinitely repeated attempt to prove over and over again that ‘I am that which deep-down I know I am not’. Such is the crushing futility of unconscious life! Life lived on the basis that I am what I am not creates a whole spectrum of displaced or referred pain, pain that is ‘n’ times removed from the pain of the original ontological insecurity. The original ‘refused difficulty’ gets displaced somewhere else and is then encountered in ‘surrogate form’ in a multitude of disguised and therefore totally unrecognizable forms. As is always the way, the avoidance of pain, or the avoidance of fear, only ever creates disguised versions of the refused original, in places where it doesn’t belong. As Irving Yalom says, if we don’t freely experience our pain where it belongs then we are forced to experience it where it doesn’t belong, and where – by implication – we are unable to recognize it for what it is. In this way, via this ‘universal displacement mechanism’, life becomes the process whereby I am compelled to experience the pain that I refused the first time around in a form that is completely ‘divorced’ from me, and which takes upon itself therefore the guise of an independent external reality which I can then hope (‘hope’ being the operative word) to control or manipulate in some way. Failure to successfully control or manipulate this ‘projected world’ which is made up of my displaced pain then creates a new level or displaced pain which is still at root only my original ontological insecurity in a new and cleverly disguised format.
The surrogate or disguised pain that I am compelled to experience covers an entire spectrum of hues that ranges from anger to anxiety, from elation to despair, from frustration to phobia, from pride to jealousy. It encompasses the full range of what we call ‘neurotic’ symptomology – feelings of worry, impotence, futility, alienation, loneliness, disconnectedness, ennui, emptiness, fraudulence, indecisiveness, guilt, deadness, meaninglessness, rage, bitterness, self-pity, self-hatred, self-recrimination, ‘negative thinking’ and so on. The full palette of what we call ‘negative feelings’ is to be found here, in this dark and confused realm of surrogate pain. All of these feelings are quite authentic and honestly expressive of my underlying predicament, which is the predicament of being identified with the false or mechanical self. The false or mechanical self has zero flexibility and this is what causes me to be anxious. It is constitutionally disconnected from reality, and this is what causes me to be depressed. It is by identifying myself with this ‘self which is not who I really am’ that I have incurred all of the neurotic symptomology that afflicts me – the whole lot of it derives entirely from the fact that I have swapped the unlimited reality of ‘who I really am’ for a fixed position, a ‘de-finite’ statement, a sterile and fundamentally disconnected ‘rule’ that I am now committed to defending, no matter what this ill-advised ‘defence’ costs me. I think I am protecting myself, taking care of myself, safeguarding myself but this is simply not true – I am protecting an abstraction, taking care of an illusion, safeguarding a lie.
By unreflectively merging my fortunes with the static position which is the false or mechanical self I put myself in line for a whole spectrum of woes, all of which are an accurate – and on this account extraordinarily valuable – indication of the untenable nature of my predicament. But rather than taking note of these manifestations of pain and distress – as I might the words of a wise and kind-hearted friend – I do what I have always done with pain – I avoid it, block it out, dismiss it. I distract myself from it in one way or another, denying it in whatever way I have available to me. Calling our pain ‘mental illness’ and ascribing it ingeniously to malfunctioning synapses or neurotransmitters that have gone haywire is a new and remarkably effective way of denying secondary or ‘displaced’ mental pain and it is a testimony to how far the human race has come in the last ten thousand years or so that we have managed to come up such an admirably fool-proof scheme. Whichever way we manage to deny or suppress or ‘de-value’ the displaced mental pain however it all comes down to the same old basic process – the process of ‘ignoring’ or ‘turning a blind eye’.
When I ignore my displaced mental pain it doesn’t of course ‘go anywhere’ – it simply gets added onto all of the rest of the ignored pain that I have got stored up inside of me and as a result the accumulated ‘pain store’ gets more concentrated, more potent, more toxic, than ever. I end up either repressing (or internalizing) all this negativity and becoming depressed, or externalizing it – acting it out and causing other people to feel it instead of me. In the case of internalized pain I am affected by the pain but still not connected to it since I have thoroughly ‘closed down’ to it; I have sealed it off in myself somewhere as an unwanted and disowned content and so it is never going to go anywhere. In the case of externalized pain on the other hand I am emotionally disconnected in an active rather than a passive way and so I end up going around like a veritable time-bomb waiting to explode. The anger that I explode with is my own unwanted and unowned pain that I am determined to give to everyone else.
As Jung says, the shadow of which I am so oblivious gets projected out all over the place so that I am constantly aware of faults or deficiencies in others or in the world in general. As a result of being unconscious of my shadow I find myself in the thoroughly incongruous position of feeling superior to the greater part of humanity (or superior to life itself) even though I have done nothing more to deserve this position than being utterly and completely irresponsible with regard to the only ‘real’ duty I have, which is the duty of owning up to my own negativity and seeing it where it belongs. Were I able to start doing this then the whole wretched mess would begin to unravel but the way things usually work, the default way for things to work, is that when pain manifests itself in surrogate form for me as a result of being denied in the first instance I simply deny it all over again, and the mechanical process of ‘denying and displacing’ gets repeated over and over again for as many times as it takes, the ‘over-all mess’ compounding itself rather than unravelling. I end up not just with the original insecurity, the original fear, but with an ever-increasing additional burden of darkness in my core, a darkness that neither I nor anyone else wants to know about, and which as a consequence gets flung out into the world.
The nucleus of unacknowledged pain acts like a dark dynamo – it is a tightly-coiled self-winding spring which powers the friction-free clockwork mechanism of unconscious life. This ‘unconscious life’ is a pre-scripted circus or theatre in which we have no freedom to do anything except jump to obey the compulsive impulses as they get handed to us by the drill sergeant which is the system of thought. In the realm of unconsciousness I am continually kept busy reacting mechanically to my own projections under the deluded impression that what I am reacting to is the ‘outside world’ – a reality which exists independently of and externally to myself. The unconscious world is the ‘clockwork mechanism’, and the infinitely stubborn denial of ‘what is true’ is the spring that drives it. Thus we can say that the unconscious world is a machine, a device which is tailor-made for the purpose of facilitating this desire to avoid the truth, ignore the truth, deny the truth, run away from the truth, distract ourselves perpetually from the truth…
Architecturally speaking, the unconscious realm, in its entirety, may be described as a series of concentric shells, each fitting into the other so as to form something more or less resembling an onion. Starting from the outermost shell, we can say that each ‘new’ shell represents an increased or escalated level of denial or ‘ignorance’. Each shell represents an invisible (from the inside) barrier or wall that stands between the one who is utilizing the mechanism to escape from reality, and the reality that is being escaped from. We can also say that each new shell, each new ‘level of unconsciousness’, represents a further loss of ‘freedom’ or ‘mobility’ – in other words, an increased degree of determinism.
This discontinuous structure of concentric one-sided boundaries embodies in itself what we might call the archetypal manifestation of the Law of Diminishing Returns because with each new shell (each new level of escalation) the relief or escape that is being obtained as a result of buying into the mechanism becomes less and less in comparison to the price that is being paid for it. What is being bought is the illusion that ‘what we don’t want to know about doesn’t exist’ and the price that we are paying for this temporary illusion comes in the form of a progressing ‘shrinking’ or ‘impoverishment’ of our world, along with an inevitable backlash of pain that comes about as a result of this invisible restriction. The restriction is invisible but the inevitable backlash is not. On the contrary, the backlash is very tangible indeed even though we may very heartily wish that it wasn’t. As we continue to utilize the mechanism of unconsciousness the benefit gets less and less and the price we pay for it keeps going up and up. In the end, as we approach the limit of this series of concentric shells, at the centre of the onion, we arrive at a place in which the relief we obtain is purely virtual (i.e. it exists in name only), and the payment we make for this nominal benefit has shot up to a truly astronomical level. The benefit tends to zero and that cost tends to infinity, and so right here at the centre of the onion of unconsciousness which is the denial realm this cost/benefit ratio reaches a limit beyond which we cannot go.
In terms of the Tibetan Buddhist model of the Six Lokas or Six Worlds, the ‘limit’ where the Law of Diminishing Returns reaches its maximum expression would be the lowest hell realm where according to Chogyam Trungpa the dominating emotion is intense rage. Rage as we have said is a way of denying one’s own pain by unreflectively projecting it outside of oneself. In rage I identify the source of my pain as being outside of myself and having successfully identified this source I proceed to lash out violently (and justifiably) against it. This act of ‘striking out’ represents pleasurable relief from the pain that I have inside of me; it brings me an intensely rewarding feeling of satisfaction and vindication and for this reason it is highly addictive or ‘compulsive’. In the lowest or Avici hell realm however this ‘striking out’ rebounds on me instantaneously so that just as soon as I lash out in order to pleasurably vindicate myself I experience the pain that I have directed outwards coming right back at me. I am striking out at myself; I am the enemy that I keep on attacking, over and over again, compulsively and without any insight as to what I am actually doing. There is no insight because my action is quintessentially unconscious and the whole point of the state of unconsciousness is that there should be no insight. If I did have insight into this mechanism then I would see that actually I was my own enemy all along – I was my own enemy right from the moment when I first started utilizing the ‘avoidance mechanism’.
Talking about this many-layered realm of unconsciousness as an actual ‘place’ is of course misleading, just as talking about hell as a ‘place’ is misleading. Hell isn’t ‘out there’ somewhere any more than the other realms of avoidance or self-distraction are. They are ‘ways of being’ – or, more accurately, ‘ways of not being’. The crucial point we were making about the ‘core of denied negativity’ that drives or powers all the unconsciously pain-avoiding activity is that it is projected out onto the world where it is encountered in disguised form. The world itself – as it is in itself – is effectively obscured or overlaid and so the illusory projected word is all that we care about and all that we know. The projected world takes on two possible aspects for us – one is the aspect made up of stuff we like and are attracted to, the other aspect is the stuff we don’t like and are aversively orientated to. Everything is coloured either the one way or the other and because of this we can say that everything in the projected would is personal. If I live in a world where everything is personal to me then I am ‘living in a world of my own projections’; only if I live in a world which doesn’t have personal significance to me am I living in ‘the world as it is in itself’ – that profoundly mysterious and unexpectedly deep world which is the world from which all my personal projections have been withdrawn. With this world ‘like’ and ‘dislike’, attraction and aversion don’t come into it because it’s not all about me. In fact it’s not about me at all. I don’t come into it!
With regard to the ‘projected world’ on the other hand we can of course say the opposite – we can say that I come into it big time. In fact the projected world is all me. There’s nothing about it that isn’t me. The projected world is created via what we might call the ‘literal objectification’ of my unexamined or hidden assumptions. We have also said that it is created via a displacement process involving my unacknowledged pain, but this is not a different proposition – the unexamined or hidden assumption in this case is that the pain in question (or the fear) is absolutely unacceptable, absolutely ‘bad’. The unexamined assumption is a rule in other words, and this rule goes on to create a whole logically self-consistent world or ‘game’. [A ‘game’ is simply ‘the set of all the possibilities that can result from enacting the rule or rules’.] The game we are talking about here, in the most general terms, is ‘the realm of unconsciousness’ and all the possibilities that are contained within that realm. The underlying rule is simplicity itself – “That which we have declared absolutely unacceptable (i.e. the ‘pain’ or the ‘fear’) must be avoided at all costs”.
We have been bandying the words pain and fear about a lot but really the definition of pain / fear in this context is quite tautological, which is to say, whatever I declared in the game to be ‘absolutely unacceptable’ becomes infinitely aversive to me simply because of the fact that I have made the rule which says that it is. I don’t know why it is such a bad thing – I just know that it is and so I do my utmost to avoid it.
This game or realm is a ‘literal statement’- it is in other words what it is set out as being in the operating manual, and nothing else. ‘Playing the game’ means accepting absolutely unquestioningly the guide-lines as they are stated in the manual and – as a consequence – accepting the world or realm exactly as it is presented to us, exactly as it itself sets itself out as being. This is all straightforward enough, but there is a snag or anomaly that is not mentioned in the operating manual. The snag or anomaly is that literal statements do not actually exist! The ‘literal statement’ which we are specifically talking about here is the projected world and so by definition this world doesn’t ‘exist’ in itself, it only exists as a projection or reflection. But what this means is that the unconscious realm, with all its sub-worlds and sub-games, all the layers or shells that go to make it up, is actually only myself in disguised – and therefore unrecognizable form. The everyday world which is the realm of unconsciousness is my self projected outwards and encountered on the basis that it is not me, on the basis that it is an external and independent reality. So this gives a clearer meaning to the phrase unconscious – the projecting (or ‘dreaming’) self is unconscious of the fact that the world it perceives and interacts is itself in disguised form. I am unconscious of who I really am – my ‘self’ is sleeping.
What is this ‘self’, though? We could say that the true nature of my self is the multi-layered realm of unconsciousness that we have been talking about. But this realm is a ‘literal statement,’ a game, and does not on that account exist. After all, if I withdraw my projections this realm will dissolve away leaving no trace of itself whatsoever – all that will be left is the world ‘as it is in itself’ – the ‘impersonal world’, so to speak. Dissolving the projected world however means dissolving the projector; the projected world only seems to exist because it is seen from the point of view of the projector, because it matches the assumptions that the one who projects makes about the world. This is the trick that creates a positive or definite reality. Step sideways, and look at the projected world without these hidden assumptions, and that world ceases to exist. It was after all only ever an artifact of that particular way of looking at things.
So the projected world is a ‘literal statement’, and that ‘literal statement’ is in reality nothing other than the self which projects it (and which cannot see itself as it is). This is however a closed loop of logic – the definite or literal self which is projecting the literal statement that is the realm of unconsciousness doesn’t exist anymore than the ‘realm of unconsciousness’ itself exists…
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.