To feel that you are who you think you are is to be in a trance. This – needless to say – is a very common sort of a trance; if you were to come across someone who wasn’t in this particular trance this would be the most astonishingly rare occurrence. It would be extraordinary. The mechanics of how this trance works are very simple indeed – all we need to do is to take it for granted that we are who we think we are, and then leave it at that…
Another way of putting this is to say that we have some kind of an idea about ourselves, about who we are, and then – once this idea is securely in place – we make very sure never to examine it, never to question it, never even to think of questioning it.
This does the trick. This is all we need to do in order to induce the ubiquitous, all purpose trance-state of ‘assumed identity’. We just have to make sure that we never ever examine ourselves, and this is something that we are all supremely good at doing. We are supremely good at doing this, and we are also supremely good at not noticing that there is something very peculiar about this whole business. There is something very odd about it all, even though ‘being who we think we are’ seems to us like the most normal thing there in the world. What is going on here?
If I have an idea about who I am and I never look at this idea, what does this mean? Straightaway we can see that if I never look at the idea, if I never examine it or in any way take any sort of interest in it, then clearly it doesn’t really matter to me what the idea actually is.
If I’m not actually going to look at the idea, then obviously any idea would do equally well. It is like having something very precious, very special, locked up in a safe-deposit box: if I get a good feeling from knowing that it is there, but never bother checking to see if it is there, then it doesn’t really matter if there is anything in it or not. I get the same feeling of security either way. So if it is only the feeling of security that comes out of ‘knowing it is there’ that I am looking for then I would be better off not looking in the safe-deposit box because whenever I do this I am actually taking a risk – I am taking the risk that one day I might discover that the box is actually empty.
So, to get back to my idea of myself, it can be seen that if I don’t ever want to get any unpleasant surprises (like the sort of surprise I might get if it turns out that my idea of who I am isn’t who I really am at all) then the thing to do is to make sure that I never examine the idea. That way, I avoid the risk. That way, my sense of identity is guaranteed not to be undermined or falsified (which from the understandably narrow point of view of that assumed identity would naturally constitute the most terrible disaster imaginable).
But the question remains, if my all-important sense of identity only functions by not being examined (in flagrant disregard of the advice given by philosophers such as Plato) then what genuine, honest-to-goodness substance does it actually have? What does this ‘identity’ of mine consist of? This sounds like a stupid question because we all think we know exactly who or what we are. We can write it down on a sheet of paper if we have to. We can tell a policeman who we are if pulls us over when we’re driving; we can fill in the boxes on a tax return form, or on an application to join our local library. That is all just words however – a handful of illusions and nothing more.
My idea of who I am is just this – an idea, and ideas (or thoughts) are illusions just as much as words are. They are a kind of froth or foam which we mistakenly take to be a real substantial thing. These thoughts, these ideas, could be anything really; like all constructs, they exist wholly within the realm of the arbitrary and ‘if anything can be true, then nothing is true’. Thus, the actual content of our ideas about who we are is zero – they are all fantasy, they are so much candyfloss, so much window-dressing. It is like a label – everyone needs a label (or a name) and as long as you have one you’re OK, you fit into the general schema of things and so no one worries about you. You have a label or a name so that’s taken care of and there is no challenge to the system of classification, the system of thought. You have been recognized by the proper authorities, like a citizen who has all the proper ID and is as a result allowed to walk through customs without being pulled up for questioning.
But the thing is that any element that is recognized by the system is the system, since the system only recognizes itself. All thoughts and all labels are only trivially different from each other – if we were to take the trouble to look at them closely we would see that they are all exactly the same. All thoughts, labels or words are simply ‘blank screens’ upon which we project some sort of tinsel-town meaning. Obviously this is so – the word ‘cat’ for example doesn’t contain any cats, it’s just a word as we all know very well. The word ‘cat’ refers to a cat but it isn’t a cat. In itself the word, any word, is just a noise, just a sound, just a vibration in the air. If we could attend to all the words that we hear in daily speech this way, without skipping ahead immediately with our attention to what the words conventionally mean, then we would see straightaway that they are all ‘blank’, that they are empty of meaning before we attach or ascribe it to them. This however we do not do – we skip to the next stage of ascribing meaning so automatically that we don’t even see ourselves doing it.
We can perceive a cat as being right there in front of us, but this is very different from mentally apprehending a cat as being ‘a cat’. When we mentally apprehend a cat this is ‘the menu’ and when we directly perceive it (without the intrusive intermediary of thought) then this is the meal. If I am labelling the cat as such then I cannot perceive its essence, I can only perceive my mind’s image of it and thus the former precludes the latter; ‘knowing’ stuff about the world (i.e. having a mental image of it) effectively prevents us from actually seeing it, as any artist will tell you.
If it is true that the thought of a cat is abstract and therefore unreal, lacking in any essence of the thing itself, then this must be true in spades for the idea of the ‘self’ that we all take totally for granted every single day of our lives. There is – as is readily demonstrable to anyone who takes the trouble to actually examine the matter – no ‘essence of self’ that can be seen when we stop creating images about it, when we stop interposing a web of thoughts upon the unconditioned reality of things. If we stop creating images with our conceptualizing mind and look directly at what we take to be the self, what we inevitably discover is that there is no self there. We discover that it is a hollow fiction, an abstraction just as (as Alan Watts says) the ‘lap’ of a sitting person is an abstraction. Stand up and the lap disappears; take a good look and the self-image disappears, leaving behind just as much residue.
All the self is, is an arbitrarily drawn line, a super-imposed boundary between what has been designated as ‘self’ and what is reciprocally assumed to be ‘not self’. The self’s most essential nature is therefore that of a boundary and all boundaries – without exception – are abstractions created by the mind. If there are no boundaries then there can be no mental categories, no ideas or concepts, and no concept of ‘self’ or ‘not self’. The only places boundaries can ever exist is in the thinking, conceptualizing, category-making mind – which means therefore that the only place that the special category known as ‘me’ can exist is in that same mind.
Another way of approaching the matter is to say that the I-concept has no depth, any more than another concept does. Thus, when we examine it, we see that it is a mere empty formalism or convention overlaying the actual non-conceptual nature of reality, which is in itself quite lacking in any fixed or inherent features or character, but which – in recompense for this ‘lack’, so to speak – does possess the most marvellous attribute of depth. When we pause to observe the world as it is in itself, without any obscuring cognitive overlay, we see that it possesses unending depth. This is what every artist, every poet, and every mystic sees, and what no rationalist or dogmatist ever sees – that the nature of reality is unending depth, that it isn’t based apon any sort of structure. As William Blake says,
If the doors of perception were cleansed, then everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
In this unending depth of unveiled infinity (which is nothing other than unconditional freedom) there are no hard-and-fast structures to guide ourselves by. Ideas and concepts can be applied to it but it is not an idea or concept. Structures arise out of it, but it does not arise out of structure. Rules come out of it, but it does not come out of rules. It can give rise to limitation, but it cannot come out of limitation, as a result of limitation. Thus, whilst it can produce the limited and unfree viewpoint of the self, the fixed or static identity, there is in its essence however not the slightest trace of any such thing.
Infinite depth, or infinite profundity corresponds to what Jung spoke of as the numenosum. The numenosity according to Jung ‘alters our consciousness in a peculiar way’. Normally, we relate to the world as if it were made up inert, insensible, inanimate material and this allows us to be automatically dismissive of it, heedless of it, casual with regard to it. Relating to the world as if it were dead matter facilitates us – we might say – in being essentially ‘disrespectful’ to it. But when we get a sudden unexpected sense that the world, the substance making up the world, is not inert and lifeless – like modelling clay or a blank canvass for us to do with as we please – but is actually looking back at us with an inscrutable, incalculable gaze, like the unblinking eye of a snake, then this profoundly changes the nature of our relationship with it. Our attitude to the world is altered, in a most unprecedented way. What we see when we look upon the world and see instead of inanimate matter this unblinking eye, this infinite depth of inscrutable awareness looking back at us is ‘the numenosum’.
When the eruption of numenosity occurs then the tables are turned on us big time – before this unprecedented turnaround happens we are alive, conscious, and pro-active and what we carelessly imagine as the inanimate and non-sentient universe is there (as far as we are concerned) merely to facilitate our whims, our wishes, our needs. It is our backdrop, our canvas, our putty, our playground. We are the light, and the world around us is nothing more than a shadow waiting to be illuminated by our designs, a blank slate waiting to given meaning by what we write on it. After our eyes are opened we see that we have had it all backwards – the shadow, the inanimate blankness was only ever our obscuring projection upon the world and as a projection it tells us nothing at all about the world upon which it is projected, but an awful lot about the one who is doing the projecting. The blankness we see in the universe is our own blankness, our own deadness, reflected back at us – only when it is safely projected outwards we do not have to perceive it as belonging to us, and are able as a result to continue believing that the ‘lack of animation’ exists in the world and not in ourselves. We are facilitated via the projection mechanism in our complacent view that the world we live in is mechanical and dead, whilst we are vital and alive.
The ‘alteration in consciousness’ we experience via our experience of the numenosum is therefore not a comfortable one. Our whole way of perceiving things is turned on its head so that we now perceive ourselves not as the subject and the universe as our object, but as the passive object of that numinous universe. My ego is no longer the centre of the universe (which it had of course always seen as its proper place) but a mere speck of darkness floating around in the centre-less luminosity of infinite consciousness. My ‘self’ is no longer ‘where it’s at’ but the complete opposite – my idea of myself, my image of myself, is now revealed as being the furthest thing from ‘where it’s at’. Jung expresses this ‘reversal’ idea in the following two paragraphs (45, 6) taken from The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious –
The necessary and needful reaction from the collective unconscious expresses itself in archetypally formed ideas. The meeting with oneself is, at first, the meeting with one’s own shadow. The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well. But one must learn to know oneself in order to know who one is. For what comes after the door is, surprisingly enough, a boundless expanse full of unprecedented uncertainty, with apparently no inside and no outside, no above and no below, no here and no there, no mine and no thine, no good and no bad. It is the realm of water, where all life floats in suspension; where the realm of the sympathetic system, the soul of everything living, begins; where I am indivisibly this and that; where I experience the other in myself and the other-than-myself experiences me.
No, the collective unconscious is anything but an encapsulated personal system; it is sheer objectivity, as wide as the world and open to all the world. There I am the object of every subject, in complete reversal of my ordinary consciousness, where I am always the subject that has an object. There I am utterly one with the world, so much a part of it that I forget all too easily who I really am. “Lost in oneself” is a good way of describing this state. But this self is the world, if only a consciousness could see it. That is why we must know who we are.
In this experience, the whole universe is alive, it is nothing other than pure unobstructed consciousness, and the only thing that isn’t alive and conscious is me. I am the dead zone, the sterile mechanical blip, the arid wasteland. I am the source of shadows rather than light. From an informational point of view this unexpected reversal of status ought to come as no surprise since the prized I-concept is at root nothing more than ‘an impoverishment of possibilities’ – when there is only the one fixed way to see things (rather than an endless infinity of ways) then the result of this brutal reduction in perspective is the conditioned self and its possibilities of perceiving (or interacting with) the world are of necessity as limited as it is. If we say as we have done that the everyday self is quintessentially a lack of perspective (perspective being the same thing as depth or profundity) then it follows that the world which this self exists in is a world equally lacking in depth or profundity. The world of the I-concept is as we have said ‘strictly virtual’ – it is an abstraction that has no genuine content at all, only the content we imagine it to have, which is actually nothing more than illusion.
The world I live in when I am in the trance state of conditioned consciousness is as shallow and lacking in content as I myself am – how could it be any other way, given that the world I perceive is myself, being made up entirely of my own unacknowledged assumptions, my own un-owned projections reflected back to me in disguised form? This whole illusion is therefore generated and perpetuated by the fact that the one thing I never have any interest or curiosity in is myself. The whole illusion is fuelled by the fact that I never look further than I am supposed to look, by the fact that I look at things only in the way I am supposed to look at things and never wonder what would happen if I ‘broke the rules’.
In the trance of conditioned identity the one place I never look is within – I only ever look outwards at my own projections. The one thing I never look at is myself and the reason I never look at myself is because if I did then I would discover an absence rather than the presence I expected to find. I would discover that there is no self anywhere, only a lack of perspective, only a lack of consciousness which allowed the precarious illusion of ‘me’ to take root and grow.
When I look within then my idea of myself will unfailingly be revealed as an assumption which was sustained and facilitated by the lack of conscious attention, in the same way that a fictional story is sustained by a ‘suspension of disbelief’, in the same way that a fantasy or day-dream is sustained by not paying attention to the fact that it is only a fantasy or day-dream. Finding out that there is no one sitting there at the centre of things is a ‘negative’ discovery, it is the discovery of a lack instead of a presence, the discovery of nothing where we were sure there would be something.
From our habitual point of view (which is the point of view of that thing that we thought was there but which isn’t!) this discovery is without question the most dreadful bad news that there ever could be. Nothing could be as devastating to find out as this! This is an existential nightmare – a horror story to frighten the wits out of the toughest and most hard-headed adults. This is the shock to end all shocks: I looked and where I thought I would be I wasn’t! Where I thought I would be was nothing at all, not a sausage, not a trace or vestige of anything even remotely resembling that familiar, dependable old ‘me’…
Yet in reality all I have lost is a particularly pernicious and detrimental illusion. This is therefore good news! What I actually discover when I take the trouble to ‘look within’ is that there is an unsuspected depth there, just as there is an unsuspected depth everywhere I look. In this depth there is the absence of that I thought to find there (what I habitually assume to be there) but the discovery of this sort of absence is actually the discovery of the presence of something incomparably greater, if only I could get past my initial shock and persist in my curiosity long enough to see it. A shoddy and unsatisfactory illusion has been overturned, and in its place we find richness and profundity beyond all comparison. So what sort of a hard luck story is this? Where is the problem here? What is there to be so upset about?
The only way we can possibly fail to be overjoyed at such a result is if we are ‘stubbornly attached to the mean and the petty, and hate and fear the generous and the magnificent’, and this is of course exactly the case just so long as we are under the malign spell of the trance-state of our conditioning.
When we are in this trance state (which is the state of ‘unconsciousness’) we are very much attached to the set-up as it stands, and very much averse to ever having this set-up disturbed in any way. The term ‘attached’ (in our usual way of understanding it) doesn’t do justice to the phenomenon we are talking about here – we are so very committed to it that the merest intimation that we might loose our ‘conditioned way of seeing the world’ causes us to experience the most profound terror. Even saying this misses the point – what we know as fear comes down at root to the automatic aversive reaction we get when we are faced with the threat of losing our habitual way of seeing ourselves and the world, our rule-based framework of understanding things. This is what ‘fear’ is all about – losing our basis. Everything is hunky-dory just so long as this assumed basis is OK – even if we are going through a lot of pain this is still preferable (if we are in the ‘attached’ modality of consciousness) to the possibility of losing this assumed or habitual basis.
On the other hand, if I am no longer attached to seeing the world in the preformatted way that my conditioning conveniently provides me with – which is the same as saying that I am no longer attached to the concept of ‘who I think I am’ – then fear does not, and cannot, arise. Fear only makes sense in relation to the I-concept or self-image – if there is no I-concept or self-image then there is no one to be threatened and nothing to be lost. This is like saying that the aversion to losing does not exist when one has stopped playing the game: obviously there is no longer any such thing as ‘an aversion to losing’ because losing was only a meaningful proposition in relation to the game. If there is no game then there is no winning and no losing, and – similarly – if there is no conditioned self, then there is no attraction and no aversion, since attraction and aversion only make sense from this assumed basis.
We are attached to our conditioned or rule-based understanding of the world like a crack addict is attached to crack, like a junky is attached to his junk, like an alcoholic is attached to the drink. The conditioned identity needs the static, abstract framework of thought (which David Bohm calls the system of thought) not just so that it can feel ‘OK’ or ‘normal’, but so that it can carry on believing that it exists.
The big question is, what exactly is it that we are afraid of losing? What do we stand to lose? We lose our sense of existential or ontological security it is true, but this sense of existential / ontological security is a commodity that only has value to the conditioned self. Yet the conditioned self needs security (or validation) because it isn’t actually real – it seems to have existence only in relation to certain conditions, and so it needs for these conditions to be in place.
All we are losing is a very pernicious illusion, but the problem is that this illusion is very precious to itself. The illusion is attached to itself, just like a liar is attached to a lie that is keeping him from going to prison – only in this case it is the illusion which is the prison, and the illusion fears freedom just as the committed liar fears the truth.
Not only is the life we lead when we are identified with the limited idea of who we think we are unfree in the sense of being severely ‘restricted in terms or what it can perceive and think and do’ (since can only relate to the world on what is essentially an ‘unreal’ basis) the identified or unconscious life is also unfree in the sense of being a non-volitional state of being. And not only is the unconscious life non-volitional or deterministic in its nature, it is also self-denying, self-cancelling, and therefore null.
The whole business of this tightly constricted knot of unconsciousness (which I take to be ‘who I am’) reacting automatically with its own positive or negative projections is the quintessential ‘empty drama’. How could it be otherwise? How could it ever amount to anything, or ‘sum up’ to anything real, when there was nothing in it in the first place?
What we are talking about here ‘the dance of the nullity’, which is Shakespeare’s ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing’. The only reason we don’t generally perceive the emptiness of the null drama we are enacting is because we are blinded on the one hand by the intensity of the desire we feel for our ‘positive projections’, and on the other hand by the intensity of the fear we feel towards the negative one. The pressure (or compulsivity) of the attraction and aversion keeps us trapped in the wheel – we are too busy trying to obtain whatever it is we want to obtain, or too busy trying to avoid whatever it is we are wanting to avoid, to see that we are actually getting nowhere fast, like the part in Alice Through the Looking Glass when Alice has to run every fast to stay still (a phenomenon known for this reason by evolutionary biologists as ‘the Red Queen effect’).
We torment ourselves by trying to obtain what we can never have because what we are trying to have doesn’t exist outside of ourselves in the first place, and we torment ourselves trying to run away from what we can’t outrun because it is us. We torment ourselves trying to achieve something real, which is the one thing the nullity can never do. The nullity always undoes itself with its own doing, goes backwards by trying to go forwards, looses by trying to win. It is forever disadvantaging itself by its perennial attempts to find the advantage. And by identifying with the nullity I too am forever throwing myself down in my attempts to raise myself up, zigging in my attempt to zag, sinking myself in my attempt to stay afloat, confusing myself in my attempt to gain clarity…
The dance of the nullity takes everything we have and gives us precisely nothing back in return. That’s the nature of the deal. We could enact this dance for a millions years without taking a break and we’d still be right back at ‘square one’ at the end of it. The dance of the nullity is ‘Groundhog Day’ and the more identified with the null-self we are the clearer this becomes to us. The more identified with the null-self we are the more cruelly obvious the ‘lash-back’ becomes and the more we suffer from our own attempts to benefit ourselves, and yet even then we don’t want to let go of the source of our pain.
What we are afraid of losing is the world that we know, and the viewpoint that we know, and the more suffering we go through the more determined we seem to be to hang onto this familiar basis, even if this familiar basis is that pernicious illusion, the ‘unconscious trance-state of the assumed identity’.
We can’t let go, we are frozen with fear, we are ‘compulsively hanging on’ and what we are compulsively hanging onto – in the ubiquitous trance state of conditioned identity – is the deterministic pattern of our own circular self-nullification.
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.