A mechanical pattern works by excluding everything that isn’t it. This is called linearity and linearity means that you don’t deviate. Linearity is how the mechanically-repeated pattern gets to be the mechanically-repeated pattern.
A mechanical pattern knows nothing but itself and wants to know nothing but itself. It has nothing to do with any sort of larger reality, any reality that contains more possibilities than it itself does. A larger, more inclusive reality would dissolve the limited mechanical pattern without leaving a trace – inclusive reality can incorporate any pattern of possibilities and remain ‘the inclusive reality’, whereas the limited exclusive reality, if it took on board any possibilities other than the specific possibility that is itself, would instantly cease to be that particular exclusive reality.
The struggle is therefore an unequal one since inclusive reality can include any number of possibilities and not lose its nature, whereas if the exclusive reality which is the mechanical pattern took into account (and so allowed itself to be influenced by) any other possibility than its own then it would lose itself forever. When we talk about linearity we are talking about rules – a rule is a rule and that is that. A rule never deviates; it stays true to itself – it never wavers or stops to question itself because if it did it would no longer be a rule…
A rule by its very name sounds strong but if we consider that a rule only get to be a rule by steadfastly ignoring every other possibility apart from the single possibility which is itself this clearly makes it extraordinarily brittle. After all, a rule stands alone and since it stands by excluding absolutely everything else apart from itself it is pretty much out on a limb. The rule is infinitely thin, infinitely skinny, whereas the Universal Set from which it is drawn is infinitely broad, like an unthinkably mighty ocean, an ocean without any boundaries, an ocean without any shores.
All of this is mathematics, but if we consider the fact that consciousness is conditioned by rules, and almost invariably identifies with mechanical patterns, then what we are talking about is also psychology. So what this means is that the rule-based consciousness, the consciousness that has identified itself with the mechanical pattern, also partakes in this ‘unequal struggle’, and will therefore have a basic understanding of the world and its place in that world that is based on this fundamentally biased perception. Our rule-based way of being in the world is thus extraordinarily brittle or precarious, being prone at any moment to utter annihilation, utter falsification. There is only the one ‘right’ way for things to be – all the other possibilities are ‘wrong’.
When we identify with a repeating mechanical pattern we become that mechanically repeating pattern and so its battle is our battle. The conservative mode of consciousness is thus one that hates and fears ‘the bigger picture’ more than anything else, it is one that hangs onto its own limited and stilted truths at any cost. Looking at things from the point of view of the mere mechanical pattern – the defined perennially reiterated entity – we fear ‘many possibilities’ as the ultimate enemy because we are subject to being dissolved in all those undefined possibilities. What the mechanical pattern which is conditioned existence does therefore to fight back against this threat – the threat of the ‘wide open spaces’ – is to reiterate itself over and over again, hoping thereby to drown out everything else by the sheer obstinate persistence of its efforts.
What the mechanical pattern does is to block out the bigger picture by repeating itself over and over again, thereby denying any other possibilities a look in. The limited pattern is banal, tedious, restrictive, and sterile to the nth degree whilst the Bigger Picture is everything that is not banal, tedious, restrictive, and sterile. The Bigger Picture is an awesome numenosity, an ineffable timeless creative Mystery, and so whilst the little picture which is the limited or defined pattern cannot hope to ‘compete’ with this splendour in any sort of meaningful way it can and does win out by means of a cheat, by means of suppressing the opposition so that it ends up looking good. Thus, mere quantity wins out over quality.
The banal ‘defined and therefore finite’ message seeks therefore to win out against a universe which is infinitely bigger, infinitely deeper, and infinitely more mysterious than itself. The finite message has no depth at all precisely because it is defined – anything that is exhaustively defined (described in such a way that there is nothing about it that has not been covered in the official description) is abstract, and the abstract, precisely because it is abstract, is unreal, taking up no space at all in the real world. In the same way, the finite message, because it is exclusively or exhaustively defined, is also not mysterious at all. What is mysterious about something that has been totally defined?
But the trick is that when there is no Bigger Picture, when there is nothing that is infinite or undefined, then the banal finite message is not so banal after all. The dismally repetitive mechanical pattern is now not so dismal after all. When the Bigger Picture is suppressed or denied the mechanical pattern is no longer so wretchedly tedious, no longer so unbearably restrictive, pointlessly sterile and lifeless. Instead, it gets to be a going concern!
So this is a very neat trick indeed. This is how our inner lives get to be taken over by the ever-proliferating tide of banal mechanical thoughts and it is also how the socially-conditioned life manages to seem anything like a feasible proposition. This is how the vanishingly trivial concerns of my everyday life get to seem as if they are anything like actually meaningful. This is how that tired old business of ‘being who I think I am’ doesn’t either make me fall over laughing, or immediately cause me to collapse into the black depths of depression. This is how I get to live my life in such a frighteningly narrow and repetitive way, and at the same time still feel that I am actually going somewhere with it…
Because we don’t know anything ‘better’ than what we do know, and are familiar with on a day-to-day basis, it sounds wrong to say that the socially-conditioned life is ‘tedious and banal’, or that the life of the everyday self is ‘mind-numbingly sterile and pointlessly repetitive’. We don’t generally have the perspective to see ourselves and what is going on in our lives with that kind of objectivity – and if we did come across that perspective we would be very much inclined to run a mile! Because we value the mechanical pattern of our lives and believe it to be a progressive and dynamic type of a thing – a journey that is going to take us somewhere worthwhile, somewhere meaningful – the very last thing we want to see is that it is actually going nowhere in a hurry. If this is what perspective shows me, then perspective is the devil…
Notwithstanding our intense aversion to seeing anything that might threaten the integrity of the game we are playing, the socially-conditioned life (i.e. the life we lead when we believe what everyone else is believing) is only a mechanically-repeating pattern, and our thoughts about ourselves, the world and life in general are merely pointless reiterations of the static template our conditioning has provided us with. As Krishnamurti says, ‘thought is always old’. Nothing new ever comes into our thought-created world, despite whatever strongly-held illusions to the contrary we might have.
The only change that ever happens is the introduction of modifications and refinements and upgrades to the existing game. Similarly, we can say that the stale old business or rigmarole of my personal life (which is made up of all those particular petty concerns and attachments, all those habits of thought and action that I have accidentally acquired along the way) is quintessentially a repeating pattern that could equally well have been anything else. There is nothing genuinely individual in it; it is, as Gurdjieff says, all just ‘stuff’ that I have picked up and made my own along the way. The whole business – the socially-conditioned life and my own ‘supposedly-individual’ take on or interpretation of that prescribed or generic format – is simply a big old ramshackle wagon that I have – by default, for want of anything better to do – ended up hitching a lift on.
There is clearly no way that the story of ‘myself’ cannot be anything other than a fixed and repeating mechanical pattern – if anything ever happened that wasn’t part of the pattern, that was new, then that ‘something new’ wouldn’t be myself since I am only me because I am scrupulously faithful to the pattern of myself. The pattern which I call ‘myself’ is only me – in other words – because it is closed. If this business of myself being me wasn’t organizationally closed, wasn’t scrupulously faithful to the template, then the key notion that I have of myself as a particular configuration of habits of thought and belief, a particular unwavering viewpoint, would be fatally compromised. This cherished notion would then straightaway fly out of the window never ever to be seen again, in any shape or form. My understanding of myself as me depends absolutely upon ‘me’ being an invariant point of reference – the loss of this non-varying point of reference is the same thing as the loss of ‘who I am’. The loss of ‘who I am’, the loss of my familiar fixed viewpoint, would of course constitute a event which is psychologically equivalent my death and for this is reason it goes without saying that I would resist such this possibility as hard as I could ever resist anything.
When we say that my understanding of myself as being a very specific characteristic unchangeable identity (i.e. a solid fixture rather than something that is essentially fluid in character) is central to the game that I am playing then this is simply another way of saying that my idea of myself always has to be consistent with my own personal history. There can never be any discontinuity in this historical record because discontinuity equals ‘not me’. If something happened to shift my viewpoint from the spot it habitually occupies then the effect of this would be to eradicate my personal history – at this point I would have no personal history, I would have no consistent time-line of all the events and experiences that had befall me in the past – and so I would not be me.
On the one hand it is certainly true that the spontaneous awareness of not being the sequential, time-bound mechanical pattern of ‘who I thought I was’ is tremendously, wonderfully, astonishingly, incomprehensibly liberating; but on the other hand it is also very clearly true that this shocking break in the continuity of my personal history, the ongoing story of myself, the repeating mechanical pattern that I am identified with, is the very last thing that I want to happen. Escape from the predetermined, prescribed, profoundly unfree pattern of who we think we are is not an outcome that we play for – we play for other outcomes, outcomes that mean a hell of a lot within the context of the game we are playing, but nothing at all outside of this closed context.
There are really only two possibilities – either I am open or I am closed, either I am a repeating finite pattern or I am the undefined space within which this pattern repeats. I have therefore the possibility of experiencing life from either of these two perspectives (the former being ‘the perspective of no perspective’). The first possibility is of course pretty much the only one we know and so we think of it (on the account of our familiarity with it) as being ‘the one and only proper state of affairs’. The second possibility is the one we were referring to earlier as too much perspective – it turns everything we know on its head and gives us a very bad case of existential vertigo. What was formerly understood as being ‘the ground of everything’, ‘the unquestionable basis’, is now revealed (not to put too fine a point on it) as ‘an arbitrary bit of tautological nonsense’. It is shown up not as ‘the golden measure of all things’, the ‘universal template of existence’, but a purely accidental bit of debris. On the other hand, the empty space surrounding the over-valued mechanical pattern of the conditioned self (which before we would have completely ignored as we got on with the all-important business of ‘propagating the pattern’) is now revealed – in an utterly unmistakeable way – to be reality itself, the core of our being, so to speak. All-inclusive space is unexpectedly revealed as the mysterious and unfathomable Source of Everything.
The first and by far the most familiar possibility (which is where we unreflectively adopt and then carry on interminably with ‘the perspective of no perspective’) might unquestionably seem to us be the right and proper state of affairs but in reality it is only a highly peculiar type of hallucination that only seems real to me because of the highly peculiar way I have of looking at things. It seems like ‘the right way’ but it is just so much nonsense. In this it is exactly like the over-valued, self-loving, self-important pompous old ego, which sees itself as being absolutely central and crucial to everything, but which is in reality a pure laughable absurdity. This ubiquitous ego – this habitual sense of self – is compared by Wei Wu Wei to a traditional circus clown, who makes his audience crack up laughing by the way that he clownishly assumes himself to have a pivotal role in the proceedings, amusingly oblivious to the fact that he simply gets in the way every time and makes a complete mess of everything he has to do. The repeating pattern of the conditioned mind, we may say, spuriously assumes centrality in exactly the same way. This overblown, over-valued and over-extended mind claims an awful lot – it actually claims to be the totality of things, it claims to be The One and Only Way – whilst the truth of the matter is that it isn’t actually anything at all. It isn’t any sort of a way.
It isn’t quite accurate to say that the mechanically-repeating pattern we identify with is the same thing as ‘the conditioned mind’. A more accurate way of putting it is to say that the conditioned mind is that closed logical domain which we understand as being the whole world, the whole of what is possible. We could also say that the conditioned mind is the set of all actions (or ‘possibilities of change’) which are legitimate moves within the game. Within this game there is a certain amount of freedom, a certain amount of leeway, and whilst the very notion of ‘freedom within a closed domain’ is profoundly paradoxical, if we do not understand the closed domain to be a closed domain (if we do not understand the game to be a game) then this circumscribed (or limited) form of freedom becomes indistinguishable – for us as players of the game – from the real thing.
The closed logical domain of the conditioned mind is like a chequer-board of possibilities and the ‘conditioned freedom’ that we have is to move about within the parameters of this board, without ever seeing that there are any parameters. The trivial freedom of the chequer-board provides the mechanically-repeating pattern with the possibility of modifying itself, adapting itself, adjusting itself, correcting itself, and generally perfecting its game. This is in fact the only freedom that the conditioned mind gives us – the freedom to either get better at the game, or worse, the freedom to either ‘succeed’ or ‘lose’. Genuine freedom – which is the freedom not to take the game seriously – is the one thing that is not provided by the closed logical mind. It has to be excluded at all costs – naturally – or else the game is over.
The type of change we are allowed is the type of change known as optimization – an example of this is when we go on a course and learn new skills of some sort or other, when we become more accomplished, more polished, more experienced. The reason we know it is optimization rather than a more radical type of change (i.e. discontinuous change) is because any changes that have taken place ‘still serve the same master’ – there is no question of any genuine revolution taking place as a result of them. The vast majority of all the things that we learn represent accumulative knowledge, which means that more and more developments are made upon the very same basis and so the validity of this basis gets ‘confirmed’ by what we learn, it becomes more and more unquestionable, more and more ‘sacrosanct,’ as a result. If we learned something that challenged the validity of that original basis, and resulted therefore in us dropping it rather than building upon it, then this would not be optimization – this would be radical change.
The conditioned mind is therefore a realm within which trivial but not radical change can take place, and the fact that we perceive ourselves to have the capacity to ‘change’ – as we see it – through learning this or learning that, means that we do not have a perception of ourselves as being totally stuck, of being condemned to enact a static pattern over and over again. The conditioned mind thus creates conditions within which I can live out a predetermined life, along the tracks that have been laid down for me, and yet at the same time be quite convinced of my own freedom.
The realm of apparent freedom (or apparent choice) is what we might call a meta-pattern – it is a fixed or determinate pattern of existence that contains (within the framework of its own terms) as much freedom as we could possibly want. It is a system that presents to us an illusion of the possibility of genuine change, an illusion which facilitates the fixed mechanical pattern which is the conditioned self in the same way that genuine space facilities genuine change. The conditioned mind is in other words ‘false space that allows for the illusion of change or movement’. False change is thus real change, within the context of those very special conditions that are continuously created by the closed logical mind.
Probably the best way to get an overview of all of this is by looking at things in terms of information. When an event occurs spontaneously (or ‘for the first time’) it is unique and as a unique event it constitutes information. It’s an original. But the whole point about a mechanical pattern is that it is the very antithesis of original – everything about the pattern is preordained, prescribed, predetermined. The mechanical pattern is an extrapolation of the rule, which means that nothing can ever happen that has not been specifically sanctioned by the rule.
A good way to talk about the rule (which includes all the stuff that comes about as result of the rule) is therefore to say that it is non-unique. Everything that comes out of a rule is ‘non-unique’, or – to put it the other way – the absolute impossibility that we are looking at here is the absolute impossibility of anything unique ever coming out of a rule. If anything unique ever did come about as a result of a rule (i.e. if information ever came out of a rule) then the one thing we’d know for sure is that the ‘rule’ in question could not be a rule.
So how is uniqueness (which is to say, information) created? How is ‘originality’ produced? Not via the mechanical, rule-based mind anyway – that is for sure. We know the rule-based procedures can never result in information. The problem about asking a question like this however is that when we ask it we are looking at everything backwards: uniqueness, information, originality is where we start off from not where we go to. This is the beginning, not the end-result of a rule-based process. At the beginning of all rule-based or linear processes we have information, and at the end, we have something less than information, we have redundancy. This is like rolling down a hill – at the very top of the hill we have the situation of maximum information, which is the unprecedented event, and then as we start rolling down the hill – via entropic or rule-based processes – everything gets more and more predictable, less and less original or unique. The information content of the system in question degrades and degrades, until it hits the minimum at the very bottom of the hill, which is the position of maximum redundancy, maximum entropy. Thus it is at the bottom of the hill where all the non-uniqueness, the ‘rule-based regularity’, comes in.
A rule is like a filter or a sluice-gate. An even better analogy is to say that it is like a polarizing filter in a secondary school optics experiment, where only a very narrow portion of the non-polarized light that is being emitted by the light-source is allowed through. The filtering device then becomes a secondary source of light in itself, a source that – in effect – knows nothing about the original source. Entropy, or ‘loss of information’, equals forgetting and so the light coming through the secondary source which is the polarizing filter has, we might say, forgotten about the light from which it was derived; it is a highly attenuated form of light, a form of light that has developed profound amnesia. The reason we can say that it has amnesia is because it knows nothing of the richness and diversity of the non-polarized light from which it arose, it only knows one thing, and that is how to be the uniform, highly predictable way that it is. Or to put this another way, it only knows what the filter allows it to know.
We can develop this analogy by saying that the filter in question doesn’t just sort the light out into light with the one plane of electromagnetic displacement, it goes a number of steps further and filters the light so much that all that is allowed out is absolutely uniform light. In this refined version of the experiment therefore the light starts off, as usual, ‘rich’ in all sorts of different types of wavelengths, amplitudes, planes of displacement, energy-levels, and so on, but after passing through the filter-device there is only the one wavelength, only the one amplitude, only the one plane of displacement, only the one energy level…
The secondary source of light which is the filter thus mimics the original source but in an inadequate (or ‘inferior’) sort of a way. The copy is inferior because it has a tremendously attenuated information content. It is a kind of ‘pale imitation’ of the original light. The thing is, however, the attenuation of the information content means that all memory of the original has been lost and so there is nothing to compare the artificially uniform or ‘attenuated’ light with. The secondary source does not declare itself to be in any way ‘a lesser version’ of the original; in fact it does not even mention the original, and so it is presenting the degenerate analogue as if it were the original.
The uniform light can never – because of its impoverished nature – give rise to anything new, anything that is not the same as what came before it, but notwithstanding the impossibility of anything new ever coming into the system once everything has been regulated and standardized (via the substitution of the secondary for the original source) it can still be used to construct a whole self-consistent world, a world that will not – from the viewpoint of any hypothetical inhabitant of that world – seem to be lacking in anything that a world should have. With regard to the original world we can say that the world made up of uniform light is terribly limited, terribly lacking in variety or possibility of change, whilst at the same time noting that from its own standpoint it is not possible to make this observations. So to sum up we can say that the former situation is an open (or creative) one, whilst the latter is closed (and uncreative) in that nothing genuinely new can ever happen in it. A closed system cannot be known from its own vantage point as being closed, and for this reason we can say that ‘the closed system mimics the open one’. Thus, we can say that CLOSED is an inferior (or degenerate) analogue of OPEN.
Light is a remarkably good metaphor for information and we can apply everything that we have said about a rich source of white light being filtered to provide a single uniform water-down version of the original to information, only here, instead of talking about a polarizing filter, we are talking about a rule. In this case we can say that the ‘original source’ is subject to no exclusion criteria and thus – because no limitation has been applied – the information content is infinite. The information content of the source is obviously going to be infinite precisely because no limits have been put in place regarding ‘what can be in it’. Saying this is directly equivalent to saying that the Universal Set possesses the property of ‘infinite diversity’ because there are no selection criteria saying that only certain specified elements can be allowed in it.
Thus, the starting-off position is unfettered originality (or uniqueness) and what happens once we start rolling down the entropic slope is that uniformity replaces originality without us being able to tell the difference.
Rules are all about ‘restricting content’; rules, despite what we might think – do not create content, they limit it. Rules ‘step down’ information content just as an electricity substation steps down the high-voltage of the big power lines of the national grid to the low voltage of domestic supply, but more than simply stepping down the ‘high-voltage supply’ of the Original Source, rules – as we have said – degrade this information to such an extent that what comes out the other end is pure redundancy. Redundancy is the very antithesis of information: redundancy is the old disguised as the new, mutton dressed as lamb, the faded echo misrepresented as the original vivid event. John Paul Sartre gives us a taste of this in his philosophic novel Nausea (1938, P 50) –
I can no longer distinguish the present from the future and yet it is lasting, it is gradually fulfilling itself; the old woman advances along the empty street; she moves her heavy mannish shoes. This is time, naked time, it comes slowly into existence, it keeps you waiting, and when it comes you are disgusted because you realize that it’s been there already for a long time.
Unable to tell the difference between what is truly new and what has in actuality been there a very long time (unable to tell the difference between the unique and the uniform) we proceed to build veritably palaces out of redundancy. We create a whole world out of it. In our daily lives we inhabit a region that is far down-stream of the sluice-gates and the ‘information’ we have to make do with is very far from being the real deal. The reality supply has been tampered with, the lights have been turned off and ‘a switch’ made and we – innocent trusting fools that we are – have been sold a dud.
The thing about ‘copying the known’ (as opposed to re-discovering one’s own genuine original nature) is that it is infinitely easier, infinitely less challenging. Wide-open unregulated (or uncharted) reality is on the other hand tremendously challenging – it permits no scams, no short-cuts, no shoddy imitations, no cheats and no self-deceptions. The situation of maximum perspective (or ‘zero entropy’) shows up everything pitilessly and only the genuine article is passed as being worthy. To use the ancient agrarian terminology – the wheat is separated from the chaff. The removal of any possibility of ‘creative accounting’ – any smudging or fudging or faking of results – means that there is no longer a way for there to appear to be something when in fact there is nothing. Or to put this another way –
Maximized perspective (i.e. ‘light with no shadows’) means that there is no longer any possibility for a tautology to present itself as being ‘non-tautological’, no possibility of a tautology being passed off as original information, and thus being used as a basis for constructing some kind of limited virtual world for us to live in.
Another way to approach this is to say that when there is zero entropy then there can no longer be such thing as a boundary. The lack of boundaries means that there is no longer any possibility of playing the game that reality is constituted of innumerable separate entities or things or categories. All this is shown up as a fabrication and so there is nowhere left to hide. The truth is revealed, and the truth is that there is in reality only the One Thing (as it is referred to in the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus) and that this ‘thing’ is in reality not a thing any more than ‘one’ is a number…
This is all about ‘truth versus deception’ – the self-image or I-concept can only hang onto the type of qualified existence that it does hang onto when there is some possibility of ‘smudging the issue’, of scamming, of ‘borrowing from Peter to pay Paul’, of taking a loan out that you can only pay back with another loan. The result of this creative accounting is to make out there is something there when there isn’t; or, from the point of view of information theory – to make out that you are saying something meaningful when you aren’t. The deception is when we think that this little ‘me’ exists and that this little ‘me’ is who I am.
The revealed truth that comes with the return of perspective is that the self-image (which is the exclusive mechanical pattern that I have identified with) is a mere redundancy, a tautological production of the mechanism of thought, and that as such it doesn’t exist. There is no separate or exclusive little self; there is only the All-Inclusive Self, the Big Self, the Homo Maximus, the Cosmic Self, which is everything…
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.