The all-powerful external authority that we have set up over ourselves, and which we either pay lip-service to or complain about, is a ‘nullity’. This isn’t to say that the external authority in question is ‘a bad thing’ or that its influence is ‘malign’ or ‘sinister’ but simply that it isn’t any sort of a thing at all. It only seems to be a thing.
We make out that the external authority is there, we say that it is there, we pretend that there is something there but there isn’t. There is nothing there at all, but we act as if there was something and it is this ‘acting as if there was’ on our part that creates the nullity.
It is as if I ‘invent’ a boss either to put my trust in or to complain about. “Oh,” I say, “the bosses have told me to do this and now look what happened!” Or, “Oh look, the Government has screwed yet up again…” What I am basically doing here is using this invention of an external authority to enable myself to feel more secure in an uncertain universe. “It’s ok,” I say, “Our leader has told me what to do and so everything will be alright now.” By heaping adulation on this invented leader, by saying how great and wise and infallible he or she is, I get to feel better in myself, my insecurity is assuaged. Or perhaps I want to believe in experts: “Experts have told us,” the guy on the TV blabs happily, “that this is the right thing to do, or that that is the right thing to do.
What I am really doing therefore is handing over responsibility. That’s the name of the game. That’s what it’s all about. When it comes right down to it all I am interested in is getting rid of all that onerous responsibility. All I want to do is to fire it off onto someone else just as fast as ever I can – even if I have to invent that person!
So I create the boss, the leader, the expert, the all-powerful external authority, and this clever invention solves all of my problems in one go. I feel safe and secure because this supposedly infallible authority has told me what to do and all I need to do is obey his instructions to the letter. And on the other hand if things go wrong then I can always have the satisfaction of blaming the authority figure, and heaping ridicule and abuse and condemnation upon his head instead of empty adulation! Either way I get to feel good and that’s really all I’m interested in.
But who exactly is this ‘boss’, this all-powerful external authority, this nullity that we’re talking about? Is it God? Is it the Pope, or the Archbishop of Canterbury? Is it my dad? My teacher? My guru? My friend? My partner? My hairdresser? My counsellor or therapist? My doctor? Is it the guy I met in the pub the other day who was so happy to give me some free advice? Is it something I read on the internet or in the newspapers? Is it the Government? Is it society in general, the so-called ‘accepted wisdom’? Is it tradition? What is it exactly that we are on about here?
In answer to this question we would have to say “YES to all of the above”, along with any other possible examples of external authority that we might be able to think of to add to the list. Just about anything could be the external authority when it comes down to it. The ‘invented boss’ which is the nullity could be all of these things and many other things besides. Anything will do. But none of these answers really penetrate to the heart of the matter because they are all merely externalizations (or ‘projections’) of the true and original nullity which lies safely hidden at all times behind the rows and rows of assorted decoys and dummies and red-herrings. The true nullity is nothing other than the conditioned self, the ‘me,’ the fixed or defined identity which is who I think I am.
This is something that is as clear as clear can be when seen from outside of the ‘exclusive viewpoint of the conditioned self’, but which is at the same time perfectly and utterly impossible to see from that viewpoint. It is however possible to get a very good sense of what we are talking about here by thinking in terms of rules. We can say that when I have the experience of existing as a particular (or ‘local’) self (which is to say, as being ‘this but not that’, ‘here but not there’) then it is evidently the case that this is a situation that is based on rules.
A rule is a boundary – a bounded domain of possibilities. On the inside of the bounded domain which is ‘the set of all those possibilities that are specified (or permitted) by the rule’, and on the outside are ‘all the rest’ – all the possibilities that have not been specified. So when we talk about ‘the particular self’ and ‘the rule’ we are actually talking about one and the same thing. It is the same principle we are talking about in both cases, only in the case of the ‘bounded self’ what is being ‘limited’ or ‘bounded’ is my awareness. What is being restricted in the bounded self are the number of possibilities that I am allowed to be aware of – I am only allowed to know about those possibilities which are previously specified by the rule, in other words.
Originally – just for the sake of the argument – we can say that there was no rule. We can say that there were no limiting conditions, that they were no boundaries. In this case ‘my’ awareness is not being specifically restricted – it is ‘unbounded’ or ‘free’. There is no extrinsic structure involved, there is no external authority. For this reason we cannot actually speak of the awareness or consciousness in question as being ‘mine’ because to do that necessarily ties that awareness or consciousness down to a specific standpoint, a particular closed (or ‘exclusive’) domain of possibility. Free or unbounded consciousness does not belong to anyone!
This is, needless to say, most emphatically not how I generally experience myself. The way I usually – if not almost always – experience myself is in the limited or particular modality. Only, of course, I don’t go around experiencing myself as being limited or restricted. I don’t know that I am only permitted (by the rules which I have taken for granted) to be aware of a very limited portion of the Universal Set of All Possibilities. I don’t know this – quite simply – because I can’t know what I am missing by virtue of the very fact that I am missing it. That’s the whole point after all – I don’t know about those possibilities which I am not allowed to know about, and so I don’t know that I don’t know about them!
Another way of talking about all this is to say that the external authority which I am so happy to hand responsibility to is ‘the set of rules that I have taken for granted’. Rules have an authority to them because they are so definite, because they are not open to any sort of negotiation. This solid weight of authority derives from the quintessential opacity of the rules – it derives from the fact that they cannot be questioned or looked into. We assume they have the intrinsic value that they implicitly set themselves out as having precisely because we are not allowed to verify the matter. After all, in order to verify the claim that all rules automatically make for themselves (which is the claim of universal validity) we would have to look at them on some basis other than the one which they themselves conveniently provide.
The authority or weight that a rule possesses derives in other words purely and simply from the fact that it has been chosen. The rule is the rule because I say it is! With regard to that set of rules which define who I am (i.e. what the particularity of my identity consists of) we can similarly say that the ‘weighting’ that makes me this rather than that derives purely from the particular set of rules that have been assumed. Or we can straightforwardly say that my specific sense of myself derives from the particular viewpoint that I have adopted. It doesn’t matter what this particular viewpoint is – it just matters that I should have one. Thus, we can say that a particular viewpoint (i.e. one that is firmly and unreflectively exclusive of all other possible viewpoints) equals ‘a self’.
Having an unquestionable viewpoint that has been adopted in all things means that I have a definite or certain understanding of both the world and my place in it – both myself and the world that I live in have been exclusively defined in terms of the fixed viewpoint that I have taken for granted in all things. I have a description of everything and this description covers everything – it as a monopoly because no other competing descriptions are ever allowed to get a look in. Change can take place, but only the sort of change that builds upon the original foundation; change or development is permitted, but only the type of change we call optimization. The overall structure itself is not to be questioned, but we can work away at adapting or improving it. We can build upon it, perfect it, protect it, extend it, reproduce or copy it, and so on.
Having a definite description of myself and the world involves definite (or ‘unquestionable’) ideas definite (or ‘unquestionable’) thoughts, definite (or ‘unquestionable’) beliefs and opinions, and so forth. All of these definite or unquestionable ideas, thoughts, beliefs, opinions, etc, are rules plain and simple. They are not open to negotiation, but rather they are simply to be unreflectively accepted. All of these rules ‘join together’ to create an over-all logically-consistent system – they constitute, as Chogyam Trungpa says, the vital arterial blood supply of the system which is the defined or particular self, the solid sense of identity which is founded securely upon the rock of ‘this but not that’.
Any rule, any definite description, any definite statement, any definite position constitutes a ‘self’. Anything will do, as long as we hang onto it like a limpet, without ever questioning why we want to hang onto it, or whether indeed it is actually worth hanging on to. And yet this self that is made up of ‘this but not that’ is not who we are at all. This is the great irony of it all, the utter insanity of it all.
Who we are really is of course ‘the original situation’, the situation in which there are no rules, no statements, no limits, no boundaries. In the Vedantas, our true identity is said to be ‘neti, neti’, which is to say ‘not this, not that’. Or ‘neither this nor that’.
Who we are really is not this particularity versus that particularity, this idea versus that idea, this viewpoint versus that viewpoint, this rule versus ‘all others’ (i.e. all the other rules which we’re not even going to look at because we know they’re wrong). Or we could that who we are really is ALL of them, and at the same time none of them because if I answer YES to everything then the question itself becomes irrelevant. Answering YES to everything goes beyond logic – it confounds logic, which is based on ‘ether/or’.
Who I am really is the original situation, the ‘undefined’ or ‘unstated’ situation, the situation that prevailed before I recklessly handed my autonomy over to a bunch of randomly selected mechanical rules…
So what then is ‘the nullity’? How does that come into it? The nullity, we may say, is the shadow of the rule, its unseen ‘flip-side’. It is blankness which doesn’t know itself to be blank – blankness which prizes itself. It is the disguised tautology, the camouflaged redundancy. It is irredeemable ignorance which mistakenly sees itself as positive knowledge. It is mental entropy. It is an absence which masquerades as an actual thing or entity.
Just as I am identified with the rule, I am also identified – however unwittingly or unknowingly – with the nullity. When we suffer in life, it is from the nullity we suffer. After all, just as I benefit from the sure and certain authority of the rule, I also suffer from the ‘invisible impoverishment’ (or ‘sterility’) that it produces within me. As a result of this invisible inner impoverishment I am constantly pushed into ‘compensation-type’ behaviour and activities – I am driven to keep on trying to prove my worth, prove that I am ‘real’ or ‘substantial’.
As a result of being unwittingly and unknowingly identified with the nullity I am, as Alan Watts says, always trying to be ‘one up’ on the universe. I am ‘ontologically insecure’ – I am forever trying to stay one step ahead in the race, just as a running man might play the game of trying to stay ‘one step ahead’ of his own shadow…
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.