The perception of the self, the ‘me’, is essentially the perception of something that isn’t there, but which nevertheless seems to be there. There definitely seems to be a self – a me – but really there isn’t! Put like this, it has to be said that this isn’t exactly a great basis for anything! I can amuse or entertain or divert myself by making all sorts of plans to do this, that or the other, but if I don’t actually exist then what exactly is the point? What’s it all about?
Rather than saying that the self doesn’t exist, we could instead say that it has ‘virtual existence’. We could say that it’s only ‘true’ because we say it is. We could say that it is only true because we never question it, and thereby ‘allow’ it to be true by default – as it were. So another way of talking about this most ubiquitous and unexamined of perceptions (the perception that I actually am this self, this ‘me’ which I feel myself to be) is to say that it is a kind of ‘blind-spot’ which is created precisely because I never do actually look at it, precisely because I always do take it totally for granted. Rather than genuine ‘being’, it has something that we will call ‘virtual being,’ which is a quality that has been magically created out of my scrupulous lack of attention, out of my laziness, we might even say.
So – just for the sake of the argument – let us say that this is really is the case. Let us say that this really is how things are. Let us say that the fact that I never really examine my habitual or ‘automatic’ perception of being this ‘me’ lends an apparent validity or authenticity to the perception and turns what is at root only an insubstantial spook or phantasm into something that appears to be very real and very solid. Even if this controversial suggestion were true, we might well ask what difference this would make? How would I ever know the difference?
On the one hand it could quite reasonably be said that it wouldn’t make any difference at all since I would of course carry on exactly as before and continue to enact all the patterns of thinking and behaving that I am accustomed to enacting. Whether my basic perception of ‘who I am’ is actually true or not makes not the slightest difference to my experience of life, and so – in this sense – why would I need to go into it any more than I already do going into it – which is as we have said ‘not at all’? If becoming aware of anything more than I am already aware about the true nature of who I take myself to be is only going to open a particularly distressing can of worms, wouldn’t I really be a hell of a lot better off just carrying on as usual?
On the other hand however we could point out that just because I am not aware of some important bit of information about myself, this doesn’t means that whatever it is that I am steadfastly not aware of isn’t all the same very much true. Thus, we could say, because it is still very much true, very much still in the domain of actual reality, then it is absolutely going to be exerting some influence on my situation in one way or another. An ignored truth is no less ‘potent’ because it is being ignored, in other words, and if psychology teaches us anything it teaches us that a reality which we are steadfastly refusing to allow ourselves to be aware of is guaranteed to turn into a profoundly destructive force in our lives.
On the most essential level we could perhaps say that this situation – which is to say, the situation in which I identify wholeheartedly with a self which is not actually there – creates a tremendous irony, an irony that is not diminished in the slightest in its impact for being for the most part totally unconscious, for being for the most part entirely lost on us. One thing that we can do in this regard therefore is try to make the irony of it all a bit more conscious, and see where that gets us.
If we say that the perception of self which lies at the core or centre of our daily experience is a perception of something that isn’t really there, then this isn’t to say that ‘nothing is real’, or that ‘everything’s an illusion’, which is how we would usually tend to take it – if we were going to take it any way at all, that is. The world I believe in is an illusion it is true, but it is only an illusion because I am relating everything to me, because I am seeing everything for the standpoint of a ‘centre’ which I am assuming to be there, but which isn’t. If I could look at the world and somehow see the world as it is in itself, of itself, or by itself (without insisting on relating or referencing everything to me) then what I would see would be perfectly real – as real as real could be!
This is the difference between how most of us see and understand the world, in the general run of things, and how a poet or an artist might see the world. The very fact that the poet’s vision (or the artist’s vision) does often seem to be of such merit to us is surely because it represents more than just their own particular blind-spot transposed upon the world in such a way as to blanket over everything that is actually real and interesting in it. And by the same token, if my vision is no more than my own habitual blindness, my own chronic ignorance projected onto reality so that it totally smothers what it real, then how can this so-called ‘vision’ possibly be of any interest to anyone – myself included? It’s not a vision at all because nothing real is being seen; it’s a ‘false vision,’ a ‘phoney vision’…
If it is the case that the false perception of a self where there is none is generated by the simple expedient of ‘not paying attention’, or by not ever looking in a certain spot – so to speak – so that I don’t know what’s actually there and can therefore carry on saying or believing that there is something there when there just plain isn’t, then what we are talking about here is ‘an absence that is implicitly understood to be a presence’, a ‘lack of being which is passed off as genuine reality’.
Since this false perception is created by being very careful never to pay attention to see if what we say is there really is there, we could also that this self (this sense of a ‘me’ that exists there at the centre of things) is like a shadow caused by an occlusion of consciousness. So in this case the everyday self can be understood as ‘an absence of awareness’ which is somehow – by some curious bit of trickery – perceived on a regular basis as an actual entity in its own right. This mistaken perception then proceeds to give rise, as easily as you please, to a veritable three-ring circus, a veritable carnival…
On the basis of this absence, this lamentable lack of genuine honest-to-goodness being, whole empires are founded! This blind-spot, this lack of awareness, this ‘absence which says it’s a presence’ is turned into a veritable false god – a false god that demands to be worshipped at every turn, and is jealous of any attention, even the slightest morsel of it, that might be given elsewhere! This false god bullies us into obeying it, it sets itself up as the supreme boss, it becomes the ultimate source of authority in our lives – the maker of untold pointless rules. When we go along with its dictates all is well, all is rosy, but when we don’t then there’s merry hell to pay…
All of this all sounds rather peculiar – it raises a lot of questions. Such as, how exactly do we ‘obey’ an absence? Why would we want to obey an absence? How would that ‘lack of being’ be able to rule over us? What the hell would it want us to do, anyway? And how are we able to say ‘an absence’ equals to ‘a self’?
The answer to all these questions is a lot more straightforward than we might think. In the absence of consciousness, what we have instead are rules. As Jung says, rules are a substitute for consciousness: if I have a whole bunch of rules to follow then I don’t have to meet each new situation afresh and bring actual awareness into the picture, I just follow whatever rules I have in the bag that seem to be the most appropriate. So this way I don’t have to rise to the challenge of actually being aware of a new situation – I just treat whatever is happening like an old situation and so the need to be conscious is averted. I can stay safely asleep!
Rules don’t need consciousness in order to function – rules are just instructions telling us what to do under any specified situation. So all I have to do is sit back and let the rules take care of the situation! Because rules are always the same what being unconscious means is that the same old responses are trotted out, time and time again. We just keep on going through the same motions, repeating the same basic responses. A pattern is set up therefore and this pattern just persists in a very obstinate kind of a fashion. Whatever it is that is happening in the world is used by the pattern to validate itself, justify itself, and so the events or contingencies in the outside world are useful to the pattern because they provide it with a reason to carry on being there. Really, it doesn’t matter what actually happens because the mind-created pattern is just going to use it as an excuse to react in its characteristic way, as an excuse to go on enacting itself. We could therefore say that the pattern doesn’t really care about anything other than just perpetuating itself – and this is of course the way with all rule-based patterns.
A rule doesn’t really know what it is asserting, or why it is asserting it – its only job is just to get on with the job of asserting it, and that it’s what it does! In the same way the unconscious mind – which is the ‘sleep-walking’ mind that just keeps on obeying the rules that govern it – doesn’t really care what it is doing or why! This is what it’s like when we’re unconscious, when we’re not bringing actual awareness into everyday life. Of course it feels – most of the time at least – that we know what we’re doing and why; the rule-based mind itself provides us with this sense of purpose and because we don’t question the rules we don’t question the sense of purpose that the rules give us. So I am doing whatever it is that I am doing, going through the motions of it, and my perception is that I do know what I am doing and that I do know why I am doing it. I’m doing it because the rules are telling me to. The problem with this however is that rules aren’t really a reason for doing anything!
The reason rules aren’t really a reason for doing anything is because – as we have said – rules are simply blank instructions that will keep repeating themselves unless something stops them. There’s no real sense in a rule therefore – it is after all just a mechanical event! So if you ask me why I am doing whatever it is that I’m doing I may reply “It’s because it’s the rule!” and on a very superficial level this seems to answer the question. If we look any deeper into it however we can see that this isn’t an answer at all –if I am doing something or other, performing some task, performing some action, and I validate what I am doing by pointing to the rule that is making me do it this is actually a tautology because the purposeful action is the rule, so what I am doing here is justifying the action by pointing to the action itself. I am – in effect – saying “The reason I am doing this thing is because I am doing it.” I am using the fact that I am doing X, Y or Z to justify the fact that I am doing X, Y or Z…
The real question that I should be answering here is “Why are you obeying the rule?” This would be infinitely more meaningful than you asking “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” and me replying – in effect – that I’m doing it because I’m doing it. Replying in a blank way that “I’m doing it because it’s the rule” is as everyone knows merely an evasion of responsibility! Just because ‘it’s the rule’ doesn’t mean that I have to do what it says. The point here therefore is that when we’re in the mechanical mode of being evading responsibility is precisely what we’re doing. We aren’t in the business of asking the question “Do I want to obey this rule or not?” or “Is this a good or helpful rule?” – we’re in the business of doing what the rule says, whatever it says and this is just another way of saying that when we’re in the mechanical mode of being there is no actual consciousness there, no actual awareness – all there is are the rules….
A tautology is when something is explained in terms of itself and rules are tautologies because they justify themselves in terms of themselves. They don’t need a reason for being there – they are just there and that’s all there is to it. The rule is the rule. Or as people with a certain limited degree of authority sometimes say (in an unmistakeably tautological fashion) – “The rules are the rules!” A rule is its own justification. This is a rule’s strength, but it is at the same time its weakness because if something is tautological then it is in essence quite hollow, quite meaningless. This means that a rule is essentially meaningless because it justifies itself in terms of itself and this is an empty action. A tautology is essentially a lack of meaning that passes itself off as meaning, a lack of information that passes itself of as information, or we could say, a lack of being that passes itself off as being.
A tautology explains itself by repeating itself – as if this were an actual explanation, an actual definition, and not just a repetition. It pretends however that it is not simply repeating itself however because that would obviously be meaningless and so what it does is to come up with different words that actually mean the same thing. This way when we read the tautological definition it looks like a real definition, a definition that actually means something. If we don’t look too closely into it the trick is perfectly convincing and so we end up thinking that we’ve got something there, some genuinely new or independent meaning – an actual step forward in some direction – when in reality we have no such thing. This process of ‘tautological expansion’ can therefore continue indefinitely – I can keep on doing it so that I end up with a situation in which I have explained Z in terms of Y and Y in terms of X and X in terms of W, and so on. As long as all these elements really are genuinely different then I am genuinely getting somewhere, but if it so happens that they are all the same, thinly disguised versions of the same statement, then I am getting nowhere at all but thinking I am…
The tautology’s justification (or apparent definition) is what gives it its meaning, but because this justification is quite hollow – an empty gesture, so to speak – this meaning is simply an illusion, a thing of no substance or worth whatsoever. All of thought’s productions are tautologies, without exception: as David Bohm says, ‘Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally.’ All of thought’s divisions are self-created – there are none that are there ‘of themselves’, and because what we call ‘the self’ is just another division created by thought, just another mental class or category, it too is a tautology, it too is an ‘empty gesture’. Thought makes up the self just as it makes up all of its other categories, all of its other arbitrary divisions, and so the self is every bit as arbitrary as anything else thought creates. And yet despite this, we take the thought-created self very seriously indeed. There is in fact nothing we take more seriously!
This brings us back to what we started off saying – that the everyday self is an absence that nevertheless manages to be taken as a presence, that it is a ‘lack of being’ that all the same manages to pass itself off as a genuine honest-to-goodness bona fide entity or being in its own right. It brings us back to the key observation that we made which is that the self is something that appears to be there, but which isn’t!
This central assumption – the assumption that the empty self actually is ‘as real as real can be’ – creates, via a process of tautological expansion, a whole world. This – it has got to be said – is a pretty amazing scam, a pretty astonishing conjuring trick. We start off on the basis of an empty statement – a statement that means nothing at all, a statement that has absolutely no substance to it – and then by using this statement as the unquestionable standard for what is right and proper we go on to construct an entire totally-believable self-consistent ‘logical world’ for ourselves. Via this audacious trick everything has been turned on its head – the unreal has become real and the real has become unreal…
As we said earlier, this isn’t therefore the same at all as saying that ‘there isn’t a world out there’, which is what we might carelessly assume is being implied. We’re not denying reality! We’re not denying that anything is real: what we’re saying is simply that the world which is out there is totally independent of our thinking, has absolutely not been created by our thinking.
The mind creates its personalized and ‘sealed-off’ version of reality by making some kind of a statement at random, by plucking some sort of statement out of the air. Once we take this statement or rule as being basic, as being fundamental, then straightaway we perceive everything that agrees with it as being real, substantial, significant, and worthy therefore of our serious attention. And anything that doesn’t agree with our original choice (even though we in no way see it as a choice) becomes unreal, lacking in substance, insignificant, and thus not worthy of our attention.
As preposterous as this scheme may sound it is precisely in this way the rational mind works. How else could it work, after all? It has to start off somewhere; it has to make some kind of an assumption to get itself going, in order to get properly stuck into ‘operation-mode’. But even though it does have to do this in order to get started, that doesn’t mean that it can avoid the penalty that comes with it. It has to make an unexamined assumption and then pretend to itself that this assumption is the most solid thing in the universe, and it also has to pay the price for ‘cheating’ in this way.
The penalty or price is that by using itself as the standard with which to evaluate the meaningfulness of the world – and yet necessarily having no way to evaluate the meaningless of its own starting off point – it enters into a tautology that it cannot see as such. It enters into a world of meaninglessness disguised as meaning.
The world isn’t a reflection of me and it isn’t a reflection of my viewpoint. That is a cosmically ridiculous conceit! The world is simply itself – and neither ‘my self’ nor ‘my viewpoint’ come into it…
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.