We usually believe that we have the particular pattern of thinking and acting that we do have because this pattern is ‘the right one to have’. We think that we do the things we do because it is useful and beneficial to do them. It seems pretty obvious to me that my understanding of the world (and the behaviour that comes about as a result of this understanding) is there – for the most part – for very sensible, down-to-earth reasons. What other reason would I have for seeing the world in a particular way if it wasn’t because that way of perceiving the world is pragmatically useful to me? Why would I invest so much time and effort in the patterns of behaviour that I engage in on a daily basis if there wasn’t a very good reason for so engaging? Certainly I don’t see it as being because I am in denial of my true being.
PART 1 – ACCIDENT OR NECESSITY?
Of course if I thought about it long enough I might get around to figuring out that another possible reason for me thinking about things the way I do, and doing stuff the way I do, is because that just happens to be the way that I learned it. If I had learned it in a different way then I would do it in a different way, and furthermore I would be equally convinced that this different way was the right one. This puts a whole new perspective on the matter because instead of necessity being the reason for me having this way of relating to the world, I can now see that it is accident. Accident and necessity are very different in implication – if my pattern is due to necessity it is unquestionable, it is as solid as a rock. The fact that it is unquestionable (since there is no point at all in questioning brute necessity) also means that there is no need to question it and so I am straightaway freed from any responsibility in this regard.
Absence of freedom means absence of responsibility – who can blame me for doing something if I have had no choice in doing it? On the other hand, if any pattern could have seemed to me like the right pattern, just so long as it happens to be the pattern that I have grown up with and am familiar with, then this is far more freedom than I can be comfortable with. That much freedom throws the responsibility right back on me and that is something that I just don’t like. Because my basis is questionable, this places upon me ‘the responsibility to question’ – it is no longer good enough for me to just float through life doing what I have always done, assuming what I have always assumed, holding on resolutely to whatever opinions I have always held on to.
THE RESISTANCE TO QUESTIONING THE RULES
If there is one thing we don’t like it is questioning our assumptions (or finding out that our assumptions are open to question). If I were to doubt this inborn aversion to radical questioning I need only make the experiment of pushing my friends and acquaintances a bit to try to get them to say why they believe whatever it is that they believe and why they do whatever it is that they do. When we are pushed too far to examine ourselves what generally happens is that we get assertive in an indignant or scornful or angry way. Or perhaps we just make a joke of it. Whatever the reaction, the point is that we just don’t stand for it. This, as well as being a basic psychological principle, is also of course a basic historical principle – if you question the rules (or go against them) then you are asking for trouble! The reason challenging the rules tends to result in violent resistance is not because of the truth (or necessity) of the rules that being challenged, but because of the exact opposite reason – because of their arbitrariness. Uncompromisingly violent resistance is met with not because of the strength and righteousness of the rules, but because of the weakness and phoniness of the rules.
ALL IS DENIAL…
This is a curious and singularly edifying thought – that all the aggression and violence and cruelty that has been meted out throughout history was meted out because people were defending rules that – deep down – they knew to be phoney, and therefore ‘unjustifiable’. What we are basically talking about here is denial and the cruel and insensitive activity that comes about as a result of denial. Denial is an idea which we are perfectly familiar with, but what we are not so familiar with is the idea that just about all of our purposeful, agenda-based behaviour is there not for the reason that we assume it to be, that it is not there for the reason that we say it is but because we are using it to bolster up our unconscious inner insecurity. To suggest that all of our ‘busy-ness’, all of our industry, all of our striving for progress both on the level of our individual lives and on the level of the collective, all of our theorizing and philosophizing is simply denial of our inner insecurity seems like an utterly crazy idea. To say that we find the notion that ‘all is denial’ completely ridiculous and utterly unacceptable is putting it far too mildly. It is a pretty safe bet that most of us would react emphatically (if not to say violently) against this particular theory – we would react as if it were a mortal insult, in fact.
In general, the more seriously we take ourselves and what we are ‘doing’ in life (i.e. the higher our regard for ourselves and our ‘story’) the more insulted we will feel when someone comes along and says that it is all just a hoax, a fictional piece of nonsense that we choose to believe in because it makes us feel good to do so, or because it makes us feel bad not to do so. The suggestion that the impressively competent and highly efficient pattern of our collective purposeful behaviour (along with the mighty edifice of belief and principle it is based on) is no more than an elaborate and very time-consuming red-herring whose true purpose is to distract ourselves from some sort of painful or fearful feeling that we have deep inside ourselves simply does not tend to go down very well.
It is true that I might not be so inclined to immediately argue against the idea that the rational-purposeful framework which my life is based upon is pure sham if I happened to be feeling not so good about myself at the time. Even more so, if I happened to be in the depths of depression at the time of hearing this argument then it would quite possibly seem to me that the idea or suggestion that my life is a sham or hoax is actually a very accurate (if terribly painful) of expressing the situation. It might therefore be said that this ‘all is denial’ theory is nothing other than a rationalization of depression, and the fact that this is how we often tend to see things when we are depressed proves that it is a pathologically disturbed or distorted way of thinking. This counter-argument isn’t as impressive as it might first seem though. After all, we could equally well say that depression is the proper and healthy result of gaining insight into denial, which of course it is. If I have been stuck in denial for a big part of my life and then at last I start to see through the densely-tangled web of self-deception that I have so assiduously woven around myself then naturally depression is going to set in. What we call ‘endogenous depression’ (and attribute to a purely mechanical malfunction with regard to neurotransmitter levels in the brain synapses) is often the painful but healthy process of disillusionment with the false structure that I have invested so very much in – the more investment I have made then clearly the more difficult the disillusionment is going to be. But because this ‘investment in the unreal’ is not just personal but also collective, there is a collectively validated system-of-denial in place that substitutes itself for genuine psychological knowledge and genuine psychological education, and so we stubbornly persist in trying to cure depression by the sole recourse of tweaking neurotransmitter levels with our pharmaceutical screwdrivers.
To say that the pain of disillusionment is ‘pathological’ is itself pathological – if I say this then I am refusing to see the illusion as an illusion. Instead of seeing this I am saying that it is the painful insight which I am having which is the illusion. I am saying that this amazing, foundation-shaking insight that I am having into the hollowness of my life is a delusion that has to be ‘cured’ or ‘treated’ in some way. It is only to be expected that if we live in a predominately rational-purposeful culture, a culture which is based on accepting the mechanisms of denial at face value rather than seeing them for what they are, then anyone who becomes –for whatever reason – unable to believe any longer in the collectively-validated lie must be branded as suffering from a mental illness called ‘depression,’ or ‘anxiety’, etc. The illness is the stubborn refusal to see the truth, not the overwhelming sadness and fear that comes from seeing through the well-established system of denial. The sickness is the implacable resistance that we have to feeling the legitimate sadness, along with the implacable resistance that we have to feeling the legitimate fear. Thus, it can be said that depression occurs when the system of denial which we have with regard to our legitimate sadness is overthrown, and anxiety occurs when the system of denial which we have with regard to our legitimate fear is overthrown. Helpless without our habitual, tried-and-trusted means of ignoring the truth, we go to get medical help and get told by expert clinicians that we are suffering from ‘mental illness’.
Denial has the strange property of turning everything upside down – the good guy seems bad and the bad guy seems good. What is useful and helpful appears dangerous and reprehensible and what is useless and harmful appears like a precious medicine. I perceive the people who support me in my reality-evading delusion as being ‘good’ even though they are harming both me and themselves. When there is a circle of collusion like this (and collusion is what makes the world go round) everybody involved is acting against their own best interests, and yet within this collusive circle we perversely perceive ourselves to be eminently worthy and justified. As far as we are concerned we have the moral high ground – we are ‘the good old boys’ and everyone else deserves either our sanctimonious pity or vicious acrimony, depending on how the mood takes us.
This sort of thing is pretty familiar – a group of alcoholics or heroin addicts will do the same sort of thing, supporting each other in their addiction and making it easier for each paid-up member of the collusion to carry on with the self-destructive pattern of behaviour than none of them actually really likes. Where there is a circle of collusion like this carrying on in the bad old way is implicitly understood to be ‘the good thing to do’, and breaking out of the pattern the ‘bad thing to do’. Where there is a group of people joined in an unhealthy collusion denial automatically comes into play because if I were to allow myself to see what is really happening I would not be able to feel good about carrying on with it. Insight is the enemy because it takes away the sense of rightness or justification that we need in order to carry on the dysfunctional pattern comfortably. The carriers of insight are of course ALSO the enemy and are about as welcome as a nest of scorpions in your sleeping bag!
Inversion means that we perversely cherish and uphold the very thing that is doing us harm. From a psychologically naïve point of view, this sort of thing simply couldn’t happen – or if it did happen, it would only happen in exceptionally rare circumstances, as a kind of freak occurrence. When we go a bit beyond this kind of naivety we see that ‘perversely cherishing and nurturing the thing that is causing me harm’ is a very common thing indeed. It is actually more common than the common cold and everyone is equally infected. A familiar example is the good, old-fashioned sulk. When I get it into a sulk this isn’t something that happens to me against my will – quite the opposite is true because I deliberately think about things in such a way as to bring about a sulk. I deliberately bring on the sulk by choosing to see the situation in such a way that I will feel very hard done by, and then when I am in the sulk I keep on feeding it with my thoughts, even though it feels absolutely rotten to be doing this. In fact when I notice how rotten I am feeling as a result of the sulk I feel an extra load of self-pity on top of the original self-pity and this of course makes me sulk even worse.
A sulk is therefore a narrow and distorted viewpoint that makes me feel thoroughly lousy, and yet despite the fact that this distorted viewpoint is making me feel bad I lovingly nurture and protect it. Instead of seeing that it creates a blatant distortion of the truth, I say that it is reality (or the world) that is distorted and so – perversely – I cherish the viewpoint whilst lashing out bitterly against the world. Anger (or an angry frame of mind) is of course exactly the same sort of thing – anger is like a corrosive poison that eats away at me and causes untold misery as a result, and yet when I am angry all my energy goes into compulsively feeding the flames of the anger by thinking of as many things that I can to fuel it. All of the negative emotions are like this – they cause us great suffering and yet we cherish them and hold onto them possessively as if they were going to do us some good, as if they were our good friends rather than our implacable enemies.
CHERISHING THE PATTERN OF SELF-HARM
Why would I cherish the thing that is destroying me? This is obviously pure, unadulterated perversity and a naïve approach to psychology – as we have said – would naturally lead us to assume that this simply would not and could not happen. Surely no one would systematically ensure their own suffering with such remarkable persistence, with such an unstinting application of indefatigable effort (after all, we are all alike in that we all just want to be happy). And yet ensuring our own misery is precisely what we all do do, just about all of the time. Why this should be can perhaps be seen most clearly in the case of drug addiction. When I am addicted to a drug, such as heroin or valium, I take astonishingly good care of my addiction. It is as if I am taking care of a very important relationship. I make sure the relationship goes as smoothly as possible at all times and that nothing – but nothing – can ever come between me and my beloved, which is the drug. A huge amount of thought goes into this relationship – I may find myself reflecting that if I put the same degree of persistence, initiative and downright brilliance into another area of my life (some area other than the addiction) then there would be nothing that I could not achieve. It is as if my whole potential is unleashed in negative aspect so that instead of helping me, as it should, it turns against me and ultimately destroys me.
‘Inversion’ means that whatever threatens the ongoing pattern of my misery is my enemy, and whatever perpetuates and protects it is my friend. It also means that when I strive to achieve goals that are apparently meaningful in themselves, all I am really doing is struggling to protect an assertion (or ‘truth’) that will not stand up by itself since it is only a ‘made-up rule’. All I am doing is validating a pattern to myself that is actually quite arbitrary – I am saying or implying that it ISN’T arbitrary when it is just that. It is my underlying awareness of the unsupported nature of what I am insisting on that causes me to insist so very forcefully. What I am doing is turning – in a perverse sort of a way – a weakness into a virtue, so that instead recognizing the weakness as such, which would require integrity and effort on my part, I put all my attention into asserting the particular pattern of denial that I have latched onto. Aggressively asserting or promoting the pattern of denial seems effortful on the surface but when we look into what is going on a little deeper we can see that it is actually an avoidance of effort.
THE MONKEY TRAP
What this shows us is that the underlying motivation behind the tendency which we all have to cherish a pattern of thinking and behaving that actually denies us is laziness (or, to put it another way, it is the automatic refusal to see or do anything that would require us to encounter our own inner weakness). Once we allow that there is such a motivation as laziness – and this suggestion is of course highly uncontroversial – then it is very easy to see how we get caught up in denial. The principle is that of the ‘monkey trap’: it is said that a narrow-necked jar full of peanuts can be used as a monkey-trap since whilst the monkey can get his hand into the jar easily enough to start off with, once he has a fist full of peanuts he cannot withdraw it. The monkey could of course simply let go of the handful of peanuts and make his escape with an empty hand, but the idea behind the trap is that the monkey is too greedy to relinquish his prize and is therefore trapped, literally, by his refusal to let go.
Whatever truth there might be in this old story it is certainly true that the same principle explains very well indeed why we get snared in the type of ‘self-imprisoning patterns’ that we have been talking about. The basic deal that the pattern of denial offers me is that if I buy into it then I get momentary relief from whatever uncomfortable feelings it is that I am determined to avoid. So for example if I aggressively assert that such-and-such is true (when the reality of the situation is that the only reason I am asserting it so strongly is because deep down I suspect that it isn’t true) this act of positive assertion gives me a welcome sense of validation or vindication. The re-assuring sense of validation or vindication doesn’t last very long however – the uncomfortable insecure feeling soon returns and when this happens I have to enact the ‘pattern of denial’ all over again, whatever that pattern may happen to be. Every time I enact the pattern (every time I assert the phoney story that I have latched onto to help me escape from the painful truth) the rotten feelings that I am running away from recede into the background, but though they stop bothering me for the time being that doesn’t mean that they have gone away. This means that I am buying my way into sure and certain trouble since the more I commit myself to the system of denial the more threatening the background threatening feelings become, and the more threatening the denied feelings the more this necessitates an escalation of the intensity and general forcefulness of my denial-based activity. Denial is therefore a profoundly perverse pattern of behaviour.
The sort of thing we are describing here is – needless to say – a very familiar story indeed. Everybody knows what it feels like to be trapped in an insane but overwhelmingly compelling pattern of behaviour where the ‘short-term logic of the situation’ compels me to keep on buying momentary relief from mental pain that I am experiencing in the present at the price of increasing the mental pain that awaits me in the future. What ‘cures’ the situation is also what creates the situation, like the joke about beer in The Simpsons. If only I could let go of the little bit of relief that I am holding onto with my tightly closed fist then I would be free from the whole accursed mechanism but my unreasoning greed for comfort or relief in the present moment prevents me from doing this. I am so incredibly and so stubbornly short-sighted that I won’t relinquish the pathetic bit of contrived self-justification that I am holding onto, even when both I and everyone else can see it is false. Of course, being free from the monkey trap doesn’t mean being free from the pain but then again it isn’t the pain that is doing me the harm. It is not the pain that does the harm but the pattern of my avoidance of this pain. In other words, it isn’t the pain that is the problem but my lazy or fearful attitude towards the pain.
THE MECHANISM OF DENIAL
Saying that the pain itself is not the problem can be a pretty hard point to understand because it totally challenges our ‘inverted viewpoint’. The mechanics of the situation is that I identify with the pattern of avoidance (i.e. the system of denial) and so what is ‘bad for the system of denial’ is ‘bad for me’. From the point of view of the system of denial any extreme of mental pain is wholly and completely ‘bad’ because it signals the failure of that system. This outcome, needless to say, represents an utterly unthinkable catastrophe from the inverted viewpoint that I am usually trapped in because I simply don’t see the system of denial for what it is. As we have said, identification with the inverted viewpoint means that I am committed to protecting and defending and taking care of the system as if it were myself (which it has – by default – become). Just as a cuckoo will replace one of the eggs of its unknowing hosts with its own egg so that the host parent ends up taking care of the fledgling cuckoo as if it were it’s own offspring, so too do I end up taking care of whatever system of denial I have unwittingly adopted for all the world as if this alien (and essentially inimical) system were synonymous with my own true self.
We can see this ‘cuckoo principle’ at work in external systems (or structures) just as much as in internal structures. For example, if I am part of a social system that is based on the brutal restriction of the freedom of its members then the mechanism of pain-avoidance means that I will conform to its values and rules and side with the very system that is oppressing me rather than seeing what is happening. We unfailingly collude with the systems that oppress us. A classic example of this is the old-style Stalinist state where the individual is reduced to the level of an unthinking cog in a big, stupid machine – psychologically speaking, this state of craven conformity to a moronic external authority is utterly detrimental to the well-being of the individual members of the system, and yet it is of course those same oppressed members who are responsible for defending and upholding the very system that enslaves them. Moreover, it is actually the case that it is the repressed unhappiness that I feel as the result of my imprisonment that drives me to inform on those more free-spirited individuals who I see challenging rules that I myself am far too cowardly ever to think of questioning. Because of my ‘inverted viewpoint’, instead of rooting for those who make the courageous bid for freedom I resent them, and to add the final insult to an already grievous injury I disguise my small-minded malice as indignant self-congratulatory self-righteousness.
SLAVES TO SUPERFICIALITY
The pain of not being true to myself (and knowing deep down that I am not being true to myself) is too hard to bear – at least it is too hard to bear given my current attitude to pain – and for this reason my only options are to repress the pain, or to act it out. In the first case I bury the pain deep down inside myself and make sure that I just live very superficially so that I don’t have to ever run the risk of encountering it. One disadvantage of this tactic is that I sacrifice my own depths, which is the same thing as sacrificing the sense of genuine meaningfulness that life would otherwise have for me. The other disadvantage is that it the repressed pain doesn’t stay buried and so if I want to keep on avoiding it (which I do) then I am committed to making my life ever more superficial, ever more absurd, and ever more unreal. If I take the option of acting out the pain then my situation is no better. I have the short-term satisfaction of seeing the pain as being someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s fault, and I also have the great satisfaction of being able to aggressively strike out (or at least blame) the innocent carrier of my own unacknowledged pain, and feel justified in doing this at the same time. In the long term however I am committed to a path of becoming ever more toxic, ever more hateful, and the pain of seeing this ugly fact about myself feeds back into the mechanism of denial and makes it escalate even more. I am committed to believing in transparent nonsense that grows ever more transparent. I am committed to holding on ever more tightly to the superficial (or ‘nominal’) validity of my blaming mechanisms, which inevitably causes the whole farce to become more and more absurd, and more and more toxic. In the end I cannot bear myself, and neither can anyone else.
FEAR OF FAILURE
The principle that repressed pain necessitates cruelty is an important one to understand and it is every bit as relevant in democratic societies as it is in the example we gave of a classic totalitarian Stalinist society. Particularly significant is the application of this principle to what we call ‘mental illness’ since it inevitably means that we collectively attempt to repress the pain of those people we are supposedly trying to help. In our materialist, image-fixated society great value is placed on a certain type of superficial confidence – the type of brash confidence that is associated with being a ‘winner’ in life. Because this type of ‘image-based’ confidence is fundamentally phoney (since it is based on not looking at anything too deeply) I am naturally very intolerant of seeing any suggestion of failure in it, either in myself or in ourselves. If I come across what we might call ‘failed confidence’, either in myself or others, my reaction is to be unreflectively critical.
Basically, I just don’t have any tolerance towards weakness no matter where I find it – I am not able to stick around (i.e. I can’t be present in the face of it). The reason I don’t have any ability to be present in the face of weakness is because the structure of my life is based upon the denial of that weakness in myself. If I was able to be present in the face of what I see as weakness then I wouldn’t be in denial of it, but because I am in denial of it I am bound to react automatically by judging and labelling. I evaluate the person (or myself, as the case may be) in a negative or condemnatory fashion and then I can – justifiably, in my mind – turn my back forever. Actually I wanted to turn my back the whole time because I don’t feel strong enough to deal with being there in that difficult place and that is why I am so negative or condemnatory about the perceived weakness – because it justifies me not sticking around. The automatic negative evaluations or judgements which I am so very quick in coming out with are simply a cheap trick to ensure that I don’t ever have to do anything to challenge my deep-rooted laziness and my utter, appalling, incredible lack of curiosity about myself and the world around me. This is in fact not just true for negative evaluations, but for any sort of evaluations whatsoever; after all, when you get right down to the root of it, the process of evaluation is no more than the process of ‘accepting standardized images at face value’.
Laziness (and lack of curiosity, which is really the same thing) can point in two directions, so to speak – on the one hand I can be dismissive and judgemental about others and on the other hand I can be dismissive and judgemental about myself. It doesn’t make any difference whether I am being harshly critical and scathing towards weakness in others or whether I am being harshly critical and recriminatory towards weakness in myself. Either it is too much like hard work to be with others or it is too much like hard work to be with myself, and so what I do in both cases is to take the easy option – without acknowledging for a moment that it is the easy option, of course. I wash my hands of the matter. Actually I don’t see this as an ‘option’ at all but the only thing I could possibly do. I see it as the right thing to do. Given the fact that I don’t want to stick around in the painful space of being there with whatever the difficulty is, I demand that the situation change, and if this doesn’t work then I turn my back in disgust – I criticize and then march off in a huff, fully satisfied that this thoroughly ignoble behaviour is a legitimate or justified response.
Being harshly critical and rejecting is a crude sort of a thing and it is therefore easy to spot for what it is – a craven commitment to my own comfort, my own system of denial. When a closed and fundamentally uninterested attitude is disguised as ‘helping’ however it can be a lot harder to recognize. Self-help books generally recommend all sorts of ways (positive self-talk, goal-setting, self-affirmations, visualizations, etc) in which we can overcome problems such as anxiety, addictions, depression, low self-esteem, etc and yet what all of this ‘self-help’ really comes down to is ‘self-rejection’. We are rejecting our weakness out of weakness and so really we are supporting our weakness. One currently popular writer in the field recommends studying someone – a public figure – who you admire and can see as a positive model of what you ought to be like, and then trying assiduously to copy the traits that you admire in them. There can be no form of self-rejection (or self-denial) more thorough than this! Never mind the public figure (who is almost certainly a terrible fraud and a fool anyway, behind the successful mask) – what about yourself, what about who you actually are? Pretty obviously, pretending to be who you are not (or pretending to be who someone else is more successfully pretending to be) can’t help. What can (and does) help is to be courageous enough to allow yourself to be what you are.
This sort of so-called ‘therapy’ is denial pure and simple – if I pretend to be other than I am then I am protecting my weakness by making it invisible. If it is invisible I don’t have to deal with it and so the weakness gets to be propagated indefinitely – because I don’t acknowledge that the flaw is there, it is granted a malign type of immortality. Because I can ‘cope’ by means of my mechanism of denial I don’t have to expose the root of the problem and therefore the so-called ‘coping mechanism’ is actually facilitating the problem. Not only do I ensure that the root of all the trouble never gets challenged, by committing myself to the path of denying what I am afraid of I automatically deliver myself into its power. What inevitably happens when I go down the path of denial is that I hand over all responsibility to a dark force that I have necessarily made myself blind to. Why this should be so is easy enough to understand – essentially the ‘handing over’ occurs because of the principle of inversion that we have already discussed. Inversion means that rather than seeing the problem where it is (which is to say, within myself) I displace it outside of myself and tackle it there instead. I tackle the problem where it doesn’t belong!
So, just to give a familiar example of this sort of thing, if I feel insecure then instead of acknowledging this feeling of insecurity where it belongs I might concentrate all my attention and all my efforts on controlling certain elements within my environment (e.g. my friends and family). The worse I feel the more controlling I get, since I have identified the problem as being outside myself. And even if I do see that the problem is in me I am simply going to turn all my frantic controlling on myself instead and this self-control is still denial. By identifying the problem as being this, that or the other, and then struggling to correct or eliminate or escape from the problem, all I am doing is surreptitiously externalizing it, since the unspoken implication is that the ‘me’ which is trying to correct or eliminate or escape from the problem is somehow separate or distinct from the problem. The same thing happens when I can’t bear the way that I am thinking and behaving anymore and I go down the road of compulsive self-recrimination – by criticizing myself I am surreptitiously trying to separate myself from myself and stand ‘outside of myself’, so to speak. By denouncing myself I am rejecting myself, I am ‘pretending not to be myself’. By going against myself I am siding with a moral authority that is by definition ‘outside of myself’ and so what I am basically doing here is sneakily trying to escape the pain of being myself by treating myself as an external object. I am acting out the pain in the form of self-criticism and self-blame.
THE ‘HIDDEN INSANITY’ OF SELF-CHANGE
Changing myself because I don’t like the way I am doesn’t work no matter how I try it. If I hate myself and abuse myself it doesn’t work and I play clever by trying to change myself in a plausibly ‘rational’ or ‘therapeutic’ sort of a way (rather than crudely blaming and denouncing myself) this still doesn’t work. Deliberate self-change is always denial, no matter how prettily it might be packaged. This is of course equally true for those therapies which seek to deliberately correct dysfunctional thinking or behaviour. The ‘hidden insanity’ of such methods is that I am trying to change myself and yet the ‘me’ which is trying to do the changing is always on the giving end rather than the receiving end of the arrow of control. Control exemplifies a basic form of inequality in this respect, which is to say, the controller gets to do all the controlling and it doesn’t work the other way. The taxonomist doesn’t get classified by the specimen, the psychiatrist doesn’t get diagnosed by the patient and the judge can’t be found guilty by the accused. Similarly, the controller gets to change stuff in accordance with his or her agenda, but whatever is being controlled can’t reach back and alter that agenda. The ‘favour’ isn’t reciprocated, so to speak – the criteria that lie behind my controlling are themselves invulnerable to change whilst the same most definitely cannot be said for whatever it is that I am controlling.
The way that controlling works is that the criteria for change (the agenda) acts in one direction, and nothing at all acts back in the other, reciprocal direction. Thus, the original idea or pattern is reproduced faithfully over and over again, to the exclusion of anything that does not agree with that idea or pattern. This is called linear change, and ‘linear change’ is another way of saying that the assumptions behind the controlling are unquestionable and untouchable, even though there is nothing innately special or worthy about them. The pattern is therefore acted out unconsciously, or blindly, and as a result of this blind acting out of the pattern the underlying set of rules (the ‘game rules’) are made immortal. The arbitrariness of the rules is denied through their aggressive and unreflective assertion, which is what control (and denial) is all about.
By trying to change (or control) myself I am sneakily distracting attention away from the self that is trying to do the changing, just like an guilty or frightened person can distract attention away from himself by loudly accusing someone standing nearby of the crime which he himself is worried about being accused of. Control is always ‘acting out’ because it must always involve identifying the problem in an external object, and if the problem is in an external object then it is by definition not in the one who is ‘bravely’ attempting to fix the problem. Self-change means that I am trying to be ‘one-up’ on myself and trying to be ‘one-up’ is as Alan Watts says the characteristic defining behaviour of the egoic self. If I stopped to think a bit more clearly about it I would realize that I cannot possibly succeed in being ‘one-up’ on myself any more than I can succeed in winning a battle against myself –fighting myself is obviously a ridiculously doomed endeavour right from the start since the only way I could possibly get to win would be if I lost. The attempt to be ‘one-up’ on oneself is no different – it is a paradoxical task. I can try to be one-up on myself in a crude way by blaming and hating myself, or I can try to be one-up on myself by therapizing myself, but either way it is the same old hidden insanity.
How can I meaningfully change myself when it is my motivation for wanting to change myself that needs changing? The motivation that we are talking about here is the motivation to flee from my own weakness, i.e. ‘the motivation to run from fear instead of examining that fear’. What this comes down to is the automatic commitment that we all have to preserve the status quo without questioning whether that status quo really needs to be preserved or not. In a nutshell, the more driven by fear I am the more I try to control stuff and the more I try to control stuff the more enslaved I become to the unexaminable set of criteria that lie behind my controlling. These criteria – these ‘game rules’ – cannot be changed any more that the judge we were talking about earlier can be sentenced to life-imprisonment by the accused. All I can ever do is act out a set of rules that are invisible to me and so genuine change is the very last thing that can happen. In fact it just won’t happen at all since as we have been saying the whole point about control is that the controller remains utterly invulnerable to being challenged or altered in any meaningful way.
FIGHTING FOR OUR LIMITATIONS
The implicit message behind all control based therapies is that the pain which the person undergoing therapy is experiencing is unacceptable. Alternatively, we can say that the hidden message in such types of therapy is that the person is unable to deal with his or her pain unless some sort of coping/pain avoiding strategy is provided. Thus, the incapacity which I perceive myself to have with regard to the difficult experience that I am going through is implicitly validated by the therapist – the implicit message behind control-based therapy is that certain experiences are ‘insupportable’ and control has to be exercised so that they simply don’t happen. Successful control (successful ‘coping’) means that I protect the supposed inability and thereby indefinitely perpetuate the lack of strength that I perceive myself to have. Rather than meeting my perceived weakness with strength and seeing it, I meet it with weakness and refuse to admit that it is there (or alternatively, I refuse to admit that it ‘has the right to be there, since it actually belongs to me’). In fact even this isn’t putting the matter strongly enough because – as we have said earlier on – denial means that I actually go on the attack and turn the arbitrary limitation that we are calling a ‘weakness’ into a virtue on who’s behalf I am prepared to fight for to the bitter end. Perversely, I fight for this unnecessary (i.e. self-imposed) limitation to what I am able to do and be; I struggle desperately to perpetuate the state of affairs that is causing suffering both to myself and others.
Any sort of pain-avoiding reaction must have the function of protecting weakness – this is obviously the case since as we have said the automatic pain-avoiding reaction is what allows me to carry on functioning in the face of situations that would otherwise challenge my precious self-imposed limitations. If I have a whole raft of avoidance mechanisms, then I am effectively enabled to continue living with whatever ‘perceived insufficiency in myself’ it is that caused me to utilize those mechanisms in the first place. The pattern of avoidant behaviour – which because it has now become spuriously ‘legitimized’ does not see itself as such – is in no way different from the weakness or fear that necessitated it. There is a deterministic (i.e. mechanical or linear) relationship between the trigger and the conditioned pattern of behaviour that follows it. In other words, the pattern, the avoidance, is the fear. Both the conditioned interpretation of the original stimulus and the conditioned reaction belong to the very same logical continuum.
What is actually happening when there is a ‘reaction’ rather than a free (or ‘un-necessitated’) action is that the conditioning which I have learnt over the course of my life is governing both perceptions and the cognitions/behaviour that comes about as a result of these perceptions. What we are calling the ‘reaction’ involves the initial evaluation of what is happening (i.e. my conditioned perception), the type of thinking which follows deterministically from this evaluation and the behaviour which deterministically follows the thinking. When I am facing a difficult situation what happens is that rather than accepting it as such I evaluate the situation as being ‘unacceptable’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘terrible’ etc, and this evaluation legitimizes (or validates) my avoidance. Thus, my avoidance is no longer avoidance but the right and proper thing to do. Another way of putting this is to say that when some mental difficulty (i.e. an awareness that challenges the status quo in some way) threatens me I evade it by going into a well-rehearsed avoidance routine and thereby manage to totally evade the awareness. ‘Mental pain’ and ‘mental difficulty’ are interchangeable terms – if I undergo some sort of control-based therapy and learn to respond to my painful feelings with some sort of response that makes me feel better all I am doing legitimizing my avoidance of feelings that genuinely do belong to me. The pain is mine and has to be unconditionally accepted on this basis but control-based therapy supports me in my evaluation of it as unnecessary, undesirable, unacceptable, etc and so again my avoidance isn’t avoidance at all but ‘the right thing to do’. After all, it must be the correct thing to do because my therapist says it is. In fact, my whole culture says it is the right thing to do…
GOING OVER TO THE DARK SIDE
When I instantly react in the face of impending mental pain what is happening is that my conditioned inability to tolerate difficult experiences necessitates me utilizing some dodge or trick so that I don’t have to tolerate it. This is not generally a conscious process however – I do not generally have the courage to see that this is all based on fear. What I do instead is to collude for all I am worth with whatever system of denial I have latched onto and this means that I end up looking at life in a perversely inverted fashion. In other words, the nature of the deal that I make in order to legitimize my denial involves me seeing everything on the side of the truth as ‘bad’ and everything on the side of my system of denial as ‘good’. When I go ‘over to the other side’ in this way something very peculiar happens. When I legitimize my avoidance I exalt the pattern of thinking that lies behind my avoidance – because I am afraid and I am desperate for the ‘benefit‘ that unquestioning belief in a reassuring viewpoint can bring I make the system of thought into my god. The system of thought (which is to say, the set of my unconscious assumptions about ‘life, the universe and everything‘) is a purely arbitrary thing – it doesn’t ‘have to’ be there at all and yet as a result of me identifying with it in the way that I do it is exalted to the level of ‘supreme guiding principle’ and as a consequence it has absolutely free reign to rule my life. Even though it is a ‘dead’ thing, a construct without any true existence of its own, the specific pattern of thinking that emerges as a result of my self-willed unconsciousness (my ‘handing over’ of my own freedom and the responsibility this entails) attains a perverse sort of a life. The closed viewpoint that is created by the static set of my fixed assumptions mimics life in a ghastly fashion as it protects itself and defends itself, as it cunningly manipulates the external environment to make sure that it survives day after day. Everything else has to change to suit it – it is ‘right’ and everything that disagrees with it is automatically ‘wrong’.
The pattern of denial (i.e. the system that exists in order to deny the essential arbitrariness of itself) even reproduces like a living thing – far from being content just to stay in me and control my life, it will spread like a virus to people around me (particularly to my children) and take over their lives too. This process can be passively facilitated, in the way that anxiety can jump from one generation to another, or it can be actively facilitated (in the way that we aggressively and forcefully imprint our beliefs on other people whenever these other people can be intimated or otherwise coerced into accepting them). Whichever way it happens, the pattern is driven by its own logic to occupy all the available space. This logic, which is the only logic it knows, is the ‘virus-logic’ of expansion, the unreflectively ‘selfish’ logic which ruthlessly bends everything to its own arbitrary will. It will either achieve successful control of the situation or complain unceasingly if it cannot.
What we are saying here is that it is my own fear-driven acceptance of (or conformity to) a set of limitations that aren’t in any way as final as I take them to be which causes the ‘pragmatically real’ entity which is essentially made up from and defined by these limitations to come into existence. This pragmatically real entity is the conditioned self, the ‘me’, the greedy and fearful ego. At this point everything is reversed because my whole life becomes nothing more than the disguised attempt to validate and justify the set of limitations which I have identified with. I call these limitations ‘my beliefs’ or ‘my values’ or ‘my ideas’ or ‘my philosophy’ and I promote them as if they were intrinsically valuable in themselves (which they aren’t). The truth of the matter is that my beliefs etc are no more than the system of denial that I am taking shelter behind in the face of a challenge that I am not prepared to meet, the challenge to grow as a person, to become (as Watts says) who I really am. The way it ought to work is that my thinking and my theories (my mental pictures) should be serving me – my mental constructs should be of some use in helping me relate to the universe but what ends up happening is that I become a slave to them and spend my whole life trying in vain (without ever knowing what it is that I am really doing) to prove that what is arbitrary and relative is necessary and absolute.
What governs us in our day-to-day life is our thinking. As Krishnamurti says, thought is what creates all things. If we were open to radical uncertainty – which is to say, if we were able to see that all our statements, all our ideas, all our assertions, are attempts to achieve finality in a universe where no such finality exists – then we would use our thinking lightly (or ‘provisionally’), as a metaphor rather than a literal (or ‘absolute’) description of reality. This is not how we use our thinking however. Rather than using our thinking lightly we use it heavily, we set it up as an absolute tyrant over us because we are too afraid to take up the responsibility that rightly belongs to us.
THE ‘BAD FATHER’
It is the principle of inversion that underlies this whole process – if it were not for the fact that our weakness (or fear) is too weak (or too afraid) to acknowledge itself for what it is, then the system of denial would never come into being in the first place. Therefore, instead of weakness that has been honestly acknowledged (which is a situation that always results in psychological growth) we have weakness that pretends to be strength; we have the situation where weakness glorifies itself as an unquestionable virtue and on this account arrogantly demands that the whole world worship it and bow down to it and make it the master of us all. This is exactly like a bad father who covers up his own ignorance and cowardice by being a bully and a tyrant – by preventing his children from developing any independence of mind he makes sure that they will not see him for the miserable fraud that he is. Everywhere we look we can see this ‘weakness masquerading as strength’ and so habituated are we to it that we have actually taken successful denial to be the standard of mental health. This is an inversion of values that is formidably hard to see through since we are on the one hand brought up from an early age to distrust our own native intelligence, and on the other hand we are ceaselessly subject to the at times blustering and overbearing (and at other times sickly sweet and insidiously coercive) voice of the hollow or fraudulently paternalistic authority upon which our society is based. This is always the price of unconscious living – by handing over the responsibility that we are so afraid of we are unfailingly delivered into the hands of a false authority that we have rendering ourselves incapable of questioning. We get the leaders that we deserve (and we also get the mind that we deserve).
PART  – THE URGE TO WIN
The motivation that arises out of inversion can be characterized in terms of the ‘urge to be a winner’. This motivation seems very straightforward to us, and it seems like a perfectly good thing into the bargain. But because it has its roots in an inverted viewpoint on life the urge to win is neither as straightforward nor as wholesome as we might think. What is true for the desire to win is true for the realm of purposefulness as a whole – our purposes are our goals and our goals (along with the thinking that is orientated around them) arise as a result, as Jung says, of ‘the separation of the opposites’. The separation of the opposites is the very quintessence of denial since – no matter how intense our yearning to have the one without the other, pleasure without pain, up without down – there is nothing in life that is more flatly impossibly than this. As soon as I conceive of winning I create the spectre of losing, as soon as I think in terms of an ‘up’ I create a ‘down’, and as soon as I set my heart on obtaining pleasure I have laid myself open to pain. All pairs of opposites are dependent upon each other; each needs the other in order to stand as a meaningful proposition. Therefore, even though any two complementary ‘opposites’ might superficially seem to be implacably opposed, actually they are ‘on the same team’. Opposites secretly agree with (and depend upon) each other, just as cops secretly agree with (and depend upon) villains, just as ‘cool guys’ secretly depend on the nerds they look down on.
Pretending that the opposites exist independently of each other, and can thus be separated, is thus a ‘game’ – in a game the superficial opposition between winning and losing conceals the fact that whether you win or you lose it makes no difference as far as the game is concerned. It doesn’t make any difference since winning equals ‘the game’ just as much as losing equal ‘the game’. If I win I confirm the validity of the game and if I lose I still confirm the validity of the game, and so the game wins either way. It is the apparent meaningfulness of the proposition that winning and losing are genuinely opposed and irreconcilable that entices us to play – this is what makes the game ‘playable’, and for this reason it is also true to say that an awareness of the identity or inseparability of the opposites would instantly destroy the integrity of the game as a game.
THE EMPIRE OF LIES
We strive to win not because of the intrinsic value of being a winner but in order, as James Carse says, to prove to ourselves (and the world in general) that we are not the losers that we secretly believe ourselves to be. The motivation behind the ‘urge to win’ is denial, in other words – the denial of a whole mass of murky, ill-defined fears that stay as murky and ill-defined (and all the more powerful, therefore) because of our constant efforts to deny them. There are two consequences of buying into the ‘rational-purposeful’ system of denial –
Consequence Number  is that I am a puppet who does not know himself to be a puppet, a slave who absurdly believes himself to be free
Consequence Number  is that everything I think, say, and do exists merely to cover up the opposite
What lies behind this is of course fear – it is fear that causes me to collude with the system of denial, it is fear which lies behind my refusal to see that I am a slave of this system, and it is fear which lies behind my constant engagement in self-deception (the self-deception whereby I keep asserting things to be true because I am too afraid to ever take the chance of finding out that they might not be). This puts me in an absolutely fantastically ridiculous position because everything that I purposefully think, say and do ends up as a cheap and shoddy lie.
My positive assertions are shoddy lies for the simple reason that I feel that I have to assert then – because I am driven by fear, in other words. The structure of logic that I adhere to (which David Bohm calls the ‘system of thought’) is not a lie of itself therefore; it is a lie because I am afraid to let it stand by itself. It is a lie because of my clinging to it; it is a lie because, secretly, I do not have the courage to trust the world to be what it already is. Instead of trusting reality to be what it is supposed to be (so to speak), I go down the phenomenally stupid road of taking on personal responsibility for the one thing I not have to take responsibility for. I go down the road of taking responsibility of controlling reality, which is the same thing as ‘creating reality’. In terms of Gnostic theology, I commit the enormous error (or cosmic mistake) of becoming the False Creator, the Demiurge, the ‘Great Pretender’.
In short, by stage-managing reality for myself, without admitting to myself that I doing this, I ensure by an act of tremendous unconscious irony that I make a perfect fool of myself. I make a perfect fool of myself because that what I create and maintain is not reality at all when it comes down to it, but an immensely shoddy and inferior copy of a reality – a sort of gross (or even obscene) caricature. I then proceed to take this ludicrous parody of reality as seriously as I possible can, showing no sense of humour about it at all, and out of this ‘taking seriously what ought not to be taken seriously at all’ I engender unimaginable depths of endless suffering for myself. We can understand this suffering if we consider the idea that there are three lethal drawbacks associated with stage-managing reality for oneself –
Drawback  is that the world I create through my rational-conceptual mind passes for the genuine article but because it is based on my ‘controlling’ it can only ever reflect my own crude understanding (i.e. my limiting assumptions). I am therefore condemned to inhabit a shoddy or ‘substandard’ reality that I am not permitted to acknowledge as such
Drawback  is that the artificial construct which I have created needs constant maintenance which I have to carry out covertly, since if I were to allow myself to see that I was responsible for creating and maintaining the construct which am (intentionally) mistaking for the ‘genuine article’ then the game would be up and as a result I would no longer be able to gain any false comfort from it
Drawback  is that the ‘rational construct with which I have replaced surreptitiously replaced Reality’ (which is not rational and not a construct) is, like all logical assertions, inherently self-contradicting. The drawback is that what we are pinning all our hopes on is nothing other than the self-cancelling system which J.G. Bennett calls the Nullity)
THE GAME OF RATIONALITY
To consider rationality (or the system of thought) as a game is a deeply fascinating proposition – it is deeply fascinating because it is so extremely challenging, it is so very challenging in fact that almost most of us would simply have to reject the whole idea out of hand, with no further ado. And yet inasmuch as the rational intellect operates by separating the opposites, as it clearly does, it is unquestionable a game. Rationality can also be defined as ‘a system of literal assertions’. We can do an even more thorough job of defining rationality by saying that it is an internally coherent system of assertions that are both made by the system, and taken literally by that same system! The system therefore makes statements and then straightaway understands them as if they were independently true – which is to say, it takes its own statements as being self-evident, objectively true facts rather than manifestations of its own intentions. The purposeful or assertive nature of the assertions means that every positive statement comes in a ‘package’ with an equal and opposite negative assertion which has to be repressed. The intentionality of this business whereby I discover that what I have already secretly arranged to be true actually is true (surprise, surprise!) involves a very obvious redundancy, and this redundancy plainly shows itself in the self-cancelling nature of the system.
It is this concealed redundancy that is the source of the inherent phoniness of the ego or ‘game-playing self’. Although eminently plausible there is nevertheless something about the ego that just doesn’t ring true (in exactly the same way that a smooth-talking salesman in a smart suit and tie inevitably fails to ring true). Because the ego is purposeful it is inherently self-contradictory; the basis of its action is denial and so it can never be sincere no matter how much it strains and contorts itself. This is not to say that I can never be sincere, simply that I can never be sincere when I am speaking from the basis of the rational-conceptual mind rather than what we call ‘the heart’. If I speak or act from the heart (which is to say spontaneously, without thought) then what I say and do is not a game, but if I have any agenda at all then a game is precisely what it is since in order to have a goal I must be in the business of ‘repressing opposites’. Purposefulness works, as we keep reiterating, precisely by repressing the corresponding ‘opposite purpose’. The mechanism involved is essentially the same as pushing a child’s swing – if I push hard against the swing I produce a positive displacement (i.e. I create a YES) but by the very effort of producing this positive displacement I simultaneously give rise to an equal and opposite negative displacement. I create a NO which exists at first in latent or potential form, and then later – inevitably – in actuality. This is like being born – if I have been born then I must die. At the same time as my birth came into being then so too, quite inescapably, did my death. As is said in Buddhism, cause and effect are always created simultaneously, just as any two opposites are always created simultaneously. We do not like to see this because we want to live in the imaginary gap between cause and effect (or in the imaginary gap between the two opposites) and as a result we end up basing our sense of well-being and security on what turns out to be an impossible premise.
YOU CAN TRUST ME…
If I assert that I am a trustworthy person then I am simultaneously introducing the implicit suggestion (or possibility) that I am in fact the opposite of what I say – I tell you that you can trust me, and simultaneously inform you (as a sort of involuntary sub-text) that you can’t. Because I actually feel the need to let you know that I am trustworthy, my trustworthiness is immediately brought into question and so I am – even if I don’t see it myself – flatly contradicting myself. Most cases of ‘self-contradiction as an involuntary result of purposefulness’ are of course nowhere near as obvious as the example given above. In cases where the insecurity is near to the surface then the resultant blatant attempt to prove the opposite can easily be seen for what it is, but what we are suggesting here goes way beyond such common knowledge – what we are saying is that whenever a positive assertion is made, the corresponding negative assertion is being repressed, and vice versa. So – to put it crudely – if I say that ‘God exists’ what I really mean is that he doesn’t, if I say that ‘everything is ok’, then I mean that it isn’t, and if I say that ‘I love you’ then I don’t.
As we have said, this is the way in which rationality works – there simply isn’t any other way for it to work. When I assert a positive I am, by this very act, pushing away a negative. If I say ‘There is a God’ I am simultaneously creating the inverse proposition. The more strongly I affirm His existence, the more strongly I push the idea that He doesn’t exist away and as I push this unwanted idea away I also distract myself from seeing that I am pushing it away – I distract myself from seeing the act of ‘getting rid’ of the unwanted opposite by exclusively focussing on the act of boldly asserting the opposite that I do want. This is exactly like a stage magician baffling an audience with a card trick – everybody follows the move that they are supposed to be following (the decoy move) which then allows the trickster the leeway to either surreptitiously remove the thing that he doesn’t want to be there, or surreptitiously place in position the thing that he does want to be there.
The mechanics of the rational process that goes on in our heads is no way different from this – it relies on a gimmick just as much a card trick does and the gimmick in the case of rationality relies on us not seeing that a positive displacement of an equilibrium value necessarily involves the creation of a corresponding negative displacement. The actual act of asserting a PLUS makes us blind to the MINUS that we are simultaneously creating – the perception of the positively defined figure that we have created via the application of wilful force effectively excludes the perception of the negative of this figure (in the sense of a photographic negative) that is inevitably born at the same time. This is like producing a word or sentence in raised outline on one surface of a very thin sheet of a suitably ductile metal by putting the sheet into a suitably heavy-duty typewriter and typing away on it. At the same time as producing the raised outline on the side of the metal that is meant to read from I am producing an indent (a negative imprint) of the same on the side which is not meant to be read from. The ‘imprint’ equals the ‘outpoint’ (or as Alan Watts says, the ‘outline’ equals the ‘inline’). The displacement or bias that has been introduced to the previously undisturbed situation always has two aspects, the positive and the negative and when both of these aspects are taken together, as they have to be, then the overall picture remains the undisturbed (i.e. the symmetrical) one. Having said this, we are now in the position to make the following tremendously challenging statement –
The disturbance actually isn’t a disturbance at all – it just appears to be a disturbance when we only look at half of the picture, when we see one opposite as being separate from its necessary counterpart
The ‘game’ of rationality – the game of the rational mind – is thus to act as if the positively defined figures which it produces and proceeds to take seriously did not come at the price of creating an inverse of these figures at the same time. Having acting as if the rational world we have deliberately created actually existed in its own right (which is to say independently) we then charge ahead in a bull-like fashion, and commit ourselves solidly from this point onwards to totally ignoring the little (but highly significant) ‘as if’. This is really a question of ‘invisible redundancy’ – if I say that ‘such-and-such shall mean this’, or ‘such-and-such shall mean that’ what I am actually doing is saying ‘let me proceed as if such-and-such means this’, etc and then almost instantaneously I conveniently forget about the essential ‘as if’ – which was the pretext that I needed to get there in the first place. This act of omission, which in one way looks almost innocent, is in truth not innocent at all since it is what we use to create the whole of the ‘positively defined universe’ for ourselves, the definite structure (or imprint) which we are so dependent upon for orientating ourselves around. Without this positive structure our sense of confidence, our sense of direction, our sense of security concerning ‘what we are’ and ‘what we are about’ vanishes in a flash as we are plunged into the infinite relativity (i.e. the sublime symmetry) of Reality as it is in itself. When we carelessly or casually overlook that little ‘as if’ we are annihilating at one stroke all relatedness to an outside world – our connection with what lies outside of ourselves is severed and we end up in a closed, self-referential universe.
If on the other hand we maintain awareness of the ‘it is as if…’ type nature of all our positive statements, all of our theories, all of our thoughts, all of our conceptual pictures, then we are aware that they are not ‘the thing in themselves’, but simply our way of trying to allude to an external (i.e. independent) reality by means of some willed mental posture on our part. Thus, when we stay aware of the ‘it is as if’ nature of our assertions then our system of communication is metaphoric in nature rather than literal. When awareness of the metaphoric nature of our assertions is lost, then instead of communicating in terms of living symbols we end up making do with a system made of dead (i.e. literal) ‘signs’. Instead of the living spirit we end up embracing the ‘dead letter’. Although the system of (literal) thought is dead – which is to say, irredeemably sterile or uncreative – we do not see this because we are constantly putting energy into it; we are constantly struggling to obtain a picture of the world that matches the picture we want to have. The ongoing effort of grasping for what we want whilst denying what we don’t want distracts us very effectively from ever noticing the frightening futility of our situation.
FIGHTING DESPERATELY AGAINST OUR SELF-CREATED NEMESIS
My need to assert the positive is the same thing as my need to deny the negative. My need to champion a cherished belief derives from my need to disprove the counter-proposition, and this puts a whole new perspective on the whole business. The reason it puts a whole new perspective on everything is because of the element of redundancy, which is something that now becomes painfully visible. If I imagine myself to be struggling for what I see as right then this seems heroic but when I see that I only feel the need to fight because of the presence of secret doubt, a doubt that I am attempting to smother by my positive striving, then this cancels at a stroke any notion of heroism, or anything of that nature. What I am doing is now revealed as being quite the opposite of heroic – actually the boldly assertive activity that I am engaging in is no more than a pitiful display of self-deception. At best I can arrive at a situation where I am able – temporarily – to believe in what I want to believe in. Even at the moment of my triumph in this endeavour there is always the underlying tension, there will always be the elastic strain that the separation of the opposites inherently involves and what this means is that when I tire in the effort my temporary victory will be reversed in the twinkling of an eye to become defeat – defeat in the very matter in which I have deemed success most important.
And yet the fact that by aggressively asserting that “God exists” I articulate doubt on the existence of the Deity does not mean that God actually doesn’t exist since if I had never made the mistake of asserting a ‘PLUS’ in the first place then the whole issue of “Does God exist” would never have arisen. The ‘MINUS’ only came about because of the ‘PLUS’, it doesn’t have any independent existence of its own. Thus, the struggle that I have foolishly entered into is not just impossible to win (and therefore pointless to undertake), it is also wholly unnecessary. Anything that happens to be the case, quite naturally and by itself, does not need to be specially promoted – true virtue shines forth by itself and doesn’t need to rely on a public relations campaign like a government or business corporation does. If a person is sincere and well meaning he or she does not need to go around informing the world of the fact – and if you do happen to meet someone who straightaway wants to let you know that they are a person of substance and worth, then the one thing you can be pretty well sure of is that the very opposite is the case. This phenomenon can be readily seen on TV game shows where the contestants try to say something positive about themselves – when I list my positive attributes in front of the camera what I am really doing is unwittingly pointing to failings that I suspect myself to have. Thus, if I seriously inform you that I have a good sense of humour then what I am doing here is demonstrating just how bizarrely humourless I actually am. We will repeat this basic point since it is worth repeating: if you were to encounter someone for the first time the natural inclination is that you would (unless you happen to be unnaturally suspicious yourself) take this person to be sincere and trustworthy. It is only when he or she makes a point of stressing that they are in fact sincere and trustworthy that you would start to doubt this premise, and so when I struggle to prove a point that shouldn’t need proving what I have done is to foolishly enter into a struggle that is both self-defeating and utterly, completely unnecessary.
WHO PLAYS THE GAME OF DENIAL?
Who is it – we might ask – that uses the self-cancelling system of rationality in order to play the doomed but nevertheless interminable game of denial? This is where the rub really lies. The game (any game) only exists in its own terms, which is to say it is only real within its own closed frame of reference. Furthermore, the game only continues to seem real just as long as I continue to play it since the game generates its own context by being played. Alternatively, we can say that obeying the game rules immediately causes information loss because taking the rules seriously means that we lose the ability to question them. We get ‘sucked into it’ (or ‘caught up in it’) – we lose the ability to know that the rules are just rules and not a manifestation of absolute necessity. Because of the automatic loss of perspective we have no other way of looking at the world other than the way that is allowed by the framework of understanding that is the game, and for this reason the game becomes pragmatically real to us. A switch-over has occurred – instead of being free to question the rules I am now in the situation where all I can do is try my hardest to obey the rules (or feel terrible if for some reason I can’t). If I am playing the game then this means that I am helplessly subject to the compulsive motivation which is what the game is all about and when I am ‘helplessly subject to the field of compulsion which is the game’ what this means is that there is nothing about me which is not defined by the game. Basically, I am wholly within the game – I am the game, I am its creation. The way I understand the world is totally determined by the assumed framework and the way I understand myself is totally determined by the assumed framework so there is nothing that I can see about the world (or myself) that is not simply ‘the game’.
This leads us to the second part of our argument, and it is this part that is the hardest to get a handle on. It is relatively easy to see that a game can only be taken seriously when we don’t see that it is a game. This is exactly the same as saying a rule can only be a rule when we cannot see that we actually chose for it to be a rule. In order to play we have to veil our own freedom from ourselves, as James Carse says. Once we are engaged in the particular pattern of thinking and behaving that is allowed by the game then we are trapped and we have no option apart from continuing the attempt to solve our problems as the framework defines them in the way that the framework defines them. If it so happens that there isn’t a genuine solution to the problems as I perceive them (which is in fact the case) then this is obviously just too bad for me. Not only am I unable to see that the problem is inherently insoluble (or that the apparent solution is actually paradoxical), I am also unable to see that there is no need to attempt to solve the problem in the first place since the problem isn’t real. The more embroiled I become in trying to solve the problem (i.e. win at the game) the realer the game seems to me and this is what we meant by saying that the games generates its own context (or ‘rationale’) by being played.
The more difficult step in the argument is to see that just as the game is tautological in that it automatically validates itself by its own operation, so too is the player of the game tautologically created by the playing of the game. The one who takes the game seriously, the player who is compelled to try to win and compelled to struggle against the outcome of losing is every bit as much a construct of the assumed framework as the rules of the game are. The player who abides by the rules, who thinks in the way that the rules allows him to think, is nothing more than a faithful reflection of the rules he abides by and thinks by. Inasmuch as the player is defined by the system of thought which is the game, the player is the system of thought. Thus we can say that outside of the game, there is no player. This means that no one plays the game. Or, to put it another way, the game plays itself. We can see this very clearly once we understand that – as Krishnamurti says – the thinker and the thought are not separate from each other. My rational or directed thinking, along with all the rest of my goal-orientated activity (of which directed thinking is simply one instance) constitute what we have called ‘the game of denial’. This is self-evidently so since if the activity is orientated around a defined goal then that activity essentially involves grasping for one opposite whilst pushing away from the other. Everything the game-playing self does is either about seeking what it wants or avoiding what it doesn’t want and its desire is simply the flip-side of its fear. The more I desire one outcome, the more I fear the possibility that I might not obtain it. Conversely, the more I fear a particular outcome the more attached I am to the goal of avoiding it. Attraction and aversion are the two sides of the very same coin. We can usefully express the above ideas in the form of three bullet points:
 All purposeful or goal-orientated activity comes down to either attraction or aversion (this is actually a tautological statement)
 Attraction and aversion are the two sides of the very same thing
 The ‘actor’ (or ‘player’) which experiences the motivation of attraction and aversion and enacts this motivation in the form of goal-orientated activity is itself in no respect separate from either the action, the motivation which provoked the action, the thinking which engendered the motivation, and the framework of understanding which gave rise to the thinking
David Bohm refers to the above elements (conditioned perception, thought, action, result of action, etc) in terms of a logical continuum which he calls the ‘System of Thought’ and the reason all of these elements can be said to be part of a system is precisely because they are ‘self-consistent’ in terms of logic. Every element has a direct causal relationship with every other element and out of them all there is nothing that does not ‘fit in’ to the overall pattern, nothing that does not ‘belong’ to the same logical arrangement. What this means is that the thinker (or actor) which both defines and orientates itself with regard to the logical or rational viewpoint which is the system of thought is itself nothing other than the self-same ‘system of thought’. What this means is that if the game comes to an end, then so too does the player of the game!
THE REALM OF FEAR
Inasmuch as the player of the game takes his (or her) self seriously (which he or she necessarily does do since the whole point of any game is that it should be taken seriously) there is obviously an absolutely tremendous motivation here to carry on playing the game no matter what. This tremendous, all-underlying and therefore ‘all-determining’ motivation is what we call fear. Fear is a curious motivation because we cannot see it for what it really is – if we could see what fear was really all about then we would of course at one stroke have ruptured the integrity of the game of denial and so there would be no more ‘need’ for fear to exist. Fear would be an irrelevance at this point because I would no longer be identified with the ‘game of myself’ – I would no longer be identified with the player of the game and so the game-player’s fear of discovering that the game is only a game would no longer have any meaning. It is only when I don’t know (and don’t want to know) that the game is actually a game that I experience the infinite aversion that we call fear. Fear, in other words, is how the game protects its own integrity. When we experience pure, raw fear what we are experiencing is the basic motivational force behind all of our purposeful activity; normally the coercive iron fist of fear is carefully gloved, carefully disguised, but when we scrape beneath the apparently civilized and sanitized surface of our lives it is this brute coercion that we discover.
We can therefore say that fear is a measure of the game-playing (and therefore unreal) self’s reluctance to discover its own unreality, its own arbitrary nature, and because this ‘reluctance’ is actually infinite in degree, so too is fear. And yet – as we have said – the whole thing is unnecessary. The ineffable torment that we undergo as the result of fear (and the fear experienced by the truth-avoiding self in the face of its own extinction is an ineffably terrible torment) has no real basis at all – it is as J.G. Bennett says a function of the relationship between the unreal and the Real, which is itself an unreal relationship. As Wu Wei Wu says, this is not actually ‘suffering’ but ‘pseudo-suffering’ since there is no one there to suffer! [Going back to the idea of the relationship between the unreal and the Real, what we ought to have said in order that the point made by Bennett is not distorted is that fear arises as a result of the unreal self’s commitment to not seeing the truth (its investment in denial, in other words). If there were no such commitment to avoiding the truth, then instead of fear what arises is ‘awe’, which is as an ineffably wonderful and experience as fear is ineffably terrible.]
FROM EUPHORIA TO DESPAIR AND BACK AGAIN
It could be said that the game-playing self is a juxtaposition of absolute craven fear and a ridiculously unfounded cocksure-ness, and that even though the cocksure self and the terror-stricken self might seem to be radically different creatures they are in actuality one and the same being. The ludicrous arrogance which is one of the characteristic faces of the ego is a by-product of its commitment to denial – I deny that fear is my master because if haven’t the courage to face this fact, and out of this denial of fear comes the false confidence which is itself nothing other than a disguised version of fear. In a similar way, we could say that the game-playing self, the ‘me’, is a 50:50 mixture of self-love and self-hate. Half of the time the ‘me’ is given over to the urge to create and promote itself, and the other half of the time it is taken over by the urge to destroy itself. And yet the twin drives of Eros and Thanatos are inextricably intermingled since my self-love is the denial of my self-loathing, just as the soaring exhilaration of my euphoria is (as Johannes Fabricius says in The Royal Art of the Alchemists) at root simply a denial of the black horror of my despair.
On the one hand I am audaciously self-promoting and positively exude confidence and assertiveness, and on the other hand I doubt myself, disbelieve myself, and hate myself for my phoniness. The game of denial is made up of false YES and false NO, groundless hope and groundless fear, groundless attraction and groundless aversion. The irony is tremendous – the self’s greatest fear is its own annihilation, the discovery that it doesn’t exist. Propelled by this terrible fear it asserts a YES which creates and reinforces the NO which it wishes so much to escape from, and so the deadly rotating snare of ‘chasing one opposite whilst fleeing the other’ springs into action. By fighting my fear I set fear up above me as my master. Henceforth, everything I do is as a result of fear. My activities are the fear, I myself am the fear. As we have said, the terrible irony in this is that all this suffering is completely unnecessary – the fear of ‘not existing’ is created by my greed to exist, and vice versa. Both the YES and the NO are equally false; actually, the whole question as to whether the ‘me’ exists or not is entirely irrelevant. The question completely misses the point – it is a red herring, a trap, a blind alley. Seeing the utter irrelevance of the question (or the ‘issue’) is the equivalent of the Mahayana Buddhist ‘super-negation’. A super-negation is a negation so thorough, so complete, that it negates even itself – it negates (or ‘unzips’) the concept of negation as part of its process. Thus, the ‘me’ isn’t merely negated (which is what it fears) it is super-negated. There is no need for a negation because there was nothing to negate in the first place.
To the conditioned self, with its claustrophobically tautological viewpoint this super-negation might seem like the most terrible thing imaginable, but that is only because of its inherent lack of understanding. Actually, the super-negation is an affirmation of such awesome proportions that the self just can’t ‘get it’ at all. The startling discovery that all of my concerns, all of my worries, all of my hopes and fears, throughout the whole of my life, were actually irrelevant – that they were (and are) tangential to what really matters – is without any doubt the most incredibly liberating experience that it is possible to have, yet if it so happens that I have defined myself in terms of these concerns, worries, hopes and fears (as in fact I almost always do) then I will be infinitely reluctant to be liberated from them. When I define myself in terms of what is an issue to me what I am doing is using the same framework of reference (the same system of thinking) for defining both the issues and myself. Thus – as we have been saying – the issues (my hopes and fears) and me (the self who is caught up in these issues) are one and the same thing. I (as I know myself) am my issues, I am my attachments, and so deep down the last thing I want is to be free from them!
The petty game-playing self is a ‘pseudo-entity’ which is born from self-referentiality and it lives strictly within its own tautologically self-imposed limits. Though it might complain about the restrictions that are imposed upon in (as it would see it, by an outside force or agent) it does not genuinely want to change the situation. The complainer wants to complain, but it does not want to do anything about what it is complaining about because if it did then the complainer would have no more reason to be there. And what the complainer really wants (its secret agenda) is its own pointless immortality. It wants to be there forever, it wants to go on repeating its closed loop of toxic nonsense ad infinitum and ad nauseam. Because the closed, self-referential pseudo-entity which is the conditioned self secretly worships the limits (which is to say, the ignorance) that allows it to exist, obviously it cannot appreciate how immensely life-affirming the super-negation actually is. Because it is a creature of denial freedom is not seen as freedom but is seen in an upside down sort of a way. What’s good is bad and what’s bad is good. Free movement and free thought is banned, whilst the frighteningly sterile orbit of the fixated rational mind is elevated to the level of ‘unquestionable law’. Liberation is feared as the ultimate evil whilst a system which imposes a grotesquely pointless limitation upon those who conform to it is perversely revered as the source of all blessings.
SUMMARY – THE SELF AS ‘ARBITRARY ONE-UPMANSHIP’
The conditioned or game-playing self does what it does only because of the motivation of attraction/aversion, which is the motivation of fear, and this compulsive motivation basically translates into what we have earlier called ‘the urge to be one-up’ (or ‘the urge to win’). This motivation arises out of the basic mechanics of denial, as we have also said – I feel the need to assert one opposite because I secretly fear the opposite to be true. When I say “I want to succeed” this sounds commendably positive but really this positive assertion is just the sneaky way that I have of denying my fear, of denying the fact that I ruled by fear.
Attraction and aversion are the same thing – my desire to win is the same thing as my fear of losing. We can go further than saying that it is the motivation of attraction/aversion (i.e. fear) that lies behind everything the self does. We can go even further again and say that the self is nothing else apart from this very motivation since everything the self does it does purely in order to fulfil its agenda and its agenda is ultimately inseparable from itself.
The self is nothing other than pure, undiluted one-upmanship; apart from this urge there is nothing at all. It is a useful thing to see that the self is not different from the motivation that lies behind it, which is the blind, unceasing urge to self-promote. Normally we don’t see this, and so we miss the essential nature of self-hood, which is that the self could be anything at all because the point is not what the self ‘is’ but about the blindly compulsive self-promoting activity that I am now able, as a result of having allegiance to the self in question, to engage in. The plausible cover story of the ‘self’ is what allows me to be unconscious, in other words – if I am busy identifying with a self then my unconsciousness is facilitated. This whole process is mind-bendingly tautological. The need to win is created by trying to win. The reason why I have to go on playing the game of denial to the bitter end is conveniently created by the game of denial. The game tautologically creates its own rationale. Alternatively, we could say that the game tautologically creates the game-player.
There is no way out of the trap that is the self (at least, there is no way for the self to find a way out from itself). Suppose for example I gain a bit of insight into the crassness of blatant self-promotion, suppose I start to see just how gross and ugly the whole business of it is. Seeing how it is that every Tom, Dick and Harry tries to seek the advantage I might try to put myself down instead, to hang back in the mad rush to be first in the queue. In this case I reverse the urge and work to put myself last instead of first. This of course is if anything even more gross and ugly because all I am doing now is being self-promoting whilst pretending to be otherwise. I am still seeking advantage but now I say I am not seeking advantage, which carries the implication that I must be a better person than all the rest. I am still doing what I have always done only know I have compounded the fault by being dishonest about it – I am deceiving (or attempting to deceive) both myself and others. But suppose I gain insight into this subtler form of the trap, suppose I see that losing on purpose is a way from trying to win without admitting to myself that this is what I am doing. In this case I might take care that I neither struggle to be first in the queue when the goodies are being doled out, not do I hang back politely or humbly at the end. Suppose I try to be more natural about things, and not be so calculating. In this case I am calculating that it is advantageous to be ‘not calculating’ and so again I have compounded and complicated the original problem. I am still engaging in one-upmanship, only I have added one more level of refinement or sophistication to my game. Again, I am resorting to self-deception as a way of bettering my situation.
It is at this point that I might start to see that there is simply no escape from the inherent crassness of the self. There is no ‘good’ self, no ‘moral’ self, no ‘healthy’ or ‘well-adjusted’ self. There is no ‘righteous self’ or ‘redeemable self’. Everything that the self does is one-upmanship, even its attempt to free itself from one-upmanship is one-upmanship. Every thought single that ever ran through my rational mind was all about me, just as every single action that I ever purposefully carried out was all about me. Every hope I ever had was all about me, just as every fear was all about me. Faced with this uncompromising home truth I am left with two options – I can either go right back into the game of denial, and carry on believing that my rational, goal-orientated thinking and my rational, goal-orientated motivational systems will somehow get me somewhere good (i.e. somewhere real) in the end, if I persist long enough, or I can realize that it won’t.
From the point of view of the fundamentally closed ‘me’ which we are very much trapped in there exists only the ‘reverse freedom’ to do what this ‘me’ wants. I am not free to choose or question the rule, I am only free to obey the rule and this is precisely where the trap lies. The radical idea of being free from the self and its desires just never occurs to us and instead we somehow assume that if the self were to possess the total freedom to do or be whatever it wants then this would mean the end of all its – and therefore our – problems. But the problem isn’t that the self has somehow (and most unfairly) been prevented from fulfilling itself, the problem is the self and its perennial hankering to be fulfilled when that fulfillment is actually an impossibility (after all, if the self wasn’t busy hankering for something that it didn’t have, then it couldn’t carry on existing, and ‘carrying on existing’ is really all that it cares about). Its goals are the device by which it endlessly extends itself and the day it runs out of goals is the day it ceases to be.
THE ‘PSEUDO-INDEPENDENT SELF’
In a very curious way I create the tyrant which is the conditioned self by my own unacknowledged weakness. When I experience the urge to assert something (i.e. to think something, to say something, or to do something) what is actually happening is that I feel uncomfortable not asserting it. Rather than seeing that the reason I am positively asserting whatever it is that I am positively asserting is  because of the discomfort I will suffer if I don’t say it and  because of my unacknowledged reluctance to suffer this discomfort I identify with the ‘urge to assert’ and thereby experience this purely mechanical reaction as being completely volitional and freely chosen. This is true for the immediate pattern or sequence of impulses that I automatically identify with and it is also true for the overall structure or edifice of thought and belief that I create as a result of the systematic accumulation of these conditioned movements. This structure (the system of thought) and the self which constructs itself and orientates within it is therefore only there because of the reality of the underlying fear which we dare not acknowledge. The system is the fear (or rather it is fear that we cannot, because of our fear, admit to be such).
When I assert whatever it is I am asserting I experience myself as an actual agent, but the truth is that this agent is virtual rather than real. It is a phantom, a trick of the light. This virtual agent is actually no more than the disguised embodiment of fear – because I am afraid to acknowledge my own weakness I end up ‘worshipping vice as virtue’ and thus it is that I consistently misperceive my craven conformity to the system of denial as a free expression of my own true self.
THE MEANING OF ‘SELF’
The designation ‘self’ implies (or more than implies) that there must be, as a necessary vital ingredient, genuine freedom or autonomy. But if what is called ‘self’ is absolutely controlled, absolutely determined by a set of rules that is external (or extrinsic) to it then clearly this autonomy or freedom never comes into the picture for even a moment. The idea of freedom is an absurd illusion. In this case – in the case of the conditioned self, that is – what is called the ‘self’ is in no way different to the set of rules which controls it. In other words, the puppet-self which is the ‘me’ doesn’t actually have a self of its own. The ‘true’ self of the conditioned self – so to speak – is the arrangement of rules (the pattern) which controls it (i.e. the true nature of the conditioned self is the conditioning which conditions it). My own apparent autonomous selfhood is therefore a dummy – it is a flag-of-convenience under which the arbitrarily selected (or acquired) set of assumptions which controls me sails undetected. Where is no freedom, and where there is the denial that there is no freedom, then there springs instantly into existence a sort of ‘dummy’ self (or ‘false’ self) which exists purely to distract attention away from the true state of affairs. If I could allow myself to see that I have no freedom at all, that it is the system that calls the shots, then I would have autonomy after all. I would be free to see the truth and so in this crucial regard I would not be controlled (since a view of things which contradicts its own – which is independent of its own – is fundamentally disallowed by the system). But when there is both no freedom and no awareness that there is no freedom then the false self reigns supreme in all its two-dimensional glory.
Saying that the everyday self is controlled by an arbitrary (or ‘unnecessary) pattern that it can neither question nor see isn’t the best way of putting things however because that specific pattern is itself only a representative of a self-consistent set of logical possibilities that can express itself in what on the face of it would seem to be different ways. Ultimately, therefore, what invisibly conditions the everyday mind isn’t the arbitrarily acquired pattern of perception or thinking or behaviour but rather the ‘viewpoint’ of which this pattern is a logical extension. This viewpoint can be seen as a ‘continuum of logic’ – it is made up of the ‘continuum’ (or ‘set’) of all those statements which make sense from its particular standpoint. Alternatively, we could simply say that the viewpoint is the same thing as what we generally call ‘the rational mind’, and what David Bohm calls ‘the system of thought’. The everyday self might be said to have a relationship with the logical continuum of rational mind such that it automatically uses the framework which the rational mind provides not only in order to orientate itself, but actually to create itself in the first place.
If we are talking in terms of a continuum then this is another way of talking about a linear system, and linearity is the key characteristic of the rational mind. Because the rational mind is linear this means that nothing can ever happen in it that does not agree with the theoretical ‘starting off point’ for the whole endeavour, i.e. the original set of rules. Another way of putting this is to say that everything that happens in the system of thought is simply a logical extrapolation or extension of these inviolable rules and what this means is that the system is fundamentally ‘unfree’ – no real change, no actual movement, can ever take place. The system is 100% deterministic and 100% incapable of ever getting anywhere new. If we do see some apparent movement then the one thing we can know for sure is that what we are looking at is merely the first phase in a self-cancelling +/- oscillation. There is no genuine movement in the system of thought, only the ‘mockery’ (or ‘parody’) of movement’ which is cyclic change.
We can relate the idea of the determinism inherent in the rational mind to the idea of ‘denial’ in the following way –
The everyday self or ego which is operated by the system of thought exists in a state of complete denial with regard to the strictly deterministic conditions within which it necessarily functions
The unpalatable truth is that the ‘me’ has no genuine freedom at all – it a puppet which is mechanically operated by a dead set of rules and it is has zero chance of ever developing, ever changing, ever getting anywhere new. The perception of sterility which seeing this truth entails is so horrifically inimical to the conditioned self that its only hope in its continuation as a ‘going concern’ is if it remains safely unaware of what is really going on. Thus, for its very survival the conditioned self has to exist on a strictly superficial level – it is an absolute requirement that it sticks like glue to the level of nominal meaning (i.e. the meaning that is there only because we say it is there). It is dependent for its sense of well-being (the illusory well-being that arises as a result of its continued illusory perception of itself as having free will and a leading a genuinely meaningful existence) upon its masterful ability to exist on a purely superficial level.
This tendency towards the superficial is of course readily apparent in the sort of media representations that we love so much to surround ourselves with – it is only necessary to take the briefest of glances at any form of popular media to see that we collectively delight in this business of existing two-dimensionally on the level of glossy surface appearances whilst feverishly denying the ghastly hollowness that underlies it all. Only the tiniest increase in perspective is needed to perceive the unedifying fact that modern life is nothing more than a fantastically involved exercise in superficiality. What we don’t necessarily see however is that we have to be superficial in order to carry on believing in ourselves (which is to say, in order to carry on believing in the two-dimensional cartoon story of who we are). The whole thing has a runaway momentum of its own and we are incapable of doing anything other than helplessly going along with it. This is like being in the situation where I am playing a role in a mind-numbingly tacky and repulsively clichéd soap opera and where my sense of security and well being is dependent upon the belief that I actually am who I am playing at being. Given the fact that I am absolutely unwilling to give up this shallow feeling of security and well-being I have no option other than to throw myself into the charade with ever-increasing desperation. The act is my ‘positive assertion’, and the spectre of meaninglessness which this positive assertion infallibly creates is what spurs me on to continue the game.
THE ‘WONDERFUL IMPOSSIBILITY’
The thorough and uncompromising understanding of just how utterly and completely impossible it is for me to ever become free on purpose, or to be happy on purpose, or to be real on purpose, or to escape the labyrinth of my own self-deception on purpose tends to produce feelings of frustration, hopelessness and despair. There is a sense of some terrible obstacle that interposes itself between me and everything I have ever wanted or thought worthwhile to pursue. Rather than some ordinary common or garden difficulty that might conceivably be overcome on day I perceive this obstacle as a sort of personal doom; it is the incontrovertible thwarting of every life-impulse that I might ever have had – no defeat could be more final and more crushing than this. All of these negative, doom-laden feelings are however the result of the ‘inverting effect’ of the system of denial which sees imprisonment as freedom and freedom as the ultimate terror.
The impossibility that we have been looking at in the forty odd pages of this discussion is a liberating impossibility, not an imprisoning or limiting one. What we are actually looking at here is an impossibility that is so thorough-going, so complete and perfect that the mere word ‘impossibility’ just doesn’t come anywhere near doing it justice. It is not simply that freedom and truth and happiness is an impossibility for the conditioned self – it was a perfectly and immaculately realized impossibility from the word ‘go’. There never was a time when it wasn’t an impossibility. There never could be such a time when it wasn’t an impossibility. The very idea of considering that it might be necessary to say that it is impossible is fantastically ridiculous, laughably bizarre. The sort of impossibility we are touching upon here is a wonderful impossibility – it is a source of pure undiluted wonderment. What we are talking about is ‘the impossibility of the dark and restrictive lie ever being true.’ The lie works by bluffing us that it is true, and so out of fear we fall in with it, we cave in to the pressure, but no matter how many times a lie is repeated and drummed into us at close range it is still only ever a lie. No matter what number of times it is repeated, no matter how many people buy into it, it is still only a lie. Even if the whole world believes the lie, and burns at the stake anyone who doesn’t believe it, that doesn’t make it true. A lie is a lie no matter what.
Alternatively, we could speak in terms of ‘the impossibility of ever getting somewhere real from somewhere unreal’. If my starting-off point is actually a complete and utter ‘non-starter’ then clearly the worst thing that could happen to me would be for me to receive confirmation that it actually is possible to get somewhere real or somewhere worthwhile from the standpoint of this original position. Inasmuch as the impossibility we are talking about is a ‘wonderful impossibility’, then so too are the heavy and dark feelings of frustration, hopelessness and despair ‘wonderful negative feelings’ – they are a source of pure undiluted wonderment. As the Sufi poet Rumi said, “The moment I am disappointed I am encouraged”. If things seem as if they are going well for me then this apparent blessing is in fact a curse. Any perception that I might have of ‘possibility’ as opposed to impossibility is – far from being a happy or joyful thing – is the exact opposite. It is in fact a guarantee (although I can’t of course see it as such) of unending misery, alienation and frustration. Any good feeling that I might get as a result of a delusory ‘perception of possibility’ is actually a death-knell as far as my chances of genuine happiness and fulfilment go. It is my optimism that dooms me not my despair.
Just to summarize – a belief that I am going to get anywhere at all as a result of my purposeful, rational thinking and behaviour is a curse that I cannot see as such. My most invisible and therefore most unquestionable assumption is the assumption that the conditioned self (i.e. the ‘me’) is a real basis from which to proceed, that is real basket in which to throw stuff, rather than a mere mirage or phantom. To see this assumption as an assumption is an incredibly difficult thing since it is this very assumption that conditions everything I perceive, think and do, and yet if I fail to appreciate this all-important fact my whole life becomes an absurd caricature of what it should be – instead of being a journey into an ever-deepening reality my life becomes a circular journey – it becomes a journey to nowhere. All I ever do is to pointlessly orbit my unreal starting off point; instead of gradually becoming free from my limiting assumptions I am doomed to endlessly reiterate meaningless patterns of thinking and behaviour whilst clinging to the absurd hope that my dumb, stubbornly unreflective persistence in this ‘repeating-type behaviour’ will somehow deliver me to the promised land. In short, I believe that if I reiterate the lie enough times it will become true.
STUCK IN A SULK
The whole thing is just one big sorry mess – once I am in it at all then I am stuck in it. Every direction leads me right back where I started – the roads that apparently lead out actually lead in. Just as all roads are said to lead to Rome, all roads travelled by the conditioned self lead back to itself. It is the beginning of the journey and the end and all the bits in-between – it is in fact a perfect closed circle, spinning around and around forever. This idea is perfectly expressed in the lyrics of Eagle’s song Hotel California where we learn that “you can check out any time you want but you can never leave’. The situation of being ‘stuck in the self’ is exactly the same as the situation of being ‘stuck in a sulk’. A sulk is unnecessary and ultimately ineffective in achieving what it is supposedly there to achieve. It’s supposed to help me but actually it makes me suffer ten times worse, and when I am in it there is nothing that I can (deliberately) do that will free me from it. When I fall into a sulk then everything I do is the sulk – if I speak then I speak sulkily, if I go for a walk then I walk sulkily, if I eat my dinner then I eat sulkily and if I make plans to stop being sulky then I make sulky plans to stop being sulky…
Similarly, when I am identified with the self (and a sulk is at root only a highly intensified or concentrated or enhanced or aggravated form of ‘self’) everything I do is done selfishly – even my attempts to escape the self are selfish attempts. Both a sulk and a self are the result of the coagulation (or clotting) of a myriad latent possibilities into a meagre few possibilities, which then solidify and obstruct or occlude all the rest. The single possible way of looking at the world swells up and takes over, denying any other viewpoints. What we are talking about here is essentially an information collapse – once the crash has occurred then it is inescapable that I will perceive my predicament within the terms of the over-simplified picture of the world which is the end-point of that information collapse.
The end-point of the collapse (the ‘coagulation’ as the alchemists used to call it) is the set of rules which lies behind the over-simplified picture that is my way of understanding the world, and this set of rules is as we have said invisible and unchallengeable. The viewpoint ‘smuggles’ itself into everything that happens – it implicitly represents itself as being essential whilst actually it is more in the line of a self-serving glitch or snag. Selfishness, just like sulking, causes nothing but misery but like sulking it is not something that we can manage to wriggle out of, no matter how strenuously or dexterously we try. I am caught no matter which way I turn – all of my activities have the same outcome and that outcome is not good.
When the me tries to makes itself happy it increases the cause of its unhappiness and when it tries to escape its unhappiness it also increases the cause of its unhappiness. Once I am ‘in it’ at all then I am caught – caught by my desire to better myself, caught by my desire not to be caught. Once I am in it at all then it is pragmatically impossible for me to get out of it. Once I am in it all I can do is get more caught up, more embroiled, more entangled. I thrash around in pain and it is my very attempt to avoid the pain that creates the pain. It doesn’t seem right to us to say – as Gautama Buddha said – that conditioned existence is a trap, and that it is pain, because we experience periods during which it seems as if we really are getting somewhere, and as if we really are happy.
For the ‘me’ however genuine change and genuine happiness has always got to be an illusion. On a small scale there may appear to be genuine movement but this movement, when seen on a bigger scale of things, will always prove itself to be merely the positive phase of an endlessly reverberating +/- oscillation. It will prove to be circular change. Within the realm of linearity the one thing that is impossible is that non-linear change will ever take place; the basic assumptions – or variations on them – are replayed forever.
And yet behind the pragmatic (or ‘relative’) impossibility of the linear, mind-created self ever escaping itself (which is to say, ever going beyond its own arbitrarily acquired rules) there lies a far greater impossibility – an absolute impossibility – the impossibility of there ever being such a ‘self’ in the first place. As in the 1965 film starring Alec Guinness, the situation of the game-playing self is ‘hopeless but not serious’.
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.