The thought of corruption is itself corruption, the thought of a wrong turn is itself a wrong turn, the thought of making an error is itself an error…
All thought is corruption, all thought is a wrong turn, all thought is an error.
Or perhaps we should say that thought itself is not the error, error is when we believe in the thought we are thinking. We are quite free to try out every single thought that it is possible to think, every thought or idea in the whole universe of thoughts or ideas, and there is no wrong turn in this. We are free to think all of these thoughts and we are equally free not to think them and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ either way, no obstruction or restriction either way.
But we don’t just think a thought, we get caught up in it. Whenever we think we automatically believe in whatever it is that we have just thought, like a person who digs a hole and then proceeds to fall headlong into it. Thinking and getting sucked up into that thought are the same thing as far as we are concerned – the two are synonymous.
Thinking without believing what we have just thought is like digging a hole and then being careful not to fall into it. That’s fine, but then again, if we aren’t going to throw ourselves into it then why bother digging it in the first place?
To believe in a thought is to permanently shut oneself off to anything that is not the thought. Once we have done this then – of course – we can’t get out of it again. We’re caught in it, trapped in it. Believing in thoughts is the same thing as losing freedom therefore, only we don’t do much lose it as give it away…
We don’t experience ourselves as losing freedom when we automatically believe in our thoughts. Nothing of the sort seems to be happening – we don’t perceive ourselves to be losing something but gaining something. We perceive ourselves to be gaining awareness of the content of the thought, we perceive ourselves to be gaining the information that is contained by the thought.
Neither do we usually have the experience of being ‘stuck in a thought’ – one thought seems to follow another quite easily and smoothly with no sensation of ‘stuckness’. As far as we are concerned all of these thoughts (the thoughts that flow freely in and out of our minds) are different thoughts, which means that the transition from one to another is a real movement, a real transition…
This is how it seems to us, but in a deeper sense this perception is deceptive. In a deeper sense, all thoughts that fit into the established framework of thinking (which is to say, our mind) are really only the same thought. This is like saying that all categories within an organized system of categories are the same category – obviously from the point of view of the system they are most definitely not the same (the whole point of a category is after all to distinguish it from other categories!) but from outside of the system all categories are ‘the same’ because all the categories are the system. Or we might say that from the perspective of a game ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ are very different things indeed whilst from outside of that viewpoint winning and losing at a particular game are still ‘only just that game’. The information which tells us which category something is in (or whether the player is winning or losing) is meaningful only from within the context of system, only within the context of the game. Outside of this specific context, it doesn’t mean a thing.
So all thoughts are the same – no matter how different they might seem from each other. They are just thoughts. All thoughts are just the ‘thinking game’, and from outside of the thinking game you might as well be thinking one as the other. Any thought that fits into the system of categories that is the mind is that system, is that mind; this is why our thoughts always seem so ‘normal’, no matter how pleasant or frightening they might be. If on the other hand some sort of ‘mental content’ popped up that didn’t fit appropriately into one mental category or another then we would experience this to be a very strange ‘thought’. It would be like an exotically-coloured bird of paradise, trailing extravagantly long brightly iridescent tail feathers behind it wherever it went, in a factory farm full of tens of thousands of uniformly grey battery chickens. The bird of paradise obviously wouldn’t belong there. If I kept on having strange ‘thoughts’ (thoughts that ‘don’t belong’) then it wouldn’t be very long at all before I would start to fear that I was losing my mind. I would want in all probability to go and talk to a psychiatrist.
The only time we might encounter exotic or unregulated mental content would be in our dreams and this isn’t really so challenging at all because dreams – as everyone knows – aren’t real. Dreams are only dreams and whilst we might forget this key fact whilst we are in the thick of it, we remember it when we get back to the sanctuary of the rational mind. The rational mind is what’s real – with its regular and repetitive grey thoughts, which we somehow manage to find diverse and interesting despite their factory-made uniformity. The mechanical-categorical mind is a sanctuary precisely because it excludes – as a matter of course, as a matter of essential hygiene – anything that has not been checked, approved and rubber-stamped by the logically-defined rules that govern its operation.
So what’s the trick? How is it done? How do we manage to see rich diversity in the bland uniformity of our factory-produced thoughts? The answer is nothing if not straightforward – we create diversity out of uniformity by getting rid of perspective (which may be conveniently defined as ‘the capacity to see things from more than just the one point of view’). Losing perspective is therefore the same thing as ‘losing the freedom to see things from any other point of view than the one we are using’, and this essential ‘loss of freedom’ is exactly what thoughts and the thinking mind are all about…
If we can’t see the world in any other way than that permitted by the fixed or static viewpoint of the rational mind then we lose out on a whole world of perspective without knowing that we have lost out on anything. At the same time that we lose all perspective we also lose the perspective to know that we have lost anything; we lose the perspective necessary to know what perspective is, we lose the freedom to know what freedom is. What this means therefore is that we lose the capacity to know what genuine difference or discontinuity is; we have no way of having any concept of what ‘difference’ or ‘discontinuity’ is – or rather, we do a concept of what difference/discontinuity means but this is in itself quintessentially deceptive because all our concepts (including the concept of ‘different’) are exactly the same.
The trick whereby apparent diversity or spaciousness is created where there is none is the trick of ‘sneakily taking away all perspective’ and this is the trick the thinking mind performs every time it operates. The thinking mind transports us into a kind of virtual reality world, a kind of ‘super-subjective’ world where the most trivial of details can very easily become matters of the greatest importance. This is the world we live in most of our lives. We get sucked up – via our thinking – innumerable times every single day of our lives into this supremely petty subjective world – and we rarely think anything of it. It’s so normal for us to get pulled into nonsensical considerations at the drop of a hat that we don’t find anything remarkable about it. It’s not even that we don’t find anything remarkable about this insidious process – it happens so frequently that we consider the domain of ‘nonsensical considerations’ synonymous with life itself. We don’t see the difference…
In the virtual reality world created by zero perspective ‘anything can be anything’ – a shadow can be infinitely frightening, the most superficial glimmer or sparkle fantastically attractive and alluring. Not just the world but the self-image too is infinitely pliable, infinitely plastic, infinitely capable of being stretched, of being distorted on way or another. I can easily imagine myself to be the most wonderful person in the world but – with equal facility – I can also imagine myself to be the worst. Both possibilites are equally viable in the subjective world of my thinking: I can without any expenditure at all blow myself up to a truly preposterous extent, and then the next minute this outrageous inflation can just as easily turn around on me and become the reverse proposition. Anything is possible in a world without perspective – any possibility is viable, even the most tenuous fantasy can be fleshed out and made real.
Another way of talking about the type of plasticity, distortion and misrepresentation that always creeps in with loss of perspective is to say that it is the inevitable result of ‘not seeing the full picture’. When a small picture or snap-shot is abstracted from the whole then it becomes impossible to see the significance (or lack of significance) in what is going on in that isolated ‘little picture’. The most random little perturbation can be invested with the very greatest importance; even more to the point, a self-cancelling vibration or oscillation can be seen, on the one hand, as evidence of the most gloriously triumphant progress, or – on the other – as the most dreadful and dismaying failure. The most wonderful gain or the most appalling loss can both be abstracted from a simple oscillation, a perfectly neutral vibration.
Saying that absolute (or unrelativized) positive statements, either of gain or loss, can subjectively become real in the ‘small picture’ (the small picture that has been abstracted from the whole) is the most essential and succinct way of describing the type of ‘distortion’ that is created via loss of perspective. The type of distortion we are talking about here is not merely an exaggeration or down-playing of the truth but a process in which the truth (whatever that is) is turned on its head. The deception is not partial but complete.
Just as the type of freedom we gain in the zero perspective world is inverted freedom – which is to say, ‘the absence of freedom that is plausibly presented as the real thing’ – so too the type of truth we perceive in the zero-perspective virtual reality world is inverted truth, which we might explain by saying that it is ‘the complete absence of truth that is convincingly represented as the only possible way of looking at things’. Less long-windedly, we can simply say that in the zero-perspective world truth gets transformed into illusion.
In this world (which, just to emphasize the point, is the world that is served up to us daily by the dualistic mind) we have the dubious freedom of being able to believe that the positive phase of a self-cancelling vibration is a ‘stand-alone’ phenomenon, a phenomenon that can be understood in its own right without reference to anything else. We have the freedom to see a vibration as not being a vibration at all but something else – as being ‘half-a-vibration’, which is of course a totally impossible thing. There is no such thing as half a vibration any more than there is such a thing as an UP without a DOWN, or as Alan Watts says, ‘a transaction taking place in which there is a selling but no buying’. There is no such thing, but the unexamined belief that there is constitutes the basis for our whole way of thinking.
If we had the necessary perspective available to us then we would still perceive the positive phase of the vibration, but we would understand it in relation to the overall reality of the vibration, which is ‘positive phase + negative phase’. Seeing this would relativize our understanding of the first phase – which is the same thing as ‘the crest of the wave’ – and relativizing our understanding (i.e. seeing it in relation to the whole event, the whole wave) has the effect of changing it completely. Relativization turns our accepted way of understanding the world on its head – it turns everything upside-down and makes everything we have ever believed into a nonsense.
Because our thinking is based on understanding the PLUS phase of an oscillation as being a separate entity to the MINUS phase, the crest of the wave as being unconnected with the trough of the wave, we treat it as an absolute – something we can rely on, something we can count on, lean on, build on, invest in, and so on. This is obviously the case – if it wasn’t we wouldn’t take our positive statements about the world, our positive descriptions of the world, as seriously as we very obviously do. Why would we take any positive statement seriously if we could see that it was only half of the overall ‘disturbance’ (or ‘displacement), the other half being the corresponding negative statement? Why would we take a positive statement seriously if we could see that it was only half of a vibration or wave, if we could see that the positive statement that we find so meaningful was ‘the crest’ and its exact antithesis was ‘the trough’?
Taking our positive statements about the world seriously means seeing them as being disconnected from the corresponding antithetical negative statements and this is precisely what we do all of the time. If we had a bit of perspective we wouldn’t take them seriously and this – as we have said – would utterly revolutionize our understanding of everything. The resulting revolution would mean that we would not get caught up in investing ourselves in the literally-understood world that is created by these proliferating positive statements of ours. We wouldn’t put our energy into them, we wouldn’t use them to try to orientate ourselves and validate who we are and what we’re doing, and we wouldn’t use them to try to make ourselves feel good about ourselves. We would no longer use the literal world as a way of defining ourselves, or – more to the point – constructing ourselves. Another way of putting this would be to say that having perspective on what we are ceaselessly doing in life would allow us to withdraw our projections from the external, literally-understood world so that we are no longer putting ourselves in that world.
When we withdraw our projections (which is synonymous with dropping our attachment from our own mental constructs) then we ‘come back to ourselves,’ but the thing about coming back to ourselves is that we then cease to understand ourselves as a literal object or entity. The point is that the self image is itself a positive statement, which is to say, my conception of myself is only half of the story – a ‘coin with only one face’, a ‘half of a vibration’, a ‘crest without a trough’. This is something that we instinctively never reflect on, because if we did reflect on it this would mean ‘letting our understanding of ourselves go’ and the whole point of the game is that we don’t let ourselves go. If we did then the whole game would be over!
Alan Watts repeatedly makes the point that the self is constructed by a boundary and that this boundary has an outside as well as an inside. The boundary is thus an interface between the universe and what lies within the boundary of the ‘I-concept’, and this is an interface – or connection – that can never be gotten rid of.
What lies on the inside of the dividing line is ‘the self’ and what lies on the outside is ‘the other’ but self and other can never be separated because self and other are the two sides of the very same coin. ‘What is me’ and ‘what is not me’ (‘self’ and ‘not self’) are opposites and as opposites we see them as being radically unrelated – the game of self consists precisely of treating these two poles, these two opposites as being radically unrelated. In reality however it is clear that there is no such division at all.
I understand myself to be one opposite and so I fight against the other opposite, self struggles and perennially seeks advantage over not-self, and yet this struggle simply doesn’t make any sense. How can the North Pole outdo or subjugate the South Pole? How can the positive displacement phase of an oscillation win out over the negative displacement phase? How can the crest of the wave somehow get the better of the trough? How can ‘heads’ triumph over ‘tails’? All that can happen is that the coin will keep on tumbling over time and time again – first heads, then tails, then heads, and then tails again, and so forth and so on forever. This is the only possible outcome since – as the cybernetic (or ‘Liar’) paradox states – UP means DOWN, YES means NO, RIGHT means WRONG, WINNING means LOSING…
Playing the game of self means not seeing the senselessness of the struggle and keeping on with it no matter what; it means stubbornly believing that the struggle will eventually be rewarded by an isolated opposite, by a ‘YES without a NO’, by a crest of the wave that has had the trough permanently chopped off. The self is YES/NO, but we – because rational thought has deprived us of perspective – either see it as YES or NO; if I am ‘thinking positively’ then it is the former, and if I am thinking negatively then the latter. In the extreme scenario, I am either elated (or euphoric) and think that I am the best person in the world, or I am depressed (dysphoric) and think that I am the worst. The one thing we very, very rarely see that that we are neither one extreme or the other, but that my idea of myself is an ‘overall nullity’ because the YES and the NO always exactly cancel each other out, as is the case for all waves, all oscillations, all vibrations. This is what J.G Bennett calls the divided self – the self which is split against itself, the ‘half-blind’ self which can see only one opposite at any one time.
When we are constrained by rational thought to see only half the picture (i.e. one opposite in isolation from the other) then we enter into a world of deception, a revolving world that we see as a straightforward progression. What is happening when we enter this world is that we are losing freedom in such a way that we can’t see it happening. ‘Freedom’ is being converted into ‘false freedom’ and the effective substitution of the latter for the former means that we have no awareness of actually having lost anything. Genuine change (or genuine movement) is being invisibly converted into false movement, false change.
This idea can be illustrated in a visual way by imagining a meteorite moving freely through space and being captured by the gravitational well of a more massive cosmic body, such as a planet or star. To someone hitching a ride on the meteorite the fact they have been ‘captured’ and are now a prisoner languishing at the bottom of a dank gravitational dungeon may not be apparent since the free-roving movement of the meteorite has been seamlessly converted into circular movement. The point is that there is still ‘movement’ but now that movement keeps going back on itself the whole time and as a result it goes nowhere. Or we could say that there is ‘change’ but that the change in question keeps reversing with the net effect that there is no change.
We can also talk about this principle (the principle whereby the real is converted into the virtual) by using the idea of novelty being transformed into confirmation. This is the very same idea as the one given above, only here the emphasis is on information rather than change. Confirmation [according to Ernst and Christine von Weiszacker’s model of pragmatic information] is information that can be recognized as such by comparison with pre-existent categories or criteria. If there is a match then the incoming signal is counted as being meaningful and if there isn’t then the signal is entirely disregarded. It’s not counted at all. The definition of novelty however is exactly the other way around – novelty is seen to be information precisely because it doesn’t fit into our pre-existing categories, because it is something radically new and unexpected, rather than just being an echo or reflection of whatever structure was there already. That fact that it does not belong to the established way of things (that it isn’t a logical development or expression of that system) is what makes novelty genuine information, rather than just being some form of disguised tautology. The transformation of novelty into confirmation is therefore the conversion of genuine information into false (or ‘virtual’) information. This is the ubiquitous process whereby information, W is imperceptibly degraded into camouflaged redundancy, ψS.
As we have indicated there is something self-contradictory when we say that confirmation is information that agrees with a template because if the signal agrees with the template then this means that it actually is the template. If the signal in question actually is the template then this makes it ‘infinitely predictable’, so to speak, but since the most essential definition of information is that it is something that we cannot predict or anticipate this means that we have actually turned our idea of what information is on its head. Thus, confirmation is defined as being information precisely because it is not information.
Confirmation can be thought of as a ‘trivial’ form of information which, by getting us to focus narrowly on it, obscures the fact that it is trivial. If I ask a question and receive an answer out of a closed, pre-defined set of answers then I obtain the distinct impression that this answer constitutes information – it is, after all, telling me something I didn’t know. Within the closed context that I am focussing in on by asking the question the answer that I get coming back to me works perfectly well as information. This is like playing a game of dice: I throw the dice and after a moment of what seems like pure unadulterated uncertainty I get back a visual report on what the result of this throw has been. From the point of view of the game this is information of the most hard-edged, nitty-gritty nature – it is in fact the only type of information that I am interested in. From outside of the closed context of the game all that has happened is that I have thrown the dice and the dice have landed upon the table – which of course constitutes an ‘infinitely predictable result’, a ‘zero-information-containing result’. I might as well say that I put a cup or a pen or a banana on the table, and that when I do, the ‘result’ is that there is a cup or pen or a banana is on the table. This is not information, it is merely redundancy; it is stating something as important news that isn’t news at all…
Confirmation is the type of information that tells us where on a continuum a particular point is to be found; it designates a location in relation to a framework of reference, an abstract system of defining axes. If we say that the point in question represents a particle travelling from location A to location B then the movement of that particle can be exhaustively defined in a continuous way by reference to these axes in the familiar form of a line drawn on a graph. The particle is free to move anywhere at all with the enclosed continuum – which is a logical domain – and so with respect to the framework its movement is ‘free’ or ‘undetermined’. If we don’t look at things from the point of view assumed by this framework however then it is clear that the movement of the particle is not free or undetermined – on the contrary, it is at all times completely determined by the frame of reference.
The rational or categorical mind is a continuum of logic, it is an abstract frame of reference and so all the information that it deals in is of the confirmation variety. Everything we understand to be real or significant is understood as such only because it has been allocated a legitimate location within the framework of the mind – that’s what ‘understanding’ is all about. The mind is therefore an abstract ‘virtual reality’ realm which makes sense only to itself, which is real only to itself. It is like a bubble which can be pricked (and therefore collapsed) at any minute, leaving behind not the slightest trace of residue.
Operating out of the continuum of logic (which is to say, the everyday thinking mind) has the effect of concentrating the subjective sense of self in one specific pinpoint or geometrical location. It manufactures for us a very peculiar thing – the virtual or unreal identity referred to by Krishnamurti as the ‘self-image’ and by Wei Wu Wei as the ‘I-concept’. This is such a narrowly constrained sense of self that it doesn’t actually have any depth at all, existing in a dimension where depth is not allowed – the dimension (or continuum) of the rational mind. The rational mind is fundamentally opposed to depth – it defines every element within its domain as being ‘this but not that’, ‘here but not there’, ‘in but not out’ and as a result of the unambiguous specificity of its definitions there is nothing of the element other than its specification, its definition. This is of course the only way logic can work – if a logical system makes a statement then that statement is exactly what it is stated as being and no more. Any deviation from this at all would mean that the logical definition in question is not what it is defined as being, and this would be profoundly illogical. There is no scope in logic, no leeway, no ‘space’ and as a result there is no room for the non-abstract, no room for the real.
Essentially, the I-concept is a very formidable trap – the most efficient and effective trap there ever was. The reason it is such an extraordinarily efficient trap is because once we fall into it then everything we do is necessarily on this basis. When I try to obtain a certain result I do so for the benefit of the I-concept, and when I try to avoid a certain outcome this is equally for the benefit of the I-concept. If I want to try to escape a trap, then it is goes without saying that it is on behalf of the I-concept that I want to escape. The I-concept wants to escape the trap, but the I-concept is the trap. This is equivalent to talking about the system of thought and saying that when we suffer as a result of being constrained to exist solely within the domain permitted by the system of thought we start to think of some way of escaping the clutches of this system. In this way, our attempts to escape the system inescapably utilize the very system that we want to escape from. Or if I try to imagine what it would be like to see the world without the cognitive overlay of the rational mind, I am imagining the scenario in which I am free from the rational mind by using the mechanism of that mind. I am using the mechanism to hypothesize about what life without the mechanism would be like, and thus I am running fast to get nowhere at all. I am thinking about not thinking; I am planning not to plan, choosing not to choose, intending not to intend, and so on.
The nature of the trap which is the I-concept is therefore precisely that I have no way of conceiving the world, or perceiving the world, other than from the taken-for-granted viewpoint of this I-concept. My viewpoint is my blind-spot – it is the one thing I can never focus on and so I never think to question it, never think to consider the possibility that actually I don’t need to think about things this way at all. Whatever type of motivation I experience when I am identified with the conditioned self is by definition going to be the motivation of that conditioned self. This is like saying that when I am playing a game all the goals that I am going to be trying to achieve are going to be important to me only because they are important in terms of that game. Whenever I succeed in doing whatever it is that I want to do from the basis of the conditioned self (or I-concept) I am serving the conditioned self. My so-called successes are its successes, my so-called victories its victories, my advantages its advantages. The harder I try to ‘get things right’ the more I entrenched this arbitrary idea of who I am becomes, therefore. Who I really am – underneath this game of ‘me being who I am not’ – only gets buried ever deeper by my strenuous and persistent efforts to benefit my idea of myself.
If I want to be happy – which I generally do – then I pursue with vigour and diligence the happiness of the I-concept, which is the furthest thing possible from authentic happiness. The so-called happiness of the I-concept is simply a theatrical performance of happiness based on the arbitrarily limited viewpoint which is the conditioned identity. It is not the genuine article but only the ‘imaginary’ happiness or contentment of who I think I am (which is the sham or act or pretence of my conditioned identity) at the expense of who I really am.
The happiness (or satisfaction) of the I-concept is therefore profound unhappiness superficially disguised as happiness! When I pursue it what I am actually pursuing is my own profound unhappiness, and given that my purposeful behavioural output is usually dedicated to the goal of ‘the benefit of the conditioned self’ my activity is on this account pretty much geared towards securing suffering for myself. I am planning and executing my own downfall and this is not, naturally enough, something that would ever occur to me. The essential perversity of my activity – which is to say, the way in which it is self-negating or self-denying – only becomes obvious when taken to the extreme, in which case we know it as neurotic mental illness.
The I-concept or self-image is not just a trap but a contagion. It is a virulent illness, an insidious form of intoxication in which consciousness is confused, bamboozled, corrupted, led astray, led down a dead end – the dead-end in question being the benefit of the pernicious illusion of the self-image at the expense of everything that genuinely does matter. As a result of this contagion, this insidious intoxication or madness, I end up neglecting what really matters, and preoccupying myself with nonsense instead, with the net result that I betray myself for what superficially seem like important goals, but which are actually pure delusion. The idea that our normal, everyday state of consciousness is actually deeply confused or perniciously intoxicated is a well-known theme in esoteric psychology. A particularly clear example of this is found in the Gospel of Thomas, Verse 28 –
Jesus said: I stood in the midst of the world, and I appeared to them in the flesh. I found them all drunk; I found none of them thirsting, and my soul was afflicted for the sons of men; for they are blind in their heart, and they do not see that they came empty into the world, (and) empty they seek to leave the world again. But now they are drunk. When they have thrown off their wine, they will repent.
Another example is found in The Parable of the Excellent Physician, from the Lotus Sutra. In the parable the excellent physician goes away on a long journey, and when he returns he discovers that his sons (of whom he has very many) have eaten some kind of poison which has driven them mad with pain. Not only has the poison driven them mad with pain, it has also unhinged their minds in such a way that the medicine or remedy he offers them is perceived as being harmful, so that those of the sons who are most deeply affected by the poison refuse to take it. As one translation says,
…they did not want to take the medicine because their perceptions were upside down.
This illustrates the trap-like nature of the conditioned self, since when we have become infected with the madness that goes with it, we reject what is wholesome and helpful and embrace the unwholesome and the harmful.
Under the influence of the contagion we strive for more and more misery, under the impression that it is happiness we are reaching out for. And then the more pain we are in, the more desperately we reach out for relief – only the relief in question is for the I-concept, the secret author of the pain we are trying to escape from.
Perversely, we are trying to find an escape from the pain on behalf of the source of that pain. This is the suffering that is inherent in conditioned existence. Even being intellectually aware of this is not enough however because if we do gain intellectual understanding of this truth our first move is to try to think of some way of escaping the trap of conditioned existence and this very thought – the thought of how to escape our conditioning – is conditioning. The thought of corruption is itself corruption. The thought of error is itself an error. The thought of going astray – and how we might correct this ‘going astray’ – is itself going astray. To try to accord with the Tao is to deviate from it, as Lao Tzu says.
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.