The basic ‘invisible contradiction’ in society is that we can’t be accepted on the basis of who we’re not, and yet it is only by pretending to be who we’re not that we can find societal acceptance. Given that this is such an intractable problem, it is easy to see why we prefer just to ignore it…
This is a familiar sort of dilemma even if it happens to be the case that we don’t think about it very much; we all know the sense of dissatisfaction that this contradiction engenders even if we don’t admit that we know it. We achieve what we are supposed to achieve, and yet we still don’t feel that we have achieved anything! There is an essential hollowness in all society’s accolades; the greater the level of approval the hollower it gets – although as we have just said, we are of course very unlikely to admit this to ourselves! Who wants to question success, after all?
No one is going to want to question success but at the same time if we don’t question success then we’re left in a totally absurd situation – we’re left in the situation of being validated for who we’re not! No matter how we try to work this, we can’t. It is – as we keep saying – a complete contradiction that cannot be resolved no matter what we do. There is absolutely no way that this is ever going to work out for us; we’re heading down a road which – despite being very well sign-posted (and very well travelled) doesn’t actually lead anywhere. It’s a dead-end of epic proportions…
Although the road of ‘trying to be validated for who we’re not’ is a dead-end, we can’t for the life of us see this and so we just keep on digging ourselves deeper and deeper into the contradiction. Rather than questioning our basis we charge foolishly ahead and as a result of our foolishness we keep on shoe-horning ourselves tighter and tighter into the impossible dilemma. Rather than just giving up on the whole doomed endeavour and ‘going back to the drawing board’, so to speak, we persist with what we’re doing as if persistence (or stubbornness) were all that was needed to ensure that things come out right in the end.
There is an irreversibility built into this situation, as we have already indicated. One way to talk about this irreversibility is to say that it comes about as a result of our great reluctance to question success, and another way is to say that it is the pain of the hollowness (or fraudulency) of the endeavour that drives us on. The worse we feel as a result of getting caught in the contradiction of ‘being validated for pretending to be who we’re not’ the more we are driven in the direction of getting further validation in order to make ourselves feel better. We don’t know what else to do to alleviate the sense of hollowness inside us other than throw ourselves even more into the empty game of society, in other words.
The irreversibility of which we speak is always linked with optimization, therefore. If we’re not getting the required pay-off (or if the pay-off no longer satisfies in the way that it did) then all we can do is optimize ourselves even more to the system. That’s our only option. The more we invest in a particular strategy the harder it becomes to disinvest and this is the fundamental psychological trap that we keep on falling into, one way or another. When we’re in the business of ‘optimizing our game’ (as we almost always are) we become increasingly less interested in anything that doesn’t help us in this endeavour. Investment in a strategy requires more and more investment as time goes on and the result of this is that we keep on getting narrower and narrower…
Society – like any logical system – always takes a very narrow view of things. It recognizes and validates only certain aspects of who we are and so the only way to do well in the ‘social game’ (i.e. receive more of the validation that we are now addicted to) is to maximize our efforts with regard to developing these limited aspects of ourselves. Any logical (or ‘thought-based’) system is only ever going to see us in terms of certain key ‘metrics’ and so it is almost inevitable that we are going to define ourselves in terms of these metrics. We are – of course – going to define ourselves in terms of the characteristic that society values. These characteristics are not who we truly are however – they are merely ‘mechanical functions’ that we perform.
In a nutshell, who we aren’t gets recognized / valued / validated by the system, whilst who we are gets ignored, neglected, marginalized. Not only does who we are get ignored and marginalized, it gets penalized. The rule-based (category-based) system which is society reacts aversively to anything that it doesn’t recognize, anything that doesn’t follow the rules it is based on, anything that doesn’t fit into the categories that it takes for granted. It reinforces adaptation, in other words – it reinforces adaptation both in a positive way by bestowing approval and in a negative way by manifesting disapproval. It rewards us for fitting in successfully, and it punishes us for failure in this regard. What system doesn’t do this? How else can a system behave? ‘Reward versus punishment’ is the most fundamental mechanism in society – it’s actually the only mechanism in society!
Optimization means that we are ‘chasing an ideal’. The perfect answer to what society requires of us is a very narrow thing indeed. It is a vanishingly narrow thing. Maximum validation occurs when there is a minimum amount of who we really are in the equation – this is necessarily so since ‘who we really are’ is unique rather than regular or generic! The less ‘odd’ we are the more we are accepted – as everyone knows – and the end-point of this process is where we are completely divorced, completely alienated from our true nature. This profoundly alienated and profoundly pathological situation is where it is all headed – the situation of being completely divorced from who we really are is the one and only end-point of the optimization process.
The ‘ideal’ state of maximum adaptation to the game is portrayed by the system (and perceived by us, the game-players) as being the ultimately desirable state of being. Nothing is better than this; nothing is more worthwhile than this. Actually, nothing else matters apart from this! This is the state of being the All-Time Winner – when we arrive at the state of maximum adaptation to the system this is the ‘ultimate success story’ (it’s the ultimate success story according to the system, anyway). This is the ‘jack-pot moment’ that we’re all dreaming of. It’s the ‘big pay-off’ that we’re all hungering for. This is the moment when we get covered in glory and so wonderful is this moment that we never look beyond it. Naturally enough, we just assume that after maximum adaptation has been achieved then all our problems will be over…
This is how the system portrays ‘maximum adaptation’. As we have said, the system portrays maximum adaptation as the ultimately desirable situation, the All-Good. It is the Supremely Glorious Attainment. All benefits are subsumed within it. The actual reality of the situation is very different however – the actual reality of the situation is – as we have just pointed out – that all we have ‘succeeded’ at is in becoming totally alienated from our true nature. This is our attainment, our accomplishment. What we have obtained for ourselves is the situation of being divorced and alienated both from who we truly are, and actual reality – ‘who we truly are’ and ‘reality’ being (of course) one and the same thing!
What we have obtained for ourselves with all our efforts to adapt is – in the simplest possible terms – a state of unmitigated suffering. How can complete alienation from our true nature be anything other than pure suffering? What is suffering if not this? We can’t however see this suffering for what it is and this is the crux of the matter; we are (evidently) not able to be aware of the suffering that we have incurred – if we were able to be aware of it then we wouldn’t persist with what we’re doing! We wouldn’t carry on creating suffering for ourselves in the way that we do. What has happened to us is that a false (or ‘artificial’) self has been created and we are acting out of allegiance to this false sense of self rather than acting in keeping with our own best interests. We’re identifying with the painfully constrictive ‘knot of denial’ that is the tautological mind-created self so that its benefit seems to be our benefit, even though the exact contrary is true.
This ‘false self’ is a very strange thing indeed, if only we could look into it. The false or artificial self is created via ‘adaptation to an illusion’ and adaptation to an illusion necessarily equals suffering. The more we adapt to the illusion the more pain there is in it for us, and as we have been saying, we have put all our money on adaptation, on ‘optimizing our performance within the game’. The illusion we’re talking about here is ‘who we think we are’; it is ‘who the thinking mind (or society) tells us we are’. The question we need to ask, in order to shed light upon our fundamentally conflicted situation, is “Who is it that the system is validating or rewarding when we manage to completely adapt ourselves to its requirements?” Who is it (in other words) who ‘walks off with the prize’ when the game is won? If there’s one thing we know for sure its that it isn’t us! The system only ever validates itself and the system is not us.
The ‘self’ which collects the prize and walks off with it is the false self which is made up of the pain that comes about as a result of us being alienated or separated from our own true nature. This pain gets ‘turned around’ and used as a basis for what we might call ‘an inverted form of living’, the inverted form of life that is sometimes called ‘conditioned existence’. The system creates and runs us as inverted analogues (or ‘negatives’) of ourselves; it nullifies us and then runs us as shadows of who we really are. We experience ‘involuntary allegiance’ to these negatives, to these shadows – we cling to them and fear their passing. We are motivated (in this strange conditioned existence) by a terrible fear of losing what we never had (and what never existed in the first place). If this isn’t strange, what is?
The mind-created ‘shadow-self’ runs on an inverted basis. It operates therefore on the motivation of ‘not wanting to see the truth’ (which we may understand as a kind of mirror-image of the motivation of curiosity or ‘interest in finding out the truth’. Another – perhaps simpler – way of putting this is simply to say that the conditioned self operates on the basis of fear. We could just say that the conditioned self ‘obeys fear in everything in does’ and that this constitutes the basis of unconscious life. No one who has any insight into the ways of the mind-created self will have any problem with this statement! Unconscious life is of course all about fear – fear is our master and always will be just as long as we stay in thrall to the self which isn’t who we really are – which is the mind-created or ‘shadow’ self.
Adaptation to the mind-created world (i.e. ‘the social game’) is how we avoid seeing the truth and this proves to be a superlatively effective strategy. Fear casts a long shadow, we might say, and the shadow it casts is this concrete world of ours, this ‘society’, this false world which is the beginning and end of everything we care about. Belief in the concrete world which is society is our ‘systematized avoidance of the truth’ and this is the sponge that soaks up every last bit of our attention. The social game (which is the shadow of the assumptions thought has made) is precisely ‘what we can’t see beyond’. We can’t see beyond it and we don’t want to see beyond it either because if we did then we might run the risk of seeing the truth…
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.