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The Movement Away From Meaning

The movement toward security (or rather, the movement towards perceived security) is always a movement away from meaning. Eventually, when we travel far enough down the path that (supposedly) heads towards security we will get to the point where there is absolutely no meaning to our existence, not even a tiny meagre little morsel of it. At this point we could say that the ‘meaning’ of existence is that we are searching for meaning! This is a special type of meaning, we might say – it’s a strictly functional type of meaning, a purely mechanical type of meaning. This type of meaning is all about ‘obeying the rule’ and the rule is simply that we have to find security. Security represents everything worthwhile for us, it represents everything we want.



This is a simple enough rule to talk about but not so easy to carry out in practice. In practice trying to obey this rule leads to very severe complications. There are two very good reasons why obeying this particular rule is not so simple in practice – [1] is that it is simply not possible to obtain it, and [2] is that there is no such thing as it in the first place anyway, so that any talk of either ‘obtaining it’ or ‘not obtaining it’ is quite beside the point. It’s an ‘unreal quest’ and this fact creates no end of problems for us! If we saw that the unreal quest was indeed ‘an unreal quest’ then there would of course be no problems, no difficulties whatsoever – we simply wouldn’t even begin to try to obey the jinxed ‘security-seeking’ rule and so that would be the end of that. That would be the end of that before it even started!



We absolutely don’t see that this is an unreal quest however – we don’t see that the rule in question can’t ever be obeyed and so we keep on trying to obey it. On a superficial level the quest for security might be said to be meaningful inasmuch as it is deeply compelling to us; in a non-superficial sense however we can say that the search in question is a meaningless pursuit – it is meaningless because it can never be accomplished on the terms which in itself takes for granted. In the superficial, mechanical (or nominal) sense there is meaning what we are doing – there is meaning inasmuch as the thinking mind keeps on supplying us with goals to strive towards, goals which we believe to be stepping stones that will further our progress towards the ultimate aim of finding security in this life. There is no shortage of compelling rules to obey in other words and this – as we have already said – constitutes a form of meaning (albeit a form of meaning that is ultimately meaningless). Rather than saying that mechanical coercion constitutes a form of meaning we would of course be better off saying that it substitutes itself for genuine meaning, in such a way that we are always too busy (or too pressurized) to notice what we are missing. The absence of meaning cannot legitimately substitute itself for meaning, but in practical terms it can substitute itself nonetheless!



At this point in the argument we can very easily see that ‘the journey of life’ – as it is for most of us – is one that takes us away from ‘meaning’ (in the pure existential sense of the word) and towards ‘lack of meaning’ that is disguised by an overlay of compulsivity of one form or another. Life – as it is usually lived – has therefore the nature of ‘a promise betrayed’. It is not that life itself  betrays us but that we ourselves turn our backs on it; we turn our backs on it just as soon as we enter into the adult world because the adult world is all about extrinsic meaning, which is to say, ‘meaning that lies outside of ourselves’ (or ‘meaning that has been provided for us by an external structure’). Life has, in the course of this journey, been glitched for us in that we now can’t help believing that life (or rather the proper fulfilment of life) has to be won by ‘appropriate action’ and is not freely given. This is the logic of the machine; this is machine logic and so when we are adapted to the machine it becomes our logic too. This belief has become an actual ideology to us – those that strive correctly in life will receive ‘all the benefits’ (as the just reward for their efforts) whilst those who are too lazy or too ‘wrong-headed’ to strive appropriately shall be given nothing. This is why – collectively – we look down on the poor, the unhappy, and the dispossessed – because we implicitly believe that they just haven’t tried hard enough. From the point of view of exerting leverage on us to participate in the artificial way of life that is ‘society’ this particularly ideology is very useful indeed! It is no wonder that we are fed this message from junior school onwards…



This is how the machine makes us addicted, this is how the system makes us dependent – it creates this distorted perception that the only way we can enjoy ‘the benefits’ of life is through its mediation. In what we might call the correct use of the machine the situation is quite different; when it’s the ‘correct’ use of the machine that we talking about then the only way of obtaining the benefit which we seek is through the appropriate use of the machine (or technique) in question. This is of course perfectly straightforward and unproblematic; it’s very much what we would expect, after all! Obviously the only way that I can reap the benefit provided by the machine is to use the machine appropriately! If I want to reap the benefit of having nice hot toast and I have to use the toaster; if I want to reap the benefits of having my fingernails neatly cut then I have to use the nail scissors, and so on. This is how it is with machines and this is only as it should be. We’re not concerned with this state of affairs however; what we’re concerned in this discussion with is the state of affairs where the machine ‘grows out of control’ and takes over everything, like ivy that has completely overgrown the tree that supports it. This happens very quickly and we never pay any heed to the process. The thinking mind is a system of techniques, a system of methods, and it is absolutely the case that we can’t do anything without automatically looking for the right way of doing it, the right way of approaching it, the right way of thinking about it. Society (as Ivan Illich says) is also a system of techniques, a system of ‘protocols’, a system of controls, and it is similarly true that we can’t act outside of the system – everything has to be done in its way, according to its rules, by reference to it and it alone.



The inevitable result therefore (when the machine grows beyond its proper bounds) is that we find ourselves in the situation where we can’t help believing that the only way we are going to obtain the benefits of life (or the benefits of a meaningful and enjoyable existence) is via the mediation of the ubiquitous machine. How could we expect things to be otherwise – 100% adaptation always makes slaves of us. Society supplies us with our ‘total way of ‘seeing the world’, ‘being in the world’, and so – via an illegitimate route – it has become the world for us. In the same way, we never look at the world (or ourselves) except via the intercession of the thinking mind and so the thinking mind has, illegitimately, become the whole world for us. This is the Gnostic myth right here, in the actual humdrum particularities of our everyday lives, not in some dusty old book in a forgotten library somewhere. We are living the Gnostic myth every day of our lives even though we don’t know it, even though we don’t know what the Gnostic myth is – we are living in a false world and we are ‘serving a false master’ (as Philip K Dick says). How can we be complacent or ‘self-satisfied’ in a situation like this?



When the machine becomes, if only in an illegitimate way, ‘functionally equivalent to the whole world’, then there is only one way in which this is going to work out for us. Instead of being responsible for producing the ‘little’ benefit for us (which is the legitimate state of affairs, as we have said) it becomes (supposedly) responsible for providing us with ‘the great benefit’ – however we may choose to interpret that. The machine has substituted itself for the world (or for reality’) and so the benefit that it is supposed to provide us with is life itself, or – as we might also say – existence itself. All of a sudden therefore, we have become dependent upon the machine for our very being, our very existence! This is of course exactly analogous to the situation that existed with regard to the Christian Church in mediaeval Europe – if we want to find salvation then it is only through the intercession of the Church that we will obtain it, and for this reason the Church’s control over us, or power over us, is absolute. This is actually the ultimate ‘abusive relationship’ therefore and the final seal on this infinitely disempowering relationship is the fact that ‘the abuser’ sets himself (or itself) up as being a benign force which is only doing what is best for us, despite all our obstinate efforts to wander off in the wrong direction. This – needless to say – leaves us without a leg to stand on. However we might try to assert autonomy, we’re going to be wrong. The attempt to assert our autonomy is thrown back in our face as diabolical wilfulness on our part…



Our understanding is that the only possible way we can obtain ‘the benefits of life’, or ‘the benefits of a meaningful and satisfying existence’, is via the machine. We don’t explicitly understand things this way of course because we don’t see the machine as ‘a machine’; we just see it as ‘everything’. We don’t see the arbitrary rules and regulations of the machine as being ‘arbitrary rules and regulations’ but simply as ‘the way things are’. Our understanding is that if we want to lead meaningful and fulfilling life (as we do!) then we have to go along with the system of rules and regulations which we take to be the same thing as life, which we take as being synonymous with life, and this is deeply ironic to say the least because – as we started out by saying in this discussion – the movement in the direction of assumed security (which we travel in by ‘striving to do the right thing’) is ALSO the movement away from meaning. The system sells itself to us on the basis that it will deliver meaning to us, but the more we buy into its promise the further away from meaning we stray. It is of course not hard to see how ‘obeying rules’ takes us away from any sense of meaning to life. The crude and superficial way of understanding meaning is to say that it is ‘having a direction to go in’, no matter where this direction might be taking us (or even if it’s taking us nowhere) and the machine is the master of providing this type of meaning therefore – it will boss us about to the very ends of the earth, it will boss us about until the day we die. True meaning has nothing to do with ‘being told what to do’ however; it has nothing to do with any ‘external structure’ that is being imposed on us. External structure, when it rules over us, is the ultimate oppression, the ultimate absence of meaning. True meaning has to do with the lackof oppression, the lack of any external structure that is illegitimately determining our existence. True meaning has to do with autonomy in other words, and this is of course the very thing that obeying rules robs us of.



During the course of our lives we – almost inevitably – move away from autonomy and find ourselves instead in the very miserable realm of heteronomy, as Ivan Illich calls it. Heteronomy means that everything is determined for us from the outside; it means that we have no more ‘inner life’, no more ‘interiority’. We only have an outer life and the outer life is an entirely illegitimate one – the outer life is based on rules and compulsions, and yet in life there are no rules, no compulsions. There is no big stick-waving ‘authority figure’ telling us what to do, and judging us harshly when we fail to obey, as much as we might like there to be! When we talk about ‘the logic of the machine’ what we really talking about games; the realm of heteronomy (which is the realm of extrinsic meaning) is a game, purely and simply. In a game ‘everything supplied from the outside’; all is supplied by the system – all of our hopes and all of our fears (all of our good feelings and all of our bad feelings) come from outside of us. All of it is therefore illegitimate, which is to say, absolutely none of it has anything to do with who we really are. This goes without saying really – of course games have nothing to do with who we really are! They are games – that’s the whole point.



So what we are looking at here is an archetypal process, so to speak – it’s not ‘a mistake’ or ‘something we should never have done’ or anything like that, this isn’t anything we need to recrimination against ourselves for. ‘Going astray’ like this isn’t anything we can realistically avoid because we don’t know about it in the first place. We don’t see that we are ‘running away from our autonomy’ because obeying rules is all we know and that’s what seems to be working for us. We can only learn about ‘the mistake’ by making it – it’s not as if we can learn the lesson in the classroom or in an online seminar so that we don’t have to learn it in real life. As William Blake says, ‘a fool who persists in his folly will become wise’ and so – quite simply – it is required of us that we be the fools that we actually are, and persist in our folly in all good conscience! The truth is however that we would much rather do a bit of ‘spiritual bypassing’ and jump straight ahead to the part where we are no longer fools (but rather some kind of lofty spiritual being) because that sounds like a lot more fun than being a poor old fool. But that isn’t how it works – that’s actually ‘life-avoidance’, not living. We actually have to get our hands dirty, we actually have to ‘get down and dirty’. We don’t learn about life in a classroom or in college or in an online seminar but in the actual business of ‘going astray’ itself. This is the message behind the Hindu story of Fetching Water For Vishnu.



The problem we fall into making is that we think (by default) that life is (or ought to be) all about ‘obtaining high-grade security’. When we die, we might think, we will be able to go to heaven or paradise and this we see as being the ultimate form of ontological security. No matter what our beliefs we are seeking security – beliefs are themselves security. This confusion constitutes the archetypal mistake – the mistake which none of us can avoid making, the mistake that is our means of becoming wise. Our confusion is such that we perceive ‘the spiritual life’ as being a way of conveniently bypassing the necessity to make this mistake, and so – as a result – we get embroiled in all sorts of methods and practices designed to create some sort of ‘special situation’ for ourselves. We’re straining to live on another level, and this generally doesn’t work out very well for us! We’re trying to create a special situation and this is a highly problematic task; were we to realize that no special situation is needed this would make things hugely more practical for us – all we need to do is not to set so much stock in not being the way we actually are and things will naturally work out all by themselves. What helps us and is valuable is the mess that we’re actually already in and that ‘mess’ (the mess of being painfully divorced from the genuine meaning of our lives) isn’t a special situation that has to be engineered!









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.
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