The neurotic situation is where we are completely ‘stuck’ to the continuum of logic, to our literal thinking and conceptualization of the world.
We adhere to the ‘definite surface’ that the continuum of logic provides us with as if we were limpets hanging on to a wave-battered rock in a fierce Atlantic storm. We cling to the ‘definitely true’ statements that the logical mind produces with absolutely grim determination, come what may. We cling dumbly to them; we cling without ever reflecting on whether the statements really are as unquestionable as they present themselves, and without ever wondering why it is that we should spend all our time clinging like this to banal literal certainties.
The reason we hang on so tightly, so resolutely, so limpet-like to this offered surface is because we are, courage-wise (or spirit-wise) in full retreat from life, and this ‘definite surface’ offers us a guaranteed solution, so to speak.
In the face of rampant uncertainty, the definite surface of our literal thoughts and conceptions provides us with a fail-safe route from position A to position B, without having to catch any scary glimpses of the abyss of uncertainty that lies between…
The worse the weather gets, therefore, the closer and closer we adhere to this reassuringly unambiguous surface, the more assiduously and literal-mindedly we obey the logic of our concrete thinking. The reason for this is of course because we believe that adhering to the surface will save us, because we believe that this is the only thing that can save us. All of our craving for the security of the ‘zero-risk’ option goes into this literal-mindedness, this obstinate and unquestioning clinging to the map produced by our rational mind.
But the problem with this is (and pretty obviously there is a very serious, if not to say fatal flaw in the neurotic solution) is that by insisting in our fear that life should be absolutely risk-free we have unwittingly done a deal with the devil. By squeezing every last little bit of uncertainty out of life – much as one would wring every last little bit of water out of a wet flannel – we have actually squeezed all the good out of it. By insisting in our insecurity that we should understand life literally we have wrung all the information out of it and when anything loses all its information content it turns into mere pointless redundancy – it turns into a dry, worthless copy, a ‘pale imitation’ of the original article. We end up clasping hold of a dehydrated simulacrum.
When we wring every last drop of information (or ‘unpredictability’) out of life by holding on too tightly to our concrete, black-and-white idea of it, we end up as a result of our unwillingness to take a risk with a sort of ‘analogue’ that is not really representative of anything other than itself. And because ‘itself’ (the literal analogue) only makes sense in a tautological or self-referential way, it isn’t actually anything at all…
What we end up with is an empty statement that only sounds like it is saying something because we have no perspective, because are too ‘close up’ to it to be able to see that it is actually totally nonsensical. We have the assumption that it is saying something worthwhile and it is this assumption that we relate to on a day-to-day basis, rather than looking beneath it (or beyond it) to see what its actual content is, what its actual relationship to reality is. This is like trusting the authority-figure who is telling you what to do and what to think because you have been brow-beaten into believing him by his overbearing manner, by his loud voice, by his constant hectoring and fault-finding, by his relentless insistence that you are a bad person if you don’t believe him. Thus, the definite (or ‘literal’) mind coerces us into believing it because we feel foolish or weak-minded or culpable if we don’t.
When the ‘big squeeze’ eradicates any last trace of uncertainty what is left is a kind of residuum, a residuum which stands in the same relation to unreduced reality as a stuffed nightingale fixed in place in a glass case in a museum does to the real live bird sitting up in the branches of a tree and singing its song. It has the same relation to the original that the skull of a whale washed up on a beach does to the free-swimming giant of the sea: more of a macabre reminder of what has been lost than a genuine replacement or substitute. There is a connection, but it is a ‘non-representative’ connection, a purely ‘tokenistic’ connection.
What we end up with at the other end of the ‘degradatory’ (or ‘dehydrating’) process is therefore a squiggle on a bit of paper, a dull official or bureaucratic marking made in a ledger, mere dry token which is entirely lacking in all the qualities that made the original real, vital, vibrant and alive. Given the inherently irreversible nature of this transformation process, therefore (which derives from the fact that there is no genuine relationship or correspondence between where we start off and where we end up) there is no way in which we can work our way back to our source or origin; we cannot retrace our steps (or work out where we came from) any more than we are able to recreate yesterday’s football match from a few rain-sodden tickets found trodden into the pavement outside the stadium the next day, or recreate our childhood from a cobweb-covered toy found in a box in the attic.
The inherent irreversibility of the process whereby the original reality is replaced by its degenerate literal analogue gives rise to the situation where redundancy takes the place of real information. In purely practical terms, ‘redundancy’ means that we go around in circles without realizing it – superficially speaking we’re moving but when it comes right down to it we aren’t actually getting anywhere and so the movement is useless. The process whereby we get translated from ‘a non-redundant situation’ to ‘a redundant one’ can be related to the process that ensues when we react automatically to fear. It is said that fear ‘concentrates the mind’ and this can of course be true but when we react to fear in the way that fear generally causes us to react what happens is that we concentrate on the smaller picture to the exclusion of the larger. We ‘shut-down’, in other words. When we focus narrow-mindedly (or short-sightedly) on the smaller picture we find that the fear lessens, and because the fear lessens we find comfort, we find pleasure.
Thus, in ‘the small picture’ there is comfort, there is pleasure, there is cessation of fear, and so it is that we are driven irreversibly into this small picture in such a way that we no longer know that there is ‘a big picture’. It is after all the ‘big picture’ that we’re running away from, and so once we have successfully run away from it then it stands to reason that we will no longer know that there is or ever was ‘a bigger picture’. The resultant information collapse means that ‘the small picture becomes the big picture’; it becomes the big picture by default, because it doesn’t have any rivals. Another way to explain the process whereby perspective is irreversibly lost as a result of reacting to fear (i.e. as a result of ‘doing what the fear wants us to do’) is to say that we concentrate on certainties, on what we know for sure, and turn our backs on everything else.
Obeying fear is why ‘the collapse’ takes place; automatically reacting to fear is why there is ‘an irreversible loss of information’. What ‘we know for sure’ is just another way of talking about our own mental categories, and so the process whereby we concentrate on certainties and turn our backs on everything else is the process in which we value our descriptions of reality over what is actually being described. Another way of explaining this point is to say that the information collapse is where – due to our fear of uncertainty (or fear of ‘openness’) – we concentrate our attention on ‘the pointing finger’ rather than looking at what the finger is pointing at!
But because we are ‘clinging to the finger’ (because we are fixating on the finger rather than looking up, rather than actually looking at where the finger is pointing) we end up stuck to our own descriptions, stuck to our own static preconceptions. We end up ‘closing our accounts with reality’, as William James puts it. If we, out of fear, end up in the situation where we are ‘clinging to the finger’, then it is very clear that we won’t get very far as a result of this strategy. The finger only points – it is not supposed to actually take us somewhere! As a result of fixating on what we know for sure therefore we condemn ourselves to go around in miserable circles forever – or at least until we find the courage within us to look beyond our own descriptions of the world, beyond our own models or theories about the world, beyond our own closed belief-structures. As long as we are still ruled by fear however, this is the one thing that we are absolutely guaranteed never to do…
The neurotic solution is to close the door on uncertainty, to close the door on open-endedness, to close the door on whatever it is that we don’t know, and can’t know (since ‘knowing’ simply means ‘incorporating it into our closed belief-system’). Put like this of course, it doesn’t sound like much of a solution at all. The neurotic solution is attractive nonetheless because – in the initial phase – it actually seems to work. It actually seems to be getting us the result that we’re looking for. It protects from the terrifying abyss of uncertainty that we were trying to run from after all, and if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed it’s that when we’re in the grip of fear we aren’t going to look any further than the relief of this fear. If anything can deliver me from the ontological terror that has got me on the run then that’s all I ask for. That’s more than good enough for me – I will be sign up on the dotted line, no questions asked. I won’t be able to sign up quick enough, in fact…
In the very first moment of applying the neurotic solution there is an instant thrill, an instant and hugely-rewarding feeling that this is the answer to all my problems. Because of the intensely rewarding, intensely gratifying nature of this feeling we become zealots, we become converts, we buy into the package hook, line and sinker. This zealotry, this humourless enthusiasm, is really just our absolute unwillingness to face the fear redirected (or ‘re-channelled’) so to speak. Our zealotry – which seems so energetic, dynamic and positive – is actually our laziness, our resistance, our unwillingness to face reality, diverted into another direction and spuriously ‘validated’ as something worthwhile, something positive, something laudable. Our enthusiasm for the ‘neurotic solution’ is therefore nothing than our original fear in disguised form.
We can think of this in terms of a large head of pressure, something like a giant water tank raised up against gravity on a tower, that suddenly finds release through some crack or aperture. The head of pressure represents what we might call the ‘dynamic tension’ of life – the intrinsic difficulty or challenge that life as a whole presents, whilst the crack or aperture represents the possibility of a resistance-free discharge of the tension or pressure. The downwards flow of the water from the tank via some kind of a flaw in the structure represents therefore the ‘easy answer’; it represents the neurotic solution, in other words. The ‘dynamic tension’ that we are talking about is the inherent challenge or demand that is being made upon us by life itself (rather than by any specific problem) and so when we try to respond to this generalized or non-specific challenge by buying into particular theories and models of what ‘life is all about’ (which will provide us with specific methods and strategies and behaviours) then this narrowing down of our attention (this ‘focusing on the particular’) is the neurotic solution.
This is not the same as saying that all problem-solving is neurotic – if I have a specific problem and I use some over-view of what is going on to furnish me with a helpful method or strategy to solve that problem then this is not neurotic, but if on the other hand I try to ‘solve’ life itself then this is – by definition – neurotic; this is by definition an ‘illegitimate escape’ from the demand that life as a whole is making on me. Why this should be so isn’t hard to see. To solve a problem is to get rid of it – when the problem is solved it’s gone, and so wanting to ‘solve’ life is the exact same thing as wanting to get rid of it.
Whenever I find myself looking for ‘the Answer’ in some way or other then this is always the neurotic solution (and if I convince myself that I have found it, then this is an escape too). Inasmuch as my goals and motivations in life represent an attempt to find some kind of security, some means of assuaging the ever-present (but nevertheless unconscious) challenge of my underlying ontological insecurity, then all the effort I put into obtaining these goals, acting-out this motivation is the same thing as the head of pressure escaping down some convenient channel, and driving whatever machinery it needs to drive, in order to get to a lower energetic level. Our rationalization of life, and the consequent obsessive goal-orientated behaviour that this rationalization gives rise to, is therefore no more than the result of the tendency that this ‘head of pressure’ has to try to find a way of ‘shorting the circuit’, a way of a easy or resistance-free way out of its ‘dilemma’ – if we can call it that.
In order to find this way out from the dilemma it may be (as we have just said) that the flow of water has to meet some kind of limited resistance – it may have to drive a mill-wheel, it may – in its heedless downwards rush – have to drive some kind of machinery designed to harvest its energy. We can say in this case that the innate tendency that we have to want to escape from the demand that life places upon us drives us to involve ourselves in ‘lesser’ demands, limited challenges – in short, some sort of ‘less challenging substitute or surrogate for the work that we are avoiding’. Therefore, although we might feel that we are not avoiding any challenges – in that we are responsibly taking on all the tasks and duties that our rational view of life is creating and foisting upon us (and it is creating them in plenty!) because all of these literally-understood goal-orientated tasks are unacknowledged surrogates (or tokens) for the ‘big challenge’ that we are trying to escape from – which is seeing and relating to everything as a whole, as a Unity, rather than breaking everything down into innumerable fragmented infinitely side-tracking ‘petty tasks’, each of which makes the spurious claim to be ‘the real task’, or ‘the genuinely important thing’ – we are actually avoiding life with all our mechanical busy-ness, not embracing it in the way that we like to think we are. We are – as Sogyal Rinpoche says – filling up our days with ‘irresponsibilities’ rather than responsibilities.
What this means is that all the general type of stuff that we find ourselves getting caught up with in our day-to-day lives – although it implicitly (and often explicitly) presents itself as being ‘positive’ and ‘worthwhile’ and ‘valuable’ and ‘important’ and all the rest of it is not actually legitimate in the way that it seems to be at all. The ‘general type of stuff’ that we are talking about here is actually just about everything we do – it corresponds pretty much with ‘the totality of all our concerns and interests in life’. All we generally care about are our ‘literal or concrete concerns’, after all. That’s what mechanical living is made up of – our literally-understood concerns and nothing else. That’s all there is to it…
Whenever we press for a definite conclusion not for the sake of solving a particular practical problem but for the sake of closing the lid on groundlessness, closing the lid on the essential openness of the universe, then this is surrogate work. This is the neurotic solution. This raises the question as to how much of our daily activity, how much of our normal, everyday behaviour is secretly for the purpose of obtaining this fear-generated goal. How much of our lives is in reality not life at all but a crappy surrogate? How much of our lives is taken over by what we have called ‘mere mechanical living’?
Any honest investigation will quickly show that this is a much bigger deal than we might have imagined, before we started looking into the matter. The mechanical component of our lives is extensive to the point of being quite ubiquitous – after all, any belief in literally-understood goals is trying to bring about an illegitimate closure of the universe, and what else do we believe in apart from our literal ideas and concepts? Even if we say that we believe in some metaphysical ideal we only really believe in our concrete understanding of that idea. If we say we believe in truth or freedom or justice we only believe in our mechanical understanding of these terms. If we say we believe in God we believe in our concrete understanding of God. After all, our ‘concrete or rational understanding of the world’ is all we have; it’s all we have to go on…
When we have bought into the neurotic solution then the whole of life becomes an escape because that’s the direction we have opted to go in. That’s the way we have opted to see things. This is the same as saying that if a person is in denial then everything they think and do is part of their ‘system of denial’ – that is the only way its ever going to work. And in the same way, when we go for the neurotic solution to life everything becomes part of this solution. It’s all part of the neurotic solution.
Reaching definite conclusions, conclusions that will not ever need to be questioned or revised, conclusions that we can pitch a permanent camp on, is an attempt to ‘shut things down’. Trying to increase our ‘positive knowledge’ about the world by accumulating facts and figures is ‘shutting down’. A preoccupation with games, gossip, sensation, superficial novelty, entertainment, distraction – this is ‘shutting down’. Actually believing (!!!!) in any mind-produced picture of the world at all is ‘closing down’…
Even saying this isn’t getting the point across properly – inasmuch as it is made of up literal, concrete or definite terms, the system of referents that we use to talk about and think about the world (our system of mentation and communication) is a way of shutting down, an exercise in uncertainty denial. The way that we have of describing the world to ourselves and others is quite clearly one big act of denial – the denial of the essential openness of the universe. How could a system made up of literal descriptors be anything else other than a denial of openness? It just doesn’t make any sense at all to say that it isn’t. And so given that this is the case, given that our way of talking about and thinking about the world is a systematic attempt to deny the true open nature of reality by overlaying it with literal descriptors, what possibility do we have of ever breaking free from this conspiracy, what chance do we have of ever seeing something or thinking something or doing something that isn’t part of the ubiquitous system of denial?
The only time we do break free from the suffocating monopoly of the literal mind, the monopoly of our own concrete thoughts, is when we use words creatively rather than reflexively, when we think creatively instead of automatically, when we see the world creatively instead of mechanically. This is of course what life is all about – creatively reaching out! If I am not creatively reaching out, reaching out to the genuinely unknown rather than the trivially unknown, then by what stretch of the imagination can I say that I am actually ‘alive’?
The way of neuroticism is however the way of ‘not creatively reaching out’, it is the way of ‘sticking to the known’, the way of sticking to our literal language, the way of sticking to our prosaic and infinitely barren concrete thinking. We adhere to our literal thoughts with the tenacity of limpets clinging to a wave-battered rock in a fierce Atlantic storm. We cling for all we are worth. We hold on tight to the known, to the old, to the established, to the unchanging. We adhere to the literal surface or topology of our minds as if this were the greatest of all possible virtues, the virtue that will secure us a place in the Paradise of the Faithful.
The problem is however that what we have understood as being ‘heaven’ from the limited point of view of the fearful mind (the fear-driven mind that wants more than anything else to escape from the essential openness of life) isn’t really any sort of heaven at all. It is actually hell – ‘the hell of infinite restriction’.
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.