The discriminative mind works by ‘separating something that can’t really be separated at all’ – it works by separating YES from NO. This – although it is the most essential way of describing how the mind works – is something that you won’t ever read in any modern psychology text-book. This idea would be familiar to anyone who has studied the works of C.G. Jung, but Jung has long been off the reading list as far as mainstream psychology is concerned. The reason for this omission (the omission not just of Jung but of the principle that rationality operates via ‘the splitting of the opposites’) is because modern psychology is the product of the thinking process, rather than being an independent observation of it. And yet how can the product of the thinking process be expected to tell us anything useful about that same thinking process? What kind of hocus pocus is this?
It ought not to come as any surprise to learn that the thinking process itself does not give rise to the observation that thought works by separating something that cannot be separated. That would require rationality to give rise to the insight that its own basis is purely arbitrary, and that all the distinctions it draws are essentially meaningless. No one can expect rationality to come to such a conclusion since for it to come up with any conclusions at all (for it to get anywhere at all in its calculations) it has to make the assumption that the basis for its calculations, the basis for its deliberations, is as sound as sound could be.
Rationality is a game and as such it is based upon a very strict taboo – the taboo against seeing that the basis which it takes for granted (which is the basis it needs to have in order to be able to make distinctions that are actually meaningful) is in reality only ‘sound’ because we have agreed to assume that it is. All games – fairly obviously – are based upon this taboo – the taboo against seeing that ‘the game in question isn’t actually meaningful at all, but only meaningful if we agree for it to be so’. Games very obviously require us to ‘play along with them’, in other words.
We can be perfectly explicit with regard to the particular taboo behind the game of rationality and say that it forbids us to become aware that YES is the same as NO, or that PLUS is the same as MINUS. Or to express this the other way around, the assumption made by the game of rationality is that YES is different to NO, that PLUS is different to MINUS. What the game forbids us from seeing – in order that it might get anywhere at all – is that YES is actually ‘the other side of’ NO, and so the idea of separating one from the other is a complete non-starter.
We can illustrate the principle of the inseparability of the opposites very simply by imagining a stick, and then by saying that one end of the stick is YES and the other end is NO. Suppose now that we want to separate the YES end from the NO end – the way to do this is obviously by breaking the stick in two, but when we do this we discover that we haven’t solved the problem at all because what we are left with is two sticks instead of one, each of which still has two ends – the YES end and the NO end. This means we haven’t got any further in achieving what it is we want to achieve, and so we are forced to take our logic one stage further and break each of these sticks in two, in a further effort to isolate POSITIVE from NEGATIVE. So straightaway we can see that the whole exercise is ridiculous – no matter how short the stick it will always have two ends. The goal of obtaining ‘a stick with only one end’ is therefore an impossible one. It’s a goal all right – but it’s a foolish one.
If we don’t see the foolishness of what we are trying to do then we will end up with a huge profusion of very short sticks, each of which have a YES at one end and a NO at the other. We will be no closer at all to achieving our aim because YES and NO are – as Gurdjieff says – the two ends of the very same stick…
We can also try to illustrate the principle of the Identity of the Opposites (a principle that is well-known in the intuitive East but practically unheard of in the rational West) by thinking about a length of string that has been stretched out and then laid out on a flat surface. If we then pull the string at its mid-point a few inches to the right we will thereby create a displacement of the original straight line and produce a convex curve (looking at it from that right-hand side, that is). But at the same time we create the convexity on the right-side we are also – of course – creating a concavity on the left-hand side. A convex curve is conventionally regarded as the opposite of a concave one, and yet both curves are described at the same time by the very same length of string. This demonstrates that the positive (or concave) displacement of the original median line is the very same thing as the negative (or convex) displacement, which is another way of saying that PLUS equals MINUS, another way of saying that [+] = [-].
The notion that we can separate the convex curve from its concave counterpart (that we can separate PLUS from MINUS) is thus revealed to be nothing more than utter insanity; it is seen as complete out-and-out fantasy of the most bizarrely unrealistic type possible.
An even simpler way of showing that the opposites are in reality ‘one and the same thing’ is to consider a geometrical line, an abstract boundary dividing one region of space from another. A boundary has two sides – an inside and an outside – and between these two sides there is (needless to say) no distance at all. There is no distance between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ because geometrical lines are one-dimensional, having extension in one dimension only. A line is a way of arbitrarily dividing the world into two halves, so if you ask me in which half of the world a particular location lies I can then reply with a definite answer, an EITHOR/OR answer.
This gives us the possibility therefore of generating positive data about the world, which is to say, the possibility of creating a body of nice crisp black-and-white answers regarding questions about where particular elements in the world are to be found in relation to this dividing line. You ask me a question as to whether the element in question is to be found on this side or the other, and I can then answer with either a YES or a NO. Or if the dividing line is a boundary enclosing a particular region of space, then you can ask me whether the element being investigated is within the bounded region (i.e. the defined set or category) or not and again, I can reply either in the definitely affirmative or in the definitely negative. I can tick one box or the other.
This simple beginning is the basis for all the positive knowledge we have about the world. It is the basis for everything we rationally or conceptually ‘know’ full stop, but there is a fatal flaw right there at the heart of it. The ‘fatal flaw’ that we are talking about here is of course The Principle of the Identity of the Opposites, which in the Grand Adventure of creating our marvellous positive knowledge system we have quite lost sight of. The point is that the geometrical line or boundary that separates the ‘inside’ from the ‘outside’, the ‘allowed’ from the ‘disallowed’ – and thus the YES from the NO – doesn’t actually separate anything at all.
The boundary which is at the very heart of our discriminative mind doesn’t really separate the inside from the outside, the YES from the NO, because it has no width. YES and NO, POSITIVE and NEGATIVE have no space between them, they have no anything between them, which means that we can pick any particular point on the dividing line and say that on one side of the line is ‘positive’ and that on the other side of the line at that same point is ‘negative’, but because there is no separation between ‘the positive’ and ‘the negative’ these two supposed opposites are actually one and the same thing. What this shows is that any defined point (and thus any definite statement) is actually a paradox, a self-contradiction. We can never find any such thing as ‘an isolated YES statement’, or ‘an isolated NO statement’; there are only ‘YES/NO statements’, statements which tell us at one and the same time (and with equal assurance) that ‘IT IS’ and ‘IT ISN’T’…
What we forget in our intrepid exploration and colonization of ‘the Positive World’ is that the boundaries which it is founded upon are only imaginary lines that we have drawn to help us organize our understanding of the world. Everything relies on ‘the integrity of the boundary’, and if the boundary is imaginary, then so too is the all-important separation of the opposites.
In one way it is perfectly legitimate to assume (or project) the existence of boundaries, since if we choose to look at things this way then of course we can! If we choose to look at things this way then it follows that there is going to be an inside and an outside with respect to the boundary that we have assumed; it follows that the world is now going to be organized in relation to the rule we have put in place. Once we assume the existence of a set of boundaries (or a set of discriminative rules) then we can generate a whole body of positive data and, having done this, we can proceed to orientate ourselves with regard to the positive world that we have thus generated. The way the rational mind works is of course vastly more sophisticated than just having a few boundaries here and there; there is a lot more to it than just having a few mathematical sets (i.e. mental categories) thrown together and linked up with some kind of input/output circuit, but the same time this is what it comes down to in principle and if we understand this principle then in one go we straightway understand everything that we need to understand about the rational or discriminative mind. In a nutshell – we understand that it is the blueprint for a virtual (or ‘null’) world.
Because the everyday mind – the mind we rely on so much – is based on boundaries (or categories) the data it generates is binary – it all comes down to YES/NO answers with respect to these taken-for-granted boundaries and categories. Because the thinking mind is binary (or digital) in its nature, so too is the world it produces, which means that the positive data that is produced by all our multitudinous assumed boundaries (by the vast conglomeration of our assumed mental categories) goes to create a digital universe and it is this digital universe (i.e. this ‘positive world’) that we proceed to relate to, and inhabit, as if it were reality itself.
Reality itself however is not digital, is not ‘positive’ and the reason why it isn’t digital or positive is simply because it is Unitary in nature, rather than being comprised of fundamentally separate compartments. In the digital universe everything is based upon the dividing line, the +/-partition – this is the fundamental, the supremely important principle. In the Unitary or non-positive universe the underlying principle is – needless to say – ‘non-fragmentation’ (or ‘non-division’) and this means that there is nothing binary (ON/OFF or YES/NO) about it at all.
Just as the digital world is a positive one (i.e. one that can be exhaustively described or defined), the non-digital world is a negative world because we cannot make any definite statements about it without breaking symmetry (which is to say, without performing the impossible act of ‘dividing the indivisible’).
That which is stated or said is the positive world, and that which cannot be stated or said is the negative world. It is our prejudice as conditioned beings to think that unless something is stated or said then it doesn’t exist, i.e. – if we can’t say (or define it) then we’re going to lose it. This is why we are always in such a terrible hurry to say stuff, assert stuff, and define stuff – because we are greedy to possess it, greedy to secure it. The other way of putting this is to say that the reason we are always in such a hurry to assert and define the world is because we are afraid of losing it, afraid of not having it. It is the same motivation either way – being ‘greedy to have something’ is the same as being ‘afraid of losing it’. Either way, we grab hold of (what we imagine to be) reality as hard as ever we can…
But what’s wrong with wanting to possess the world, what’s wrong with wanting to be able to say what the world is? It doesn’t sound like too much to ask – that we should be able to definitely know that there is a world, and that we should have the certainty of knowing what sort of a thing that world is. If that’s all we want, why shouldn’t we have it?
Even asking this question shows up the problem, however. Wanting comes out of a deficit – it is what Abraham Maslow calls a deficit motivation. So seeing that our wanting comes out of a deficit (is a deficit in fact) how can we expect anything else to come out of it but more deficit, more lack? The wanting is an expression of the lack (it is the lack) so how can it through extending itself become what it is not? This is like doing something out of fear – I fear and so I act out of this fear in the hope of escaping it, but what is this action, this movement, this hope, other than the fear itself? As Krishnamurti says, there is no way that ‘acting on the basis of fear’ can ever take me to a place that is not fear since anything that comes about as a result of fear is an extension of that fear, a progression or development of that fear.
Similarly, anything that comes about as a result of wanting or deficit is want, is deficit. We are greedy for being, which means being afraid of not-being, and so we assert the positive world for ourselves – we state it in definite terms. We assign significance, we assign values, we assign meaning. We do more than assign meaning, we invent it: as Jean Baudrillard says –
Everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, to make the world signify, to render it visible. We are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary, we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us.
The positive (or ‘visible’) world we assert with our thinking isn’t the real world, it is just our wanting, our fear, acted out and made concrete. We have made a world for ourselves (out of our ontological insecurity, out of our fear of there not being a world) but the world we have made is this fear, in camouflaged form. The positive world is – inarguably – a mere compensation for our existential insecurity, a fixed framework thrown ‘out there’ to compensate ourselves for the utter lack of certainty that we have found ‘on the inside’. Then – just so long as we do all our living ‘on the outside’, in the black-and-white world of our projections, and totally ignore the radical uncertainty ‘on the inside’ – we will get on just fine…
So when we make a definite statement about the world – when we say something that as far as we are concerned is literally true – then this is our way of attempting to grab hold of something that we haven’t got, our way our trying to get a firm grasp on reality. This is a perfectly natural tendency and there is no reason why we shouldn’t try our best to obtain a firm grasp on reality in this way, the only proviso being that when what we end up with in our hand is not reality itself but its lower analogue, which is as we have been saying, a PLUS/MINUS pair, a pair of complementary opposites.
The YES/NO pair of opposites that we end up with is the definite (or ‘literal’) analogue of an indefinite reality. From the point of view of the enquiring mind, what we start of with is a big huge question mark, absolutely unresponsive to any of our attempts to get a handy angle on it; afterwards what we have are two very definite, very concrete, very literal statements – “YES IT IS…” and “NO IT IS NOT…”
This pair of contradictory but inseparable statements is a ‘literal-minded token’ of a reality that cannot ever be literally described, and as such it is fine – no better (or more accurate) literal token could ever be obtained and so we can have nothing to complain about on these grounds. The self-contradictory statement “YES /NO” is the defined token of the radically indefinable and as such it is perfectly fine, perfectly legitimate: it tells us nothing at all about the nature of reality (because it can’t) but what the explicit paradox of [YES = NO] – which is the essential form of the ‘liar’ or Epimenides paradox famously mentioned in the Epistle of Paul to Titus in the New Testament – does tell us about is its own profound inability (which is the profound inability of the rational mind) to say anything meaningful about the irrational or non-literal reality from which all phenomena are derived. The message of the paradox is, in other words, the message of impossibility.
The trouble all starts when we don’t see the paradox, when we don’t see the impossibility, because we then become hypnotized by the pernicious illusion that our thoughts can tell us something about the nature of reality. And it is not just that we are tricked into believing that the rational mind can make meaningful statements about reality – we fall into the bottomless pit of believing that this mind can tells us everything we need to know about reality, of believing that it can exhaustively describe or define reality. This is a tremendous error – an error with far-reaching consequences.
The reason for us falling headlong into this error is because of the nature of the rational mind itself, which is incapable of gaining insight into the paradox of [YES = NO]. The two contradictory statements “YES IT IS…” and “NO IT ISN’T…” are an indivisible whole but because the nature of discriminative thought is to separate the opposites we can only see one facet of this dual, self-contradicting statement at a time. We then proceed on the basis of the illusion that the opposites are separate to manufacture an entire world of illusions based upon this premise.
This is where the ‘consequences’ come in: it is not just the case that the world we then inhabit is one which is made up entirely of illusions, and that all our thoughts and goals are likewise illusory, and that the purposeful behaviour we engage in as a result of our illusory thoughts and goals is therefore the purest ‘folly’, but that our rational thoughts and actions are automatisms, and that the self which thinks those thoughts and performs those purposeful actions is an automaton!
In the following passage John Bennett (1961, P 167-8) states that it is the inability of what he refers to as ‘the Reactional Self’ to experience both opposites at the same time that lies at the root of that self’s automatism –
The Reactional Self can experience the action of only one Cosmic Impulse at any one given time. When it experiences the affirming impulse, it is unaware of the denying force that opposes it. This produces a positive reaction that is manifested through the automatism of the Material Self. Likewise, a denying impulse produces a negative manifestation. In these reactions, there is no choice, and no decision. There is polarity, but only one pole is situated within the Self.
There is a type of overwhelming passion (or ‘excitement’) that kicks in when we perceive YES and NO as being unrelated, as being independent of each other – a compulsive thrill that is based upon the idea that reality actually can be defined, that it actually can be ‘seized hold’ of in a literal way. This passion is a delirium, it is a frenzy – the tremendously seductive belief that YES can be separated from NO is the illusion ‘in whose honour men go mad and rave’, to use the words of Heraclitus from this passage where he scorns his countrymen’s belief in gods and myths and images –
…they pray to these images, as if one were to talk with a man’s house, knowing not what gods or heroes are, but Hades is the same as Dionysus in whose honour they go mad and rave.
There are two ways of looking at this – we could either say that this overwhelming excitement, this runaway passion, has its origin in the seductive illusion that it is possible to exhaustively define reality (which is to say, that it has to do with ‘constructing the positive world’) or we could say that it has its root in the seductive illusion that it is possible to exhaustively define oneself. Or putting it more bluntly, we can say that the excitement or passion derives from the false belief that there actually is a ‘real’ or concrete universe, and the self which relates hopefully or fearfully to that universe is equally real and concrete.
The positive world and the positive self are the two aspects of one and the same thing – they are two ways of looking at one thing, and that one thing is the ‘literal analogue’ of the unknowable reality which we are trying so hard to grasp hold of.
The positive self is its own world – after all, its ‘world’ is nothing other than the unrecognized projection (or extension) of itself.
Another way of putting this is to say that both the self and the world that self greedily or fearfully inhabits are constructs of the same logical system. We have said that there is at no time any possibility of anything happening (anything that we are prepared to acknowledge or believe in, that is) that does not correspond to a defined location within the assumed framework of the logical mind, and this sort of ‘total accountability’ gives rise not just to the possibility of generating positive data about the world therefore – it gives rise to the possibility of simulating the world, along with the self (the ‘player’) that operates in that world).
If there is no possibility of anything happening (anything that I am allowed by the rules of the game to become aware of, at any rate!) that does not correspond to a possibility already prefigured in the framework of the rational mind then our description of that world not only corresponds to the referents that are built into the logical system that we are using to construct that description, it is those referents. It’s all the one closed system.
Just to go over this point one more time – anything we ‘know’ about the world (anything we have positive knowledge about) we only know because it can be understood in terms of our ‘taken-for-granted’ framework, the framework of the rational mind. So there can’t be anything in the ‘real world’ that isn’t already in our map, and this means that the map and the world we know through reference to that map are not two different things. The known world is an extension of the map, and hence of the framework that informs the map. But since – as we have said – the framework can’t be used to provide genuinely meaningful statements (since each and every axis in the framework is made up of the illusory separation of IN and OUT, YES and NO) this means that our ‘knowing’ is nonsense.
And not only is our ‘knowing’ a nonsense, so too is the positive world that we know about, the defined world that we place so much stock in. As D.H. Lawrence says,
All that we know is nothing, we are merely crammed wastepaper baskets, unless we are in touch with that which laughs at all our knowing.
If we don’t know that our ‘knowing’ isn’t really knowing at all (if we aren’t ‘in touch with that which laughs as all our knowing’) then we’re simply spending all our time wondering around, alternatively hopeful or anxious, elated or depressed, in a fool’s paradise (or a fool’s hell, which comes to exactly the same thing). If we don’t know that ‘our knowing isn’t really knowing at all’ then we are – not to put too fine a point on it – lost in our own folly, lost in a world that is our own folly made concrete, made real, to us. We are lost in a world that seems real to us but isn’t.
Another way of putting this is to say that the positive (or visible) world is a nullity, and that the positive (or concrete) self which inhabits that world is also a nullity. There is no way out of this. It comes with the territory – if we want to know stuff for sure then the stuff that we ‘know for sure’ isn’t actually anything at all.
The only way out of this bind – the only way to come back into reality out of the haunted palace of dreams which is the nullity – is to let go of the positive self and the positive world (which together represent our attempt to ‘hang on’ to something that we just can’t hang on to!), and see what happens then…
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.