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The Promise of Glory

The self constructs itself via its goals. It does more than just construct itself via its goals, it creates itself with them. Ex nihilo, as it were…

 

 

How does the self accomplish this trick? How does it pull it off? In one way at least to understand this isn’t too difficult – if there is a hard-and-fast goal, a goal that is not going to be questioned but simply strived after, then it stands to reason that there must be a seeker after the goal. A goal can’t just exist on its own, after all!

 

 

So if there is a goal, then there must be a goal-setter, there must be ‘the one who has made the goal’. There must be ‘the one who is motivated by the goal’. If there is a goal then there must – by definition – be one who is looking forward to the moment when the goal is to be achieved, one who orientates himself around this moment. If there is a goal then it stands to reason that there must also be the one who will one day reap the unexcelled triumph and glory that comes with attaining it…

 

 

So a goal is like a promise – it is a promise of glory. This glory, we automatically assume, is absolute – it is ‘absolute’ in the sense that we don’t look beyond it to see ‘what happens next’. The glory of attaining the goal is such a surpassingly great thing that nothing else matters – it is so magnetizing for our attention that nothing else has any interest to us, certainly not the question of ‘what happens after I have reaped the glory’….

 

 

The moment of attaining the goal will be ‘the greatest thing ever’. It is the ultimate jackpot. The moment of attaining the goal is when all my dreams are realized – this is the moment of winning, when I reach the exalted status of being ‘a winner’. We all know winning is great. Who can doubt that? The merest mention of ‘winning’ is enough to bring us to a fever-pitch of excited apprehension. This feverish excitement, this frenzy of anticipation, has as its fuel the undoubted fact of the glory that will be ours when or if we win. Who can doubt this glory? This is what winning is all about, after all. Winning is glory. Winning is great. Who looks beyond winning? The merest whiff of the possibility of winning is a supremely powerful intoxicant….

 

 

Or we could say that the thought of attaining the goal (whatever it is) unfailingly acts as a supremely potent intoxicant – as soon as we have the thought we immediately become drunk with it! The thought hypnotizes us – it puts us in a trance. We stumble forward in a blind, heedless, somnambulistic haze, forgetting everything but the goal and how great it will be when we get our clammy hands on it…

 

 

The kick we get at the merest thought of reaching the goal is like a loan (or a ‘sub’) that we are taking out on the strength of the fact that we are going to win the big jack-pot. When we feel good in anticipation of obtaining the goal this good feeling is really ‘an advance’ on the good feeling we believe we’re going to obtain when the glory is ours. This is a pretty neat bit of accounting because – in effect – we have created something out of nothing. The good feeling is conjured up out of thin air. We have borrowed something that isn’t really there! We have taken out a loan when there is no basis at all for doing so!

 

 

Now it might very easily happen that we won’t achieve the goal, in which case we’re in a tricky situation because we have pulled something positive out of the hat and now it is obvious that there was no basis for doing what we just did. There is no basis for euphoria, no basis for a good feeling. But this actually turns out to be no problem at all because I can offset the positive with a negative – I can balance the books by bringing in a corresponding bad feeling.

 

 

Just as in the phenomenon known in subatomic physics as vacuum fluctuations (or ‘quantum froth’) it is okay to pull an electron out of the vacuum just so long as I pull out a positron at the same time, it is okay for me to have a good feeling without any basis just so long as I also have a corresponding bad feeling – sometime or other. This way the books are balanced – this way no ‘principle of conservation’ has been violated…

 

 

So as long as euphoria and dysphoria are created in equal amounts we can go on feeling good (and bad) for absolutely no reason at all just as much as we like. And as it happens this is exactly what we do do!

 

 

So what happens if the goal we have banked on fails to materialize is that instead of feeling wonderful and great we feel terrible, we feel thoroughly lousy. Our jubilant excitement turns sour. The nectar of our euphoric anticipation quickly turns into a very bitter and unappetizing draught indeed; it turns in fact to what we might call negative intoxication – into sourness and grumpiness and resentment and frustration and anger and malice and despair and such-like negative emotions. It turns into the reverse (or mirror-image) of what we were feeling before. To paraphrase Wei Wu Wei,

 

Suffering is the negative form of happiness, and happiness simply the positive form of suffering!

 

 

So what this means is that whilst we may feel that we hate suffering and wish most heartily that we could live without it, on a deeper level we have ‘opted for suffering’ because we know that without it we couldn’t have any happiness! When it comes down to it, pain isn’t the disaster it seems to us at all because pain allows us to define the self just as well as pleasure does.

 

 

Dysphoria allows us to define the self negatively instead of positively, in terms of failure rather than success. And since being a failure or a loser is every bit as much a legitimate situation of the self as being a success or a winner is, we have in reality lost nothing as a result of this reversal of our fortunes. It works equally well both ways. The key concept of the self is confirmed either way – the ‘game of the sself’ gets to continue either way…

 

 

Turning ‘being a loser’ into advantage in this way is a pretty neat trick alright, but it gets neater. Just as it doesn’t really matter whether the goal in question gets achieved or not achieved (since I can just as well define myself as a non-achiever as an achiever, and being defined is the only thing I’m really after) neither does it matter in the slightest whether the goal is actually real or not in the first place. After all, the important thing is that I believe in the goal, not that it actually exists, and believe in it I most certainly do!

 

 

All I need is the idea of there being a goal, the idea of being a winner, and I am away. With the idea in place everything else swings neatly into action. And what could be easier than coming up with an idea? Ideas are ten-a-penny…

 

 

What we’re really talking about here is playing a game: once the initial bit of make-believe is in place then everything else follows. Playing games is of course something that we see children doing all the time – a gang of children would have no problem for example pretending that the ‘helicopter seeds’ from an ash tree are a valuable food-stuff and then spending lots of time searching for them, collecting them, preparing them for meals and so on. Children do this sort of thing spontaneously, without being taught to, and there is great mileage to be had out of it. The only thing we can’t do in the game is actually eat the seeds but this is no problem because the game will carry on fine just so long as we keep on pretending that we are going to eat them…

 

 

This simple game will go on marvellously just so long as we don’t actually eat the helicopter seeds because helicopter seeds aren’t really food. And in the same way, the game that the self plays can also proceed splendidly, just so long as it never actually tries to cash the cheque it is clutching in its hand the whole time. The game can play out just fine on the basis that there is this goal which is going to be attained, but the much anticipated ‘moment of glory’ was never actually meant to be a real thing. The goal was only ever a made-up thing, after all! It was only ever something we had to make up in order that we could play the game…

 

 

This assertion – that the goal is a made-up thing – may not seem to make much sense because we can all think of goals that can be easily attained. For example, I can make the goal of moving my pencil from one position on my desk to another position. The pencil is in ‘Position A’ and I can make a goal of it being in Position B’! The thing is however that having the pencil in Position B rather than Position A isn’t really a goal – it’s only a goal because I say it is a goal…

 

 

Again, this sounds stupid. Of course it’s only a goal because I say that it is! That’s what makes goals into goal – the fact that they reflect my wishes! The conclusion is inherent in the premise! What we find so very hard to understand is the undeniable philosophical truth that tautology is quintessentially empty. The thing about a goal is that I am saying that it is special – I am saying that Position B (the goal) isn’t like any other position. If the pencil ends up in any other position therefore then that is no good – I can’t say that I have been successful in attaining the goal and I most certainly don’t get to partake in the glory of having successfully attained the goal!

 

 

But underlying all this business is the undeniable fact that position B is only special because I have said that it is special – actually I could have said that any position at all was the special one and it would be. I am free to make anything into a goal! This is precisely where the ‘emptiness’ comes in, therefore – if anything could be special then ‘special’ doesn’t really mean a hell of a lot. If anything could be true then the word ‘true’ has no meaning. If anything could be then nothing is true…

 

 

In reality any position could have been designated special and it wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference. Whatever position I chose would have been equally good, which means that the notion of ‘special’ – very obviously – is just a made up thing! This is all just a way of saying that having a goal and then trying hard to achieve the goal is a game. It is something that makes sense only when we pretend that a thing ‘is what it isn’t’ and then proceed on this basis without ever looking back…

 

 

This always works the other way around too, although it seems outrageous to suggest that it does, in that if the goal is arbitrarily special (and therefore not special in any genuine sense) then so too must the goal-setter be arbitrary! After all, if I set a goal and then define myself in relation to this goal (as I do), and if this goal is arbitrary (as it is) then surely I must be just as arbitrary as the goal?

 

 

This might not seem like very reliable logic but if we accept that all goals are essentially games (because they are the result of an act of pretence that we proceed to thoroughly ignore) then we have to go all the way with this and also accept that the one who seeks the goal – the one who is very motivated to obtain the goal – is also part of the game. If I am a winner because I have played the game successfully then I am defined in terms of the game – there is no winning outside of the game, just as there is no losing. The player is defined in terms of the game, therefore, and so the player must of course be just as arbitrary as the goal that is said to be so very meaningful within the context of the game.

 

 

If I were not playing the game then I would not be defined by the game and so we could argue that I am not merely some ‘arbitrary self’ if I am not playing a game. We could say that the self which originally made the free choice to play the game isn’t arbitrary! This would be perfectly true, but then again if we said this we would also have to acknowledge the fact that this ‘original self’ must be completely undefined, since the only way we can be defined is to play some game or other….!

 

 

So the ‘defined self’ – which is the self that we are all so very fond of, so very attached to – is an act, a pretence, a game, whereas the true self (which is the ‘unintentional self’, or ‘the self that we did not decide to be’) is completely undefined and completely unknowable. Essentially, therefore, the sense of definite identity that we are so absolutely attached to, and which we believe in so implicitly, is a fiction, whilst the reality of who we actually are (under the mask of the fictional defined self) is something that we have no time for whatsoever, something that we place no value in whatsoever….

 

 

Going back to what we were saying about goals ‘not being real unless we first say that they are real’ this also means that the good feeling I associate with attaining the goal must only be ‘real because I say it is’, which is a idea that – needless to say – tends to be rather undermining of that good feeling!

 

 

The existence of the goal-state (and the good feeling that I will get when I obtain it) is the lure which keeps drawing me on in the game, the lure without which the game would be quite meaningless. Whoever heard of playing a game that doesn’t have a goal? Whoever heard of playing a game where winning doesn’t feel good, doesn’t feel special?

 

 

Once I designate some outcome or other as being ‘the right one’ and then forget that it was me who choose for this to be the case then the game is up and running. I have the lure, and so I can now keep on running after it, like a greyhound on a track. The idea of catching up with the lure – of ‘winning at the game’ – is the cheque that I carry about with me, clutched tightly in my sweaty hand. I can trade on this cheque, I can get credit from the bank on the strength of having it but actually cashing the cheque itself is the one thing I can never do.

 

 

I can never cash the cheque because it is an unreal promise, an unreal thing. It could only be a real thing if it wasn’t intentional, if it wasn’t me who set it up in the first place. Because attaining the goal is only a marvellous thing because I have said that it is a marvellous thing this means that it isn’t really a marvellous thing at all! I am acting ‘as if’ it were a marvellous thing, but it isn’t really.

 

 

In practice we don’t actually try to cash the cheque. On some level we understand that we can’t, we understand that it would be disastrous to the game to try to do so, even if on the day-to-day conscious level we believe most fervently that we can. Believing fervently – or ‘overtly’ – that we can obtain the goal is of course what the game is all about!

 

 

The game that we are talking about here – it will be remembered – is ‘the game of the self’, the game in which the self gets to believe that it really is what it says it is. This self constructs itself (as we have been saying) either in terms of how it is going to win the game and thus get ‘covered in glory’, or in terms of how it is going to fail at the game, which means that instead of partaking in glory it partakes in ignominy!

 

 

This act of self-definition can also of course be done retrospectively by constructing oneself in terms of past success or past failure, past glory or past ignominy. The past can thus be used just as effectively as the future, which is why we spend so much time in our lives either thinking about the past or thinking about the future, either ‘brooding upon what happened’ or ‘anticipating what will happen’. What we’re doing with all this backwards and forwards thinking is constructing ourselves, therefore.

 

 

The one thing the self can’t do is construct itself in terms of the present, in terms of the present moment. It can’t do this because – contrary to what we might think – there is no success or failure in the present moment…

 

 

Success and failure, winning and losing, glory or disgrace, only exist in relation to my thoughts and my thoughts cannot exist in the present moment. I think that my thoughts, my mental constructs, exist in the present but they don’t. They can’t – there is no way that they can because the present is what is happening right now, before I have gotten a chance to think about it…

 

 

The present moment is always, by its very nature, perfectly pristine – I have after not yet had a chance to write upon it with my thoughts. No matter how quick I am to think something, to make some evaluation or comment on it, reality was always there before me. Reality always comes first – and my ‘thinking about reality’ always comes second.

 

 

Without my thinking there are no goals, and so there is neither the threat of ignominy nor the promise of glory. There is no memory – no taint of past success or past failure. There is no ‘personal history’ of any sort whatsoever, either one way or the other and so for this reason the self is not able to construct itself.

 

 

Without either the defined past or the defined future the self is not able to define itself, is not able describe itself, is not able to differentiate itself, is not able to say that it is ‘this but not that’.

 

 

Without either thoughts of the past or thoughts of the future there can be no self!

 

 

There is no winning and no losing, no seeking after advantage and no fleeing away from disadvantage. There is none of this tired old business! There is no more going around and around on that wretched old hamster-wheel. There is only the present moment, which as Krishnamurti says is always new. In the new there is neither success nor failure, neither winning nor losing. There is no advantage and no disadvantage. This is because in the new there is no self…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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