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The Rational Life

When thought makes definite statements about the world (or defines the world) then it is not simply reproducing reality in its own oversimplified terms, it is parodying it.

This is not a point we understand in our modern world – we can understand that the mind models reality, but we cannot understand that it mocks it! That doesn’t sound very scientific to us, needless to say; we can’t see that to model reality is always to mock it…

When we define the world or make definite statements about it we are replacing one thing with another – we are replacing the actual situation (whatever that is) with a label. The point about this (which it is very important not to lose sight of) is that there is a qualitative difference between the label and the actual content. The one is not merely the continuation of the other.

In terms of information, we can say that whilst the actual content of what is being labelled has an unlimited amount of information associated with it (because it will never cease to surprise us) the label itself has no such infinite information content. Far ‘from never surprising us’, the label will always exactly confirm our expectations – that’s its job, after all!

Imagine if we had a definition that didn’t always confirm our explanations or expectations. This would be like having a literal description that we can’t rely upon to ‘always mean exactly the same thing’. ‘Literal’ means that the meaning of the word is always going to be the same. A literal description isn’t a metaphor, it isn’t a poetic interpretation that can be changed to suit what we are trying to say – ‘literal’ means that there is only one interpretation and that this interpretation never ever changes, not for anyone.

What we are actually talking about here is the difference between ‘the letter of the law’ and ‘the spirit of the law’, therefore. The spirit can’t be pinned down (because it wouldn’t be ‘spirit’ if it was) whilst the letter is always ‘pinned down’ because that’s how it gets to be ‘the letter’. When we look beyond the letter to the spirit behind it this is the type of knowing Elaine Pagels refers to here as epinoia, and when we read the letter as it itself is designed to be read (following its own laws, so to speak) then this is dianoia.

When we look at this question of ‘the model of reality’ versus ‘the reality that is being modelled’ then we need to be acutely aware of the difference between the difference between the two, i.e. we need to be aware that this is a difference of kind, not just a ‘difference of degree’. If we say that the model is a ‘simplification’ of the reality it portrays we lose sight of this ‘difference of kind’; we fall into thinking that ‘the one is a version of the other’. We no longer see the unspeakable abyss that lies between the two and everything becomes very bland…

When we see this difference, when we are aware of this abyss, then there is no ‘mockery’ going on. No one is mocking anything – respect has been preserved! There is no bland, unconscious attitude of ‘taking things for granted’. We retain ‘respect for reality’ even though we are using models, even though we are using literal (or formal) descriptions. The thought and what we are thinking about then exist in harmony, neither doing violence to the other. The map doesn’t have to do violence to the territory, after all.

This is a very rare state of affairs however. This ‘respect for reality’ is absent almost all of the time and in its place we have ‘respect for the literal description that is not seen as being a literal description’. In its place we have ‘respect for the model that is pretending to be reality’ and this is not respect at all. It’s not respect because what is being respected is not worthy of respect; only the real is worthy of respect! The graven image never is, unless we imbue it with qualities it doesn’t have.

By conflating reality with our label for it we have created a ‘false idol’. All of our attention, all of our ‘respect’, goes to the lifeless idol rather than to reality and respecting the crude image in place of the ineffable reality constitutes what we have called ‘mockery’. Without meaning to, without knowing what we are doing so, we are ‘parodying reality’. We are acting as if our crude parody is the same thing as reality, and so our regard for the reality is zero – it is less than zero in fact since we have now become afraid of genuine reality and will avoid it at or deny it whatever the cost.

Talking about ‘mockery’ in this connection may still sound rather strange however. It sounds like an odd word to use, as we have already acknowledged. There is a precedent for this in mediaeval theology however, where – as Alan Watts says, the Devil was seen as the ‘ape’ of God. We can also think of the Devil’s distorting mirror in the story of the Ice Queen – this is a satanic instrument that makes everything good appear stupid and ridiculous. Beauty is shown in this distorting mirror as being ugly and unworthy, whilst ugliness is represented as being fair. In the fairytale the Devil’s distorting mirror shatters into millions of little pieces, and this accounts for the fact that every person on earth has a tiny broken shard of the Satan’s mirror embedded deep in their heart, distorting how they perceive reality.

Naturally, this catastrophe causes people to be cold and calculating rather than warm-hearted, and it also causes us to see the world in ‘inverted form’. It is not too much of a psychological leap therefore to equate ‘Satan’s mirror’ with the thinking mind, with the instrument of thought. What else causes us to see everything invertedly, after all? The thinking mind is the ‘inverting lens‘ that causes us to see the whole world ‘upside down’, in parodic form.

The thinking mind denies reality just as Samael denied God in the Gnostic text ‘the Hypostasis of the Archons’. Never did a myth lend itself more to psychological interpretation than this! The story of the Demiurge or Yaldaboath arrogantly denying the divine realm and fabricating the ‘false creation’ which is the physical universe is an astonishingly apt metaphor for the thinking mind. What else does the thinking mind do other than occlude our perception of the limitless? By its very nature, categorical thought can have nothing to do with the reality that has no limits. There can be no category for the state of existence that is ‘characterised’ by the absence of any limiting features!

What else can the TM do other than replace limitless reality (a reality about which we can say nothing, since to name is to limit) with its own limited, rule-based constructs? What else can thought do apart from replace the world with its own grubby, second-hand concept of it? What else would we expect a finite yard-stick to do, other than ‘use itself as the measure of all things’? Its function is to compare everything to itself and that’s exactly what it does! We can’t blame a yardstick for being a yardstick; we can’t expect it to come up with poetry or philosophy; we can’t expect it to act as ‘psychopomp’.

The Gnostic view of the Demiurge is a nuanced one and he is not seen as ‘wholly evil’. Nothing can ever be wholly evil – the only place ‘unqualified evil’ can exist is in the literal realm that is produced by the thinking mind. It is a description, a category of thought and nothing else. We would have to be a ‘concrete thinker’ in order to believe in unqualified evil, and whilst we imagine that we are solving the problem by identifying absolute evil we are actually creating it. We can look at the ‘usefulness’ of the TM in two ways – one superficial, and the other profound. If I want to take a journey through the desert for example, then I need to know how long the journey this will be so that I can work out how much water and food to bring with me. For this, the ‘yardstick’ is needed; if I get this calculation wrong, then I’m in very serious trouble, obviously!

On the other hand, if I want to live my life in touch with ‘spirit’ (if we may use this word) and I use the yardstick of the concrete mind as my guide in this, then it’s ‘the letter of the law’ that I’m going to be living by, not the spirit. Living our lives by the letter of the law is the furthest we can get away from spirit, needless to say. If we wanted to get further away in the realm of spirit, we couldn’t! Oddly enough therefore, if I follow a religion that is made up entirely of rules (or commands) then this is as ‘unspiritual’ as it is possible to get. In this way, by my refusal to ‘think for myself’, I am actually colluding in Satan’s mockery of God’s creation! I am partaking in Satan’s mockery of God’s creation and I am calling this ‘religion’!

Whilst the instrument of thought can be can you can be used to good effect in particular instances, it cannot therefore be used to help us with what we might call ‘the task of how to live life’. It cannot be used as a means of solving this supposed task without turning all our efforts into a joke that we cannot see as such, which is what the rational life is. This is because life is not a task – it is not a job we have to do or an assignment that we have to complete. This ought to be blindingly obvious – if living were task to be succeeded at, then what would the desired outcome of this task be? What is to be ‘achieved’ by the correct completion of the task? There is after all nothing beyond life (or ‘better than life’); life isn’t a mere means to ‘something else’, no matter what conventional religion or morality might tell us!

This is of course what James Carse means when he says something to the effect that if the reward for living is life, then we can’t actually be living. We are living for the sake of somehow (in some unspecified way) gaining life rather than simply ‘living life’ and this is precisely the ‘joke’ that the rational mind is playing on us when we use it to solve the so-called problem of how to live life. By trying to get the best out of life we effectively jinx ourselves, by trying to ‘optimise our situation’ we ruin everything. This is what the sages and mystics have always been telling us of course, that whilst thought is an excellent servant it is a truly terrible master. In other words, when we use the instrument of thought then all is well, but when this order of things is reversed then we are in a dreadful situation. We hear this but we don’t really take it in; we don’t really understand it even though we think we do. We understand it in a bland kind of way. If we actually understood this simple message then we wouldn’t continue on with what we’re doing in the same way as usual. If we did understand what the ‘diabolic inversion’ really entails then something would change – we simply wouldn’t be able to blandly carry on in the same old way as always.

‘The same old way as usual’ means that we don’t live now, but we believe that if we labour away at the unending tasks that the thinking mind sets us then somehow we will be able to win life. When we are on the ‘wrong side’ of this trick then it doesn’t seem like a trick; it doesn’t seem like a trick because we figure we are ‘onto a winner’ – potentially, at least. If we feel that we have a chance to ‘win life’ then that is surely good enough – we can’t hope for any more than that. We can’t see anything wrong with this; this is of course the attitude that most (if not all) of us have – we know that there is this possibility out there, this possibility that we call ‘making it’, or ‘making good’, or ‘succeeding’, and so obviously enough the rest is up to us! It’s up to us to be clever enough or hard-working enough to win the prize; we can’t expect it to be just handed to us on a plate, after all! Luck generally comes into it as well; it seems to us that there is this thing called ‘luck’ – we have this sense that we might get lucky, or perhaps that we might ‘deserve’ a bit of luck, no matter how it might have eluded us in the past. The other side of this coin is of course when we get the feeling that we’re just plain ‘jinxed’ or ‘unlucky’ and that we are never going to get the good fortune that other people seem to be enjoying.

No matter how ‘reasonable’ or ‘commonsensical’ this viewpoint might seem however it just isn’t true – it’s simply a very convincing hoax. We’ve flipped everything around on ourselves, in some kind of bizarre way, so that it now seems to us – in all seriousness – as if life is on the outside of us and has to be acquired by some kind of deliberate action on our part (or perhaps by moral effort if we happen to be in the business of ‘becoming more spiritual’). We’re just like the donkey chasing the traditional carrot therefore – we can chase away as much as we like but we’re never going to get any closer to the carrot. We not ‘living the game’, we’re ‘playing to live’, which is another thing entirely! Life will never come about as a result of playing a game, no matter how skilfully we play it. All that will ever come out of playing a game is the continuation of that game. The game perpetuates itself by feeding off our desperate attempt to end the game (because deep down we know that it is sterile and joyless, since it is the attempt to obtain life and not life itself). It does this by dangling scintillating images of life in front of our noses, and driving us half mad (or sometimes wholly mad) with desire for these intoxicating images. When we win whatever ‘the image’ corresponds to, and get to possess it as our very own, then before very long we will (of course) see that there is no life in it, that it’s just another ‘thing’ to add it to all the other things (or tokens) that we have acquired already, and so the game continues. The chase is always better than the catch.

When we ‘play to live’ then we’re caught in a paradox that we can’t see; a paradox just like ‘fighting for peace’ or ‘planning to stop planning’. We are somehow (in a peculiar way) postponing living for the sake of being able to live; we are doing the thing that postpones life because we bizarrely think that this will somehow enable us to live. We think that it is only by playing the game that we will be allowed to finally live (and we won’t therefore have to play the wretched wearisome game anymore) but the truth is that it is playing the game that stands in the way of life and always will do so. If we could see the contradiction in what we doing it we would stop immediately, but – simple as the contradiction might be – we never do see it. Where we’ve ‘gone wrong’ is that we use the instrument of thought for something it should never have been used for, as we said earlier. We have used it as a guide to tell us what life is and how we should go about living it! What happens when we do this is that thought makes up a model of life, a theory or dogma of life, which is of course not life at all, but only a sterile extension of itself.

When thought makes a model of life then that model or picture is ‘its own thing’ and so naturally we have to satisfy thought, and meet all of its bureaucratic requirements before we can hope to move onto the next stage of actually ‘living’ or ‘enjoying life’. Once we are in thought’s power however, it’s certainly never going to let us go! Far from getting closer to reality, we are actually getting further and further away from it all the time – we are being drawn into a spider’s web of distortion that doesn’t lead anywhere except to even more distorted distortions! Life has been redefined for us to suit the purposes of thought; it has been turned into a convoluted game that we can never win. We’ve actually lost all connection with the world as it is; all we know is the parody of the world that thought has constructed for us and becoming ever more complicit with this parody is never going to be a means of escaping it, any more than we can hope to tell a lie that is so good that it actually becomes true.

In conclusion then, we can say that when we utilise the instrument of thought as a way of mediating our relationship with reality then did we lose this relationship without knowing that we have done so. This is ‘the murder of the real’. More than this, we can say that when we allow thought to become the middleman and tell us about reality then we unleash the dark power of the Demiurge into our lives. We are actually living the Gnostic myth then – we are living and reliving it every day of our lives. We have switched over into a very flat, very miserable mode of existence and as far as we’re concerned this is perfectly normal. As far as we’re concerned this is what ‘existence’ actually means and anything else anyone out there might say is pure escapist fantasy!

The thought-mediated existence is our ticket to something supposedly better, only that doesn’t happen to be true. It’s a ticket to a phoney destination; it’s a ticket to nowhere and since the only possible benefit of a ticket is that it’s going to get us somewhere, where does this leave us? This then is the rational life in a nutshell – we’ve got on this cramped and rickety old bus (or train) because we believe that it’s going to take us where we want to go, but the problem is that this so-called ‘wonderful destination’ is a fiction created by thought itself in order to make us jump on board…

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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