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The Runaway Mind

The mind is a processing unit, its job is to process stuff – it analyzes and solves problems, it manages processes, it takes on jobs and tasks of various descriptions. Really, when it comes right down to it, the mind doesn’t care what the stuff is that it processes. Its job is to process stuff and this is exactly what it does.



In one way this is of course perfectly fine – it is like saying that pencil sharpener doesn’t care if it sharpens HB or 2H pencils, or that a toaster doesn’t care whether it toasts brown or white bread. Of course it doesn’t care. Does a car care what road it drives down? Does a computer keyboard care about the nature of the messages it types out? The point is that the keyboard doesn’t need to know about the messages it is responsible for creating because it is simply an ‘obedient instrument’. It relies on the operator of the instrument to take care of that side of things. It just does what it does – it fulfils its limited role and lets the operator do the rest.



Exactly the same is true for the central processing unit which is the rational mind – it is in its essence an obedient tool or instrument, passively responsive to the wishes of its operator. When used as it should be, as a tool or instrument, then there is no ‘funny business’ – there are no short-circuits, no glitches, no circular patterns of logic, no redundancies creeping into the picture. In practise, however, the rational mind is not used in this way, it is not used as a responsive tool or instrument. What happens in practise is that – through laziness and inattention – we unconditionally abdicate from our position of operator and leave everything to the instrument. To paraphrase Colin Wilson (1978), “We let our robot do our living for us” –


…It is almost impossible to over estimate the importance of this recognition. Nothing is more difficult than for human beings to grasp the extent to which their powers are held in captivity by the robot. It is as if we had been injected with some drug that keeps us in a state of paralysis. And just as a man who had spent his whole life in an iron lung could have no conception of what it feels like to be a champion athlete, so we chronic invalids have no idea of what it means to be free and healthy. Or of the powers possessed by a healthy person.


…If someone asks you a question while your mind is blank, note how little effort is costs to respond. Your robot does most of the work for you. And so it is with almost everything you do during your waking hours. You inhabit a machine that does most of your living for you.


But observe what happens in moments of happiness – when some obstacle suddenly vanishes, or you have something delightful to anticipate. The ‘real you’ begins to emerge, like a snail from its shell, and there is an increasing feeling of happiness and wonderment. In these moments we catch a glimpse of a completely new way of apprehending the world. It is a revelation, as unlike ‘ordinary consciousness’ as being awake is from being asleep. Yet nothing very startling has happened. We have merely become minimally free of the stranglehold of the robot. And that extra small degree of freedom – perhaps one per cent – is enough to transform the whole world and make life seem totally different.


This process of unacknowledged abdication (or ‘handing over to the inner robot’) happens with grim inevitability; it happens inexorably just as a freshly-cut bright metal surface turns dull with oxidization, so that its former brightness is nothing but a memory, and then before very long not even that. It becomes perhaps a myth. Unless we have the experience of seeing that uncompromising brightness ourselves, it is impossible to believe that the dull and unremarkable metal we see in front of us actually possesses this quality, let alone believe that this brightness is in fact its true uncorrupted nature, somehow veiled in dull perpetuity from our sight.



The root of this ‘corruption’ process lies in the fact that it is so very much easier to let the instrument of the mind operate itself – there is an absolutely immense tendency for things to go in this direction. It is as if the machine ‘has its own ideas’ about how things should be run, how things should be, what should happen or not happen. In this it is just like a draughthorse that has been allowed to pick up back habits along the way and which – in the absence of a strong and alert driver – will by its own stubborn wilfulness follow its own habitual routine rather than doing anything else. In the case of the instrument of the mind, these ‘bad habits’ are really just memories or echoes of the last task that the machine had to do. The machine is like this – it has no initiative of its own (being only a machine!) and instead of initiative what it has is immense conservatism, which is another way of talking about inertia, or ‘the dead hand of the past’.



The mechanism of the mind has – we might say – a huge resistance to the new, the unknown, the unprecedented. It is, to use Robert Anton Wilson’s terminology, quintessentially neophobic. In the absence of a master, therefore, the machine can only ever respond to the last ‘impression’ that it had, and so it is bound to enact and re-enact this impression over and over again, as if the infinite repetition of this pattern were the highest good. The last impression (or instruction) received by the machine is the blueprint, the sacred template, the unquestionable standard, the alpha and the omega, the be-all and the end-all. The last impression that the machine received is sacred – it becomes the reason for the machine’s existence, the justification of its existence, the meaning for its existence. The last impression – which could of course have been anything at all – is more than just a goal, it is an entire paradigm, it is a whole ‘way of looking at the world’, a way that necessarily excludes every other way. The last set of instructions becomes the whole world, in other words.



There is Sanskrit term sanskara which would appear to have a very similar meaning. A samskrita is a fleeting mental impression of the world – it is what we could perhaps call an ‘information processing bias’. This mental bias or tendency lodges in us(or gets formed within us) without us noticing the fact and then proceeds to alter how we see the world. According to the Wikipedia entry on Sanskaras:


Sanskaras, once acquired and accumulated, form what can be compared to a lens through which the subjective aspects of our experience such as judgment arise. Thus when we perceive (either thoughts or external objects) we apperceive those objects through the lens of past experience. We perceive through the imprint or conditioning of past impressions or sanskaras.


According to Meher Baba we create these conditioning sanskaras ourselves though our own actions, through how we interact with the world, and to a lesser extent we we receive them from other people (in which case what we are receiving is someone else’s ‘automatically acquired impression of the world). When we allow the impressions to lodge within our minds, as we almost always do, then then have the effect of influencing or conditioning our perceptions of the world so that we perceive a distorted version of reality rather than the original article.



As time goes on therefore, we accumulate a heavier and heavier load of sanskaras and this inevitably means that we are going to be living in a world that has less and less connection with the actual unconditioned reality. Vedic and Buddhist psychology – which are both eminently practical approaches, unlike the unwieldy mass of pointless intellectualization that we dignify with this term – advocates paying conscious attention to the sanskaras instead of just unconsciously ‘taking them on’. This is very much akin to chewing and digesting food carefully so that it doesn’t get lodged in us in big undigested lumps, causing upsets and malfunctions of the digestive system and general ill-health as a result. Food that is not properly ‘processed’ sticks in us and will as a result repeat on us in some way, whilst food that has been properly tasted and chewed in the eating process is assimilated once and for all and will not periodically give rise to unwanted ‘after effects’.  In the same way therefore when we are conscious of the sanskaras, the subtle impressions, they do not stay in our minds in undigested form and hijack our unconditioned consciousness.



In psychotherapy too it is a basic principle that when the emotional impact of an experience is not felt then the feelings do not go anywhere but get unconsciously lodged somewhere inside us, and proceed to influence (or distort) our day-to-day lives. If something is felt (or consciously witnessed) then it does not have to be felt again – there are no echoes, no ramifications, no reverberations. And contrariwise when we do not consciously attend to painful experiences then they do echo, they do ramify, they do reverberate. When there is no witness to what happened then whatever happened has to happen over and over again. We keep on going over the same old ground until at last there is a witness, in which case the mechanical repetition can at last cease, the troubled emotional ghost finally laid to rest.



We can equivalently say that when there is no operator of the instrument of the mind (when there is no driver) then there is no conscious witness, and so because there is no conscious witness there is going to be nothing else going on in our lives apart from this mechanical echoing process. Actual conscious presence is necessary before we can ‘let go’ of the old habits of thinking – before we can ‘let go’ of anything, in fact. This makes perfect sense – unless there is some authority there that is of a higher order than the habit, of the higher order than the mental instructions or rules, then we are forever bound to obey these habits, these, instructions, these rules. The driverless mind is therefore like a haunted house – it is haunted by the dead echoes of a life that has long since departed.



Just to reiterate the point one more time – the instrument or machine of the rational mind – when driverless – runs on the basis of the last instruction (or collection of instructions) that it has received. We can also say that not only does the driverless machine idolize its last memory – so to speak – and try to repeat this memory forever, it also passively absorbs (and consequentially mechanically acts upon) the ‘unconscious instructions’ that it is constantly receiving from all the other ‘driverless minds’. These ‘unconscious instructions’ are, as we have said, ‘ways of seeing the world’ that are accepted unreflectively – they are preformatted or pre-programmed ways of conceptualizing the world and operating within it, and the whole point of these virally-propagated ‘mind programs’ is that we operate on the basis that they provide without questioning (or even bothering to be aware of) this basis.



This is of course how programs and programming work anyway – when I load software into my PC I do not expect the computer to question the necessity for running the program. It might run a scan on the software to look for clearly definable errors (logical inconsistencies within the format) but it most definitely isn’t going to ask me any questions about the point of whatever it is that I am trying to do, or why I have chosen to load such-and-such a program. So when the next program comes our way – which is not some specific idea or other but rather a particular format or framework of thinking that can give rise to any number of specific ideas – we go along with it unconsciously, without even realizing that we are going along with anything. The point is that the conditioned consciousness can never see the framework within which it is operating, the limits within which it is operating – it is always directed towards looking at various concrete formulations of the situation that has been constructed by the format. The conditioned consciousness is always directed outwards, onto the screen upon which the constructs of the rational mind are projected, and away from the actual mechanism of projection. Thus as Jung says, “Who looks outside dreams. Who looks inside awakens.” The mechanism of dreaming is such that just as long as we are given a format within which to dream, we are simply going to ‘get on with it’.



Human culture, we might therefore suggest, consists almost entirely of this unconscious passing back and forth of impressions (or programs) between one driver-less mind to another. After all, inasmuch as the instrument of the rational mind is operating without a driver, all it can ever do is passively ‘go along with’ whatever impressions come along. As a result, we end up with the truly bizarre situation of millions upon millions of passive minds which are being played upon (or ‘operated by’) whatever impressions happen to be in circulation at the time. The boot is well and truly on the other foot here because rather than us governing or determining our own lives (which is what we think we’re doing) the virally-proliferating mechanical mind-programs are in effect competing with each other for the chance to exploit the resource which all of these driverless minds are providing. We might think of a huge array of computer cores, all linked up in series via various information networks, just waiting there passively for whatever free-floating program proves the most invasive, the most attractive, the most persuasive, the most cunning and resourceful at gaining a foot-hold. So whilst we feel that it’s ‘all about us’, really it’s all about the programs that ‘live’ in us. We are merely the passive, compliant bamboozled hosts for a form of viral pseudo-life.



This picture hardly fits with the way we ourselves envisage what’s going on – it doesn’t tally with how we like to understand human culture – but then again our way of understanding ‘what is going on’ is itself only the construct of a program that is being passed around from mind to mind, so naturally it doesn’t make sense to us. How could we expect a program to know that it is a program, after all? That would be like expecting a dreamer to understand that he or she is dreaming – if they did understanding this crucial fact then they would no longer be dreaming. We only understand anything from within the closed context of some sort of program, some sort of conditioned viewpoint, and so the idea that what we see (or understand) as a result of looking at the world from this limiting basis is only ever an artefact of that viewpoint doesn’t come easily to us. That’s not our way of thinking about things. Like a hermit crab has have to have some sort of a shell before it can feel OK to walk around its environment, we have to have our closed framework of understanding. Take away the hermit crab’s protective shell and it – or so we might guess – starts to feel very uncomfortable; take away our fixed and limiting way of seeing the world and we don’t just feel uncomfortable, we go into full-blown panic.



Our difficulty in understanding this point (which is on the whole more like an impassable obstacle than a mere difficulty) arises as a consequence of what happens when we abdicate from our proper position of being ‘the operator of the instrument of the mind’ and become instead a kind of ‘passive consumer’ of whatever fantasies the runaway mind is busy producing for us. Instead of being the driver of the bus, we become a dozing passenger – a passenger who fondly imagines that the bus which is busily going around in sterile circles actually has a driver in it who has a sensible destination in mind. The ‘abdication process’ is one that we are not aware of and the reason that we aren’t aware of it is because as soon as we do abdicate from our position of being the operator of the instrument a mechanism starts up which generates a particular type of distracting illusion for us, the type of illusion that effectively prevents us from realizing that any sort of transition (from consciousness to unconsciousness, from wakefulness to sleep) has ever taken place.



The type of ‘distracting illusion’ we are talking about here is the same kind of illusion that is always associated with any kind of indoctrination or conditioning. When I am indoctrinated or conditioned I don’t go around feeling that I am indoctrinated or conditioned, I don’t go around noticing the fact or remarking upon the fact. If I did then I wouldn’t be indoctrinated at all. When I am indoctrinated I don’t go around thinking that I am conforming to someone else’s opinion of the world or view of the world the whole time – I think that the opinion is mine, that the view is mine. So when I allow the instrument of the mind to operate me instead of me operating it, I don’t in any way perceive that this is the case. On the contrary, I feel that I am calling all the shots. The moment I abdicate responsibility for operating the machine I am provided with the superficial (but entirely convincing) impression that I have not abdicated any responsibility, that I am still an autonomous agent who isn’t anyone’s stooge. So the nature of the illusion that is the generated is ‘the illusion that there is no illusion’, which is of course something that is pretty much inherent in the idea of ‘an illusion’ in the first place.



We can see this sort of thing happening every time we start paying attention to compulsive emotions or compulsive motivations. Suppose that I am angry – if I go along with the anger then I don’t feel that I am being compelled to be angry, but when I try not to be angry then I discover straightaway that I have absolutely no choice in the matter. Or suppose that I am an addict of some drug, heroin or alcohol or something like that – just so long as I am willing to go along with the addiction then I am permitted to keep the comforting impression that I am using the drug out of my own free will and that I could stop any time I wanted. The moment I seriously start to challenge the addiction however I will discover in no uncertain terms that I never had the ‘freedom to do otherwise’, that I just thought I had.



If I am kidnapped by a powerful bandit and I – sensible enough – go along unresistingly and uncomplainingly with him then it is quite like that the bandit will be relaxed and casual; it is quite likely that he will be in good humour. He might even treat me like a friend – he might treat me like someone who is there of his own free will. Why wouldn’t he? It is easier for everyone like this – the bandit is getting his own way after all so why wouldn’t he be happy? But if I were to try to do what I want instead of doing what he wants then I would very quickly find out that I never was a guest at all but a captive. I very quickly see who the boss really is. The velvet glove comes out in this case and I am confronted with the uncompromising reality of the iron fist.



The situation where we abdicate our position of being the independent operator of the instrument of the machine and allow it to operate us instead goes even further than this however. It is not just that I foolishly allow myself to feel that I am ‘best friends’ with my captor (and develop a galloping case of Stockholm syndrome) – bizarre though it sounds I end up losing sight of myself altogether and somehow believing that I actually am my captor. No only do I end up believing that the machine’s wishes are my wishes, I end up thinking that I am the machine.



This is really a question of conformism (or adaptation) taken to the ultimate degree: if I feel myself to be weak, and am brought face-to-face with a massively powerful force, then the most enticing option open to me is the one of aligning myself with this force so that its authority is my authority. The end point of this process of adaptation is where there is nothing in me that does not agree with (or is not supported by) the external authority, and so the external authority is the only force there is, the only voice there is. So when we unwittingly devolve power to the instrument of the rational mind (i.e. when we allow the central processing unit to run itself) then the rules (or precedents) laid down by the instrument become the authority with which we align ourselves.



A rule is ‘what has happened before and must therefore happen again’ – it is ‘the authority of the past’. This is just another way of saying that a rule is an inertial force in that it has the determining influence that it does have solely because it is already there. Thus, if I throw a six with the dice then ‘six’ is the rule, no matter what else might happen in the world from this point on. The rule is the rule regardless, and this is what makes the rule the rule. It is not what the rule says that is the important thing but the fact that it is the rule. The rule is the rule and that is the end of the story. The rule is tautological – the rule says what it says because that is what it says. The rule is closedthe rule is the rule and that is all you need to know about it.



If we understand this then we understand everything that we need to understand about the ‘everyday’ (or ‘mechanical’) mind. That is the story, in a nutshell. That’s the deal. What more do we need to know? The everyday mind is all about precedent and nothing else, even though it will never – and can never – admit this truth to itself.



In summary we can say that by unreflectively adapting ourselves to the fixed structure of the mechanical mind we create for ourselves a situation where we not only allow ourselves to be governed by the rules that make up this structure, but where we identify with this structure to the extent of thinking that this is who we are.  This is of course a fundamentally unfree situation but at the same time that we submit to this unfree or deterministic situation we also buy into the automatically-generated illusion that we are still free and ungoverned. This precarious little bubble of illusion is the construct of the instrument of thought just as we ourselves and all the objects we relate to are constructs of that instrument. Our lives, therefore, are bound to be enacted within the confines of this bubble of manufactured (or virtual) reality for the simple reason that our way of understanding the world – which we are so very reluctant to see questioned – will instantly fall to pieces, and be revealed as nonsense, outside of this absolutely constrained domain.



From the conditioned viewpoint which we have unconsciously aligned ourselves with, therefore, any movement out of the fixed position from which the illusion ‘makes sense’ (and appears to be not an illusion at all but the proper way to see things) will be experienced as being ‘wrong’ in some fundamental sense. More than just feeling wrong to us, the shift will feel weird and spooky, leading eventually to outright ‘ontological panic’ if we go too far into it. The framework of the rational mind is all we know, and without it there is no way that we will be able to make sense of the world in the way that we are used to making sense of it. Even more to the point, we won’t be able make sense of the particular mental construct known as the self or ego in the way we are used to doing. The relativization of the idea of ‘me’ lies at the very root of ontological terror – and yet at the same time the perception of the relative nature of the self is the actual true perception, as opposed to being yet another illusory projection of the mind.



The only way that we won’t be subject to ontological panic in the absence of the reassuring external authority of the mind is if we have been diligently practising not taking our mental constructs too seriously beforehand – in which case the transition out of the familiar mental framework or assumed context won’t seem so scary or disorientating since we are no longer dependent upon the viewpoint which arises out of it being ‘the one and only true way to see the world’. Needless to say, working away very hard at not taking our mental constructs (our thoughts, opinions, beliefs, theories, etc) seriously is not usually very high up on our list of priorities in life – in fact it is not usually on the list at all. The contrary is true – we put all of our effort in the other direction, the direction of taking our own thoughts and opinions and beliefs very seriously indeed. Or to look at this the other way around – most of us (apart from a few rare souls) spend all of our time reifying the mental construct of self or ego, so that the older we get the more real, the more serious, the more important, the more central it gets. Since what Krishnamurti calls ‘the self-concept’ depends entirely on the instrument of the rational mind, if we have put all our money on this self-concept as being the most important thing in life then we have also put ourselves in the unhappy position of being utterly dependent upon the false master of the ‘runaway mind’.



If we are to understand anything at all about the psychology of the everyday mind, we need to understand this essential point –


That by unreflectively adapting ourselves to the patterns or precedents that are thrown at us by the mechanism of the ‘automatic mind’ we create for ourselves a situation where we are deterministically controlled by a system of dead rules whilst being provided the whole time with the superficial illusion of being free or ungoverned.



This situation has the nature of a trap in that whilst it can be entered into very easily, it is extraordinarily hard to escape from. The first reason it is so very hard to escape from the trap is that we don’t know we are in it, so that even if someone were to come up and tell us we wouldn’t believe them for a second. As it happens those people who have escaped from the prison of the automatic mind have been saying that it is a prison for thousands upon thousands of years, but – for the most part – everyone else have been far too busy doing all the mechanical stuff that the prison-system says we have to do to take any notice. There’s always lots to do in the institution of the mind, lots of stuff that we have to be getting on with, lots of jobs that need to be attended to (even if these jobs are for the most part all pointless and repetitive) and when we do succumb to the pressure to do what we’re told to do there really isn’t any time left over to be concerning ourselves with anything else. Another reason it is so hard to escape is that we become dependent upon the routines that the system has to offer, so that when we are deprived of this structure we feel bewildered and disorientated. The external authority of the routine – banal and pointless though it might be – provides us with our sense of direction (or ‘meaning’) in life which means that when it is withdrawn we straightaway suffer from feeling directionless, from feeling that our lives are meaningless.



Not only do we suffer from a loss of direction when the automatic mind stops ‘telling us what to do’, we also experience the falsification of all the constructs or structures that had previously been meaningful to us, including the key construct of the self. So it is not just the question of “What do I do with myself?” that torments me, but the core existential question of “Who the hell am I?



The answers to these questions were up to now very handily provided for me by the bubble of illusion generated by the dreaming or unconscious mind and so when this illusion is punctured I am immediately plunged into a world in which there are no easy answers – a world in which there aren’t actually any answers at all. The reason there aren’t any answers to be had in the unconditioned world (the world that isn’t an illusion) is because the questions that I am looking for are only meaningful from the point of view of the illusory construct of the self which I am so busily taking for granted in asking the questions. Asking the questions is in fact the same thing as taking the core construct of the self for granted; asking questions is how I take my concept of myself for granted – if I didn’t take myself for granted then I wouldn’t be able to ask them. So moving outside of the bubble takes me into a world where both question and answer are meaningless, and where even the core assumption of ‘the one who asks the questions’ (and ‘wants to know the answers’) is meaningless.



This unconditioned world is therefore a world which we have no interest in. What does it have to offer us, after all? We want certain things, but we want them in the established format – we want them in the format we have already decided upon, which is the format of the illusion-bubble. Because the unconditioned world is so damnably awkward in that it never provides us with anything within the format in which we want it, we don’t really want to do business with it. In order to ‘do business’ with this world (which is the real world) we have to give up too much – we have to give up our precious illusions, our precious assumptions. For this reason we say that unconditioned reality doesn’t exist, we say – if we are forced to confront it, that is – that it is a meaningless aberration of consciousness due to an over-stretched or over-excitable imagination. We say that the irrational world is due to drugs or a malfunctioning brain. We say that there is nothing outside of the approved format for perceiving reality. We say that there is nothing outside the construct and – by implication – we say that the construct is not a construct.



If we don’t have this essential understanding into the basic mechanics of the everyday mind then we understand nothing, no matter how smart or educated we think we are. If we ignore or remain oblivious to this central, all-important awareness and spend all of our time waffling on tediously and portentously about this, that or the other, then what exactly are we going on about? What exactly are saying? Everything we think, everything we believe, everything we say is simply a product of the instrument, the output of the Central Processing Unit. But what can studying the output of the CPU, within the format of understanding that the CPU itself provides us with, tell us about the CPU? What can taking the output at face value, as there is no formatting going on, tell us about the original unformatted reality? What useful understanding can we possibly arrive at on the deluded basis of thinking that the rational construct is not a construct at all, but the genuine article?



Without having an awareness of the relativity of all mind-produced knowledge, our belief that we actually do have some sort of knowledge about the world is deeply ironic. Equally, our belief that we have any sort of genuine psychological knowledge about ‘how the mind works’ is profoundly ironic. From the point of view of genuine psychological understanding, what could possibly be furthest from the truth than imagining that uncritically accepting the product of the instrument of the mind could give us valuable insight into the workings of that instrument?








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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