The Extrinsic Self is the self that always resists reality, the self that has to resist reality. The Extrinsic Self is generally the only self we know, the only self we believe in…
The Extrinsic Self exists on the outside of things, as the name implies. There’s stuff going on, processes at work beneath the surface, but we don’t know about it. We don’t want to know about it. The reason we don’t want to know is because the information about what’s going on here hasn’t been properly processed yet. It hasn’t been tailored to suit us, slanted to fit our expectations. It hasn’t been ‘spun’ yet – the spin doctor hasn’t presented us with ‘the final product’.
All we ever know about is the ‘final product’; we don’t know anything about the process leading to it, or where it all started from. We don’t know and we don’t care – more than just ‘not caring’, the integrity of the extrinsic self depends upon us not knowing any of this! ‘Not knowing how the final product got to be there’ is how the extrinsic self manages to keep on existing!
The ‘final product’ is another way of talking about the picture that is presented to us on a continuous basis by the process of thought – the extrinsic self, we might say, gets to exist only by automatically believing its own thoughts. To start questioning its own thoughts, to start questioning the output of the thinking process (to start examining the final product rather than just ‘running with it’) is completely not in the extrinsic self’s interests, therefore. It ought not to come as a surprise to learn that this is the case – we ought to know this really, given our proclivity to go through live permanently wedded to these wretched things called ‘believes’ rather than taking an interest in what actually is going on! What we are pointing out here, however, is that there is a very good reason for our love (of beliefs of whatever type) – without a belief structure of some sort there can’t be the extrinsic (or everyday) self, which is the self that has absolutely no curiosity about any of the so-called ‘facts’ that the system of thought is constantly providing us with.
This is how the game is played. This is how every game is played – it is impossible to both play a game and at the same time question (or examine) the rules that make up that game. ‘Game-playing’ is where we make a point of never asking any (meaningful) questions, in other words! Asking meaningful questions is the ultimate taboo in a game; it’s not so much that we must never ask them but rather that we should never allow ourselves to be even fleetingly aware that there might be a possibility of us doing so. All games come down to this thing, this thing about ‘pretending that there are no deep question’. Or we could put it the other way and say that the thing we pretend in games is that the trivial type of questions which we ask when we’re playing a game (which all come down to the vexed question of ‘How can I optimize my chances of winning?’) aren’t trivial at all but very, very important. The essential game that we’re playing in all games is ‘the game that everything is sure and certain, or is capable of being made so’, and this premise is – needless to say – extraordinarily reassuring to us.
The everyday (or ‘extrinsic’) self is a game, and so is society. Society is all about not showing genuine curiosity; asking deep questions gets us ‘debarred from the club’ immediately. We get ‘struck off’, ‘defrocked’, ‘expelled’, ‘excommunicated’… Both being the everyday self and being a paid-up member of society are all about not questioning our basic assumptions. This rule of ‘not questioning’ is one that we all know very well; we know it so very well and yet at the same time we are not willing to admit that we know it. We adhere to the rule and yet to not admit to adhering to it. So – as the everyday self – we go around scrupulously not questioning anything worth questioning, not asking any of the awkward questions, not asking any of the ‘big’ questions, and yet at the same time we implicitly deny that this is the case. We put on the act of being ‘free and open’ about things, and we believe the act. The extrinsic self is therefore an exercise in fundamental insincerity, just as the society which it creates is…
The situation that we have been describing here is easy enough to understand – it’s not ‘rocket science’, as the expression has it. But given that this is the situation that we find ourselves in (as it very clearly is, ‘to those that have eyes to see’) there are consequences. What then are these consequences? Where does the tactic of ‘never questioning the rules’ leave us? Or to put this another way, what are the prospects for the everyday or extrinsic self? This is of course a rhetorical question! The prospects for the everyday self aren’t just ‘poor’, they are nonexistent. The everyday doesn’t have any prospects – it just doesn’t know that. It doesn’t want to know this – obviously; not knowing that it doesn’t have any prospects is the only way that the extrinsic self can carry on existing, can carry on ‘doing its thing’ (whatever that may be). The extrinsic self – we may say – requires a constant supply of believable illusions regarding how great it’s future is going to be; once these illusions dry up (or become somehow unbelievable) then it has come to the end of the road. It no longer has the motivation to carry on ‘doing its thing’.
The ‘final product’ that we have been talking about – which is nothing other than the output of the rational mind – has absolutely no possibilities of change within it. This output, this product, has absolutely no possibility for change or evolution and that’s the way the extrinsic self likes it. That is the only way the extrinsic self ever could have it – it just won’t work any other way. It won’t work any other way because the extrinsic or everyday self’s nature is that of a ‘static picture’, which is to say, just as soon as there is any change (or ‘growth’, or ‘evolution’) that’s the end of it. The game that the everyday self is playing in everything it does is the game of succeeding rather than failing, doing well rather than not doing well. This sounds very straightforward and we may not be able to see what’s wrong with it as ‘an approach to life’ but as soon as we see that ‘the self we usually think we are’ is a static self the contradiction becomes apparent. ‘Doing well’ implies that we are going to change in a positive way, and this indeed is what we imagine that this is what we want in life – we imagine that we want to change. But if the everyday self changes in any way it ceases to exist and this isn’t what we want – if the game-player were to cease to exist then there would be no one there to obtain the benefit that comes with ‘winning’ or ‘succeeding’ and so what would be the point in this? Ceasing to exist is actually the same as ‘losing’ (the loser is the loser precisely because he or she isn’t there to receive the benefit, the prize) and this is exactly what we don’t want to do! This means therefore that whilst we say that we want to better ourselves and change in a positive direction deep-down we don’t. Deep-down we want to stay exactly as we are…
So the everyday self wants for its situation to ‘get better’ (because where it is isn’t great) but because it fears the prospect of real change more than anything else in the whole world it can’t do anything that might ever bring this about! What it says and believes it wants and what it actually wants are actually two very different things, therefore. This is of course a manifestation of what we have called ‘the fundamental insincerity of the extrinsic self’. We want two incompatible things at the same time; we want both the have our cake and eat it. It is a manifestation of what James Carse refers to as the self-contradictoriness of finite play’. The everyday self – which can’t be anything else other than a finite game player – is thus fundamentally and irresolvable conflicted, and yet this is a psychological truth that it can never allow itself to see about itself. Any problems arising from our inherent self-contradictoriness always have to be seen as existing ‘on the outside’ therefore – they can never be admitted where they actually are because this would spell the end of the game of the extrinsic self.
The everyday self – because it cannot ever ask any meaningful questions and equally cannot allow itself to see that this is the case – is bound to be always painting itself into a corner, therefore. That’s pretty much what it does – it paints itself into the corner every time. The extrinsic self is already in a corner and so what we’re saying is that it, as a result of its ‘tactic’ of never looking at the bigger picture, is always going to be painting itself into tighter and tighter corners. There are simply no other possibilities for it; there is nowhere else for it to go. The thought-created self was never in a happy state of mind in the first place – existing as it does always on ‘the outside of life’ and at the same time remaining in a state of wilful ignorance of the fact that there is an inside – it can never be in any way ‘genuinely happy’. This inherent lack of happiness (the lack of happiness caused by having no interiority) is what provides us with the motivation to play ‘finite games’; we’re hoping to achieve what it is ‘we don’t have but don’t know that we don’t have’, but clearly this is never going to work out for us. The extrinsic self – which is the static sense of self that is constructed on the basis of the output of the rational mind – does not start off from a happy place and things do not get any better for it as its career progresses. Things can only ever go downhill, no matter what ‘positive goals’ we might distract ourselves with. We can imagine the expression of this static self’s face (if it is not otherwise distracted – as it likes to be – from its actual situation) as being one of long-suffering bafflement. How could it feel otherwise – it has, after all, been living on a diet of promises, and none of them have ever been met…
In this respect the everyday or extrinsic self is like a voter in late middle age who has seen enough changes of government to realize – on one level at least – that it’s all just a theatre, that nothing really changes. We dimly (or in some cases not-so-dimly start to realize that we have been taken for fools, that we are just being strung along the whole time like idiots. It’s hard to stay fresh-faced and optimistic when none of the things we thought were going to come true ever do come true, that all of the developments you were pinning your hopes on ever come to pass. And even if – in outer terms – we do seem to be ‘doing well’ this never actually means anything on the inside. How could it when we don’t actually have an inside? Eventually our (misplaced) enthusiasm goes and gets replaced by something else; the expression on the extrinsic self’s face (speaking somewhat figuratively, here) turns to one which is a mixture (perhaps) of soured, hard-done-by resignation and dull, weary bafflement. This isn’t an abstract philosophical point – this baffled and resigned ‘extrinsic self’ is no one other than ourselves. It is ourselves to the extent that we have allowed ourselves to become identified with the products of the thinking mind, and this is usually a major extent – possibly somewhere in the region of 90 – 95%. Sometimes – often enough, in fact – it’s 100% identification. We have unwisely identified with the clownish psychological ego, and that’s why the psychological ego is a clown, as Wei Wu Wei tells us it is in The Tenth Man:
What absurd clowns ‘we’ are whose joke is to ‘want’, to ‘wish’, to ‘desire’, ‘hope’, ‘regret’! No wonder clowns are notoriously tragic figures at heart!
There’s another side to the story however – one that we have not so far dwelt on. We don’t have to live on the outside of life (so to speak), imagining ourselves to possess an ‘agency’ that isn’t there. That’s just something that happens if we passively let it happen. It’s not the way things have to be – we don’t have to live out the script of the tragic clown who doesn’t see how funny / absurd he is! That’s one way to live life, to be sure, but we do have the freedom to do otherwise, to live otherwise. The extrinsic self is – as we have been saying – the self which resists reality, the self by which its very nature has to resist reality. It has no choice about resisting reality and this resistance of it is never going to bear fruit – naturally enough! It’s on a ‘doomed mission’, in other words. We can’t allow ourselves to see things like this however (as we have also been saying); rather than seeing ourselves as ‘resisting reality’ we see ourselves as wanting things to be the right way, or the desirable way. We have an idea of ‘how things should be’ and this idea is based on assumptions that we can’t question, assumptions that are ‘hard-wired into us’, so to speak. If only reality could fit our assumptions, we think, then of course we would accept it! This ‘conditional acceptance’ of reality isn’t really acceptance at all therefore; I’m only ‘accepting reality’ if it comes on my own terms, in the way that I want it to come, and this is ‘control’ rather than acceptance. How can ‘control’ be the same as acceptance’? How confused would we have to be to think that the one is the same as the other? It’s a myth that the extrinsic self can accept reality, and not just a myth but a ridiculous myth! The extrinsic self likes to believe that it can accept reality – it needs to believe that it can accept reality – but the truth of the matter is that it can only continue to exist just as long as it keeps on trying to control (and keeps on hanging to the belief that it can control when it can’t). Clearly, therefore, the extrinsic self isn’t sincere about wanting to accept reality; what it does to fool itself is to keep on putting ‘accepting’ on the long finger (because the conditions aren’t ‘right’).
There are two points here. One point (which we have covered pretty thoroughly by now!) is that for the extrinsic self ceasing to resist is the same thing as ceasing to exist. But by the same token, when we ‘give up the resisting’ – which is perfectly possible – we cease to be trapped in this suffering-producing ‘mechanism of denial’ which we have been calling the extrinsic self. To be trapped in ‘the self that has to resist reality’ (because it is a function of that resistance) is to be trapped in a machine that makes suffering. How could being identified with the mind-created self be anything else other than suffering? But – as we have said – there is nothing to say that we have to identify with this machine, this ‘mechanical notion of self’. As soon as we change our basic orientation so that instead of ‘automatically resisting reality’ we actually become interested in it. Why wouldn’t we be interested in it, after all? Reality is pretty interesting! Or as we could also say, all we have to do is to ‘take the time’ (so to speak) to notice ourselves as we actually are, rather than in relation to how we hope we could be, or think we ought to be, or whatever, and straightaway – with this reorientation – we are no longing identifying with the extrinsic self.
This transition (from the mind-created extrinsic self to ‘who we really are’) takes place just as soon as we ‘consciously relax into ourselves and notice how we actually are in ourselves’ (so to speak). What drives us into the arms of the extrinsic self in the first place is running away from pain (or running away from fear) and so what turns this around is to simply be aware of that pain (or that fear) without going down the well-trodden road of thinking that we have to do something about it! The gentle awareness of pain or suffering is itself freedom from the manipulative self, the controlling self, the self of denial, the ‘self of running away’. The automatic thing to do is to react, to resist, but if we consciously ‘take the time’ to be gently and unreservedly aware of what it is that we’re turning away from (or wanting to turn away from) then the extrinsic self (which is the self or ‘sense of identity’ that is created by trying to stay in control) never gets to be created.
This is such an extraordinary thing to reflect on – contemporary psychology provides us with ‘coping strategies’, tactics for ‘tolerating distress’, ways of ‘managing’ (a favourite word) our emotional pain and distress. It jumps on board the bandwagon of ‘helping us to be in control of our reactions, or negative thinking, etc, but – as we have just said – what happens than is that just as soon as we try to do this (just as soon as we try to exert control in any way, or imagine that this is what we ought to be doing) we create the ‘controlling self’., the ‘self which is trying to fix things’, the ‘self which is trying to in some way remedy (or favourably influence) the given situation’. If there is ‘controlling’ then there must be ‘a controller’, if there is managing then there must be ‘a manager’; if there is ‘resistance’ then there must be ‘one who resists’, and so on. The very moment we start to control or ‘cope’ (or start thinking that we ‘ought to control’ or ‘ought to cope’) we create the extrinsic self. What then – we might (rhetorically) ask – are the prospects for this ‘false sense of self’ that we have just created? What is exactly the prognosis for this ‘self-deluding sense of self’?
Once we have fallen into the trap of creating the extrinsic self then all of our efforts must of course be directed towards solving its problems, defending its beliefs, championing its cause, promoting its (insincere) values. We’re tied into this. This is our ‘ongoing, all-consuming concern’ from now on. But, as we have been at pains to point out, there is simply no doing this. It’s a doomed (or ‘jinxed’) mission. The extrinsic self is itself the problem. The extrinsic self is its own predicament – it cannot be ‘freed from itself’! our attempts to ‘fix the problem’ (as seen from the viewpoint of the imaginary mind-created self) have created the problem in the first place, and will continue to create it ad infinitum.
This is such a crazy situation – it is absolutely ridiculous. There is no sanity in it. It’s a totally crazy / insane / ridiculous situation and the thing about it is that we either see it, or we don’t see it. It’s as stark as that. And we DON’ T see it…
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.