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The Unconscious Life

More than anything else, the unconscious life is an undignified one. It is undignified, we might say, for two reasons – it is undignified because it is inauthentic, and it is undignified because it is unfree.



The ‘inauthenticity’ derives from the fact that we aren’t who we think we are, and the ‘lack of freedom’ has to do with the way in which we are involuntarily compelled to look at the world in a certain way, whilst remaining sublimely unaware that this is the case. Because we have zero freedom with regard to the way in which we are compelled to look at the world, it follows that the thoughts and actions which arise out of this constrained and constricted viewpoint are also going to be unfree. If my outlook is involuntary, then how can my thoughts and actions possibly be any other way?



My thoughts are an extension of the very narrow viewpoint which has been foisted upon me by my conditioning, as are the purposeful actions which I engage in (which are simply my rational thoughts translated into behaviour). The only thoughts which aren’t an extension of my logical viewpoint are the ones that arise spontaneously, and similarly the only actions that aren’t a direct reiteration of the involuntarily imposed outlook that guides my perceptions, cognitions and behaviours are my spontaneous actions. In our culture however the spontaneous side of life is dismissed as being of secondary importance at the very best, whilst our rational (or goal-orientated) thoughts have been elevated to the position of the ‘supreme value’. Rationality is our god, and we worship it on a daily basis. And yet rationality – no matter how it may portray itself – is simply a restriction that has been foisted upon us, not by any intelligent agency intent on enslaving us but simply by the random mechanical processes which always take over in the absence of consciousness, and which have no time for anything other than the heedless and thoroughly joyless working out of blind mechanical laws.



Taken together, these two factors of ‘inauthenticity of being’ and ‘unfree-ness of doing’ put us in what can only be described as a supremely undignified position. What makes this situation so undignified is not that I am inauthentic and unfree, but that I am inauthentic and unfree whilst being completely, blandly convinced that I am not. This is what makes a clown clownish – the humour lies in the fact that, as Wei Wu Wei says, he is entirely foolish and ineffectual whilst being convinced at the same time that he is very smart indeed, and central to the correct working of everything into the bargain. It is this preposterous delusion that makes us laugh at the clown, the ‘fool who does not know he is a fool’, the ‘fool who is puffed up with the spurious sense of his own self-importance’ and it is the very same delusion that we are afflicted with in the state of unconsciousness. This is our usual way of being in the world – unflattering to our egos though the analogy might be.



It goes without saying that we will robustly deny being inauthentic, and insist with the utmost assurance that everything we do, we freely choose to do. It is because I am so convinced of this fact that I am a clown – it is precisely because I am so utterly convinced that my foolishness is the purest elixir of wisdom that I can be said to be ‘psychologically unconscious’. Saying this has nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of conventional idea of morality – the idea that ‘certain ways of being are better than other ways’. There is no law saying we have to be aware of our inauthentic and unfree nature, no rule saying that we should be conscious fools rather than unconscious ones. All ideas that we ‘ought’ to be this way rather than that way, that we ‘should’ do this rather than that, stem from unconsciousness. They are simply mechanical compulsions dressed up to look something lofty, something virtuous. Shoulds and musts and oughts and have to’s and any other manifestations of moral pressure are really just ‘the lack of freedom falsely portrayed as the doorway to some greater, more exalted state of being’. In truth they are the doorway to absolutely nothing at all, nothing apart from continued abject mechanical slavery, that is.



What we are talking about is something far subtler than mere mechanical morality: we are in life completely free to be any way at all, the only proviso being that with each limited possibility (or role) that I adopt comes certain consequences. All choices are limiting, and the fact of the limitation is inseparable from the fact of the consequences that come with it. If I am playing a limited part (i.e. ‘this but not that’) then this means of course that I am implicitly denying that I am anything other than ‘what I say I am’. This is perfectly fine, perfectly legitimate – there isn’t any other way to play a limited part without implicitly denying that one is anything else, anything other than what has been specified. Everything that is not specifically mentioned gets denied – that is how ‘playing a part’ works. That’s how logic itself works. The only thing is however, the ‘everything else’ which I have denied doesn’t cease to exist just because I haven’t mentioned it – it doesn’t go anywhere just because I’m blind to it and so it continues to have ‘consequences’. I have put myself in the position of being unable to see the cause of these consequences, but that does not mean that I am not going to be affected by them.



This – we might say – constitutes the fundamental principle behind all ‘unconscious life’. The principle is that I am influenced (or ‘controlled’) by the consequences of my own free choices to be limited, whilst being at the same time utterly unable to either see that I am now limited, or that I have done this to myself. Or to put this more simply, the law of unconsciousness is that if I freely choose to give away my freedom, then the resultant lack of freedom will be pragmatically real to me.



The unfree condition of having to respond to determining factors which I myself have caused to be there, whilst remaining oblivious throughout either that am being determined, or that I have put the determining rules in place, is a very good definition of what it means to be ‘psychologically unconscious’. This is what David Bohm means when he says that thought shows a certain determinate reality to us (as if on a screen) and at the same time hides from us our participation in the process. This is therefore a particular form of determinism – it is not that reality itself is determinate in its nature, but simply that we create determinism for ourselves as a result of playing at being lesser versions of ourselves. It is the hubris of being ‘a fragment which deludedly imagines itself to be the Whole’ that produces the state of determinism – it is this which gives rise to the unhappy condition of ‘being controlled or determined by external factors’.  Being fundamentally unfree is, we might therefore say, the price we pay for ‘enjoying’ the hubristic (or self-centred) delusion of thinking that our way of seeing the world is both objectively and exclusively true – even though as a result of being ‘determined’ or ‘controlled’ in this way we have now become quite unable to see that we are paying it.



The ‘deal’ we have signed our names to is thus very simple to understand: in return for the security of feeling that our simplistic black-and-white picture of the world is the only one there is (and that it explains everything that needs explaining) we hand our freedom to see reality as it actually is over to the machinery of rule-based thinking, and allow ourselves to become the helpless (or ‘unconscious’) puppets of our own mechanical thinking process.



When put like this the deal naturally doesn’t sound like such a good one, in fact it sounds lousy, but the crucially important point is – as we have just said – that once we have opted for security over freedom we also lose the freedom to see that we are no longer free and so whilst the short-term benefit is highlighted for us, the long-term cost is concealed. This one-sidedness of vision constitutes what we might call ‘the mechanism of the trap’.



We could also try to explain the state of psychological unconsciousness by saying that it is the result of automatically opting for the easier option every time we can. If in our lives we always go for the easiest way of doing things then we are inevitably going to drift into the situation where what we are living is not life at all but a cheap and tacky version thereof – a crassly stereotyped copy of the real thing, a kind of ‘hearted-hearted nod or insincere gesture in the direction of living’. In short, what inevitably happens as the consequence of this business of ‘always taking the easier option’ is that that we end up living in what is effectively a pseudo-solution of life.



A classic example of a pseudo-solution would be where I can’t face getting down to the essay or thesis that I know I have to do, because I can’t get any more extensions on the deadline, and so I start cleaning the house from top to bottom instead. Under the pressure of the dead-line I inexplicably start developing a very great interest in doing some irrelevant task, the sort of task that I normally wouldn’t have the remotest inclination to waste my time with. The benefit in this peculiar behaviour is of course not too hard to see – I have found myself a highly-effective avoidance mechanism.



The benefit of this mechanism is two-fold – not only do I get to distract myself from the job I don’t want to do, I get to feel the satisfaction that I would have felt if I actually did what I am assiduously avoiding doing. By a stroke of genius, I get to covertly pretend to myself that the trivial task which I am doing instead of the real task, actually is the real task. Take this far enough and I never have to go anywhere near the ‘true task’ – I can simply immerse myself in (and keep myself busy with) all the proliferating pseudo-tasks, and thereby lose sight of what I am avoiding entirely. And instead of being haunted by the unpleasant feeling that I am avoiding something, I get to enjoy the self-satisfied feeling of someone who is doing everything that they should be doing in life!



This is psychological unconsciousness in a nutshell and the self-satisfied and self-righteous (if not actively sanctimonious) state of mind that we are talking about here is an unmistakeable sign that the mechanism of pseudo-solution is working perfectly, without any glitches or hiccups. The mechanism works best of course if done in conjunction with many other people since we then stand less chance of having any insight into the true nature of what is going on; when the social collusion incorporates enough people it becomes practically impregnable with regard to anyone seeing through it, and therefore – as a mechanism of avoidance – it reigns supreme. For this reason we can make the observation that being socially-adapted and unconscious are one and the same thing…



The insidious movement (or drift) from difficult to easy, from challenging to unchallenging, can be seen in terms of substituting conditioned reality (which is where life is amenable to black-and-white categorization, and also therefore amenable to clearly defined procedures for getting from one category to another) for unconditioned reality (which is where there are no convenient labels or categories for things or events, and where there are as a result no handy, ready-made answers to whatever difficulties may arise). Clearly, the situation of conditioned reality is a tremendously less challenging one since even if difficulties do come along, there is going to be some tried-and-trusted formula to solve them. A difficulty that can be categorized within a system of knowledge and then responded to in accordance with proven procedures is obviously no difficulty at all really – I just need to make the correct diagnosis of what the problem is and then press the right buttons (i.e. ‘instigate the correct procedures’) to make it go away…



Even if it is not possible for me to ‘know what is going on’ and so move on to the next step of finding out what ‘the right thing to do’ is I still have the psychological security of living in the type of a world where – in theory – it is possible to do this. I mayn’t know what the correct response is, but I nevertheless know that there is one; I still have the reassurance of this knowledge to hang on to. I know that rationality can eventually come up with the answer because I live in a world in which everything is rationally accounted for, a world in which the rational mind rules supreme.



The substitution that we are talking about here therefore is the substitution of the regular for the unique. A unique situation is ultimately challenging because it has to be approached without the aid of any system, without the help of any procedures, without the reassurance of knowing that we have a tried-and-trusted framework to guide our thinking. A ‘regular’ situation is on the other hand by definition amenable to a standardized approach – all we need to do is to identify the rules that govern that situation, learn them, and then follow them in the correct fashion to achieve the outcome that we want. This business of ‘learning the rules’ is what Jung calls the process of adaptation. Learning the rules means making them ‘second nature’ to us; it means being so familiar with them that we can no longer see them. Thus, when we are successfully adapted to a system, we have internalized the rules that go to make up that system. Having internalized the rules (or internalized the map) then as we have said all we need to do it follow the rules, follow the map – a definite (i.e. non-ambiguous) structure is provided and all that is required of us is that we faithfully adhere to it. What could be simpler?



Adaptation is powerfully rewarding because when we adhere to the map, then we can be sure of getting to the designated destination. Or we might say, when we adhere to the procedures then we can be sure of obtaining the specified outcome. The ‘pay-off’ for successful adaptation comes in the form of the complete elimination of risk therefore, but what we don’t ever pause to consider is that the complete elimination of risk necessarily means complete identification with the given structure, complete identification with the system. Any other perspective is lost to us, and when we have ‘only the one perspective (or ‘only the one viewpoint’) this is no perspective at all.



The elimination of risk is a tremendous advantage from the point of view of the system we are adapting to, but the irony here is that the point of view associated with the system is only meaningful to us when we are identified with it, i.e. when we no longer take any other point of view seriously. So if the rewards obtained by adapting to the system are only rewards when we are adapted to it then this means that they are only ‘virtual rewards’ (which is like saying that winning at a game is only meaningful when you are playing that game). So although ‘internalizing the framework’ provides the pay-off of being able to eliminate all risk in obtaining the desired outcome (which is the big attraction), in real terms getting rid of any risk means ‘the elimination of any other possible way of looking at things’. What we are getting rid of is actually perspective, or – to put it another way – consciousness.



Any advantage that we might have thought we were gaining is therefore neatly cancelled out by the fact that success comes at the price of being removed to a virtual realm – the realm of ‘pseudo-solution’. This is as we have said a ‘hidden cost’ since we don’t know that we have been translated into a virtual (i.e. over-simplified) realm. The fact that we don’t know this (and can’t know this) neatly guarantees that we will not be capable of understanding the significance of what we have lost in order to obtain the virtual prize of ‘what we think we have gained’…



When I adapt to a framework, a structure, a ‘formal system’, then this framework, structure, or formal system becomes my world. I have downsized. No other world exists for me because in order to see any other world I would have to move out of the framework, I would have to move out of the ‘adapted’ position, out of the equilibrium position. If I were to move out of the equilibrium position then I would straightaway incur non-trivial uncertainty in my dealings with the world, which in terms of the determinate system equals risk – either the risk of ‘not obtaining the desired outcome’ or the risk of ‘not seeing things the right way’. Either way, from the point of view of the system, uncertainty (particularly of the irresolvable variety) is a dirty word. It is ‘the enemy’ because it interferes with the operation of the mechanism of pseudo-solution, which requires black-and-white categories, either/or answers, clearly demarked boundaries, and so on.



From outside of the closed perspective assumed by the abstract framework irresolvable uncertainty (or chaos) is nothing other than space itselfthe one thing that is never to be found within a formal system. This is straightforward – saying that space is never found in a formal system is just another way of saying that ‘a formal system is a formal system’. For such a system, space (or ‘unconditioned reality’) is simply an error to be excluded from the equations; it cannot be accounted for by the framework, and therefore it does not belong. Space (or unconditioned reality) is the enemy, and the more thoroughly we can exclude it the more smoothly and efficiently things will run!



The corollary of this is that from the point of view of the conditioned (or unconscious) mind, reality itself is to be considered the enemy – reality itself is the unwanted, unruly and awkwardly insoluble element that we wish to exclude from the equations. Reality is the ‘unwanted intrusion’; reality is the enemy that must be eliminated at all costs…



Once reality (or space) has been eliminated, once we have been translated lock, stock and barrel into the framework, into the abstract domain of the ‘formal system’, then everything becomes (in one sense at least) very straightforward. The radically uncertain, the unknowable, no longer exists. Everything runs on logical tracks, like a well-run railway network, and so in one way we could say that all the really thorny existential problems have been successfully ironed out. But living in the formal system is a funny old business – or rather, it isn’t a funny old business and this is precisely what’s strange about it.



‘Regularity’ is a funny old business because of the way in which it is not funny at all –because of the way in which it is so direly humourless.  In the regular world we have to be squeezed (one way or another) into a very narrow and predictable groove, and we have to do all our living on this basis, as best we can. We have to pretend – without knowing that we are pretending – to be infinitely less (infinitely smaller) than we actually are. What we are is unlimited, and yet for the purposes of the game the illimitable reality of who we are has to manifest itself in an extraordinarily limited modality. Who we are is unique, and yet that uniqueness is constrained to present itself through the medium of stereotyped responses, stock images and signs, pre-determined categories of thought and language, and so on. What is innately free has to express itself in terms of ‘what is not free’ – it has to express itself in the inverted realm of unconscious living.



In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Philip K Dick explores the theme of an advanced type of android (a ‘replicant’) who has been given false memories and led thereby to believe itself (herself) to be an authentic human being. Our situation is the converse of this – consciousness is put apon to believe that it is robotic, that its nature is that of a mere rule-based mechanism. This is not to say of course that we go around saying that we are ‘robots’ or ‘machines’ (although it is true that people suffering from schizophrenia, or having a ‘bad trip’ on LSD, sometimes do) but rather it is the case that we accept the very profound limitations, the fundamental lack of freedom that has been foisted upon us, without ever stopping to reflect on the matter, without even ever being aware of it.



We accept the way that we are as if there was no possibility of it being otherwise, as if there could never be any question of it being any other way. If asked we would naturally say that we are not limited in our thinking and behaviour (in the way that a robot or rule-based automaton would be) but this is clearly not the case. I am only not a robot to the extent that I am who or what I truly am; which is to say, I am only not a determined (or conditioned) being to the extent that I am not completely limited by my own black-and-white thoughts or ideas about ‘who I am’. Yet the point we are making in this discussion is that in our ordinary state of (un)consciousness we are always completely defined our thinking, our ideas, our conceptualizations – being psychologically unconscious means precisely that everything about us is determined by our way of thinking. As I usually am, my ‘sense of myself’ is determined by my cut-and-dried rational mind rather than by being informed by any deeper intuitive faculty.



To be ‘undefined’ (or ‘undetermined’) would be an extraordinarily rare state of affairs – it just doesn’t happen! It isn’t allowed – not in the realm of rationality, anyway. The actual empirical truth of the mater is that we are almost entirely predictable in our nature, we are ‘creatures of habit’; we are – to a man (or to a woman) – the helpless and utterly insightless slaves of our own mechanical thinking, prisoners of our own accidentally-acquired conditioning. We are ‘free or unconditioned consciousness that has been put upon to act in a robotic way’.



In the formal system which is the realm of rationality actual consciousness is not required – there is no need for it, no place for it. The lack of need for actual consciousness is what makes the living in this modality ‘easy’ – it is easy because there is no need for consciousness to be present! Everything in this realm is decided in advance, everything is just an echo of what came before, echoes echoing echoes echoing echoes, all the way down the line. Everything is just ‘an enactment of the rule’, a copy of a copy of a copy…



All I need to do in this realm is to ‘follow the rules’, and since the rules are already there, already established, any creative or autonomous input on my part is entirely unnecessary. Actually, I myself as an autonomous agent am entirely unnecessary – saying that I am ‘maximally adapted’ to the rules is just another way of saying that I never question them, and that not only do I never question them, I never question (or reflect upon) the fact that I never question them. This being so, it is not so much the case that I am ‘obeying the rules’ (without ever reflecting upon the fact that I am obeying them) as it is the case that the rules are enacting themselves through me, without any need my assent.



I am the puppet of conditioning, the helpless plaything of thought – where it goes I go – just like an obedient poodle being taken for a walk. I am just the medium for these rules, for this horribly senseless mechanical process; I am demoted to the level of a mere medium, a passive vessel through which the automatisms of mechanical life frenetically enact themselves. Consciousness itself – the hidden jewel – is dragged into the endlessly degrading mire of the empty mechanical dramas that ensue as a result.  Or perhaps we should say that the ‘personalized’ or ‘encapsulated’ aspect of consciousness (the aspect which sees the world only through the eyes of its conditioning) is repeatedly dragged into the mire of non-stop empty dramas. Such is the lot of conditioned consciousness, although, as the sutras say, consciousness itself – in its essence – remains (as the familiar image of the lotus flower signifies) forever unsullied, uncontaminated, undefiled. The blue of the sky is never stained by the dark clouds that pass through it.



Although we ourselves are this forever undefiled jewel-like consciousness, we are reduced in the unconscious life to being the will-less puppets of our randomly-acquired conditioning, to be forever jerked this way and that as that senseless conditioning requires, without ever a rest. I am the gimp, the stooge, the fool, the toy of whatever pointless prejudices happen to have installed themselves in my head, and what could be more undignified than this?



The state of psychological unconsciousness as we have said can be seen as an inversion. This inversion, as we have said, comes about via the process of ‘pseudo-solution’ – which is essentially the way in which we ‘look for a way out of life’ by handing over all responsibility to some convenient over-simplified picture or theory or conception of life. The pseudo-solution in question involves –in essence – the replacing of the original unique event by an endless series of regular events. The essential challenge of life is thus neatly side-stepped or evaded, just as a skilful politician evades an unwelcome question. ‘Successful avoidance’ is its own enemy however and our victory in this field is actually a victory over ourselves. The price we pay for our successful avoidance of the essential challenge of life is that actual reality as it is in itself is replaced by an inadequate or inferior analogue – it is replaced by a mere shadow or phantom realm, by some sort of sterile illusion world.



The regularity (or ‘predictability’) of this world is precisely where the illusion lies, as Wei Wu Wei indicates here, in the following passage taken from Ask The Awakened – The Negative Way (1963, P 186) –


All the impermanency talk, birth, decay, death, etc, is what we should simply understand as the seriality of time, which is illusory. Its unreality is just its seriality.



The state of ‘unconsciousness’ is thus the state of inhabiting this serial unreality as if it were genuinely real – which is of course a perfectly vacuous exercise. When we get to the end of this exercise (which is when we awaken from the illusion) we realize that nothing happened, we realize that the apparent ‘content’ of what was happening to us when we were inhabiting this realm was entirely hollow, as if it were made up of froth or foam or bubbles rather than actual substance, or as if we had been living out our lives in a film set, where things had a front (a façade) but nothing behind them.



All the rational choices I ever made whilst living in this world were, although I could not see it, the same choice, and that ‘choice’ was really no choice at all. All those apparently different choices were just ‘the same old thing’ – the same old thing in question being the conditioned or unconscious life. Or to put this another way, everything I ever did or thought was just ‘the game’, even though to me it wasn’t a game at all but reality itself. From within the context of the game there is ‘apparent diversity’ that isn’t really diversity at all, any more than the two faces of the same coin represent diversity. Winning and losing are of course very different things when seen from the viewpoint of the game but really they’re just the same old thing – they’re just ‘the same old game’. So all the effort I put into obtaining success and avoiding failure was just so much ‘wasted effort’ since loss and gain are one.



And all the pain and anguish I suffered on behalf of the phenomenal self – the I-concept – was only ever theatrical pain and anguish; it was pain and anguish that was suffered on behalf of an act that I was playing, a stance or role that I freely chose to take seriously.



All that pain and anguish and anxiety was really only ever what Wei Wu Wei calls pseudo-suffering – it is pseudo-suffering because it only ever belonged to the I-concept, and concepts (as we know) are not real….










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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