The via erratum is when we fall into the trap of thinking that we need to validate our own being. This ‘starts us off on the wrong foot’ because the inevitable implication is that our being is not valid unless we – or someone else – validates it for us.
Once we make this inadvertent assumption (which is clearly not a helpful one, to put it mildly!) then there is no going back. We can’t reverse that original mistake because we can’t see it; we can’t see it because we have made it into the basis of everything we do, everything we think…. The whole business is quite unconscious in other words – making assumptions is an unconscious sort of a thing anyway and so we never saw it happen in the first place. Once we have made the unconscious assumption that ‘we aren’t valid’ then we are inevitably locked into the situation of trying to validate ourselves whilst believing deep-down that we aren’t, and what could be nastier than this? We couldn’t design a more unpleasant situation for ourselves if we went all out to do so! As far as ‘creating unending suffering’ is concerned, this design is an absolute masterpiece…
According to Carl Jung the alchemists’ original conception of the via erratum is that it is where we try to cure ourselves by means of our own cleverness, thus turning our backs on the grace of God, which is the only way we can be saved (if indeed we are to be saved, which is not something we can rely on). This may not sound like quite the same thing but of course it is – clearly in both cases just as soon as we get to thinking that there is an error in us that we need to fix then we’re going down the wrong road! The thing is that there isn’t a problem in us that we need to fix – there’s no problem anywhere but as soon as we think that there is one and start trying to fix it then all of a sudden there is a problem (so to speak). It’s a self-creating loop – the problem is us trying to fix the problem!
In a way there is a problem but in another way there isn’t. There’s a problem if we think there’s a problem and start trying to fix it because our fixing then becomes the problem (or the source of problems that we have yet to see but which will nevertheless afflict us sooner or later). The ‘fixing’ (or ‘attempted fixing’) is a problem because it opens the door to endless suffering – it opens the door, as Alan Watts says, to the ‘vicious circle’ of us trying to fix our own fixing. If we didn’t try to fix the problems that have been caused by our fixing then there would (of course) be no vicious circle but the thing about this is that once we do start off going down the road of fixing (which is the via erratum) then the chances are very much that we will carry on going down this road. Once we start going down this road then fixing very quickly becomes the only thing we know and so when difficulties up we have no other possibility open to us other than that of trying as hard as we can to fix them.
It is a deeply familiar sort of a situation that we’re looking at here. It’s the same thing as telling lies or making excuses – once we tell a lie or make an excuse then when it happens (as it will) that we run into difficulties as a result of the lie we told or the excuse we made then the chances are very much that we will use the same avoidance’ tactic all over again. Why wouldn’t we? If we avoid the difficulty when a little bit of trouble comes our way then we certainly aren’t going to have an appetite for taking on an even bigger dose of difficulty when all the chickens come home to roost! Not unless we have had a major epiphany in the meantime, that is…
So when we run into mental pain or emotional pain what we generally do is that we try to fix it. This is our standard ‘go to’ – this is – as we have said – the only thing we know. When we run into mental pain or discomfort we ‘cope with it’ – we come up with some sort of tactic to get around it. We pull something out of our ‘bag of tricks’! This is all fine and good and we will experience the relief that comes with ‘dodging the difficulty’ but what we don’t see (and what we don’t want to see) is that fixing mental / emotional pain (or avoiding it) is an illegitimate act. This ought to be clear to us but it isn’t. If I am experiencing sorrow or a sense of loss, for example, there’s no way I can either ‘dodge’ this mental pain or ‘cure’ it in any meaningful or true way. All I am doing is buying time for myself via some sort of trickery; all I am doing – in other words – is creating ‘rebound pain’ for myself in the future which I will then – in all probability – try to deal with in the same avoidant fashion that I always rely on when dealing with difficulty.
This is not just true for sadness – it is true for any sort of mental / emotional pain without exception. If there is mental pain then any attempt to ‘cope’ with it, or ‘deal’ with it (or change it in any way) is simply avoidance. We’re dodging the issue – if there is mental pain then the thing is to feel it. Anything else – any attempt to fix or regulate – is to set off down ‘the road of error’ and the further we go down this particular road the more suffering there is for us. This is a very good reason for calling it the ‘way of error’ therefore – it is a thoroughly bad road to travel down no matter which way we look at it! Or to rephrase this – the only way what we are talking about here will not look like a totally bad idea is if we look at it in a completely deluded (or back-to-front) sort of way, which is of course the way in which we do look at it! We don’t see the road of error as being an error at all, but rather as the right and proper way to do things.
The way we look at what is going on is to only ever take a very short-sighted view of things, which is to say, we fixate upon a goal and then measure everything either in terms of how well we are doing wrt obtaining this goal or in terms of how badly we are doing. The attainment of the goal becomes the ‘ultimate yardstick’, and basing everything on this yardstick necessarily precludes looking at any wider considerations. In other words, if we are getting closer to attaining the goal then this is unquestionably good, and if we are getting further away this is unquestionably bad. This is as simple as simple could be, but at the same time it is a completely deluded way of looking at things. Preoccupation with short-term goals is how we human beings navigate life and anyone who hasn’t noticed this clearly hasn’t been paying attention! Long-term goals aren’t any different – they’re just the same really because attaining the goal is still as far as we are interested in looking. The goal is our measure of everything and the only way the goal (or the attainment of the goal) can be the measure of everything is if we don’t look at the wider picture. If we were to look at the wider picture then the goal would cease to be such a valid thing – it would cease to be a concrete thing that we can unquestioningly aim at and so our whole ‘purposeful approach’ to life would be effectively banjaxed…
This narrow (or compartmentalized) of looking at things means that we have two basic attitudes with regard to the question of ‘how we are getting on in life’ – one attitude being the hopeful / optimistic one and the other being the anxious / pessimistic one. The ‘approved’ outlook is of course to be hopeful, to look at things in an optimistic or ‘positive’ way; we see this as being an entirely laudable approach to life, we see it as ‘an inspiration to all’. Being anxious or pessimistic with regards to achieving our goals is on the other hand regarded most unfavourably – we call that ‘being negative’ and on the whole we see no excuse for this sort of thinking. We condemn it one and all. This is our simplistic take on the matter and – as we have already said – it is completely deluded. It just doesn’t work, it just doesn’t hold water. The reason it doesn’t work (or doesn’t hold water) is because the goal we are relating everything to is completely arbitrary and so whether we attain it or not is pretty much irrelevant. Our yardstick is irrelevant; our ‘framework’ is irrelevant. The whole thing is nothing more than a red herring when it comes down to it…
If we come back to our topic, which is the via erratum, we can say that having goals with regard to ‘validating our own existence’ (or escaping painful states of mind) is undoubtedly nothing but a red herring. It can’t be anything other than a red herring because it is – of course – fundamentally impossible to validate our own existence, just as it is fundamentally impossible to legitimately escape from whatever mental pain we might be in. These two ways of looking at the via erratum might (as we have already said) appear to be somewhat different to each other on the face of it but when we look into it we see that they are very much the same thing – the essential (or primary) mental pain that we are suffering from is the pain of ontological insecurity, the pain of wanting to be supported by (or validated by) a structure that is independent of us when this ‘need’ of ours is something that can never ever be met. We never can be supported or validated by a structure that is independent of us; that just isn’t possible and once we do start attempting to contrive this ‘validation that doesn’t exist’ then this marks the beginning of all our troubles, as we keep on saying. From the original attempt to avoid the ‘primary mental pain’ of our existential (or ontological) insecurity all other pain-filled mental states are born.
Why – we might ask – is it so impossible for us to be legitimately supported by any structure, legitimately validated by any structure? This isn’t a difficult question to answer – the reason this is impossible is simply because we are bigger than any structure. How can a structure (a ‘logical formula) validate something that is bigger than it? How can the tool validate the user of the tool? The reason no structure can ever serve the function of ‘supporting’ us is because all structures are only ever ‘partial’ (or ‘fractional’) and a part (or a fraction) can never have the function of supporting the Whole! The Whole stands by itself, necessarily so – it cannot be held or supported by anything else (anything outside of itself) because there is nothing else! What can support the Whole, after all? What can justify or validate the Whole, for that matter?
So the feeling that we need to be validated by some structure, some external authority, comes about because we do not recognize our Wholeness (or – equally – because we do not recognize our lack of Wholeness). To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, we are ‘fractional men and women who think themselves whole’. Our insecurity comes about because we aren’t whole in ourselves, because we are not yet who it is our potential (or ‘destiny’) to be, and so it will never leave us until we do become Whole in ourselves, until we do become what it is our destiny to become. Looking at it this way, therefore our existential pain (the pain of our insecurity) is actually a benign thing – it is ‘benign pain’ because it unfailingly reminds us that we have not yet reached out potential, because it reminds us that we are not yet ‘Whole’ (even though we may be flatly convinced that we are).
We do not – needless to say – see our existential pain in this light. We do not see it as being ‘benign’ – on the contrary, we see it as being totally malign. It is painfully unsettling (to say the least) and so of course we see it as being malign. No matter how good thing might seem on the outside to be, this existential pain (or dread) threatens and undermines our satisfaction with the status quo so it goes without saying that it is malign. Because we relate to our existential pain in this way we try to fix it! And, as we have been saying all along, as soon as we start going down the road of fixing then we’re ‘done for’ – we’ve gone wrong and not only that but we’ve lost the capacity to see that we’ve gone wrong. We’re now seeing everything backwards so that what is harmful for us seems beneficial, and what is beneficial for us (i.e. the painful or frightening reminder of our lack of Wholeness) appears harmful. We are in other words locked into the suffering-producing path!
But suppose – the for the sake of the argument – that we are able to fix the pain. This being so, at the same time as ‘escaping or fixing the mental pain’, we have also neatly gotten rid of the reminder that we haven’t yet reached our potential, that we haven’t yet become Whole (or that we aren’t yet ‘who we truly’ are, but only some acquired idea or image about who we are). Our ‘fixing’ is then a curse because it prevents us from seeing this. G.I. Gurdjieff appears to be saying the same thing when he speaks of ‘the evil inner god of self-calming’, which is our habitual way of ‘squashing’ the impulses in us that are to do with the truth of how we feel.
If there ever was a curse, it is this – it is our habitual use (and social validation) of the evil inner god of self-calming. We’re ‘patching up’ the system of denial which is a comfort to us in our fear. We’re fixing the walls of our prison when they crumble. As it happens (and as we have already pointed out many times) we can’t genuinely fix the pain that we’re wanting to fix; we can only ever – at best – temporarily fool ourselves that we have fixed it. This is ‘a curse’ because our attempts to help ourselves cause us to suffer far more than we otherwise would have done. We get a sense of relief when we successfully deceive ourselves and this ‘sense of relief’ (euphoria) is what we worship in life – it’s what we play for in the game, it’s the currency that we use. This relief is actually suffering in disguise – naturally it is ‘suffering in disguise’, successful self-deception can’t be anything else. The sense of relief or satisfaction is two sided and it will always turn around bite us later on. Euphoria (or ‘false joy’) turns into dysphoria, or despair. But even then, when we have been through all this cycle of false joy turning into anguish and bitterness time and time again (as we do) we are still very unlikely to see the light. Just as long as our unconscious allegiance is to ‘not seeing the painful truth’ we are never going to see the true nature of this cycle, which is the cycle or samsara. Instead we are going to be unfailingly plunged into yet another round of trying to fix (or escape from) the existential pain that is gnawing at our insides, along with all the other types of pain that come from our commitment to unconscious existence. Just as long as our appetite for the truth is less than our appetite for pain and suffering we are going to stick doggedly with the via erratum. We will take the pain and misery – even though we complain about it – because (on some level) we have decided that it is not as bad as seeing the truth…
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.