There are two ways to be in this world. One way is to be interested in what it means to be here and the other way is to be not at all interested. In this case, the second case, we simply have something or other that we do, and once we have that thing to do then we just keep on doing it regardless (regardless of anything really, regardless of whether it actually makes any sense to keep on doing it, regardless of whether one is actually getting anything at all out of it). One way has to do with curiosity, the other way pure blind stubbornness.
In the first case life is a learning experience, which is to say, it is an ever-deepening experience, whilst in the second case what we are looking at is a different type of a thing altogether. In the second case – the one characterized by stubbornness as opposed to curiosity – what we are looking at is essentially ‘a repeating unit of experience’, something that keeps on being repeated over and over and which is the exact same thing every time.
So what is the nature of this endlessly repeated unit? Might it not be the case that there is some worth, some value in it at least? It surely wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t some reason for it. Carlos Castaneda makes the point in A Separate Reality that we use our routines (i.e. what we ‘do’) defensively, to protect us against the inconceivable immensity which is life. We are quite clever in our stupidity, in other words: with our ever-recycled routines, our heedless mechanical patterns of being in the world we are quite safe from ever knowing about that immensity. We are in fact very safe indeed from knowing about it – if someone were to come along and tell us about this immensity we would laugh at them and think that they must be soft in the head. Either that or we would build up a whole load or new standardized routines of thinking and behaving to supposedly pay homage to the immensity, the true purpose of which is of course (as Jung says) to keep us protected from it. This second tactic is known as religion.
The value of our routinized way of being in the world is therefore that it protects us from what we don’t know, and don’t want to know. What we don’t want to know is the uncanny phenomenon of actual ‘depth’ or ‘profundity’, which Carl Jung calls numenosity. The closed set of mechanically repeating units of perception, thought and behaviour which defines our way of being in the world possesses no depth, no profundity whatsoever and this is precisely why we are so very fond it. This is after all the whole point of the exercise – that we can be safe from experiences possessing depth and profundity, that we can be safe from the numenosum.
The only value to the routinized way of life is therefore that it shields us from the immensity. We certainly don’t prize our endlessly repeating routines for any quality that they might have in themselves. This is an impossibility since they are entirely hollow, entirely redundant, entirely devoid of any genuine meaning. How can an experience lacking in depth or profundity at the same time have genuine meaning? If I am to have an experience that is not supremely hollow and superficial, then this means that there must be actual content to it. ‘Content’ means that the experience has philosophical depth to it – without philosophical depth the experience is only a shell, a phantom, a hollow illusion. This brings us back to the point that we have just been making – as soon as we have ‘genuine content’ we have intimations of the immensity and this is of course the very thing we want to avoid.
To say that our routinized existence is dull and joyless would be to paint too pretty a picture of it. It is irredeemably sterile, appallingly inhospitable, and utterly life-denying. It possesses that particular horrifically bleak and suffocating quality that comes when all meaning whatsoever has been removed. This is a quality we don’t seem to have any imagination for in our everyday lives, a quality we don’t have much of a vocabulary for, but which nevertheless manifests itself in full force in what we call ‘depression’. Despite the essentially horrific and inimical nature of what we are embracing and cuddling up to on a day-to-day basis however, embrace it and cuddle up to it we do because the alternative seems – to us – to be completely unacceptable.
The fact that we are so committed to hiding behind our mechanical outlook, our mechanical thought processes, and our mechanical behaviours places us in a very awkward position. Despite the fact that we don’t have any genuine love or passion in these routines themselves we can’t admit this to ourselves. There is absolutely no way in which we can honestly admit to ourselves that we are only interested in the supremely shallow world that we have made up for ourselves because it serves the function of shielding us from the immensity because as soon as we admit this we are no longer shielded from the immensity. So instead we have to kid ourselves, on a very deep level, that we really do value our routines, that we really are passionate about them and motivated by them. We have to pay ‘lip service’ to them in a big way – we have to pay lip-service as if we really mean it. This, we might say, is the ‘condition of the game’.
This of course is not an unfamiliar sort of an idea. This is pretty much what society is all about – it is what all forms of ‘adaptation to a given structure’ are about. We end up implicitly claiming to value stuff that – in reality – we don’t value at all. We end up making hypocrites of ourselves. We end up ‘going through the motions’, doing the right things, saying the right things, thinking the right things, and kidding ourselves that we mean it. What choice do we have anyway? It is far easier to acquiesce, to go along with something and ‘make the best of it’, than it is to fight against something that it isn’t possible to change. After all, if we kick back against the structure then we’re just going to be left behind, and what are we going to do then? We’d be ‘non-adapted’, we’d be ‘left out of the loop’. We’d be all on our own…
We are born into this world, this world that is made up of inert and unchangeable mechanical structures or routines, and we have to quickly adapt ourselves to this ‘external authority’ if we are to stand a chance of getting any sort of a life at all for ourselves. Why would we even question the structures anyway – it is not as if we have an experience of anything different, or hear anyone talking about anything different. There are no other options mentioned and so naturally we assume that what we are presented with is ‘the only way possible’. We are born into a closed or predetermined world, a deterministic world – a world of final meanings and literal truths – but as far as we are concerned it isn’t a closed world at all, but simply ‘the only world there could be’. As far as we’re concerned it’s just ‘the world’. End of story.
Making what seems like ‘the only possible choice’ (which means of course that it is in reality ‘no choice at all’) and adapting obediently to the routine world carries with it a terrible price however. The principle here has to do with ‘becoming what we pretend to be’ – if we keep up an act long enough the act becomes real. We pull a face and the face sticks. Or as James Carse says, if we wear the mask long enough we become the mask. We become what we pretend to be, because we pretend so well…
Society is in essence ‘a system of masks’ – it is a form of institutionalized insincerity, a form of obligatory hypocrisy. As far as can be seen there is no choice but to conform to the predetermined repertoire of mental and behaviour routines that is society but when we do this we unwittingly but inevitably annihilate our own sincerity since there is no way to remain sincere and yet nevertheless ‘play the game’. This would correspond to what Carlos Castaneda calls controlled folly since we would then be pretending to believe in something that we know very well to be utterly meaningless. Controlled folly, according to Castaneda, is the response of the warrior when he or she is living in the everyday world of socially conditioned people. We act as if we perceive meaning in the routines, the purposeful actions, when the truth is that we don’t. The type of folly that we generally involve ourselves in is not of the ‘controlled’ or ‘conscious’ variety at all however – the type of folly we are immersed in is unconscious folly, folly that we perceive to be wisdom. Unconscious folly – therefore – is when we lose our sincerity without knowing that we have lost it, and so become hopelessly adrift on the sea of human foolishness, pulled by the currents that govern this sea from one nonsensical situation to another, without respite, without any prospect of respite.
Without our essential sincerity what are we? What is left, in this case? The answer is fairly obvious: when we lose our sincerity we lose everything since we have now become effectively hollow, devoid of genuine substance, mere ‘semblances’ of human beings rather than the true thing. We have become what Wei Wu Wei calls ‘an outside without an inside’. As far as price-tags go, this is clearly pretty steep! If, after learning about the price, you felt somewhat disinclined to purchase the product, this would not be entirely surprising. The advantages do not seem overwhelming. The question that we need to think about here is this – after successfully adapting to the game, and winning all the prizes, and becoming perfectly hollow as a result, who is left to ‘benefit’?
When we become separated or disconnected from our sincerity we end up as chameleons who do not know themselves to be chameleons. We end up like mercenary soldiers who are ready to sell their services to the highest bidder, without caring a jot about who this bidder is, or what his intentions might be. Yet, unlike the mercenary soldier – who knows very well what he is – we cloak our insincerity with the veneer of righteousness. We automatically validate whatever it is we are going along with by saying that it is the ‘correct’ thing to do, by saying that the way of seeing the world that we have passively adapted ourselves to is the ‘right’ one. The fact that we have adapted to it makes it right!
Thus, we opt out of thinking for ourselves and – at one and the same time – congratulate ourselves for being clever enough to have made the correct choice. Paradoxically, we get to be terminally spineless and terminally irresponsible ourselves and yet feel very strongly at the same time that all of those people who do not hold the values that we (falsely) claim to hold are the ones who are reprehensibly misguided, heretical, wrongheaded, deluded, irresponsible, and so on. We get to look down on them, and feel smug in ourselves for the being the ones who have ‘got it right’. We get to condemn and persecute them. Such is the astonishingly, appallingly ignominious state of ‘psychological unconsciousness’ which we pretty much all exist in.
Becoming chameleons without knowing that we are chameleons (i.e. becoming insincere without knowing that we are insincere) corresponds to the traditional idea of ‘losing one’s soul’, which is the danger that all religions originally existed to warn us about. The problem was (and is) however that these same religions then ended up saying ‘adapt to our prescribed beliefs and behavioural routines and we will save your soul’ – the invisible irony being of course that through passively adapting to the external authority of the church we lost our souls a thousand times quicker than we would otherwise have done! The very institution which was supposed to be safeguarding our souls is robbing us of them…
The church isn’t of course the only institution that has ever been guilty of ‘not allowing people to think for themselves’. All institutions do this because all institutions treat people in a standardized way, which is to say, in such a way that there is ‘one rule for all’. Long-stay hospitals, prisons, the Armed Forces, society itself, all provide a strictly regulated environment which – in effect – ‘does our thinking for us’, relieving us thereby from the need to do so ourselves. The family unit is also very often a system to which we adapt at the cost of never developing our true individuality, at the cost of ceasing to grow – all we ever do is just echo or reflect the unit of the family, follow the game rules of the game that is the family.
Any ‘total structure’, any system of logic that completely defines the world for us, will take away our ability to see the world for ourselves, in a non-regulated way. And of course – even though we never think of it – the rational-conceptual mind itself is the most total institution of all, it is a total institution that we carry around with us wherever we go, a total institution from which we are granted no release date, no discharge date. The period of custody is life and there is no such thing as ‘time off’ for good behaviour. The rational mind ‘looks after us’, so to speak, by defining reality for us and it does this job with exemplary thoroughness. Everything is defined for us by this mind and nothing is left undefined, and what is more we are so institutionalized by it that if we were to come across some element of experience, some portion of reality, that has not been neatly wrapped up and pre-conceptualized for us we don’t like it at all. When we see reality ‘as it is in itself’ this is very frightening and very disorientating, and we don’t want any part of it. As fully paid-up inmates of the institution of the rational mind, our only wish is that we be left alone to follow its repetitive routines forever, without any unwanted disturbances to our totally regulated lives.
The world that is created by the ‘total institution’ of the rational mind is a very strange one, for all that it often seems so tediously familiar. It is a world that is made up entirely of two-dimensional surfaces, of ‘superficial appearances’. It is a conditioned world where we perceive what we have been predisposed to perceive, believe what we have been predisposed to believe, understand what we have been predisposed to understand, take seriously what we have been predisposed to take seriously. It is a world that unfurls around us wherever we go like the back-drop of a scene in a movie being unloaded out of a lorry, a ‘ready-made’ world, a world that faithfully reflects and maps out our expectations, our assumptions, our conditioning. This is not a case of ‘Wherever I go there I am’ but ‘Wherever I go there the conditioned world is’. I can’t outrun this world, or catch it napping – no matter how fast I move the machinery that assembles it around me is a thousand times faster still. The conditioned world is like my shadow, and because I am always looking at things ‘the wrong way’, so to speak, I never see the light which casts the shadow, the light which is my own unconditioned consciousness.
Wherever I walk the two-dimensional world of appearances that is created by the machinery of the conceptual mind springs up automatically, and yet it is not even a case of ‘wherever I walk…’ because saying this implies a free volition that does not exist. It is a case of ‘wherever I am helplessly compelled to walk’, or ‘wherever I am blown’ or ‘wherever I am dragged’ the opaque apparition of the two-dimensional world springs up on all sides to greet me. Both my motivation to do or think anything and the world within which this ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’ make sense arise out of the same conditioning, the same rational mind, the same system of thought.
This is a world – needless to say – where there is no place for curiosity. Curiosity would only get in the way of the smooth flow of things. It would act as a spanner in the works, a fly in the ointment. This is a world where absolute passivity, where the absolute absence of curiosity about ‘what is going on’ is a prerequisite. Complete unreflectiveness (i.e. just ‘going along with it’, whatever ‘it’ is) is the absolutely necessary condition for the whole business to continue.
Zero curiosity is the first rule of the game, the game that we are playing, but do not know that we are playing.
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.