The everyday self is a task that we continually have to work on. We don’t usually think of it as a task, but it is – it’s like a heavily-laden wheelbarrow that we have to keep on pushing ahead of us wherever we go. Sometimes it’s more like a boulder that we have to roll up a steep hill, a task which is almost beyond our ability to keep up with. At other times, on the other hand, the boulder rolling downhill all by itself and when that happens it can actually run right away from us. Naturally, when the boulder runs away from us down the hill then that isn’t seen as an ‘onerous task’, but on the other hand when it stops rolling right at the bottom of the ravine or gully, then it is of course up to us to get it out again and so here is the task after all. We may not have realized that it was a task unfolding when it rolled down the hill all by itself but it was.
This is why Wei Wu Wei says that the happiness of the everyday self is just as much suffering as its unhappiness is. The everyday self’s ‘happiness’ is it gravitating towards more intense states of suffering than it was experiencing before – this feels ‘good’ in the first phase because we have found a new and highly successful way of avoiding reality (which is the only thing that makes the self happy), and it leads us infallibly towards even greater states of suffering also because ‘we have found a new and more successful way of avoiding reality’! If we were interested in understanding the basic mechanism of unconscious life then this is it. If you are interested in understanding the psychology of the concrete self then this is the very essence of it – the everyday (or concrete) have spent all of its time chasing euphoria and in so doing and in doing this it is also chasing new and improved suffering’. Now the self never liked the pain that it was in very much to start off with (this being the ‘defining characteristic of the self’ – that it is unreflectively averse to pain or dysphoria) and yet all it ever does is to act in such a way as to maximise its own pain, maximise its own dysphoria.
We don’t perceive ourselves to be doing this to be sure – on the contrary, we are pursuing very attractive illusions, very attractive fantasies, and we naturally assume that when we catch up with these illusions (we wouldn’t use that particular word, naturally) then everything is going to be rosy! When the heavy boulder that is the concrete self rolls downhill then we are no longer aware of it as being what it is (a heavy boulder) and we are also not aware that we are headed (at speed) to a place of suffering; on the contrary, everything feels quite weightless and effortless and free and we are busy imagining for all we’re worth that we are headed towards the location that is really very wonderful – it’s as if we were on a train going to Disneyland, or some other kind of tacky magical wonderland. We are pretty happy about our trajectory, needless to say – we’re actually totally euphoric. The self is headed towards realisation of its goal and what could be better than this? The self is headed straight towards realisation of its goal and its goal is ‘its goal’ precisely because there is (we assume) benefit there to be had for it. Why after all would the self chase a goal that held no benefit for it?
When we talk about ‘goals’ we are really talking about benefits therefore – when we say that ‘goals are great’ or that ‘striving indomitably to obtain our goal is an admirable thing’ what we’re really saying is that ‘striving indomitably to obtain a benefit for ourselves is an admirable thing’ and this of course doesn’t have quite the same heroic ring to it. Of course the self is always straining and striving in the direction of achieving its goals; that’s what makes the self the self – the fact that it is always pursuing its own advantage! Naturally enough we indulge in the tiresome business of glamorising the self’s perennial and highly predictable interest in ‘securing its own benefit’ – that makes our characteristic, defining activity (i.e. our flagrant self-interest) a bit more palatable to us, that makes it possible for us to carry on with our characteristic activity and yet hold our heads up high at the same time. To paint the self as a hero simply because it is always trying to benefit itself is more than just a little bit rich however. That’s just a bit too much to swallow!
The life of the concrete self is an ongoing contradiction therefore. It is an ongoing contradiction because its raison d’être is to strive after satisfaction all the time, whilst what it is actually doing – unbeknownst itself – is perpetuating its own state of chronic frustration, which is like a dark cloud that follows it around wherever it goes. Or to put this another way, the life of the self is an ‘ongoing contradiction in terms’ because whilst the only thing that it is interested in doing is chasing after euphoria, but what it is actually doing – although you could never tell at this – is chasing after dysphoria (which is the state of mind that it hates and fears the most). The self can never escape from this flat ‘self-contradictoriness’ either because the contradiction is built into its very nature. The self – as we have just said – is defined both by its ‘absolute unrelated aversion to pain’ and its ‘absolute unreflective yearning for pleasure’, and so the contradiction here is that by obeying its nature in ‘troping positively towards satisfaction’ or ‘relief’ or ‘pleasure’ it is also bringing about the very situation which it is absolutely repelled by, which is the flipside of all these things. It is affirming itself and denying itself at the same time. The ‘life of the concrete self’ is nothing to be envied, therefore. It’s not exactly a ‘bed of roses’.
We don’t usually experience the full-on frustration and torment that comes with this flat self-contradictoriness because the concrete self is not usually 100% concrete for us. We are orientated around the concrete self for sure but at the same time it doesn’t define anything about us – we’ve got a bit of freedom from it and that freedom makes all the difference. If the concrete self defined everything about us then we would be the concrete self (and nothing more) and there isn’t any life in the self.There can’t be any life in the self because the self is a mere mechanism. To be totally identified is to be crushed completely by the dead weight of the mechanism only – oddly enough – we don’t at the time know that we are. If we did realise that we were being completely crushed in this way then we wouldn’t be able to bear it, we wouldn’t be able to carry on with the whole wretched business, but this awareness is repressed – this disheartening awareness is repressed and we are facilitated to continue the game with this little thing we call ‘hope’. ‘Hope springs eternal to the human breast’, so it is said and it is this hope that leads us ever on. It is this hope that effectively prevents us from seeing that we are being crushed by the chomping jaws of self-contradiction…
Self-contradiction as a curse we cannot see. It’s a curse (or prison) we cannot see and the reason we can’t see it because we are always hoping to get away from it, even though we don’t actually see that there is anything to get away from. We’re ‘hoping on an unconscious level’, therefore. Self-contradiction means that there is no hope in hell that we are ever going to get anywhere as a result of our purposeful behaviour, as a result of our ‘positive assertions’. All of our thoughts are positive assertions and all of our purposeful behaviour comes from our thoughts, and so this means that we contradict ourselves in everything we think, say and do. All positive assertions, without exception, contradict themselves and so how can we ever hope to ‘get anywhere’ on this basis? All we can do is to ‘keep on doing what we always do and hope that it turns out differently this time’. Or we can put this another way and say that all we can ever do is to keep on playing the same old finite game that we always play and hope that one day ‘winning at this game’ will somehow actually mean something (even though it never has done up to now).
‘Positive’ is something we have to look into a bit more, therefore. It’s not just ‘something we have to look into a bit more’ – it’s something that we need to look at full stop because we never ever do. ‘Positive’ means ‘more of the same’; when we move in a positive direction then we get ‘more of whatever it is we are counting’, just as when we move in a negative direction we get ‘less of whatever it is that we are counting’ and we always are counting something, as far as positive is concerned (there’s no such thing as ‘positive’ without counting). This is where the ‘great big glitch’ comes in therefore; the glitch comes in because positive means extending something (or increasing something) and the thing that we are extending or increasing isn’t really there. It’s a ‘necessary fiction’; it’s just something we’ve had to assume. The increasing or decreasing itself might be real (real within the terms of the operation we are performing, that is) but what is being increased or decreased isn’t real – it’s only an abstraction, it’s only something that we have had to assume in order to carry on to carry out the exercise that we want to engage in.
Positive movement can only take place when there is a basis or standard to measure it by and it is this basis or standard we need to invent if we are to have ‘positive’ anything. We have to invent the basis because there isn’t one; there is no basis there o matter how hard we look. Who has ever actually seen ‘a basis’ anywhere, after all? We can assume one for sure, but there’s no way we can actually find one. Once we have ‘an unquestionable basis’ – disregarding the vexed question of how we actually obtained such a thing – then we can go ahead and extend it and that is how we create the positive world. That’s how we create this thing called ‘positive’. What this means – therefore – is that we go to the trouble of tricking ourselves and thinking that we have found a basis (when the truth is that we made up ourselves) and then we rejoice mightily whenever we get to move in what we see as a ‘positive direction’. We noisily celebrate our achievement. That’s how we get our kicks; that’s how we get to feel good about ourselves.
This is the ‘classic mechanism’ – we pick a position at random (and it only gets to be ‘a position’ because we pick it) and then we say that we didn’t pick it but just found it there and we carry on blithely on this false basis. ‘It only matters because we say it matters’, in other words, only we don’t admit this. We would get very annoyed indeed if someone suggested such a thing; we’d get very disgruntled and indignant indeed if someone came up and said this to us. We’d be disgruntled because it’s rather a sore point for us – we’re in denial over it and it is this denial (as we have said) that creates a positive world. ‘How dare you say that it only matters because I tacitly agreed for it to matter!’ I will say. This is ‘unconscious play’ – play that we don’t admit to be play. The whole universe is Cosmic Play (or Lila) and part of this Cosmic Play is ‘playing whilst pretending that we are not playing’! We do lots of huffing and puffing around this idea that we ‘doing stuff because we have to’, because it’s the right thing to for us to do it, because it’s very, very important that we do do it (and that we don’t not do it) and this too is ‘playing’ – we are playing but we don’t know that we’re playing. We don’t know that we are playing but we are playing all the same! This is the realm of Negative Freedom.
The reason ‘everything is play’ is because we are free to act or not act – our basis is freedom, so to speak, only this isn’t really ‘a basis’ because it is not in any way determinate and because it isn’t determinate it can’t condition us in any way. A ‘basis’ has to determine or condition us, after all – that’s the whole idea. Freedom is ‘a basis that is no basis’ and part of this baseless freedom is to say that there absolutely IS an unquestionable, determinate basis and then to live ‘unfreely’ on this presumed but nevertheless non-existent footing. It’s a ‘twisted’ sort of play, but it is play all the same. We are free to pretend that there’s no such thing as freedom and then set off merrily (or not so merrily, on this rather dismal basis but there’s a catch – there’s a catch that we can’t avoid this is the ‘great big glitch’ that we were talking about earlier. We are free to pretend that there’s no such thing as freedom and proceed on this basis but when we do we create the ‘glitch of inescapable self contradictoriness’. We are saying that when we move in a positive direction (which is a measurable and provable kind of thing) then this is the only meaningful form of change that there is. This is however only a meaningful form of change to us because we have assumed something to be true when it isn’t. That’s all in the small print at the bottom of the contract, but we never look at the small print.
The price we pay for enjoying the particular type of satisfaction or pleasure that we get to enjoy when we are able to move in a positive direction, or when we are able to make a definite (or positive) assertion about the world is the price of being subject to ‘camouflaged redundancy‘. There is nothing more absurd than us ‘orientating ourselves around the positive’ in the way that we do (and making the ‘attainment of the positive’ the only value in life) when in doing this we are at the same time implicitly denying what we have just put so much stock in asserting. This then is ‘the task’ that we are always labouring away at – the thankless task of creating the concrete self.
Image: Radha Krishna