We put a lot of effort into validating our distractions. We put a HELL of a lot of effort into validating our distractions. We put a hell of a lot of effort into saying that our distractions aren’t distractions at all but rather that they are something very important, very serious indeed. This of course makes the distractions work a lot better – they stop being what we might see as distractions in this case and become something else entirely. They become a whole world in themselves. We do this ‘distraction-validating business’ ourselves on a personal basis and we also do is it collectively, on a societal basis. We do it in concert – we all get together and agree on what distractions to put our energy into, and then we say that these officially authorized distractions are ‘what everyone should be doing’. Anyone not going along with this set up are immediately seen to be reprobates and moral delinquents of the worst kind and thoroughly deserving of a good kick in the behind. This arrangement (where we all get together and validate a whole bunch of distractions) is generally known as society.
So we get very serious about our distractions – we say that they are important, we talk in terms of ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’ and so on. We get very humourless indeed about it and if someone or something comes along to stop us distracting ourselves in the way we want to then this will cause us to be upset, frustrated, irritated, annoyed and downright cantankerous. We can get pretty nasty about this sort of thing, pretty toxic. Whenever there is this dire type of ‘seriousness’ (which is really just the po-faced denial of the patent absurdity of what is going on) there is always going to be a reservoir of toxicity waiting to be unleashed upon anyone who might stand in the way of the exercise. Bad moods and sulks and angry outbursts all come from this root – they all arise as a result of someone or something preventing us from distracting ourselves in the way that we want to, in the way that we are set upon doing. All of what we call ‘negativity’ comes about from this root, without exception. If we weren’t dead-set upon distracting ourselves (and at the same time dead-set on making out that we are doing no such thing) then no negativity would arise…
This is a very curious thing therefore – as we could readily see if only we could be bothered to look into it. It’s a curious thing because what I am getting so frustrated or worked up about (when you come along and cause a problem) doesn’t really matter at all! It doesn’t really matter because it’s only just a distraction – it’s not actually important at all really. What causes the negative reaction is therefore the fact that I have said that it is important – I have gone out my way to validate it, I have investing myself in making out that the distraction is important when it isn’t and that puts me in an awkward position. There are limited possibilities for me at this point – in fact there is only the one possibility, which is for me to keep on asserting, in the most aggressively way that I can, that what isn’t true, actually is! This is of course what always happens when we get caught out in a lie.
In short, the reason I take it so badly when I am prevented from acting out my chosen distraction is that I am in denial. I am in danger of being caught out deceiving myself, and I don’t want to get caught out! What I am doing isn’t in the least bit important but what IS important (to me) is that I should be able to carry on thinking that it is. What is important to me is that I should not under any circumstances gain any insight into why I am really doing whatever it is that I am doing! I really can’t bear to have anything obstructing me is because I don’t want to be reminded that I’m out on a limb with whatever my story is. Not being challenged matters to me in a way that I can’t admit to and so I’m well and truly caught. I can’t acknowledge my desire to stay distracted – even to myself – and so this ‘unowned’ motivation gets unleashed in the form of anger or frustration. If I were to look into it I would have to admit that I don’t really know why I’m getting so angry or outraged but the point is that I never do look into it! Having some kind of ‘hidden or unconscious motivation’ is thus the root of toxicity, or ‘negative emotions’, just as it is the root of violence and aggression. Having some sort of motivation that I can’t own up to (even to myself) banjaxes me…
The glitch is, how can I ever let go of something if I’m not admitting that I’m holding onto it in the first place? This is THE crucial point to understand – if I have an unacknowledged motivation (if I have an agenda that I am keeping from myself) then this unconscious motivation, this secret agenda, controls me and not vice versa. My unacknowledged motivation runs me – it operates me without me ever knowing that it is doing so. This – we might say – is the single most important principle in psychology – for all that it seems quaintly old-fashioned (in a crypto-Freudian sort of a way) to say it. To say that this insight ‘changes everything’ doesn’t even come close – it turns everything we know on its head. I am the helpless tool or puppet of my unconscious motivations – much as Freud says – and I haven’t the slightest, remotest clue that this is happening. If you tell me that I am being controlled by an unconscious motivation I won’t have it for a moment, I won’t believe it for a second. I will tell you that you’re talking nonsense. The suggestion (apart from being distinctly unpalatable) contradicts my basic experience and so I’m not even going to try to understand it. This however only goes to show how laughably deluded I am!
We are not simple taking a leaf out of Sigmund Freud’s book here, for all that it might sound like it. Freud was putting everything down to the repression of the sexual drive, and the way that the libido is not allowed to find frank expression in our modern nicely-sanitized civilized world. What we’re talking about however is not the sex drive (which we all know we have), but the wholly unacknowledged drive that we have to distract ourselves. The thesis that we are putting forward here is that we all have a basic unacknowledged motivation to distract ourselves on a constant basis whilst totally convincing ourselves the whole time that we are not doing so, that we are doing something entirely legitimate. This ‘unowned motivation’ is operating us – it is in fact operating the whole show!
The big question here therefore – if we are in any way to accept this thesis – is why this need should be so very important. Why would we pay such a high price for this outcome (the outcome of ‘being distracted without knowing that we are distracted’)? We have after all paid the highest price of all – we have given away our autonomy as if it were nothing, as if it were something expendable, as if it were something we could do without. And yet our autonomy is all we have – it is everything. Our autonomy is who we are! If we aren’t autonomous beings then we are simply extensions of something else – we are extensions of whatever it controlling us…
The only way we would willingly enter into a deal like this would be if we didn’t see what we were doing. The general scenario here is easy enough to imagine: we have our eye on something that we want, and it seems to us that it is worth paying a very price for it, and then when we have it we discover that it isn’t really as great as we thought it was going to be! This is of course the type of thing that happens to us all; it is a universal human experience – the experience of being cheated! The only difference here is that we don’t actually discover that what we’ve purchased isn’t worth what we have so rashly paid for it – we don’t get to see this because the price that we have paid is our ability to see things as they really are. The price we have paid is after all our autonomy and when we have no autonomy then we are ‘owned’ by whatever determinate reality that we have bought into. We might think that we own what we have bought (i.e. we might think that we own our thoughts, our opinions, our beliefs, our systems) but really they own us! I think that the thought is mine, but because I have given up my autonomy in buying it, it now gets to tell me what reality is and I don’t have the wherewithal to see things any other way. Having no autonomy means that the thought owns me – it means that the thought defines reality and I just have to passively go along with this. Whatever it tells me I automatically accept – this is the way the set-up works because the ‘determinate reality’ is the boss, not me. The determinate reality (which we might also call the ‘external authority’) calls the shots – I only think that I do. I think that I am still autonomous because the external authority tells me that I am…
When we express it like this then what we have been saying so far said becomes clearer because if our fundamental need is to be distracted then this is the way to go about being distracted – by giving away our autonomy to an external authority. The way to go about being distracted is to give away our freedom to a determinate reality of some sort, an external authority which immediately provides us with its own false (or ‘conditioned’) version of autonomy. This is THE perfect way of being distracted – what could work better than this? We could still ask what the reason is for us wanting so badly to be distracted, what the underlying motivation is. What’s the point in the whole exercise? What do we stand to gain out of it? According to Krishnamurti, what we gain is the sense of being a localized centre, a particularized self. In The Flame of Attention, Krishnamurti says that when we give complete attention to what is going on in the present moment, then we lose the very persuasive sense of being this localized centre, this particular bounded self:
When there is total attention, there is no forming of a centre. It is only inattention that creates the centre.
What happens in total attention therefore is that that there is a loss of that taken-for-granted polarization between ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘me’ and ‘everything else’. This polarization is the basis of everything we know – without it we wouldn’t be able to put the world together in the way that we do. This polarization is what creates the self and the self is the fundamental assumption that we make when relating to the world. This is the assumption we never question – the self is our ultimate blind-spot.
The self – we might say – is made up of a collection of particularities – particularities which are very familiar to us. They are so very familiar to us in fact, that they ARE us! And at the same time – because these particularities are so very familiar to us – we never actually see them, we never actually pay them any heed. This is what happens with very familiar things after all, we no longer see them. We don’t need to see them because we know them so well! So this way the bundle of particularities gets to condition everything about us – it gets to swallow us up so completely that there’s nothing left over. The thing about never seeing these conditioning factors is that we really just acting on the basis of something that we assume to be there, but this assumption is not in any way grounded in reality. The assumptions that we base our lives on, and which hem us in so totally, are nothing more than a collection of half-baked fantasies. They’re not the sort of assumptions that could ever be true – they’re more like delusions that we never properly look at and for this reason when we do look at them they immediately dissolve away. There’s nothing else they can do. They dissolve away because they were never there in the first place.
When we see the world we aren’t really seeing the world – there’s no way we can see the world if we don’t examine our assumptions, our conditioning factors. When we relate to the world in the way that we generally do we aren’t genuinely ‘paying attention’ but rather we’re just reacting passively to the way the world looks to us when we take these ‘conditioning factors’ for granted. So we’re lost in a kind of self-perpetuating loop of fantasy. This loop is self-perpetuating because the more we react to what the conditioning factors cause us to see, the more this reinforces the potency of these factors. Or to put this another way, the more fixated our attention is on the objects of our attachment (the things that we either like or don’t like) the ‘blinder’ we become with regard to the conditioning that is causing us to see these objects. The bigger and darker our blind-spot with regard to our conditioning, the more power it has over us, the more ‘absolute’ it gets in its control of us, and so this is a classic self-reinforcing cycle. When we’re in it at all then the only way to go is deeper into it, so to speak, and so we’re lost in the vicious circle of unconsciousness. There is a kind of energy in this loop that causes us to keep on reacting; we could even say that there is a type of energy in this loop that wants us to keep on reacting! And at the core of this downright predatory ‘vicious circle’ lie the conditioning factors that we have been talking about, the stuff we take so much for granted, which are essentially just ‘repetitive patterns of looking at the world’. Or if we want to be even clearer about what we’re saying here, we could say that what lies at the core of the vicious circle of unconsciousness is the localized centre, the ‘reactive self’.
All of this is just another version of what we started off talking about, which was all to do with how we get totally controlled by our own ‘hidden agendas’, how we get operated by our own ‘unacknowledged motivation’, without having the slightest clue that this is happening. We don’t ever see this hidden agenda (or unacknowledged motivation) we just see what it wants us to see. We only see what it ‘highlights’ for us as being important, and then we react accordingly on the basis of this so-called ‘importance’. It is of course precisely because we are so captivated by what the conditioning factors that constitute our ‘hidden agenda’ show us that we have no interest in what is directing the show from behind the scenes – the more ‘fixated’ our attention, the less free we are to take an interest in what is really going on, and this ‘unfreeness of attention’ is what keeps the whole show on the road.
When we don’t see the conditioning factors (which are the same thing as ‘the self’) then instead of being ‘directly’ aware of them (which would equal ‘being conscious’) we are only ‘indirectly’ aware of them, which is to say, we are aware of what they make us see in the outside world. We are only ‘aware’ of the conditioning factors in terms of what they project out onto the world, and this means that we are being effectively controlled by them. This state of being ‘totally controlled by conditioning factors that we can’t see to be controlling us’ (and which we don’t even know to be there in the first place) equals – we could say – being ‘unconscious’. The state of being aware of our conditioning only in terms what it is making us see equals being ‘unconscious’.
Or as we could alternatively say, being unconscious means that we are being operated by some ‘rational introject; it means that we are being ‘run’ by some ‘invisible external authority’ which has the job of telling us what it real and what is not real.
The external authority controls what we see and it also controls how we shall react to what we see. It all comes in the same package. Reacting to what the ‘invisible external authority’ (i.e. ‘the introject’) tells us is there (and what it tells us we should be reacting to) strengthens the power the introject has over us, as we have said, and so we really don’t get a look in. We don’t stand a chance. The introject, the ‘invisible external authority’, has all the angles covered! The introject tells us what we shall see, and how we shall feel when we see it! It tells us everything, and what it doesn’t tell us we don’t know about. We’re caught between ‘the conditioning’ and ‘what the conditioning causes us to see’, and since ‘the conditioning’ and ‘what the conditioning causes us to see’ are one and the same thing, there’s actually no space at all between the two. This is not such a good situation, therefore…
This gives us another way of looking at this business of ‘validating our distractions’ – whether we are drawn to a projection or repelled by it, it is still acting as an effective distraction. We are being distracted because our attention is being pulled very strongly in one particular direction – more than this, it is being ‘bottled up’ so that anything that hasn’t any connection with either attractive or aversive projections doesn’t have any interest to us. It’s not just that ‘we see it but that we don’t care about it’ – if it doesn’t figure in terms of either being advantageous or disadvantage to us then we don’t register it at all. We’re are only registering stuff that has a ‘personal’ significance to us. We are personalizing the world, and the personalized world that we relate to (which is the only world we know) is simply the sum total of all our positive and negative projections! It could be said therefore that we are seeing things in a very slanted, very distorted sort of a way. We could hardly be seeing things in a more distorted way since the only stuff we take heed of is that stuff which related to the conditioning factors that control where our attention goes, and these factors are only ‘important’ because they themselves say that they are. When the world is seen in this maximally distorted way then the things we are being drawn to or repelled by seem by definition to be real to us – they are real precisely because they have been granted so much significance by the system. The distorted (or bottled up) field of awareness makes the attractive or repellent objects seem real, and this – by reverse inference – means that the one who is being attracted or repelled (the one who likes or dislikes) is also real.
This shows us what the ‘need to be distracted’ is all about – it is only through the power of distraction that there gets to be a self. We all know that the self is favourably disposed to being there at the centre of things, and to being as solidly established and entrenched as possible, just as we know that it is very unfavourably disposed to ‘not being there’ (or to a lesser extent, to not being so strongly established). When talk about ‘the ego’ this is exactly how we understand it – as being the kind of a ‘pseudo-entity’ that likes very much to have its reality affirmed, and which dislikes to the same degree having its reality denied or slighted. It loves flattery and at the same time reacts very badly indeed to what it perceives as ‘insults’. The reason the self (which is as we have indicated a purely theatrical entity) loves to receive confirmation of its existence is thus because it actually doesn’t (exist) and this is also – we may say – the reason for it having a great fear (actually an outright terror) of the state of ‘not existing’!
The liker and the disliker comes into existence concurrently with the thing that is being liked or disliked, and so from the point of view of this liker/disliker clearly it is of the utmost importance to find something to feel strongly about; after all, the more prejudiced or opinionated I am, the more solid my sense of being a self is! This brings us back to the notion of attachment since without some outcome that we are attracted to (or one that we are averse to) there is no rationale for controlling and without controlling whole business of ‘being this self’ can never get started. ‘Controlling’ is the same thing as reacting and the ‘reacting’ is simply an inevitable consequence of the attractive or aversive stimulus. It’s really just the same thing. It’s all just ‘the same thing’. When we pay total attention to what is going on then we no longer have this illusion of there being a needy or insecure self that needs to react in order to protect or further itself. Or as Krishnamurti says,
Because when there is attention there is not a centre which is reacting.
This ‘centre’ (which we are so attached to!) comes about as result of a loss of consciousness therefore. The ‘centre’ actually IS a loss of consciousness! When consciousness – which is ‘non-dual’, having no subject and no object, no ‘self’ and no ‘other’ – is lost then there immediately springs into existence an analogue for consciousness, an analogue for non-duality, which is of course the ‘polar situation’. Polarity (or duality) is composed – needless to say – of two complementary opposites, of PLUS and MINUS – or we could say that duality is the field that exists between these two poles, like the field that is strung out between the North and South Pole of a magnet. So when there is no attention, when consciousness is lost, then the reactive centre which is the self pops into existence, along with all its projections, along with all the mental objects that it feels either drawn to or repelled by.
The nature of the game that is being played by the self is as we have been saying all about the great (if not absolute) need to acquire and secure all the things that it is drawn to, and at the same time divest itself of or (if at all possible) entirely get rid of all the things that repel it. To put this more simply, the self gets to be the self by controlling (or by attempting to control) because it is by controlling (or by attempting to control) that it gets to validate its existence. It doesn’t matter in the least whether it controls successfully or not – the only thing that is needed for the game to take place is that it should feel the need to successfully control. For the self to be free from this need (i.e. for the self to be free from what may be called ‘mechanical attachment’) is the same thing as the self being free from itself!
The self can’t come right out with it and say that it ‘controls for the sake of controlling’, or that it controls the whole time because it only feels real when it is doing so (i.e. when it is striving to obtain some desired outcome or other). It can’t come right out with it and say that it has to keep distracting itself with purposeful activities of one sort or another because of the gnawing feeling of ontological insecurity that exists in the core of its being (or rather, in its ‘non-being’). It has to say that there is an objective framework within which this controlling makes sense – it has to say that the goals which it is striving for are objectively important in themselves rather than just being goals that are important only because we want them to be important. That wouldn’t do at all! We need to keep asserting that ‘the rules are the rules’ – we have to keep the determinate framework in its exalted position of being above us because otherwise the whole ‘distraction game’ falls to pieces. The distraction game relies entirely upon us having no autonomy, no freedom – it relies entirely on us handing over all the responsibility whilst at the same time denying that this is what we are doing. If the game were to be seen as a game then we would not be ‘distracting ourselves from seeing that we are distracting ourselves’ and if we are not ‘distracting ourselves from seeing that we are distracting ourselves’ then the ‘reactive centre’ starts to dissolve into thin air, which from the POV of the reactive centre is the very outcome that it feels most driven, most compelled, to react against!
We could say – in summary – that our goals are our distractions, that the outcomes we are chasing after are our distractions. Usually when we talk about ‘distractions’ we mean that there is one thing that we really have to do which at the same time we are loathe to do, and so we find all sorts of other things that we tell ourselves we need to do to serve as handy decoys from the task we dread. But none of this applies to non-duality because in non-duality there are no things that we have to do. In non-duality there are no rules that ‘have to be obeyed’. All things that we ‘have to do’ are duality because ‘doing them’ is clearly being seen as very different indeed from ‘not doing them’ – in fact the one is of course the polar opposite of the other!
So if all the things that we ‘have to do’ are distractions, the question is what are we distracting ourselves from? One way to answer this is to say that we are not distracting ourselves from anything in particular, but rather that we are distracting ourselves from seeing that something which we comfortably assume to be there, actually isn’t there at all. We’re distracting ourselves from seeing that something isn’t there, so to speak – something that we consider absolutely vital. The self is therefore perennially occupied in distracting itself from seeing that it doesn’t exist, and at the same time making out (as best it can) that this is not at all what it is doing!
We have said that the self, the centre, is the result of a cataclysmic loss of consciousness. It, along with the world that is made up of its unrecognized projections, constitutes the ‘analogue of consciousness’ that comes into being when consciousness itself is lost. It’s what we get instead of consciousness, so to speak. We lose consciousness and we get the analogue instead, so we never know that anything happened. We make do with the analogue and it seems just fine.
But the other thing that we could mention here in this connection is that, actually, consciousness is everything. There ISN’T anything ‘apart’ from consciousness – there ISN’T anything ‘outside of’ consciousness, and so this means that there ISN’T an analogue! How can there be an analogue of consciousness, when consciousness is all there is? The so-called analogue is unreal, which is to say, both the self and the objects to which it relates are unreal and it is the starkly uncompromising truth of this unreality that we are constantly distracting ourselves from. What we have been calling ‘the analogue’ is completely hollow – it’s as simple as that. It’s completely hollow because there’s nothing in 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.