When we try to avoid mental pain (or fear) we create a vibration. In a way (in a very limited kind of a way) we can avoid whatever pain/fear is there but only at the price of getting caught up in this vibration. What type of ‘price’ this might be is not readily apparent to us because of the peculiar nature of the vibration that we are talking about here (which is essentially a vibration of consciousness in which there are two parts – the ‘running away from pain part’ and ‘the rebound part’). The nature of the vibration is such that when we’re caught up in it we don’t ever get a chance to take the ‘long view’, but rather than this we are compelled to take the ‘short view’, which is to say, we are compelled to focus narrowly on the part that we’re in at the time, even though focussing narrowly on the part we’re in at the time is only ever going to give rise to the following part, this being the nature of all vibrations. This being the case, when we’re ‘in’ the vibration we can’t see the vibration!
When we ‘start off’ in the vibration our motivation is, as we have said, to escape from whatever pain is there, and so naturally we’re not looking any further ahead than this. We’re looking for whatever bit of relief we can get – any bit of relief that comes our way, in any way that we can get it. When that bit of relief from the pain does come along then we don’t look beyond it – we seize hold of it for all we’re worth. This is the ‘running away from pain’ part of the vibration therefore, which we could also call the ‘positive attachment’ phase. ‘Positive attachment’ simply means that we’re grabbing hold of it as tightly as we can, which is of course a very natural thing to do seeing that the ‘relief from the pain’ is what we were looking for so intently! The next part of the vibration is as we have said the ‘rebound part’ and this is when our grabbing on to the bit of relief that we have obtained creates a backlash which plunges us into a new regime of mental pain. The backlash is the result of us trying to avoid mental pain which is ‘legitimately ours’ (i.e. mental pain that we can’t legitimately get away from).
LOOKING FOR RELIEF
So the vibration (like all vibrations) consists of two complementary parts (or phases) – the ‘relief phase’ which is where we manage to temporarily escape from the pain and the ‘back-lash phase’, which is where the pain catches up with us again with a vengeance! When we’re in the relief phase this of course feels great to us – it is like the sweetest nectar – but the next thing is that we get caught up in the rebound phase and we fall back into the pain we thought we had escaped from. When the pain catches up with us again it always does so with extra ‘sting’ in it – the sting is there because of the way we had allowed ourselves to believe that we had seen the last of it. The reason the relief phase feels as good as it does is because we totally believe that we have escaped the pain and so when we are rudely disillusioned of this comforting belief there is extra pain that comes with it – an extra dose of pain that is added onto the original like interest that has to be paid on a loan, so to speak. Whenever a comfort zone that we have completely trusted in lets us down there is this particularly unexpected and unwelcome quality of pain that comes with it – and yet this is no one’s fault but our own because there was absolutely no reason to trust it so much!
The original pain – we could say – is in a sense ‘clean’ (which is to say, it’s just plain and simple pain with no funny twists or glitches in it) but when we start playing the game of avoiding it (which is to say, pretending that we can legitimately avoid it) then we create a new and heavier kind of pain out of it. Chogyam Trungpa calls this ‘negative negativity’, which is the negativity that comes from taking against the pain. What changes when we resist or fight against pain is that anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, envy, self-pity and all of these types of feelings come into being – the pain has turned toxic and this toxicity makes it much harder to work with. I can ‘be with’ the original pain easier that I can be with my negative negativity, in other words (even though it’s still not by any means what we could call ‘easy’). There is something particularly difficult, particularly unpleasant, particularly objectionable about having to rub up against my own resentment and bitterness! The ‘negative negativity’ tastes a hell of a lot worse than the original ‘negativity’ and I just really don’t want to have anything to do with it! I don’t even want to admit that it’s mine. I particularly don’t want to admit that it’s mine! The whole process of ‘disowning’ or ‘rejecting’ the pain (which is another way of talking about ‘trying to escape from it’) develops a life of its own at this stage, therefore…
Having gone through all this, we’re now in a position of being able to formulate more precisely the nature of the vibration which we get caught in. The ‘relief-phase’ of which we have spoken can be technically defined as euphoria, which is ‘the type of good-feeling we get when we allow ourselves to believe that we have escaped when we haven’t’. According to Johannes Fabricius, euphoria is the ‘denial of despair’. Euphoria is a ‘virtual commodity’ therefore – it doesn’t really exist because we haven’t really escaped anything, but we nevertheless act as though it exists! When we fixate – as we do – on the illusory escape from pain then we create for ourselves this particular ‘fantasy state’ that is euphoria. We look upon it hungrily, with great anticipation, as if it will solve everything, as if it will make everything better. Instead of seeing euphoria as a temporary phase, a phase of a process that will inevitably give way to the complementary phase of bitter disillusionment (or ‘despair’); we look upon it as a final state of affairs, as if it were something that can go on existing in its own right. It is because we have looked at the ‘relief-phase’ in the remarkably short-sighted way (actually a ‘self-deceiving’ way) that we do that we have turned it into the virtual commodity of euphoria.
If we weren’t so short-sighted (if we allowed ourselves to look beyond the ‘relief-phase’ to what happens next) then of course we wouldn’t be able to take such pleasure in it. We wouldn’t be able to look forward to it in the way that we do, we wouldn’t be able to ‘pin as much on it’ as we do. If we took the ‘long-view’ rather than the ‘short-view’ then we wouldn’t be able to derive any sense of security from planning to stock-pile the virtual commodity of euphoria. Actually, there’s no security to be had; the only way we get to pin so much on it is because we never to look any further than it, because we see euphoria (as we have said) as an end-state rather than simply ‘one side of a revolving door’. We imagine that the coin we are going to get paid in has only the one face, instead of letting ourselves see that it has of course two faces – one being the face of euphoria and the other being the face of despair, or dysphoria. Dysphoria is ‘the other side of the coin’!
At the same time that we turn the relief-phase into the virtual commodity of euphoria (by allowing ourselves to imagine that we can have it ‘on its own’), we create an ‘equal and opposite’ virtual commodity which is just like euphoria, only ‘the mirror image’. Just as we obtain what is to us a very real satisfaction from the relief-phase by allowing ourselves to believe that it is a final state of affairs that we can obtain ‘once and for all’, so too we obtain very real dissatisfaction from the compensatory ‘back-lash phase’ for exactly the same reason. We trade on euphoria as if it were an actual commodity because we imagine that there is a type of security in it (as if we were buying stocks in a company that is guaranteed to do well no matter what) and in the same we can’t help believing in what we might call the ‘negative security’ of the dysphoric mental state – we believe in it in the same way that we believe that it is possible to be this thing called ‘a failure’.
We experience immense attraction towards the euphoric state of mind because we think that it is going to ‘define us forever’ (i.e. make us into ‘winners’!), and at the same time we experience an equally immense aversion to the dysphoric state, for the reverse reason. So when the ‘vibration’ between the one and the other has been set up we are the helpless prey of these two absolute motivations – the attraction to euphoria and the aversion to its opposite. Our short-sightedness is as we have said responsible for creating the ‘virtual commodities’ of euphoria and dysphoria but – equally – once created, these two commodities exert an absolute grip, an absolute pull on our attention, and this means that we can never see beyond them. Because craving and fear are so very magnetizing, so very unchallengeable for us (and because as a result we can’t look beyond them) this means that we are very effectively ‘trapped in the vibration’!
The vibration that we are talking about here has the property of allowing us to ‘escape’ – in a very limited kind of way – the pain that we originally wanted to avoid. But as we have said it only facilitates this ‘escape’ at the price of creating an equal and opposite counterpart to this virtual escaping. The vibration offers us the highly attractive possibility of escape from all our problems (so to speak) but this isn’t a real possibility – it doesn’t actually deliver, it doesn’t actually go anywhere. This is like someone offering you a glossy colour photograph of a hot meal when you are starving – it’s very enticing but it doesn’t actually help in any real way. In a certain kind of a way the photo-shopped image can even look better than the real thing but if this is the case then it actually works against us rather than for us. The fact that the image is so intensely attractive works against us because this attraction is what triggers us into trying to unreflectively avail of what it is apparently offering, but all that is really going to happen when we ‘try to avail’ is that we are going to get ‘sucked up into the vibration’. We going to be hypnotized in a pleasant fashion by the attractive images (which pulls us in) and then we are going to be hypnotized in an unpleasant fashion by the repellent or fear-inducing images and this will also pull us in. We are ‘pulled in’ by both the attractive and repellent images because both cause us to automatically react.
Being as ‘hungry’ as we are we can hardly help ourselves reacting to the attractive images, and experiencing as we do so all the pleasurable feelings of anticipation that flood us when we allow ourselves to believe that they are actually going to deliver what they promise to. And not only this, when we have been mechanically conditioned to react to the attractive image, to react to the glossy photo-shopped promise as if it were the real thing, then the image is the real thing. It’s the real thing because it’s what we have been conditioned to respond to! The image doesn’t need to be wholesome or nutritious in order for us to respond to it as if it were – heroin for example is neither healthy nor nutritious but when we are addicted to it only the drug itself will satisfy our cravings. If I am addicted to it then heroin (and only heroin) can hit that particular spot that needs hitting, and in the same way when we are conditioned to react to the two-dimension attractive or repellent images these images are the only thing we’re tuning into, the only thing that is ‘real’ to us, the only thing that is going to give us what we want.
On a very basic level therefore when we have been ‘conditioned’ then the image has been fundamentally confused with what it represents. It is after all the image that elicits the response that we enjoy so much – we’re ‘in the game’ for the euphoria and it is the image (and nothing else) that triggers the euphoria. It is the ‘hard currency’ of the euphoria that we are after and we can obtain this euphoria only when we allow ourselves to believe that the ‘relief-phase’ which we’re after is a final outcome in itself and not just one point on a revolving wheel that always leads back to the rebound-phase that we’re always trying to get away from. Because of this belief (which as we have said comes about because of the way in which we take the short view rather that the long one) the good feeling, the pleasurable anticipation, has become the ‘real deal’. That’s what we’re angling for, that’s what we think it’s all about. The image never delivers – because it can’t, because it’s only an image – but we remain oblivious to this rather extreme failing. We just don’t see it. If we did see that the image never delivers (and never can deliver) then clearly we wouldn’t keep on reacting with full vigour – in the way that we do – to every attractive or aversive stimulus that comes our way. We wouldn’t be going ‘up and down’ in the way that we do in response to ‘good news and bad news’. If we did see that the images we’re conditioned to react to don’t ever deliver then we wouldn’t be able experience the jolt of euphoria that we are addicted to (and contrariwise, we also wouldn’t be able to experience the ‘negative jolt’ of dysphoria).
The whole thing about ‘mechanical conditioning’ is that we become programmed in such a way that only euphoria or dysphoria (either concrete advantage or equally concrete disadvantage) have any meaning for us. These are the cogs that catch in our gears, the cogs that make us motor either the one way or the other. If it’s not concrete advantage / disadvantage then we just don’t get it – everything has become therefore very crudely ‘black-and-white’, very crudely ‘either/or’. Either it’s good or it’s bad. Either you’re my friend or you’re my enemy. Either you’re in or you’re out. When we have been converted into the humourless ‘conditioned self’ life is like this; when we are conditioned only concrete commodities are of any interest to us, any use to us. And yet the concrete outcomes, the literal goals that we spend all our time aiming at aren’t real – our black-and-white goals are reflections of our black-and-white thinking and nothing more. And what is more, the ‘lack of reality’ of our concrete goals is manifested in their inherently self-contradictory nature; in other words, because of the downright crudeness of the way in which we are apprehending reality we are spending all our time running at revolving doors, whilst remaining absolutely convinced the whole time that this is actually going to get us somewhere!
PLAYING THE GAME
Saying that we’re ‘caught up in the vibration’ is therefore just another way saying that we are ‘playing a game’ – we’re playing the game that running full-tilt into a revolving door is somehow going to get us somewhere. We’re playing the game that YES and NO aren’t the two faces of the same coin, that euphoria isn’t dysphoria in disguise. Saying that we’re ‘caught up in the vibration’ is also another way of saying that we’re trapped in conditioned reality (or trapped in ‘concrete mode’) – when we’re in concrete mode there’s really nowhere to go because both of the two concrete possibilities (YES and NO) are equally unreal. In the vibration there’s nowhere to go – there’s either moving in one direction or moving in the other, complementary direction, and both of these are the vibration! Moving in the [+] direction is the vibration and moving in the [-] direction is the vibration and so I’m not really getting anywhere different either way.
The idea that movement in the ‘positive’ direction represents an ‘escape’ from our difficulties is therefore perfectly absurd. Imagine being told that moving in the ‘PLUS’ direction in a +/h- vibration means ‘escaping’ or ‘getting somewhere different’! How ridiculous is this? And yet this is what we are being told the whole time – this is the game that we are playing. So the very strange thing is that when we are caught up in the vibration we totally believe that ‘bouncing vigorously in a positive direction’ will get us somewhere different, somewhere new, even we’re always doing this and it never ever does. If the definition of insanity is (as Einstein is dubiously reputed to have said) ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’ then on the face of it we must all be very insane indeed! And yet at the same time it could be said that there is a way in which we are not quite so bat-shit crazy as we might appear to be – it could be said that there is a way that we actually want to be fooled and endlessly diverted, and so in this case we are not quite so crazy after all. In this case it has to be said that – in a crazy kind of a way – we’re actually pretty shrewd….
From one point of view being continuously fooled and distracted in the way that we are works out as a solution to the rather tricky dilemma that we find ourselves in. The thing about this particular dilemma is that there isn’t actually any solution to it at all and so – because there isn’t a legitimate way out – we have to fool ourselves into thinking that there is! The vibration therefore is our way of fooling ourselves into thinking that there is a solution when there isn’t. The ‘dilemma’ that we’re talking about here is the dilemma of escaping from the pain (or the fear) that we were originally trying to escape from. It’s ‘a dilemma’ because we actually can’t escape – we can’t escape because the pain/fear is the inevitable consequence of existing as the concrete or conditioned self. This is the First Noble Truth of the Buddha – which is that conditioned existence is ‘dukkha’, of ‘frustration’. If we don’t want to face this pain (which we clearly don’t, or else we wouldn’t be running away from it so determinedly), and there is no way to legitimately escape it, then there is only one thing that we can do and this is to fool ourselves into thinking that we have escaped it. The ongoing vibration of conditioned existence is therefore how we go about fooling ourselves into momentarily believing that we have escaped (or that we stand a chance of escaping if we play our cards correctly).
This is a very curious thing however because whilst we have just said that the vibration is ‘our way of escaping’, we have also suggested that it is the very thing that we are escaping from in the first place! It is both ‘the escape’ and ‘the thing that we are escaping from’. On reflection however, we can see that this is not such an unfamiliar kind of a notion after all. This is the case with all addictions – if I am an alcoholic then when I wake up in the morning I am sick, I have the shakes and the only thing that will cure me is the very thing that made me sick in the first place. It is the drink that put me in this position – in the position of waking up sick, waking up with the shakes – and drink is also the only thing that will remedy the malaise. Or if I am a junky and I run out of gear then I am going to be ‘clucking’, I am going to experience the ordeal of ‘cold turkey’ and the cure for this sickness is again the very thing that caused it in the first place. Heroin is in this case both the cause and the cure of the malaise! Addictions are always vibrations therefore – one side of the vibration is where we service the need (and do whatever it is we need to do in order to cure the sickness) and the other side of the vibration is where we feel sick (and where we have therefore no choice but to go looking for whatever it was that made us sick in the first place…)
An addiction is of course a vibration – first we take the substance and feel good, then we feel bad and need to take some more of it. First comes the thing that we do to make ourselves feel good, this then makes us feel bad and so we need to do the thing again! First comes the ‘relief phase’, then the ‘back-lash phase’; first come euphoria, then dysphoria. The wheel keeps on turning and the wheel is made equally of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction. The most notable thing about any addiction is of course that it is very, very difficult to get out of – what’s so difficult being (as anyone who has ever come out of an addiction will testify) that it subverts our will. We lose our integrity to it. The addiction subverts our will (or erodes our integrity) by causing us to think that what it wants, we want – our genuine volition is substituted for by blind mechanical compulsion in such a way that we never notice the difference. Essentially we can say that the addiction causes us to think that striving for euphoria (blindly striving for the relief-phase) isn’t a mere mechanical reflex, but a meaningful act, and an expression of our own freedom.
Conditioned existence is we might say the archetypal addiction. It is an addiction to ontological security – what we are grasping for is the feeling that we are secure and when we are able to obtain this feeling then this constitutes the ‘relief phase’. This feeling that we have a genuine ‘ontological basis’ is what gives rise to the ‘good feeling’ that we have been calling euphoria; ontological security (i.e. feeling that I get that I really and truly DO exist!) is what euphoria is all about. Euphoria is when we successfully (but temporarily) manage to deny the unreality of the mind-created self! Following on from this grasping at ontological security comes the ‘rebound phase’ which is where our desperate grasping rebounds on us and causes us pain. How after all can grasping at something which fundamentally doesn’t exist not cause us pain? How can this not work out badly for us? Because the backlash to our grasping for security causes us to feel bad we have to do the thing that causes us to feel good all over again (the ‘grasping for security’!) and so the endless cycle of samsara is perpetuated….
We can look at the ‘vibration’ that we have been talking about in two different ways, therefore. One way is to say that the vibration we get caught up in is set up as a result of our trying to grasp hold of a type of ‘reality’ that isn’t there, which is the type of definite / concrete / literal reality that is created (or assumed) by the rational mind. The other way to look at what is happening here is to say that the vibration is set up by us trying to avoid something, by us trying to run away from something – what we’re trying to run away from is the fear of this conditioned (or concrete) reality not existing, not really being there at all. Just as long as we are flatly identified with the conditioned or concrete reality, the threat of it not being there is frankly terrifying – too terrifying even to think about. It’s our worst fear. It is however only because we’re insisting on believing that ‘it must be true’ (which is ‘grasping’) that it becomes so terrifying, so unacceptable. It is the very grasping – therefore – that is creating the fear that keeps us locked into the cycle…
THE ‘RATIONAL VIBRATION’
Without the courage (the ‘unconditional willingness’) to see reality exactly as it is (i.e. without being automatically invested in wanting to change or improve it) there is no way that we can ever ‘escape from the vibration’. It doesn’t matter how clever we get, or what well-meant advice or professional help’ we are provided with. How can rationalization help us when the thing that’s keeping us trapped in the vibration is our ongoing attempt to somehow ‘exit the situation’? If our basic motivation is to ‘change what is going on’, then as we have said there is no way we are ever going to find freedom from the cycle of pain-creating illusion that we are caught up in. It’s our desire to change it that fuels it. Rationality is no help at all to us either to accept things as they are, or see things as they are. Rationality doesn’t help us accept anything because it’s all about ‘goals’ and ‘doing’ and goals and doing are the very antithesis of acceptance. We can’t make ‘acceptance’ into a goal because this is rejecting non-acceptance! The rational mind can’t help us see reality ‘exactly as it is’ either because when we think about something we see it in terms of the assumptions that we have had to make in order to be able to think about it; to think about reality is to create an oversimplified version of reality (one in which all the stuff we deem ‘irrelevant’ has been left out!) and so how is this ever going to be ‘seeing reality exactly as it is’?
This brings us to an important point – although we have been talking throughout this discussion in terms of us ‘fooling ourselves’ (or ‘deceiving ourselves’) into believing that euphoria is a genuine commodity, that it is an actual thing in its own right, just as despair is (and that striving the whole time to attain the one and avoid the other is therefore a legitimate pursuit) this isn’t really ‘fooling ourselves’ in the usual sense of the term. It’s not that I can just turn around and stop fooling myself in this way. I don’t know that I’m fooling myself and even if I were to know I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. I don’t have any way of seeing that I am engaged in this fundamental type of self-deception – it’s not a conscious thing. In this what we’re talking about here is more like classic psychological denial than anything else, but even saying this isn’t making the point properly: because I’m seeing everything through the thinking mind (or on the basis of the thinking mind) I am seeing everything in terms of right versus wrong, good versus bad, advantage versus disadvantage, and this way of looking at the world is itself what we have been calling ‘the vibration’…
This may not be the way that we normally understand ‘thinking’ and yet this is nevertheless what thinking always comes down to. Thinking always comes down to yes versus no, right versus wrong. It always comes down to polarity. That’s all thinking ever can come down to – if the outcome agrees with my criterion then it’s ‘right’ and if it doesn’t then it’s ‘wrong’. If the incoming information matches my mental category then it’s a ‘yes’ (it’s a positive identification) and if it doesn’t then it’s a ‘no’. Whatever mental operation is being carried out by the rational mind it always boils down in the end to ‘yes versus no’ and this is because rationality is based on rules. For rules there are only ever two possibilities – either the outcome agrees with the rule or it doesn’t, either the answer is ‘yes’ or it’s ‘no’. There can’t be any middle ground with rules and this is what Aristotle called ‘the Principle of the Excluded Middle’.
Thinking is therefore always a vibration between these two complementary possibilities, these two poles. This ties in with what we have been saying about ‘wanting to escape from an undesired possibility’ because whenever we want to avoid a particular outcome or possibility this inevitably creates a polarity – the polarity between ‘where we are’ and ‘where we want to be’. Or we could say that the polarity exists between ‘attaining the goal’ or ‘failing to attain the goal’ – winning versus losing. Rules are polarity because rules are all about ‘the right way versus the wrong way’. Clearly, everytime we want to change something we are going to create a polarity and as soon as we create this polarity we have set up the game, we have set up the vibration. The game is ‘to attain one outcome is good and to attain the other is bad’ – one outcome (success) induces a state of euphoria, the other (failure) plunges us into a state of dysphoria. We try to cling to the first state, and this clinging creates the rebound that bounces us vigorously into the second state, and so we are ‘caught in the vibration’. As a result of what the Buddhist sutras refer to as ‘groundless discrimination’, we are caught in the cycle of YES and NO, caught up in the cycle of samsaric existence.
From the point of view of the game success and failure are very different things indeed. If we were to look at what is going on clearly however we would see that success and failure are not two different things at all – they are the very same thing. Whether I get it ‘right by the rule’ or ‘get it wrong by the rule’ it’s still all about the rule. Both possibilities equal ‘the rule’, both possibilities equal ‘the game’. Or we could say, both ‘getting high’ and ‘going cold-turkey’ equal the addiction! Feeling good and feeling bad are simply the two poles of the vibration, and the vibration never goes anywhere…
Freedom from the appallingly narrow confines of the ‘going nowhere’ vibration doesn’t come about as a result of chasing YES and running away from NO (as a result of trying to secure the advantageous outcome and avoid the disadvantageous one) – it comes about as a result of not playing the game. Freedom comes about as a result of not playing the game of thinking that YES and NO are two different things. The rational mind cannot understand this because it can only ever see things in terms of two opposed possibilities, both of which equal ‘the vibration’. Freedom from the vibration means freedom from the thinking mind therefore – it means ‘seeing what is going on without judging what is going on’. It means finding within ourselves the courage (or willingness) to see our situation as it actually is, without being invested in any game of trying to change it. In the simplest possible terms, freedom from the game, from the vibration, comes about as a result of our sincerity. According to Gurdjieff,
Sincerity is the key to self-knowledge, and to be sincere with oneself brings great suffering.
No matter how great the suffering that comes our way as a result of sincerity however, how can the appalling endless insanity of ‘the vibration’ be considered in any way preferable? It only seems ‘preferable’ because we do not see it for what it is…
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.