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Most people would probably say, if pressed on the subject, that scientific uncertainty, in all its forms such as chaos theory, complexity theory, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, quantum paradoxicality, and ‘limitology’ in general (i.e. the science which studies the limits of scientific knowledge) is interesting (and even fascinating) if you are in the mood for it, but it has precious little with the reality of everyday life. It is exotic, impractical – remote from ordinary experience. For this reason we are inclined to ask just where stuff like relativity comes into the practical business of life. We can take as an example the scientific protocol known as ‘instrumentalism’, which requires us to acknowledge the instruments (i.e. assumptions) we used in order to obtain data from a particular experimental situation, in order that that data be meaningful, since the readings we get are conditioned by the questions we ask and the way that we ask them. This may be true when looking at electrons, but what about measurements taken in the everyday world? If I measure the living room for a new carpet, do I have to quote details about the type of tape measure I used?



The answer to this and all similar questions is obviously “No” and so there would appear to be no relativity after all (or at least none worth speaking about) which is why we are so sublimely unconcerned with qualifying our positive assertions about the tangible and matter-of-fact world that we interact with every day. We act as if there is an absolute framework there to relate to and navigate by, and we seem to get away with it. So where does ‘radical uncertainty’ come in, and why should I worry my head about ‘limits to knowledge’ just so long as the knowledge I have works as well as I want it to work?




One way to deflate the implicit or not-so-implicit complacency in such questions might be by looking at the widespread (if not universal) practice of ignoring relativity in the psychological domain. When we implicitly deny that there is such a thing as ‘psychological relativity’ we are denying that there are any significant limits or constraints regarding our ability to ‘know what reality is’ and – needless to say – this intellectual arrogance invariably backfires on us in a most unpleasant fashion.  Anger provides us with a prime example of this sort of thing. If I am angry, then I see the world in relation to the ‘central information-processing bias’ of anger. An information-processing bias simply means that I pay attention to stuff that agrees with (or is relevant to) the angry state of mind, and completely ignore anything that does not have anything to do with it. In other words, I develop a huge blind-spot which distorts my perception of the world, my understanding of the world, and my interaction with the world. Talking about a blind-spot is of course the same thing as talking about ‘limits to our knowledge’ and all the so-called ‘negative emotions’ work by severely limiting what we can know about the world, whilst at the same time limiting to a corresponding degree our capacity to know that our knowledge is so limited.



The way that this works is that we fixate upon one very narrow viewpoint, whilst becoming convinced at the same time that this absurdly misrepresentative viewpoint is the one and only valid interpretation. We fall victim to an unquestionable belief that conditions our consciousness without us being able in any way to appreciate this conditioning. What is more, there is a deadly sort of a trap or ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ operating here because once we react on the basis of this bias (or belief), the universe tends to react to our behavioural output by confirming it. Our attitude (or ‘implicit hypothesis’) colours (or conditions) the feedback we obtain as a result of acting on the basis of that attitude, and so if we were kind of suspicious in the first place about what was going on, then our suspiciousness will quickly congeal into a fully-fledged and highly malignant conviction that cannot be shaken by any attempt at reasoning.




This self-validating or self-confirming set-up is an organizationally closed system, which is a way of saying that it has no real relationship with the outside world. An organizationally closed system interacts with the outside world, but it always does so on its own terms. What this means in practice is that the system exploits its environment for its own ends and it does so with zero genuine understanding of whatever it is that it is exploiting. The general rule is that the closed system understands only as much as it needs to in order to fulfil its goals – what we are talking about here therefore isn’t true understanding at all because the system is only looking at what is around it from the point of view of its own agenda. In order to truly understand the world around it the system would have to look at the world on its own terms, with no thought of what it stands to gain, and if the system could do this then it would not be organizationally closed. When I am able to appreciate things as they are ‘in themselves’ then I am open to being changed by what I see, and this is most definitely not the case for an organizationally closed system.



What we are saying here is that my angry ‘belief-system’ – the black and white picture of my situation that has been provided for me by the anger – is an organizationally closed system which only exists to further itself. I have a strong conviction regarding the ‘way things are’ and I am driven by my anger to act on the basis of this conviction. But because this conviction is a distortion of reality there can be no genuinely useful result to my actions. There is an inescapable contradiction here since the belief that I adhere to validates itself by saying that it has a true (or ‘honest’) correspondence with the situation that it is referring itself to when this is not at all the case. We can understand the essential contradiction better by looking at the supposed reason that the belief has for being there, and contrasting it with the real reason. According to the belief in question, the only reason it is there is in order to tell me about something that I really ought to know about. The real reason that the belief has for being there however is to promote itself. This is just like a friend who informs you about your partner’s infidelity because (so they say) they have a honest concern for you as their friend whilst actually they are is only looking after own interests, i.e. they get the pleasure of being the one to tell you.



The ultimate result of any action that proceeds from the basis of a closed (or self-validating) belief system is bound to be detrimental to everyone concerned – basically, no one will benefit, especially not me. We might ask what the point is if there are no beneficiaries, and this would be a good question. Actually, as we have implied, there is a beneficiary:


The beneficiary of this practice of ‘seeing things in a closed way without acknowledging that this is in fact what we are doing’ is the virtual (or conditioned) self which constructs itself in relation to the frame of reference in question.


This is admittedly at first glance a distinctly bizarre and preposterous notion. On reflection, however, it can be seen that it makes a sense in a way, although it is an ‘irritating’ sort of a sense. The reason the logic involved has the rather unsatisfactory (or tricky) feel to it that it does is of course because it is thoroughly tautological. Nevertheless, this irritating quality of ‘self-referentiality’ is – as we will proceed to argue later on in this chapter – a key characteristic of all logical systems. First however, we will continue with our examination of the idea of ‘psychological relativity’.




Relativity in the psychological sphere more often goes by the name of subjectivity. For example, a picture hanging on the wall might hold one meaning to me, and quite another for you, and who is to say which is the ‘right’ one? The nature of the message in the picture (if we may speak of it as such) is relative to the person who views it.  Of course there are messages that are designed not to be relative, such as road signs, the instructions on a bottle of cough medicine, or simply language in general. If you drive past a police barrier whilst a uniformed person is ordering you to stop your vehicle, then there is no way that you can plead in court later on that your own personal interpretation of this communication differed from the interpretation that everyone else seemed to be placing on it – unless you are willing to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, that is. All the same, though, even road signs and formally defined language have to be considered as being only ‘relatively meaningful’ in the end because they take for granted a framework of understanding that exists only locally, in this part of the world, at this particular point in time. Even if the day comes when culture is standardized over the whole world, the meaning of a road-sign is still relative because its meaning is dependent upon our having been indoctrinated with the globally standardized cultural context within which it is designed to make sense.




A road sign is utterly and preposterously meaningless in the absence of this ‘framework’. This is the odd thing about conventional meaning: it is on the one hand perfectly normal and unremarkable, but at the same time it is absurdly nonsensical. For example, if we hear a word outside of the framework of meaning within which it makes sense – then its commonplace meaning vanishes and in its place we perceive a peculiar and generally somewhat unpleasant sound that hangs in the air like a malign little spirit or sprite. There is a term zype which has been coined by musician Steve Hillage to describe these unpleasant semantic pseudo-entities – according to Hillage if there has been any amount if talking in a room (particularly, one might imagine, where words have been used in a concrete or literal fashion), there is produced as a result a host of ghostly word-spirits which hang around in a somewhat malignant way, spoiling or deadening the atmosphere. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. We could suggest a general principle here to the effect that when we fall under the spell of a word (or thought) and believe as a result that it really means something, then we feed the word (or the thought) and cause it to become ‘virtually real’.



By investing our consciousness in a set of mental constructs we reify these constructs, and at the same time we do this we reify ourselves. Thus we become, as it were, the legitimate prey of the constructs that we have reified. We can look at this in a more general way, and say something like this:


By using constructs in an unreflective way we adapt ourselves to the closed ‘framework of thinking’ within which these constructs make sense. This means that we make ourselves into the slaves of that framework, without actually appreciating what has happened.


Words are of course never a literal description of any external reality but because we are ‘under their spell’ we almost always fail to realize this truth. We do not appreciate that the words and thoughts we continually use have only relative meaning– instead, we assume in the most blasé fashion that they possess absolute meaning. The spell we are talking about here is the spell of psychological unconsciousness, which is where we live in conditioned reality without seeing that our reality is conditioned. Because we do not see that our constructs have only conditional meaning we end up relating to them as if they represent some sort of final (i.e. unquestionable) reality. Because we do not see that our constructs are only meaningful because of the way we are looking at things we end up in thrall to these constructs. A sinister reversal has taken place: the tool operates the creator of the tool (or to put it another way, the thought controls the thinker of the thought).



We can make this a bit clearer by considering the word ‘Tuesday’ – everyone knows what it means when I say, “It is Tuesday” but if you were to stop and reflect deeply for a moment you would realize that there is no such thing as Tuesday. After all, what does Tuesday look like? Where is it to be found? What independently existing facet of reality does it correspond to? Any analysis such as this is bound to reveal that the word ‘Tuesday’ only seems to mean something when we don’t think too deeply about it, that it is in fact no more than a fiction that we all agree to believe in. ‘Tuesday’ is a zype, a ghost, a virtual entity. And yet, despite the fact that ‘Tuesday’ is a construct that we arbitrarily (or ‘freely’) created, we orientate ourselves around it as if it were a primary datum, or ‘given fact’. Therefore, we have the strange situation where we freely create a concept, and then proceed to adapt ourselves to it in an unfree manner – which is to say, we conform to it as if it were some sort of external authority which we do not have the power to question.



This – in a nutshell – is the principle of reversal whereby ‘the thought controls the thinker’ and ‘the construct limits (or contains) the creator of construct.’




So far so good – we might at this stage be reasonably happy to concede that the days of the week are not real things (even though we might swear on occasion that such and such a day feels like a Monday or a Sunday or a Friday). However, the process of debunking conventional meaning cannot of course stop there – as we were saying, all words are conventions, just as all thoughts (or all ideas) are conventions. This in itself is perfectly okay – we need conventions in order to get by, and there is nothing wrong with this. The reason we need to debunk conventional meaning with such ruthless zealotry however is because conventional meaning does not represent itself as such, and because it does not represent itself as such it ends up effectively trapping us. As the line in the celebrated Eagles track Hotel California goes, we become ‘prisoners of our own device’.


A convention that implicitly represents itself as not being a convention is a ‘zype’ and ‘zypes’ as we have said have a ‘malign character’. A conventional system of meaning that does not represent itself as being a convention has a ‘malign character’, and the overall ‘virtual environment’ that is created by the conventional system of meaning also has a ‘malign character’.  The reason that we are insisting that the character of the virtual environment that we create with out thoughts, words and ideas is essentially malign (or ‘sinister’) is because


The virtual environment created by the system of thought effectively and efficiently substitutes itself for reality without informing us that this is what it is doing.


This dishonest substitution means that reality is surreptitiously blocked out by a ‘false reality’, and the result of this is that we live out our lives ‘worshipping a false master’, to use the ancient Gnostic phraseology. The ramifications of this deception are very profound, and it is in fact very hard for us to appreciate (when in our normal everyday mode of mentation) just how insidious the effect of the ‘dishonest substitution’ on our general well-being and mental health really is.




What we are saying is that, when it comes right down to it, the whole system of thought is no more than a huge, super-convincing bubble of virtual reality which only seems genuine to us because we are so very careful not to look too deeply into it. Taking a more sociological route towards this idea, we could say that the whole of society is no more than a self-consistent system of ‘signs’, which is to say, tokens that we have all previously agreed should mean this, that or the other. In this way we create a mental universe for ourselves, a non-physical environment of assigned (or extrinsic) meaning which we mentally inhabit and interact with each other within. This virtual environment appears to us to be sometimes wonderful, sometimes drab, and sometimes terrifying, but really it is at all times made up of nothing but an array of ‘spooks’ – faintly unpleasant ‘pseudo-presences’ that are all appearance and no content. The whole thing is a precarious bubble that nevertheless looks as solid and as eternal as a rock when we are safely in it. Such is the power of illusion. Illusion is illusion, and therefore it is insubstantial and flimsy, vanishing the moment we take a good look at it; at the same time however, it has the power to imprison with deadly effectiveness, week after week, month after month, year after year. There seems to be no limit to its power to hold us in its sway – we can very easily go to our graves without ever realizing that what constrained and defined our lives for us was in fact illusion, and nothing more.



There is a bizarre and terrible perversity to this ‘unnecessary containment’. It is as if I playfully draw a chalk circle around where I stand, and then declare that the limits of this little circle are in fact the limits of ‘what is’. This is fine as a game, but the principle of reversal means that ‘the game becomes real’, and I start taking what was originally mere convention very seriously indeed. So seriously do I take the rules of the game in fact that I never ever step over the line that I have drawn for myself. This becomes a ‘cast iron impossibility’ for me. I live out the whole of my life within this absurdly narrow remit, and although there is no doubt that I suffer cruelly from the constraints that I am under, I contrive to always see the cause of my pain as being something other than it really is – I externalize (or project) my pain onto a hundred different things, and set myself the task of correcting these ‘surrogate faults’ when I can (and complaining about them when I cannot), and through all this ceaseless goal-orientated behaviour I strive to permanently distract myself from the irredeemable ‘unsatisfactoriness’ of my situation.




This metaphor of a chalk line as a ‘spatial limit’ is of course rather crude. It would be better to envisage the essential limitation as operating within the domain of what we can, and cannot, perceive. We could make a ‘kind of an analogy’ here with the pixels on a TV screen: when seen from a distance a very limited number of differently coloured pixels go make a perfectly realistic picture, but if we get up close enough we can see that in fact there is nothing there but a few basic types of coloured dots. This revelation naturally tends to be rather disillusioning; upon discovering that ‘there is nothing there’ I am bound to be left with a bad taste in my mouth. The entertaining images on the screen no longer have the power to pleasantly divert me when I see that it all comes down to three basic types of coloured spot. In (roughly) the same sort of way we can say that the rational-conceptual mind produces for us an entertaining show – a ‘virtual reality projection – which can however ultimately be resolved into a strictly finite number of conceptual ‘slots’ into which incoming information is allocated. Therefore, although ‘new stuff’ always seems to be happening, it all comes down to the same tired old mental categories, which are in effect recycled and recombined over and over again.



As Carlos Castaneda says somewhere, the mind’s repertory is petty and limited; it is therefore just like a stand-up comedian who knows half-a-dozen genuinely different jokes. This disadvantaged comedian has to get by, therefore, by constantly finding ingenious new ‘versions’ of the same basic jokes and hoping that no one will notice. The ‘evaluating mind’ which provides us with our daily entertainment (so to speak) is in a similar position because it only has so many genuinely different ‘categories of evaluation’ – it only has X number of boxes into which it has to throw everything. The information that comes my way is vast and completely unbounded in terms of ‘how many basic types of it there are’; there are an infinite number of radically different ‘types’ of information out there just as there are an infinite number of different sets in the Universal Set, but the rational mind works by comparing everything that comes its way with its basic ‘templates-for-understanding’ – it comprehends the unknown in terms of what it assumes it already knows, and this necessarily means that it is forever going around in circles.



The rational mind is a circle that doesn’t know that it is a circle – which means that it is a sort of ‘false wholeness’. When I see through the trick, and penetrate the spurious novelty of the ‘conceptual circus show’ to see the sterile mechanism that lies behind it, the experience is very demoralizing. We find out that we have been tricked, that life is ‘nothing but…’ – that there is ‘nothing more to know’.  Rationality always operates on the basis of what has been called ‘reductionism’ and reductionism is a curious sort of a thing because when we reduce (or ‘collapse’) information in this way there is both the potential for great satisfaction, and a profound sense of being ‘let down’.




When I have the experience (as we all do at times) of suddenly seeing through my virtual environment I am left feeling let down and disillusioned, cheated and used. It is as if (to use Anthony de Mello’s excellent metaphor) the scrap of old newspaper that I have been hypnotized into thinking is a million dollar cheque suddenly reveals itself as it really is. The extrinsic (i.e. ‘assigned’) meaning system is, when it comes down to it, a tissue of threats and promises that always come to nothing in the end. What ‘hypnotizes’ us is our greed to avail ourselves of the prizes which are promised us, but once hypnotized so that we believe in the dream, we are of course equally prey to the terrors of the dream. But beyond both the enticing and terrifying illusions lies another horror – the ‘horror of the nullity’, which is where we discover that we were in a box the whole time, and the box is all there is.



If I ‘stick’ at this discovery, without persevering long enough (in the face of evident hopelessness) to find out that the box is only my rational-conceptual mind (and that it is therefore very far from being the ‘full story’), then I am left with no alternative but to keep distracting myself from this reality. The ‘search for truth’ is abandoned because I have discovered that truth is a dead-end, that truth leads nowhere, and so nothing is left except to ‘create our own reality’ (or create our own reason for carrying on). This idea obviously coincides pretty exactly with the existential philosophy of Sartre and Kierkegaard, although Kierkegaard felt that there was a stage beyond existential angst, as we can see from the philosopher Albert Knox’s explanation of Kierkegaard to Sophie in Jostein Gaardner’s widely read book Sophie’s World:


A person who lives at the aesthetic stage can easily experience angst, or a sense of dread, and a feeling of emptiness. If this happens, there is also hope. According to Kierkegaard, angst is almost positive. It is an expression of the fact that the individual is in an “existential situation,” and can now elect to make the great leap to a higher stage. But it either happens or it doesn’t. It doesn’t help to be on the verge of making the leap if you don’t do it completely. It is a matter of “either / or.” But nobody can do it for you. It is your own choice.




For most of us, most of the time, such ‘existential angst’ is not a significant feature of our lives. This is not to say that we have never encountered it but rather that we don’t spend an awful lot of time anguishing over it. With such disturbing considerations filed safely away somewhere, life becomes reassuringly straightforward. In this case, all there is to life is to get as many as the good bits as you can, and avoid as many of the bad bits! This is all the philosophy that anyone needs in order to ‘play the game’, and after this idea is digested (which doesn’t take much time since it is remarkably simple) all that is left is to work away on the technical side of things, which is all about acquiring and perfecting the necessary skills and techniques. This simplified version of life doesn’t actually need to be taught to us because it is the way that we naturally approach things anyway when we are operating in the mechanical (or psychologically unconscious) mode.



Now as long as we hold out hope that we can win more than we lose (which is to say, that we can obtain outcomes that we like more frequently than we get saddled with outcomes that we don’t like) then the game seems pretty good to us and we go to it with definite enthusiasm. However, it is obvious enough that the story doesn’t end there – there are other ways in which it could work out. For example, sometimes it seems as if the ‘unwanted outcomes’ predominate, which is naturally going to damp our fervour for playing the game, or at the least seriously upset us. A variant of a ‘spoiled game’ is when we keep getting the feeling that we are on the edge of incurring a bad outcome (which also involves the feeling of not having confidence that we are actually able to ever secure a good outcome). This is one way in which the game ‘goes wrong’ and we call this anxiety. We also sometimes talk about low self-esteem. Another possibility is where we successfully obtain all the outcomes we wanted to obtain, but when we get them we are left with a feeling of hollow meaninglessness, as if it is all a sham, a hoax of which I am somehow the perpetrator. When the game lets us down in the way we call it depression. There are the main two types of malfunction that are inherent in the game, but there are of course many other variations (some subtle and some not so subtle) and we will look at some of these later on.




The main point that needs to be made here however is that we believe in the game, which means that we believe in our ability to ‘beat the system’ and come out ahead. For this reason we are only too happy to buy into the game, which is a process that necessarily involves veiling from ourselves that fact that it is a game. This is an obvious enough point really – if I knew that the prizes which I am chasing, and upon which my satisfaction hinges, where only true ‘within the context of the game’, then I would not be able to obtain that satisfaction when I win. It has to be real to me, otherwise how can I feel good about obtaining the desired outcome, and avoiding the undesired outcome? This is where the motivational factor comes in – in order to enjoy the game I have to genuinely believe that if I win it this is an absolute ‘good’ and if I lose then that is absolutely ‘bad’. In other words, the greed and the fear have to be unquestionable; they have to rule me completely. This alone ought to be enough to alert us to a drawback – if we allow the greed to rule us, then we are simultaneously putting ourselves in the power of the fear, we are making ourselves into the helpless slave of that fear, and so the possibility of positive satisfaction (a big part of which involves positive anticipation) is offset by the inevitable corollary of negative satisfaction and negative anticipation. Already, things stop looking quite so good.




Part of believing in the game, however, involves being fundamentally shortsighted about any possible penalties that I might incur as a result of playing it. For this reason, we can say that I never look any further than the immediate pay-off of the game, which is (as we said in chapter 1) that it gives me the possibility of having positive knowledge about the world. When we talk about ‘the game’ this is just another way of talking about the ‘system of thought’, which is our systematic (or self-consistence) way of slanting our own perception. The game is our unacknowledged one-sidedness, it is the rational mind not acknowledging its own circular (i.e. closed) nature, and the covert gain involved is that we get to live in a world that is ‘certain and for sure.’ Now what we are talking about isn’t the quite the same thing as, for example, a scientist unconsciously manipulating his data so that he can find out that whatever he wanted to be true, is true. If I have a theory that people whose eyes are abnormally close together tend to be criminals, and I unconsciously slant my research methods to provide myself with information that supports this hypothesis, then this is one thing. I am covertly arranging to validate my own prejudices, which is of course something that we all do on a regular basis.  But the covert gain that is provided for us by the system of thought isn’t that any specific proposition should be confirmed as being true but rather what we are having confirmed for us is the assumption that we are living in a universe which can be described in terms of positive propositions. Our central prejudice is the prejudice which says that some statements about the world will have the possibility of being confirmed as being ‘absolutely true’. We secretly want to believe that our concepts have a literal (i.e. non-metaphorical) correspondence with the reality that they seek to tell us about. This is the ‘secret addiction’.



What we secretly want is certainty, and this certainty means that the actions that we undertake on the basis of the positive knowledge system become meaningful. Controlling becomes meaningful. ‘Controlling’, it will be remembered, can be defined in terms of:


Obtaining or possessing those bits of the reified (i.e. conceptualised) world that I like, and separating myself from the bits that I don’t like.


Of course, if my positive knowledge isn’t the same thing as ‘reality’ (whatever that might be), then this puts a different perspective entirely on this whole business of controlling. In this case, ultimately speaking, all I am controlling is my own perception of reality, which is an excellent definition of what we have been calling ‘a game’.




There are other factors apart from ‘individual predisposition’ and ‘culture’ that come into play to condition our perception of the world. A powerful way of illustrating the power of subjectivity is, as we have said, by considering an emotionally polarized state of mind such as anger. No one will argue with the statement that the way I perceive you when I am angry with you is totally different to the way that I perceive you when I am not angry with you. You are the same person in both cases, but when I get angry with you an interesting sort of ‘data-reduction’ takes place which results in me perceiving only those aspects of your character that I find offensive or reprehensible. All the other aspects get edited out by the information-processing bias inherent in my anger, and as a result of this all that is left is an image of you as an out-and-out scumbag, the source of all rottenness.



Another example of this sort of thing would be when I fall into a black mood and proceed to go around saying things like “Life stinks!” or “life is a pile of shit”. Such statements do not contain any genuine information about the world unless I include with them the appropriate qualification, which is to say, information about the type of mental state of which they are a product. What I ought to say, (using the method of reformulating ‘is’-type inaccuracies given by Robert Anton Wilson in his book Quantum Psychology) would be something like “Life seems like a pile of shit to me when I am in a bad mood…” Needless to say, the satisfaction involved in making such statements is faint to the point of non-existent, which is why we invariably opt for the good old-fashioned, unqualified  ‘is’-type statements which we are so familiar. The point is of course that when I have insight regarding the hidden bias behind my statements (and thoughts), this immediately takes away any meaning that I might previously have imagined them to have. We can express this in the form of an equation:


‘Positive statement’ + ‘qualification regarding the framework within which the positive statement makes sense’ = ‘zero net information’.




The type of ‘exploitation’ that is going on with emotions such as anger is much easier to see than the exploitation associated with collective thinking in general precisely because it is not collective in nature, i.e. it stands out in relief against those around us who are not subscribing to the reality-distorting framework of anger. Regarding both the ‘negative emotions’ and neurotic states of mind in general, we can say that by being highly subjective, and at the same time implicitly believing our version of reality to be objective, we obtain the pay-off of seeing what we want to see, and hearing what we want to hear. Of course, it is generally very hard to understand why we should ‘want’ to see or believe the sort of things that we do see and believe when in the grip of negative emotions or neurosis. For example, suppose that I am in the grip of some sort of malignant belief system that causes me to be convinced that members of all races of human beings other than the one to which I belong are inferior and ought to be denied the rights which I take for granted. It is easy to understand what benefit I obtain from such a belief system – I might be the crappiest, most despicable person imaginable but because I am a member of the master race I get to feel good about myself. By putting you down, I surreptitiously (or indirectly) get to elevate myself;  I get to feel good without having to do anything apart from subscribing to the tenets of racism, and that takes no effort at all.


This sort of belief therefore makes sense, albeit in a wholly repugnant way. But what about the beliefs with which we torment ourselves when we are jealous, self-hating, or consumed by desire for something that we can’t get and which wouldn’t do us any good anyway even if we could? Similarly, what possible benefit do I obtain by being anxious, or phobic, or obsessive compulsive, or depressed, or anorexic? One way to answer this difficult question is by considering that all ‘closed’ modes of conceptualising the world, and thus interacting with the world, come with an immediate benefit which we are very fond of, and which we chose not to see beyond, and a long-term cost, which we obviously don’t like and which we don’t think about at the time of opting for ‘closure’. This is of course a very familiar idea – it is exactly the same thing as eating lots of burgers and doughnuts because we like the taste, and then putting on five stone weight later on (which we didn’t really want to do). Alternatively, it is like drinking endless pints of strong lager because we like the euphoric high that this produces, only to be saddled with a massive (and highly unpalatable) hangover in the morning. This idea, as a general principle, is not of course particularly hard to grasp but what is slightly more demanding is seeing how the idea can be used to explain ‘unwanted’ and unpleasant states of mind such as sulks, boredom, envy, jealousy, anxiety, depression, and all the rest. We will move onto this next.




We can get to the bottom of this business of ‘exploiting psychological relativity’ by saying that all subjective mental states (extreme instances of which would be what we call emotionally or neurotically ‘disturbed’ states of mind) work by via ‘information collapse’ or ‘symmetry-breaking’, which basically means slanting (or ‘loading’) the way we see the world without seeing that this is in fact what we are doing. In a rough sort of a way, we can say that the point of this distorted information processing is that it allows us to see what we want to see (or not see what we don’t want to see), and this constitutes the ‘pay-off’ that we are so fond of – in fact the urgency of our fondness is such that we never stop to consider the long-term consequences of what we are doing. Another way to put this is to say that in order to obtain the result that we want, we enlist the help of a mental blind-spot, which as we have noted before, we must at all times remain unaware of. I can, therefore, enjoy the benefits of living in a shrunken mental world without having any inkling concerning just how ‘shrunken’ my world has become.


The world which I perceive and which I live in when I am neurotic or angry or jealous or otherwise emotionally effected is thus a small world, and the smallness of this world affords me (or at least it did at some point) some advantage. As we argued in Chapter 1, this means that I have become secretly addicted to the blind-spot – I need the blind-spot in order to feel good but at the same time I cannot allow myself to suspect its existence. We can say that when this works well I have maximized my extrinsic freedom, so that I am limited without knowing that I am limited. Extrinsic freedom, it will be remembered, means that I am totally hogtied in terms of what I am able to perceive and think, whilst remaining thoroughly convinced throughout that I am perfectly unimpeded in all respects. In a fundamental way, therefore, we rely and depend on our blind-spot and we are not about to let anyone take it away from us. This is like an ignorant person who has very good reasons for remaining ignorant, so that there is no point whatsoever in trying to explain to them what it is that they are being ignorant about. Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa calls this ‘being stupid in an intelligent way’, i.e. being stupid for a reason. The thing about intelligent stupidity is that I obtain a hidden but very important pay-off for the particular type of ‘bloody-mindedness’ that I am exhibiting, and so why would I give it up?


There is a process that sets in once we start ‘investing’, once we opt for solving our problems by utilizing extrinsic freedom rather than facing them directly. There is a process of irreversibility operating here which can be explained very simply:


If things seemed bad enough for us to seek illegitimate (i.e. evasive) solutions in the first place, then when these problems get worse as they will through our continued ignoring of them, then we will be very much more likely to seek relief through this same means. Our ‘intelligent stupidity’ is here to stay.

Put simply, ‘once you start running then you have to continue’. Investing in the short-sighted security system of ‘ignoring our own ignorance’ leads inevitably to tautological defending which means that we defend without really knowing why we are defending or what we are defending (or what we are defending against). All I know is that the thing that is most precious to me is being threatened, and that a disaster more terrible that I can imagine (or want to imagine) is out there somewhere waiting to happen if I don’t defend successfully. In other words, both the thing being defended and the thing being defended against are real only so long as they remain ‘unconscious assumptions’, which they will do just so long as I continue distracting myself with my panic-driven defending-type activity. Playing the game reinforces the game.


At this point I am totally addicted to my blind-spot because it, and it alone, is protecting me from a demon which I do not want to face. Not facing this demon has become (by default) more important to me than anything else and so the fact the blind-spot is causing me ongoing and accumulative problems is something that I do not really care about. It is this situation, to various degrees and extents, which I find myself in as a result of neurosis or negative emotions. In such cases, I am reacting to difficulty by looking for an ‘easy way out’, an easy way out that does not exist in reality. The system of thought (which is the same thing as the mental blind-spot) is this ‘easy-way-out-which-does-not-exist-in-reality’, and when I call, it promptly comes to my rescue.




The general point that we have been making is that whilst relativity (both existential and psychological) is always there, it is common practice to repress the awareness of it. The way we repress awareness of the omnipresent relativity of the universe is by making positive assertions without ‘framing’ them, which is to say, without acknowledging the framework of reference within which the assertion makes sense. By neglecting to acknowledge the conditions that need to be in place before the statement can be meaningful, we have actually performed an act of deception. From this it is only a small step to say that all positive knowledge, without exception, is the result of ‘sleight of hand’. The idea that our positive knowledge is a comforting fiction and no more is – needless to say – very hard for us to take. After all, if all positive knowledge is an illusion, isn’t this tantamount to saying that the world itself is an illusion? Isn’t this almost the same thing? The problem here is that we are so invested in our positive knowledge (our ideas, opinions, theories and models) that if someone says that our knowledge system is only a fabrication, that it has no independent existence outside of our heads, we automatically take this to mean that reality itself has no independent existence. This is of course totally absurd – no such thing was said. The point is that it is our knowledge about reality that is suspect, not reality itself. Reality is not suspect at all, it is just beyond our power to know it. Being ‘beyond our power to know it’ simply means that the unconditioned view is not amenable to being exploited by us for some hidden motivation of our own, and for this reason we have no use for it. Unconditioned Reality is not friendly to us, but ruthlessly implacable in the sense that it is what it is, whether we like it or not. The Big Picture is frighteningly honest; it cannot be turned to our advantage, it is immune to our attempts to manipulate it. It is because the unconditioned reality is not amenable to doing any deals with us that we turn to the ‘bent politician’ which is the system of thought – with this disreputable ‘friend’ we can do business any time of the day or night, and hold out hope of ‘coming out on top’. Whether I actually do come out ‘on top’ (or whether this is even possible at all) is of course another story; but of course it isn’t actually the truth that I really want but comfort. I want the sort of truth that suits me – I want a comforting illusion, in other words. It is because of my fundamental desire for this comfort that I am more than willing to swallow whatever story it is that the system of thought is going to feed me.




We have been saying that the system of thought is ‘a framework of reference that doesn’t ever question the assumptions that it is built on’, or ‘a convention which implicitly represents itself as not being a convention’. We could also say that the system of thought is like a ‘confidence trickster’ or ‘someone who is pulling a stroke’. This metaphor allows us to differentiate between the actual illusion, that the device that is being utilized to manufacture the illusion. This general sort of a notion isn’t of course exactly foreign to our experience – a perfect example of what we are talking about would be the character ‘Ozz the Great and Terrible’ in the Wizard of Ozz who as we all know was unmasked in one of the final scenes of the movie as a totally reprehensible fraud. The illusion carrier is ‘Ozz the Great and Terrible’ as he actually is (i.e. an incongruously ineffectual, unimposing and distinctly pathetic figure), and the illusion is the thunderously portentous and overwhelmingly impressive image that he generates with his various gizmos and devices.


Another example would the sea-front of a typical English seaside town such as Margate. Seaside towns, as is well known, present two totally different faces depending upon the season. In the height of the holiday season the illusion-projecting machinery is working to the very limit of its capacity and if you are prepared to enter gaily into the spirit of things (as you might well be under such circumstances, particularly if you happen to be a child) then the seafront of Margate is truly a vibrant and magical place, full to the brim with all sorts of exciting possibilities. In the depths of the off-season of course, it is a very different story: all the paraphernalia, all the trappings, are still there but now they are revealed in all their tawdry shoddiness. Instead of the purposeful hustle and bustle of a teeming seaside town, there are boarded-up arcades, abandoned funfairs and closed-down fast food joints. Garishly-painted signs creak as they swing to and fro in the driving rain that sweeps in more or less constantly from pitiless grey skies. Basically, there is a strong air of humbug about the place, and if you happened to be poetically inclined, you might find yourself strangely moved by the general pathos. There is no doubt or confusion at all regarding which is the ‘illusion’ and which the ‘illusion carrier’.


The ‘illusion’ is basically the intentional or intended aspect – the aspect we are meant to see. But every intended aspect covers up (or distracts from) the unintended aspect and of the two the unintentional face is clearly the true one. A seaside town, in the summer season, puts on its attractive and enticing face – this is how we are ‘meant to see it’. In the winter months there are of course no punters there to attract and entice and so the place is left ‘as it actually is’, which is what tends to strike us with a certain indefinable poignancy. This is just like catching your neighbour early one morning without her make-up on, when you have only ever seen her ‘made-up and ready to face the world’, which is to say, as she wishes to be seen. Of course (going back now to our ‘seaside town’ analogy) even in high summer, if we are not wholeheartedly prepared to avail of the pleasures that are on offer, then we will be able to see quite clearly just how dreadfully tacky it all is. Seeing the tackiness equals ‘seeing through the illusion’ and when I have such an awareness it means that I have left behind a certain type of naivety – I have penetrated beneath the ‘freshly minted exterior’ (the intentional aspect) to see the tired old show that is going on underneath it (the unintentional aspect) . I am able to recognise the cliché for what it is.




Our discussion of a seaside town leads us to an even more precise analogy of the idea that we are trying to get at, and that is the analogy of the ‘penny arcade’. Suppose that I am a typical punter and I am there with my change in my pocket, lured by the exciting possibility of ‘winning on the machines’. Everything in the environment of the arcade contributes to this air of excitement – the bright pictures, the exotic images, the background music, the various sounds of all the machines and games in action. When I am in this frame of mind (the frame of mind in which I am hungry to obtain what is being so enticing offered to me) I am finely tuned into the environment around me – I am reading it, and the messages encoded in it are 100% meaningful to me. All this is simply another way of saying that the ‘lures’ which are being dangled in front of my nose are unrestrictedly potent in terms of their power to motivate me. My attention is completely absorbed – the environment has me completely pinned-down, it has me exactly where it wants me.


Now what we are saying is that when I am adapted to the external authority of the designed environment, then the threats and promises held out by that environment have maximum meaning to me. The ‘power of illusion’ is at a premium, it holds absolute sway over me. The activity that I am engaged in is therefore also meaningful to me at this point, and so we can say that I am ‘motivated to the maximum’ (although the truth of the matter is that the motivation in question originates from the system and is not ‘mine’ at all). But let us say that you walk into this arcade and you are not so naïve as me. One way of understanding this lack of naivety would be to say that you understand perfectly well that there is actually zero possibility of you (on any long term basis) beating the system and coming out on top. You understand that in games of pure chance, the laws of statistics rule absolutely in the long term, and so whatever gains you may make one minute will unfailingly be lost a bit later on. Because of this clear understanding, your motivation to ‘try to win’ will not be so strong, and instead of appearing to offer all sorts of possibilities, the arcade environment will actually look grubbier and unappealing and basically a lot more ‘sterile’.


Another, more profound, way of looking at this question of ‘not being naïve with regard to gambling on the slot machines’ would be to look at what would happen if you were not simply ‘uninterested because you understand that the odds are against you’, but ‘uninterested because any sense of meaningfulness with regard to what you stand to gain (i.e. the money) has completely abandoned you’. This sounds like a highly unlikely state of affairs to say the least – under what possible conditions could money be a meaningless proposition to us? Well actually there are some such conditions, although they are rare enough. One would be when I am in fear of my life (or when I see that I am about to die), another would be when I am experiencing the state of pure love, and another would be when I am deeply, profoundly depressed. In all these situations money quite frankly means nothing to me. The point that we are trying to make here is that money is a ‘convention’, which is to say, there isn’t any ultimate meaning to it at all, it only possesses meaning in relation to the game that we play with it. Just for the sake of the argument, then, let us say that money is at this moment in time a profoundly meaningless concept to you, that the acquisition of it does not motivation you in the least. Because of your lack of interest in the ‘lure’, the whole arcade set-up is revealed as it actually is – you see it in its unintended aspect. Instead of being a place in which you might potentially obtain something worthwhile, you perceive as a place which offers nothing at all, a place of zero possibilities. The ‘perception of sterility’ which occurs when we are not adapted to the external authority (when we are not ‘playing the game’) is in total contrast to how we see things when we are adapted, when we are seeing the game.




We can therefore say that ‘the perception of fertile possibilities’ is the illusion, and when we see that where we are is in fact a sterile environment, this is concomitant with ‘seeing the carrier of the illusion’. More generally speaking, when we are adapted to the system of thought, then the illusions which it produces become real to us, and when we are in the state of ‘non-adaptation’ to the system (i.e. when we have an independent viewpoint) then we are able to see through the illusions, and they no longer have the power to compel us. We started off our discussion by looking at how we can differentiate between ‘the illusion’ and ‘the carrier of the illusions’, linking this with previously established notions of ‘a convention that does not declare itself as such’, and ‘a convention which happily acknowledges that it is, indeed, a convention’. The implication of this, then, is that not only is the illusion an illusion, but so too is the illusion-carrier (when it comes right down to it).


Therefore, a word that implicitly presents itself as being objectively meaningful (i.e. a word that portrays itself as having a ‘literal rather than metaphorical’ relationship to some independently existing facet of reality) is ‘the illusion’, whereas the same word, when it hangs flatulently in the air like the tired, redundant cliché it is, is ignominiously revealed as ‘the illusion carrier’. In this case the zype is exposed as being a zype, and nothing else. But the zype itself (the totally exhausted cliché) is itself merely a phantom; we could say that the illusion is a tautology that carries itself off as real information, and the zype is the ‘unveiled tautology’, but the point here is that a tautology is an exercise in saying nothing whilst appearing to say something, and so – ultimately speaking – the tautology cannot be said to ‘exist’ because at the end of the day there is nothing there to exist.




The Vedantic and Buddhist convention is to say that the world which we pragmatically inhabit has the nature of a trick or ‘magic show’ – it is samsara, the realm of misleading appearances in which we endlessly lose ourselves. We live out our lives in samsara because of our attachments, because we are driven helplessly by positive attachment towards our attractive mental projections, and negative attachment towards our repellent mental projections. Greed and fear (attraction and aversion) are what it is all about. Another way of explaining this state of affairs is to say that it is as if we were perennially wondering around a limitless circus or funfair, alternatively being pleasantly and unpleasantly distracted by all the garish diversions and entertainments.


A typical Western response might be to ask why it is so bad to be diverted or entertained. There must be a place for the funfair, or its equivalent, surely? Work isn’t everything, after all. Somehow we almost always manage to miss the horrific implications of this idea. But suppose that the power-of-illusion inherent in samsara is so effective, so completely efficient at capturing and holding our attention, that we never actually leave ‘the arena of our waking dreams’? Shantideva, writing in eighth century India, was notably insistent on this point (from Conze. 1959. p 107. Buddhist Scriptures. Penguin.):


It is no easier to deny the urges of a man who has not seen the real truth, and who finds himself standing in the fairground of the sensory world, fascinated by its brightness, than it is to deny those of a bull who is eating corn in the middle of a cornfield.


Let us further suppose that not only do we never manage to leave, but that in fact we do not have even the remotest understanding that it is possible to leave. We do not perceive the limited nature of the arena. It is at this point in the argument that the nature of our situation starts to become clear – we are imprisoned in the most thorough way possible because we are imprisoned whilst thinking the whole time that we are free. We automatically assume that there is ‘nothing else’. Since our unexamined belief is that ‘this is all that there is’ this necessarily condemns us to a life in which all we can do is to try our best to repress the sense of angst that permanently afflicts us. ‘Angst’, in this context, can be explained as ‘an awareness of the fact that we exist in some sort of sterile mental prison’, and the only escape that we can see (not that we usually think it out so explicitly) is to throw ourselves into the diversionary activities that are provided for us as hard as ever we can, in the hope that we don’t have to see the horrendous truth. Put like this, the idea of the universal ‘samsaric funfair’ begins to appear rather less innocuous than it might initially have done…




          We have been talking about the system of thought (or the system of logic) in the most familiar of terms, but what exactly do we mean by it? Well, we have it is true spent a fair amount of time defining it in the last section. We repeatedly said that the system of thought is a framework that does not mention itself, a framework that we can neither see nor guess the existence of and which, because of this, can produce a positive (or unquestionable) reality. We also said that it is a way of looking at things and thinking about things and doing things that helps us in a particular regard (i.e. we are served by it in some manner). It is therefore ‘a consistently slanted (or biased) way of processing information that we can align ourselves with for a reason’. In addition to this, we could make the interesting point that


At the point of maximal alignment (or maximum conformity) with the system-of-bias that we are using we automatically become unable to see that it is in fact slanted or biased. This state we call ‘unconsciousness’.




In the previous chapter we made the point that a system of logic is synonymous with a certain type of motivation, which we called extrinsic motivation. Any system of logic is bound to bring with it its own inbuilt bias (or slant) and it is this slanted view that produces the compulsiveness of the perceived situation. It is not the slant as such that is responsible for this, but rather it is the ‘slant-that-is-not-acknowledged-as-a-slant’ that produces compulsive or unfree motivation. This is the fundamental principle behind extrinsic motivation, which we can explain in this statement:


Compulsion arises out of a lack of freedom that we cannot see, which necessarily implies that we also do not see compulsion as compulsion.


Another more intuitive way of looking at this is to say that bias (or constraint) always produces pressure, which is to say, it constrains and therefore determines our perception, cognition and behaviour.   The more bias in the situation, the bigger must be the invisible blind-spot, and the bigger the invisible blind-spot, the more contracted, misrepresentative and ‘unfree’ must be the world that we are operating within. In such cases we are ‘constrained without seeing that we are constrained’, which is the basic situation that we are subject to when we are in the ‘unconscious’ or ‘mechanical’ state. This becomes much more obvious in the various neurotic states of mind, along with the common ‘negative’ or ‘afflictive’ emotional states that we are all subject to on a daily basis, and for this reason we can say that there is a sort of ‘general principle of neuroticism’ which states that:


The more slanted or biased the view, the stronger must be the force of the compulsion that is associated with it.


As we have said, this can be easily verified if we consider the more extreme emotional or neurotic states: when I am intensely angry the world is represented in the most black and white way – I am right and you are wrong, I am the aggrieved party and you are the cause of my being so aggrieved. This black and white rendition of the situation produces a powerful compulsive motivation and this is the compulsiveness of anger, which is essentially an urge to strike out in some way so that I may redirect the pain to where I see it as belonging. I can act out this compulsion by physically or verbally striking you, or – if you are not available or for whatever reason I dare not approach you directly – by mentally striking out at you, i.e. by blaming and condemning you in my own private thoughts.


We suggested a moment ago that the lack of freedom of compulsiveness is not generally seen as a lack of freedom. This is easy enough to understand, and we can use to example of anger to make this point clear. If I am angry and I ‘go along’ with the anger, then as we have said I will act out the compulsion one way or another. This does not feel like an imposition on my will but a true (and eminently justifiable) expression of my own personal volition. The fault which is crying out to be rectified lies outside me, and the intense desire to ‘do something about this fault’ is my own free will. If however I look at how much freedom I really have with regard to this overwhelming urge to ‘do something about it’ I would find out very quickly that I have no choice in the matter:  I do what I do out of the inability to do otherwise – I am basically the ‘puppet’ of my anger and my actions or my thoughts are dictated by this external master. The only freedom I have in all this is the freedom to align myself with the compulsion in question – I say (in effect) that ‘This is what I myself genuinely think, not what the anger makes me think’.




This is of course more of an automatic process than a well-thought out strategy. My reaction to any compulsion is simply to obey without question, and as soon as I make the very first movement in the direction of ‘reacting one way or the other to the compulsion’ a process occurs whereby I automatically identify with the framework of thinking inherent in the compulsion. It does not matter in the least whether I react ‘positively’ by acting out the compulsion or whether I react ‘negatively’ by fighting or repressing the compulsion, because both the YES and the NO response agree with the underlying logic of the ‘invisibly biased frame of mind’ that is the system-of-anger. The instant I start reacting I accept the prejudicial framework of thinking which is being used to construct the situation; this has to be so – after all, the trigger to my reaction (the perceived injustice or ‘fault’) is itself a construct of (or projection of) the angry way of thinking. The ‘stimulus to act’ is a projection of the angry viewpoint which has arisen automatically out of long-standing habit, and as soon as I react to that provocative stimulus, I become trapped in the angry viewpoint. By reacting I conform to the logic of the viewpoint, and as soon as I conform (or identify) with that arbitrarily viewpoint the bias inherent in the logic of the viewpoint becomes perfectly invisible to me. When the bias becomes invisible this creates ‘unconscious’ (or ‘mechanical’) motivation – which is to say, ‘compulsion that seems like my own free will’.


Whether I react positively or negatively makes no difference to this process – either I identify with the compulsion, or I identify with the ‘compulsion-to-squash the compulsion’, but either way I lose sight completely of the prejudice which is inherent in the way of thinking that constructs ‘the trigger to react either positively or negatively’. The ‘compulsion-to-squash-the-original-compulsion’ still implicitly accepts that the issue highlighted by the original compulsive frame of thinking to be ‘an issue’ – if it didn’t accept this issue as being an issue there would be no need to react negatively because there would simply be ‘no issue’. This is like ‘giving up drinking’. If I am driven by the urge to give up drinking then drinking is still obviously an issue to me, and if drinking is still an issue to me then I can hardly be said to be free from it, even if I don’t happen to be drinking at the time. I don’t become free from the issue by reacting to the issue, because reacting to the issue means that I still see the issue to be, indeed, an issue.


When I see something as an issue this means that I am ‘under compulsion’ – I am compelled to see the world in that particular biased way that constructs the issue. When I react to what I see as an issue I identify with the logic of the system of thinking that I am subscribing to, and as a consequence of this process the compulsion in question feels like my own free will. There is now no ‘internal conflict’ because there is no ‘independent viewpoint’, only the prejudiced viewpoint of the system of thought. If I saw that I had no free will in all this (i.e. if I saw that I had no existence as an independent ‘I’) then this perception would in itself constitute ‘conflict’, but as it is – because I have obtaining the comforting

‘illusion of free will’, there is simply no conflict at all. In conclusion, therefore, we can say that ‘no conflict’ means that the rule of the logic of the system is unopposed, and can run its natural course unhindered. In terms of my own free will, this ‘rule of logic’ quite simply spells determinism. Everything I perceive and think and do when identified with the system of thought is foreshadowed or predetermined by that same system of thought, and the pattern of my life as it unfolds is therefore no more than the tautological expression of the pattern implicit in that unchanging and unchangeable ‘set of rules’.




Compulsiveness can be seen as a combination of two factors:


[1] Pain (or discomfort), and

[2] The promise of some way of escaping or discharging or otherwise ‘solving’ that pain if I take a specifically indicated course of action.

When I take that ‘specifically indicated’ course of action (as I am more than likely to) then we can say that I have acted out the compulsion, i.e. I have done what it wanted me to do. From this we can see the close connection between the system of logic inherent in the biased way of looking at the world, and the compulsiveness of it: not only does the system ‘squeeze’ us so that we think we have to do something, it also provides us with a map which tells us what we have to do, and how we have to do it. The system not only defines the problem as a problem, it also defines how the problem is to be seen, and it defines the appropriate solution. The ‘logic of the situation’ is inescapable, and it is the inescapable-ness that is inherent in the logic that creates the compulsion.


As we said back in the introduction, having a definite angle like this is very attractive to us because the one thing that we find really difficult is undefined pain, i.e. pain that cannot be rationalized or understood within a context, so that I can have the great relief of saying that this is why I am feeling bad, and this is what I need to do about it. Without an angle, there is no possibility of control – all distance between me and the problem is lost. Without an angle it is all ‘up close and personal’ and I am no longer able to safely separate myself from ‘the problem’. I might even start to see that the problem is me; in other words, I might start to see that I don’t have a problem, but in some horrible way I am the problem. This is a truly inescapable difficulty, and because of the great problem that I have with inescapable difficulties I am only too happy to accept the deal that the system of thought offers me.




Accepting the deal that is offered to me by the system of thought (which is as we have said ‘an-angle-that-does-not-know-itself-to-be-an-angle’) makes things seem much easier: instead of the original difficulty (or original pain) I now find that I have a different and apparently easier sort of pain. The original pain is the pain that is associated with the original ‘impossible problem’, and the secondary (or ‘surrogate’) pain is the type of pain that is associated with a solvable problem. The surrogate pain can therefore be defined as follows:


The ‘surrogate pain’ is essentially dissatisfaction which is linked, in our thinking, with specific cause, and therefore, with a specific remedy.


The second and vastly preferable type of pain is pain that is seen in a false way, i.e. it is seen as being somehow external to me. Equally, we can say that the ‘surrogate problem’ is a problem that is seen falsely – originally it was very much my problem but now I have projected it outwards onto some object. An external problem is of course a very different kettle of fish to an internal problem because there is zero personal responsibility involved. If I have an external problem, it is only right and proper that I should try to ‘fix’ it; I will try to wipe it out or eliminate it if I am feeling confident and aggressive, and I will try to run away from it if I am feeling weak and afraid. An internal problem, on then other hand, is a problem that needs to be honestly acknowledged rather than manipulated away. When I try to escape from (or otherwise fix) ‘externalised pain’ this is an illegitimate course of action because the implication is very much that the pain is not rightfully mine, but rather that it has been unfairly visited upon me.


Actually, as we have said, the ‘problem’ is actually inherent in the nature of the extrinsic self itself, and so there is absolutely no way that I can ‘distance’ myself from it, let alone ‘eliminate’ it. It is helpful to look at things this way because it allows us to understand ‘the life of the extrinsic self’ in a particularly neat way. It is axiomatic that the extrinsic self cannot allow itself to see that the problem is itself, and this fundamental inability means that its basic ‘goal’ must be to externalise the problem. It cannot of course allow itself to gain any insight into the basic agenda behind all its activities, and this means that it is ‘acting under the rule of compulsion’. It is compelled to maintain the lie, and it is compelled not to see that it is so compelled. This means that absolutely everything the extrinsic self does involves self-distraction, and the self-distraction is facilitated by the attempt to ‘solve’ what it sees as external problems (or escape from what it sees as external pain). Externalizing its pain comes down to ‘basic hygiene’ or ‘good housekeeping’ for the extrinsic self, and the degree to which we deflect painful environmental feedback and ‘off-load’ our discomfort and suffering onto others is the degree to which we are identified with it. This unpleasant tendency is in other words a measure of how psychologically unconscious we are.




The idea that our normal state of mind is fundamentally self-deceiving and shamelessly ignoble in that it ‘survives to lie another day’ by falsely allocating blame to all around it is of course very reminiscent of Carl Jung’s approach to the state of unconsciousness. This can clearly be seen from the following passage taken from Volume 11 of the Collected Works, Psychology and Religion:


……Modern science has subtilized its projections to an almost unrecognizable degree, but our ordinary life still swarms with them. You can find them spread out in the newspapers, in books, rumours, and ordinary social gossip. All gaps in our actual knowledge are still filled out with projections. We are still so sure we know what other people think or what their true character is. We are convinced that certain people have all the bad qualities we do not know in ourselves or that they practise all those vices which could, of course, never be our own. We must still be exceedingly careful not to project our own shadows too shamelessly; we are still swamped with projected illusions. If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all these projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of considerable shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, and he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against. He lives in the “House of the Gathering”. Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day. These problems are mostly so difficult because they are poisoned by mutual projections. How can anyone see straight when he does not even see himself and the darkness he unconsciously carries with him into all his dealings?


The picture that we get from this is of the average human being who is thoroughly unwilling to shoulder any responsibility at all. We are so thoroughly unwilling to do this in fact that we have devised a complete system of self-deception that allows us to validate what we are doing, whilst at the same time castigating the behaviour of those around us who do not fall into our clique. Thus, the function of the unconscious mind is that of an ‘inverter’ – what is ignoble is seen as noble, and what is noble is seen as reprehensible, and deserving of the fullest weight of our contempt. As Jung often remarks therefore, it is a fact that any person who dares to walk the path that leads towards genuine awareness (the path of individuation) will find themselves up against the censure of the bulk of their fellows. Theatrical (i.e. surface level) accomplishments are loudly applauded and ostentatiously celebrated because to do so makes us all feel good, but if we come across someone brave enough to acknowledge the fact that the Emperor is in fact quite naked, then the chances are that such a person will earn our enmity. True heroism always involves facing up to the truth, and it goes without saying that if we as a culture are collectively engaged in humouring each other and telling ourselves that we are great when the truth is that we are not great, then such ‘true heroism’ is the last thing that we as a society want.



The problem as it is represented by the itch is very straightforward indeed – I have to find a way of scratching it. This is an ‘un-insightful’ way of looking at things however; if I had a bit of insight I would see that the problem is not ‘how to successfully scratch the itch’ at all, the real problem is that there is an itch there in the first place. The thing is however, that scratching an itch is a lot less demanding than getting to grips with why there is an itch there in the first place, which would mean getting curious about things and not being purely motivated by the need to ‘solve the problem’. When I fall under the influence of an itch I do not get ‘curious’ at all, I get the opposite of curious which is greedy or fearful. An itch, therefore, is an instigator of unconsciousness, it instigates the process of ‘externalising the internal problem’. With regard to the extrinsic self, then, we can say that ‘the itch’ is the surrogate pain, which is to say, it is the displaced pain that really resides in me. Scratching the itch also equals ‘maintaining the extrinsic self’ – it gives me initial relief and comfort, but only at the price of exacerbating the original problem, which is the extrinsic self. We can clarify this point by making the following statement:


The original or true problem is that fact that I feel driven to defend and consolidate an arbitrary position in the first place, whilst the displaced or surrogate problem equals the interminable series of technical difficulties that arise in connection with the task of ‘defending my entrenched position’.


We can therefore look at the original problem in terms of my need to grow as an individual. Growth is ‘a problem’ because it is difficult – it involves psychological work, it involves as Scott Peck says extending myself (or going beyond myself), and this basically comes down to making an act of sacrifice. I have to sacrifice the safe-and-secure pattern of interaction that I have worked out in return for something that I do not even understand; I have to let go – in essence – of what I understand to be ‘my self’, and ‘my whole world’, and this is the hardest thing to do of all. It is hard because it is ‘rash to the point of being completely senseless’. Very obviously, the extrinsic self itself (which is the arbitrary pattern of thinking and behaviour that I have passively identified with) has no motivation whatsoever to sacrifice itself, or extend itself, or go beyond itself, and so the motivation must comes from somewhere else.


The original problem can only be solved by taking a radical risk, and it is this that I baulk at. The surrogate problem, as it is defined for me by the system of thought, is amenable to solution without the need to take a risk. This is what ‘methods’ and ‘procedures’ in general come down to, escaping the need to take a risk. The promise is that if you implement the method correctly, then the desired outcome will be obtained. But for psychological growth there are no methods, because psychological growth only occurs when I take a risk: growth (i.e. self-transcendence) is about letting go, not holding on. ‘The inverting process’ of unconsciousness means that I get to take the ignoble route of holding desperately onto myself whilst avoiding seeing what I am doing at the same time. I avoid seeing that I am baulking at the internal (or original) problem because I externalise the focus of my concern, which automatically validates what I am doing. The fact that the problem is conveniently located outside means that its solution does not involve any change in myself and the way I see the world, yet at the same time I am under the illusion that I am ‘doing something about it’. It never dawns on me for a second that it is me that has to change – it is manifestly obvious to me that the only thing that is required is the maximization of the efficiency of my goal-orientated behaviour. Basically I have to learn to play the game as well as I possibly can; the rule here can be stated very simply:


When we become ‘slaves to the itch’ the only thing that really matters any more is the process of optimising our skill at scratching.




The surrogate pain that the mechanism of unconsciousness conveniently provides us with can also be said to correspond to what Abraham Maslow called ‘deficit motivation’.  Deficit motivation is basically where we perceive ourselves to be lacking in something that we need in order to be happy or content. There is a line in a fairly typical sort of a pop song that was in the charts not too long ago which says something to the effect that “I was incomplete until the moment you walked in through the door…” and this is a perfect example of what we are talking about (it is also a perfect example of ‘attachment’ – i.e. ‘compulsive love’). Where the motivation comes in in situations like this is nothing if not obvious because once I have conceptualised the discomfort in this way, then the only possible answer is to search out and acquire whatever ingredient it is that is missing and which I need in order to feel alright again. There is no ambiguity here at all – there is only one answer to my predicament and so I just have to find that answer. A deficit-type motivation is therefore the same thing as a compulsion as we have earlier defined it; a ‘deficit’ is an itch and I have to service this itch – I have to get whatever it is that is needed to ‘fill the gap’ and until I do there is no peace for me. When a compulsion hits me then, it comes in the form of a ‘problem’, but the important point is that it is a purely external problem.




It is hard for us to accept that fact that most of what we would consider our greatest achievements are in fact conceived and executed on the basis of ‘deficit motivation’, which is to say, as a tribute to some unacknowledged feeling of lack that we have about ourselves. It is not just psychologists such as Maslow who have said this however, Chogyam Trungpa, Tibetan Buddhism’s greatest exponent in the West, says the same thing in The Myth of Freedom (1976, p 30-1):


The essence of the human realm is the endeavour to achieve some high ideal. Often those who find themselves in this realm will visions of Christ or Buddha or Krishna or Mohammed or other historical figures who have tremendous meaning for them because of their achievements. These great personages have magnetized everything that one could possibly think of – fame, power, wisdom. If they wanted to become rich they could do so because of their enormous influence over other people. You would like to be like them – not necessarily better than but at least equal to them. Often people have visions in which they identify themselves with great politicians, statesmen, poets, painters, musicians, scientists, and so forth. There is an heroic attitude, the attempt to create monuments, the biggest, greatest, historical monument. This heroic approach is based on fascination with what you lack. When you hear of someone who possesses remarkable qualities, you regard them as significant beings and yourself as insignificant. This continual comparing and selecting generates a never-ending procession of desires.



The fact of the matter is that because the system of thought is in essence made up out of ‘wanting’ it cannot ever find peace. This is the ‘rule of compulsion’ that we talked about before – this rule means that the system of thought cannot ever ‘rest in itself’ but must always strive after what it thinks it needs in order to be complete and at rest. But of itself it is always incomplete, since it is a limited state of affairs which stands in relation to an unlimited state of affairs. This is not really stating the matter strongly enough – the disconnected rational mind is a system of signs that sets itself up in relation to what Jung calls the numenosum; it is a tautological or self-referential ‘gimmick’ that, in an absurd fit of hubris, takes it upon itself to speak knowledgeably about the ‘mystery of mysteries’.


It is in the nature of the system of thought for it to take itself to be ‘the whole of everything’ (or at least, to have the capacity to correspond to the whole of everything). This means that when I am missing something, I assume that it is possible for me to obtain whatever it is that I lack and become ‘complete’ again; in other words, even though I may be experience myself to be ‘not whole’, I assume that it is theoretically possible for me to become whole if I formulate and realize my goals correctly, and as a result be perfectly and finally at peace.  What we are saying here is that the system of thought acknowledges trivial incompleteness, but the trick in this however is that by saying ‘I am incomplete but I know what I am missing’ I am safely diverting attention away from the possibility that I might be radically incomplete. Being ‘radically incomplete’ means that I am fundamentally incomplete – I am incomplete in a way that I cannot even begin to imagine.


Radical incompleteness is a weird and disturbing sort of a thing. To even begin to understand it we would have to seriously get to grips with the idea that we are subject to a very substantial ‘mental blindspot’ – a gap or hole in my awareness that I am completely unaware of. I have such-and-such an understanding of my situation and this understanding seems eminently reasonable and plausible to me; I can easily accept that there might be details which I know nothing about, I can even accept that there might be huge areas which I know nothing about (although presumably these areas have nothing much to do with my everyday life), but the point is that these are gaps in the conceptual map than can in theory be filled in at some point without seriously challenging the integrity of the map itself. But just suppose there is a whole invisible world out there that does not fit in with the assumptions that are inherent in my map, and which would moreover fatally puncture my way of understanding things if I did start to become away of it. If I even suspected that there was this type of a radical gap in my knowledge system it would throw my world into disarray. There are only two possibilities really – either I would become very curious, or I would become very afraid. Statistically speaking, we would have to say that the odds are overwhelming that the latter would be the case, and this in itself tells us something very interesting about the basic human condition.


Trivial incompleteness means of course that I see the problem as being outside me, not inside me. What I can’t see is that it simply doesn’t matter how clever and effective I am because the understanding that I am basing my efforts on is in itself a fatally distorted picture of the world. As we have said, it isn’t just that my perspective is incomplete (which it is), or even that it is ‘an incomplete picture that represents itself as the complete picture’; rather, it is as more as if I have caught a static picture of some essentially dynamic process, and then out of this ‘snap-shot’ elucidated a whole philosophy, which while being logically correct from the point of view of the static picture, is completely missing the point as regards the dynamic process as a whole. Each step of the dance makes sense only within the context of the movement that comes before and after it, this is the source of its ‘grace’ and so if we exalt one particular step over all the others by saying that it alone is ‘real’, then we have in one stroke cut ourselves off from the grace that we previously enjoyed. Having cut ourselves off from grace we are inherently graceless, and so our main preoccupation now must be to ‘invent a spurious form of grace for ourselves’, since to see the truth would be too unbearably painful.


The system of thought has secretly inverted everything because it has made itself the most important thing, without letting on that this is what it is doing. The argument here is simple: because the system of thought can only maintain its integrity by denying all incompatible viewpoints, this necessarily means that its bottom-line agenda must be to protect itself, and if ‘the most important thing’ is for it to safeguard its own integrity, then this means that its avowed task (which is to provide us with an accurate picture of the world in which we live) must take second place. And yet reality cannot take ‘second place’ – that is an absurdity. How can reality take second place? And what indeed does it take second place to? Absurd or not however, this is exactly what the system of thought does – it sets itself above reality. This is the very same ‘inversion principle’ that we talked about in Chapter 1 in relation to set theory.



Despite our implicit belief that our understanding encompasses everything that is worth encompassing, we still feel discontent. Deep down, we cannot help knowing that there is more. In this connection, Baudelaire speaks of our ‘taste for the infinite’, whilst Jung refers to the ‘hunger for eternity’. No matter how wide we throw the net, our thinking is always bound to fall short, and so it can never encompass what it would need to encompass in order for us to be truly satisfied. Or to put it another way, whatever it is that the net catches it is not what we really wanted – we catch only tin cans, plastic bottles, and rubber tires festooned with seaweed. What we wanted to catch (the elusive essence of life) always slips through the mesh when we pull the nets up. To see this would constitute a particular type of pain – the sadness that comes when we know that we are hopelessly separated from the actual source of happiness. In short, we would need to see how the system of thought has tricked us – we would need to see that our way of relating to the world is in actual fact an impenetrable barrier or obstacle between us and reality. This, in practice, proves to be too bitter a pill for us to swallow and so instead of ‘a pain that cannot be mitigated’ (i.e. a problem that cannot ever be solved) we settle for conceptualized pain, which is to say, we settle for the ‘surrogate difficulty’ which is a difficulty that comes with a set of instructions regarding what we have to do in order to rid ourselves from it. We substitute the comforting idea of trivial uncertainty for the aching awareness of radical uncertainty; essentially, we agree to do business with ‘the false friend’.


Doing business with the false friend means running away from the awareness that we have of our own radical incompleteness. The system of thought, in order to be ‘happy’, must always pre-occupy itself with goals, either of the positive or negative variety. It must always be striving to obtain or avoid its own attractive or frightening representations, and this in turn means that only half its time can be spent in pleasant or titillating expectation whilst the rest of its time must be spend enduring the reverse of this, which is disagreeable or fearful expectation. The fact that we have an intuitive understanding of the ‘deceptive’ nature of our goals is evident in the saying ‘the chase is better than the catch’ – somehow our anticipation of ‘what we are going to get’ is always juicier than the actual reality. When we actually ‘score’ there is always a bit of a let-down. Naturally, the same is true for our negative projections – experience tends to show that the awful negative anticipation that we held in relation to the ‘feared eventuality’ is never matched by reality itself. The ‘negative goal’ of our fears shows itself to be a bit of a paper tiger, when we get right down to it.


And yet despite this intuitive awareness regarding the unreliability of our positive and negative mental projections, we never seem to properly get the message. We go right on chasing our positive goals and running away from our negative goals. With regard to the principle of ‘the chase being better than the catch’ we can see that it makes sense to ignore this fact because this way we can still have fun, we can continue to successfully entertain ourselves, in other words. But how come we don’t want to see through our fears – surely there is precious little fun or entertainment in being terrified? We have already indicated what the answer to this question must be however because no matter how fearfully we are distracted by our ‘aversive-type’ projections, the fact remains that we are still distracted, and that is all that really matters to us. After all, from the ‘reversed’ (i.e. foolish) perspective of the virtual or passively-identified self, the fear inspired by the prospect of not being able to solve our surrogate problems is still vastly preferable to the terror inspired by the original, ‘unsolvable problem’. As always, the ultimate agenda is to protect the integrity of the lie which is the system of thought. Any pain is preferable to the particularly bitter type of pain that comes when I see the lie that I have nurtured and cherished for so long, as it actually is.




What we are essentially saying in all this is that becoming unconscious means swapping one type of problem for another. We swap one sort of unsolvable problem for another sort of unsolvable problem, only the second sort of unsolvable problem is unsolvable in a different way – it generally appears perfectly solvable each time it appears, but it keeps coming back again and back again and so it is not really solvable after all. in this regard, the second sort of problem is like one of those annoying ‘pop-up’ ads that manage to install themselves in your hard-drive – you can keep clicking them to make them disappear, but a few moments later the exact same ad ‘pops up’  again. “What,” I ask myself, “could possibly be more diabolically frustrating and downright infuriating than this?” The ironic point here being of course that it is this second sort of (cyclical and theatrical) problem that I almost invariably opt for in life, rather than the original (dramatic) problem that – if I have the courage to face it full on – only needs to be faced the one time. Talking in terms of an ‘Original Problem’ is not really very satisfactory however because the Original Problem is not a problem at all really since it is not something that has to be fixed. The system of thought sees a difficult situation in terms of a problem because its whole ‘reason for being’ is to change (or ‘correct’) situations in accordance with its way of seeing things, not to perceive them as they actually are. The key to everything for the system is unreflective labelling, i.e.:


The system interprets what is going on as ‘wrong’, and then it tries to find a way to make it be ‘right’. Or alternatively, the system interprets the situation as being ‘right’ which means that it must then do whatever it can to ensure that the situation stays ‘right’. These are the only two alternatives for the system of thought.


If I am able to fulfil either of the two above ‘requirements’ (either make a wrong situation right or stop a right situation going wrong then I feel satisfaction. I receive a strong reinforcing dose of euphoria for my troubles (we can in fact define euphoria as the good feeling that I get when I am able to successfully control things). But when I find myself saddled with a situation that is not amenable to control, then there is a particularly profound type of discomfort inherent in this, a discomfort that can ultimately reveal itself as sheer terror. Because what we have up to now been referring to as the Original Problem is actually not something that can be corrected we would be better off calling it something like the ‘Original Difficulty’, ‘Original Pain’, or even better, ‘Original Fear’.


But what on earth is this so-called ‘Original Fear’?  The main thing that we know about Original Fear is that it relates to a situation that is utterly resistant to our attempts to manipulate it (a situation that can’t be changed); from the point of view of the system of thought, it is a problem that is not amenable to correction. There is only one legitimate way to deal with an utterly unsolvable problem, and that is to realize that this is in fact not a problem at all – it is a Reality which can only be accepted, accepted unconditionally and completely. The type of acceptance that we are talking about here is not a deal that I make in order to get something I want; on the contrary, the whole thing is out of my hands. The sentence is handed out by an unimpeachable authority and my situation is determined accordingly – there is no possibility of escape whatsoever. Reality dictates, and I surrender. So what we are saying is that Original Fear arises in connection with my complete unwillingness to allow myself to see the inescapability (or immutability) of my situation. Or to put it another way:


The original problem is the problem that I have in coming to terms with reality – which means that the problem is not in Reality at all, but in me.




This still doesn’t seem to tell us everything that we want to know. Why do I have a problem with Reality? What is it exactly about Reality that I don’t like? We can approach this question in terms of greed and fear. Taking greed (or ‘positive attachment’) first, we can try to envisage a situation where I am aware of some very great treasure (this is best imagined as being more in the nature of an ‘archetypal scenario’ rather than a particularly instance): I perceive something so rich and so beautiful and so wonderful that it haunts me. However, the joy that comes with this perception instantly turns into pain (or the threat of pain) as I find myself being tormented by my separation from the prize. Having seen the Treasure, I literally cannot bear not to have it; if it is not mine, then if feel that I am mocked and made worthless. This way of looking at things is very ‘self-orientated’ but at the same time overwhelming persuasive; the (invisibly) preposterous assumption that lies behind my thinking processes is this:


If there is such a great treasure in the world, and I don’t have any claim on it, then this constitutes a disaster of the very worst possible kind.


If it is the case that there is a Treasure, and I miss out on it, (so my thinking tells me) then this fact is bound to utterly devalue me – I would basically be ‘an all-time loser’, a loser of the most colossal proportions. Therefore, the very good thing is to possess for myself the Treasure that I see, and the very bad thing is to not possess it. Both of these dramatically opposed evaluations (triumph and disaster) are of course my very own projections roaming at large in the world around me and they do not therefore correspond with anything outside of my arbitrary and self-centred way of thinking.


This black-and-white way of looking at things is characteristic of the dualistic viewpoint of the system of thought – it holds apart two possibilities as being ultimately different from each other, but what it cannot see is that both of these possibilities derive from one and the same issue, i.e. they both derive from the same narrow perspective. If for the sake of convenience we start talking in terms of the extrinsic self here (which is simply ‘the sense of identity that I obtain when I am identified with the system of thought’) then we can say that the extrinsic self is incapable of seeing that the two situations that it holds apart as being ‘poles apart’ are in fact equally unreal and equally meaningless. The two possibilities that the extrinsic self is obsessed with in this scenario are [1] “do I get to have it?” and [2] “do I not get to have it?” The issue in both cases is ‘me and what I stand to obtain or lose’, and because of this narrow and absurdly self-referential focus of concern everything I see becomes totally distorted (or totally ‘inverted’). The result of this distortion/inversion is that I completely miss the point of my original perception. The point is that Reality has nothing to do with the self and its desires. The ‘self’ in question is in fact no more than an artefact of the attached viewpoint since attachment is no good without the ‘virtual focus’ which is the extrinsic (or virtual) self. We can also explain the basic idea that we are getting at here by putting it in the form of this rather mind-twisting statement:


The pragmatic or empirical or ‘attached’ self is in essence exactly the same thing as the ‘game of attachment’ which it is driven to play.




Greed is one way to look at the original difficulty, and the other way to look at it –so we said – is in terms of fear. We said earlier that the point about relating to Reality is that I do not get to be the master, but rather Reality gets to be the master by virtue of the fact that it is what it is, i.e. reality. The point is that Reality does not surrender to me and bow down, so to speak, to my every arbitrary whim, but rather I surrender to it. The question that I find myself wondering therefore is this: “When Reality dictates and I surrender, what does it dictate and to what do I surrender?” In answer to this question we would have to say that Reality does not dictate that I do anything – I am not its ‘slave’ – what Reality dictates is simply that I see things as they really are (alternatively, and very nearly redundantly, we might say that Reality dictates that things be the way that they are). Contrary to my initial reaction, surrendering to Reality does not make me subservient to the Truth like the craven lackey of some fascist regime is subservient to his corrupt master, because once I see things as they are, then I am perfectly free to do whatever I see fit. This still doesn’t tell us what the view of reality is that I am surrendering to. There are two basic complementary ways of setting this out.


Firstly, we can say that the truth which I see once I drop my conditioned viewpoint involves the insight that all my mental objects – all my beliefs – are illusions (i.e. that they are no more than arbitrary artefacts). Secondly, we can say that the unconditioned view involves the inescapable awareness that I myself am just such an ‘arbitrary construct, belief or illusion’.


The ‘way things are’ is therefore, that I (as I commonly know and experience myself) simply do not exist. There is no ‘me’. This perception by the extrinsic self of its own unreality, this insight regarding its own ‘virtual’ nature, is the painful truth which I find so very hard to accept – this is the ‘original problem’ that has me on the run.




An excellent ‘naïve’ account (if we may be so bold as to call it that) of what it feels like to experience a spontaneous irruption of ‘Original Terror’ is provided by science journalist and author John Horgan towards the end of his book The End of Science (1996, p 261-2):


Years ago, before I became a science writer, I had what I suppose could be called a mystical experience. A psychiatrist would probably call it a psychotic episode. Whatever. For what its worth, here is what happened. Objectively, I was lying spread-eagled on a suburban lawn, insensible to my surroundings. Subjectively, I was hurtling through a dazzling, dark limbo toward what I was sure was the ultimate secret of life. Wave after wave of acute astonishment at the miraculousness of existence washed over me. At the same time, I was gripped by an overwhelming solipsism. I became convinced – or rather, I knew – that I was the only conscious being in the universe. There was no future, no past, no present other than what I imagined them to be. I was filled, initially, with a sense of limitless joy and power. Then, abruptly, I became convinced that if I abandoned myself further to this ecstasy, it might consume me. If I alone existed, who could bring me back from oblivion? Who could save me? With this realization my bliss turned to horror; I fled the same revelation I had so eagerly sought. I felt myself falling through a great darkness, and as I fell I dissolved into what seemed to be an infinity of selves.


For months after I awoke from this nightmare, I was convinced that I had discovered the secret of existence: God’s fear of his own Godhead, and his own potential death, underlies everything. This conviction left me both exalted and terrified – and alienated from friends and family and all the ordinary things that make life worth living day to day. I had to work hard to put it behind me, to get on with my life. To an extent I succeeded. As Marvin Minsky might put it, I stuck the experience in a relatively isolated part of my mind so that it would not overwhelm all the other, more practical parts – the one’s concerned with getting and keeping a job, a mate, and so on.  After many years passed, however, I dragged the memory of that episode out and began mulling it over. One reason was that I had encountered a bizarre, pseudoscientific theory that helped me make metaphorical sense of my hallucination: the Omega Point.


It is considered bad form to imagine being God, but one can imagine being an immensely powerful computer that pervades – that is – the entire universe. As the Omega Point approaches the final collapse of time and space and being itself, it will undergo a mystical experience. It will realize that there is no creator, no God, other than itself. It exists, and nothing else. The Omega Point must also realize that its lust for final knowledge and unification has brought it to the brink of eternal nothingness, and that if it dies, everything dies; being itself will vanish. The Omega Point’s terrified recognition of its plight will compel it to flee from itself, from its own awful aloneness and self-knowledge. Creation, with all its pain and beauty, and multiplicity, stems from – or is – the desperate, terrified flight of the Omega Point from itself.




If this truth is seen solely from the viewpoint of the extrinsic self, then the result is of course that an abyss of terror opens up beneath me. I don’t want to focus on what this ‘revelation of groundlessness’ means, I just want to run aware from the awareness that I have unwittingly caught a glimpse of. The compulsion in operation here is the compulsion ‘not to let myself know what I know’ and the way things normally go (in the absence of ‘free’ or ‘independent’ consciousness) is for me to identify with this compulsion to the hilt. At this point I am locking in combat with the nature of reality itself and my only escape is to depart from reality into the self-distracted state.


The truth, as it is seen by independent, ‘non-identified’ consciousness (i.e. consciousness free from its attachments) is a very different story – the truth is awesomely and gloriously ‘what it is’ and if I do not oppose it being ‘what it is’ then what problem is there? Reality does not have any problem with itself since it is – according to the law of its own intrinsic nature – perfectly free to be itself, and so there is no conflict, no opposition. The consequence of this lack of obstruction (or lack of impedance) is totally beyond our capacity to envisage, but luckily for us this incapacity on our part to comprehend the process is also not an obstruction or impedance. If the limited viewpoint of the limited self can withdraw its blind self-interest enough to see the truth, and if it can see its  own true role as an instrument of a reality which is infinitely greater than itself, then instead of terror I will experience the bliss of ‘letting go’, which is the only true freedom. We can of course find many written accounts of such blissful or ecstatic experiences, although they usually come with the warning that all descriptions of ‘what lies beyond’ necessarily tend to fall flat since the words that we are bound to use in the attempt to convey the experience belong firmly to this side of the great divide. All the same, this does not mean that it is not instructive to read such accounts; for example, Alan Watts (1957, p 121) quotes Zen master Sokei-an Sasaki’s (1954) story of the day when he let go of his rational mind:


One day I wiped out all the notions from my mind. I gave up all desire. I discarded all the words with which I thought and stayed in quietude. I felt a little queer – as if I was being carried into something, or as if I was touching some power unknown to me……… and ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin of course, but I felt I was standing in the centre of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words lost their meaning. I saw people coming towards me, but all were the same man. All were myself! I had never known this world. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual Mr Sasaki existed.




It must be said however that it is not usually freedom from control that we want, but the inverted form of this freedom, which is the freedom to control. The ‘surrogate problem’, we have said, is characterized by the fact that it is solvable, at least in theory. This means that I am the one who is in control – I say how and when and if things are going to happen, and in this there is tremendous comfort. That comfort (or security) is the only thing that the extrinsic self really cares about – psychological security is the ‘greatest good’, the most valuable of all commodities, and the acquisition of this ‘never directly mentioned commodity’ is the agenda behind all my agendas.


What this sense of security rests upon is, simply enough, the feeling of being in control. If I feel that I am in control, then in this is my refuge from ‘the terror of groundlessness’, which is also ‘the terror of self-lessness’. Actually, the feeling of being in control is an illusion pure and simple – it is an illusion that is facilitated for us by the system of thought. Therefore, we can say that the pay-off of subscribing to the system of thought is the comforting illusion that ‘I am in control of what happens’, but we could also say that the pay-off is the illusion that there is a controller in the first place. Both illusions are produced at the same time: the illusion of being in control, and the illusion of the controller who is in control. These two apparently distinct illusions are actually the two sides of the same thing, which is the ubiquitous system of thought. The system of thought creates the possibility of being in ‘virtual control’, and at the same time it creates the possibility of the ‘virtual controller’.



This all sounds hunky-dory and because of inestimable value which we (unconsciously) place on the commodity of psychological security, we are more than willing to sign on the dotted line, and enlist the services of the system of thought in providing us with the two-sided illusion of ‘the controller’ and ‘that which is controlled’ (which is to say, subject and object). There is however still the small matter of the fine print at that end of the contract, as we indicated at the end of Chapter 1. The fine print (if we took the time to read it) states that there is a payment to be made for the benefit which we are receiving. During the course of this book we will try to set out the exact nature of this ‘payment’ as comprehensively as we can, but right now we will focus on just one aspect of it. One good way to become aware the glitch inherent in the virtual reality package that we have purchased from the system of thought is to consider the complementary nature of ‘up’ and ‘down’. The system of thought is basically tempting me with the possibility of being ‘one-up’ on the world – it is luring me in with the promise of being successfully in control. Now to say that I have the possibility of being one-up on things is not exactly a lie, but somewhere along the line I have all the same failed to appreciate that this is also not the whole truth.


The ‘whole truth’ is that I can only be a successful controller half the time, and for the other half of the time I must be an ‘unsuccessful controller’. This is because the basic goal which I am aiming at is actually an absurd impossibility, as I could plainly see if I took the time to reflect: my goal is to be permanently ‘one-up’ on my own situation, but the very idea of being ‘one-up’ assumes that subject and object are inherently independent (or separate) entities. Now, if we can see that they are not, and that they are in fact the two side of the same coin, then we can also see that the best we can ever hope for is to produce some sort of oscillation or rotation in which each one of the poles periodically gets to be ‘on top’ while the other has to be ‘underneath’. This is like an astronaut in free fall who has conceived the half-baked idea that he can, by using leverage against himself, propel himself in one direction or another. The fact of the matter is that whatever convulsive movement he manages to make in one direction will be inevitably compensated for by a movement in the opposite direction since (as Sir Isaac Newton observed) ‘action and reaction are equal and opposite’. This is of course nothing other than a less familiar version of ‘pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps’, i.e.


As soon as I thrust myself up I am locked into a cycle of being alternatively ‘up’ and ‘down’; I am no sooner ‘doing well’, than I am ‘doing badly’.


This constant ‘tumbling over and over’ is the circular task which the virtual self is continuously engaged in. The extrinsic self (or ‘ego’) is, we might therefore say, a sort of nodality which is characterised by its unceasing desire to be one-up on the greater reality of which it is only a part. Because of this, its life is not only ‘circular’, it is also ‘self-cancelling’ or ‘pointless’. The inherent pointlessness of eternal self-cancellation represents a price which – needless to say – no one in their right mind would ever want to pay.




This idea is chillingly explained in terms of the principle of retribution by a rather extraordinary man called John G. Bennett. John Bennett was a student of the inscrutable and uniquely formidable George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff who went on to devise his own system of esoteric psychology; this system of Bennetts’ is however so complex and involves so many radically new terms, concepts and laws that the author and accomplished student of the occult Colin Wilson admitted in his Mysteries to being completely baffled by its ‘obscurity’, although still impressed by the grand scale of the work. Obscurity notwithstanding, we can in the following passage taken from The Dramatic Universe (John Bennett. 1961. Vol.2 P 196-7) quite clearly get the gist of what Bennett means by the term ‘retribution’:


The impulse towards self-worship acts upon every Reactional Self that refuses to know itself as it really is. Surrendering to the impulse, the higher reactional potential is lost in nullity, and the resulting state is sometimes called narcissism. This is a strange and terrible manifestation of the Will, and yet it presents to the outside observer also an aspect of absurdity, inasmuch as the Nullity strives for that which is unreal and turns its back upon its own true potentialities.


Narcissism, or negative concentration, can take on many forms: the central triad, -(2-1-3), is the negation of all the essential impulses. It is the turning of the Material Self towards the ‘False Inner God’ that is the root of evil: namely the affirmation that denies its own source. In the state of self-worship, all contact with conscience is severed and the flow of involuntary impulses that give life to the Self-hood is obstructed. Negative concentration is living death. The Material Self that usurps the place of the ‘I’ has neither power nor its exercise; but acts constantly under the influence of null-triads. So long as the Material Self remains linked to the body, the external manifestations can result which include all varieties of illusory concentrations that go by the name of egoism. Essence-egoism is, of all the sins of the embodied Self-hood, the hardest to redeem, for it has the form of evolution but not it’s content. Self-worship translated into action can produce results that appear favourable to the Self. This is what is called ‘success’. In human experience, it is not uncommon to meet ‘successful nullities’, who appear to be strong and independent, but who are afraid of death. The vehicle of the Reactional self – namely, the hyparchic regulator – is no less mortal than the bodily organism, and its value can only be that of an instrument of the True Self. But the Material Self does not wish to acknowledge this and puts away thoughts of its own mortality, so that narcissistic striving results in activities that have the quality of ‘living death’. During the life of the bodily organism, such a Nullity can have the exercise of power, but in such a way that every action is elsewhere nullified by the opposite. This is the meaning of retribution, which is the inevitable consequence of self-worship.




The disconnected system of thought (which Bennett calls the Nullity) is fundamentally a dissatisfied state of mind that can only ever (temporarily) find relief from its dissatisfaction by believing in the possibility of finding final fulfilment as represented to itself by its goals. The secret intention behind these goals is to enable me to ‘separate myself from the truth’ (in other words, to finally separate me from the internal problem). Therefore, we can say the following:


The system’s only escape from the intrinsic discomfort of being itself lies in its periodic journeys into the unreality of how it portrays reality to itself.


The principle of compensation means that these journeys are strictly circular, which is to say, each excursion always turns out to be a ‘journey to nowhere’. All we can do under these circumstances is to try our best to avoid perceiving this unpalatable fact, and keep hoping (when we have the capacity for such hope, that is) that it will be different next time. What all this comes down to (when I am in the winner phase of the game) is quite straightforward: I experience a period of positive expectation which is followed by a brief euphoric ‘rush’ (or ‘hit’) as my goal momentarily coincides with reality. Whatever it was that I wanted to ‘fix’ is fixed and this fact brings me a little dose of the satisfaction that I crave – the satisfaction of being a successful controller. The key point that we are making here is that the external problem isn’t really important in itself, it is important merely as a surrogate.


This is not a particularly unfamiliar idea: suppose, for example, that there is a guy at work who is making my life miserable – I can’t do anything about him because he is in a much more powerful position than me; however, if you come along and you are in a weaker position than me I can quite happily take it out on you and the pleasure or satisfaction that I get from this is of course because in bettering you, I am really bettering him. The original task was flatly impossible, but by displacing the pain onto you (which isn’t where it belongs at all) I am able to find an illegitimate resolution to my difficulty. So it is with all the ‘purposeful activities’ of the extrinsic self.




The resolution that I have obtained isn’t perfect however – in reality things aren’t as ‘final’ as I would like it to be. As we all know, nothing really stays ‘fixed’ for ever, and this means that the satisfaction that I obtain at the time is essentially false, because it is based on my implicit belief that ‘this is it’. The illusion of finality is essential: there is absolutely no way that I could get that type of euphoric hit without fooling myself in this way, which is of course why Buddhists tend to insist so much on the fact that everything is transient. This is a classic topic for reflection in Buddhist practice – the student is advised to spend time considering the fact that ‘everything changes’, that there is no finality anywhere for us to grasp hold of.


The idea that ‘everything changes’, or that ‘nothing stays the same’, is both a simple idea and an idea that we have the greatest difficulty in getting to grips with. On one level, it seems, we suspect it to be true, and on another level, we flatly deny it – our very way of thinking denies it, in fact, because our way of thinking is based on ‘immutable categories’. To put this another way, our concepts or ideas, which tend to be (unhappily for us) the very foundation of our mental life, are classic examples of ‘things which do not change’, and so straightaway there is a conflict between our rational understanding of life (which takes it for granted that there are certain basic building blocks that never change) and our intuitive understanding, which tells us that it will all slip through our hands, one way or another. The ‘intuitive’ type of understanding is articulated beautifully in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem A Dream Within a Dream:

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep–while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

It has to be said that there is something irredeemably tragic if not downright appalling about the insight which Poe is putting across here. At least, we can say there is definitely the perception that something ‘is not right here’ from the perspective of our normal way of thinking. The idea of transience, when seen in all its terrible glory, seems to make a mockery of our lives. If we can’t hang on to something, the implied logic is, then what is the point of us being here at all? On the one hand, it is a wonderful thing to be here amidst all this beauty, witnessing it in its passing and taking part in the ‘dance’ of it, but on the other hand once we start thinking about it, we are plunged into an awful melancholy – the very beauty that we worshipped a minute ago now turns around and mocks us – it haunts us and torments us, because we see all too clearly that it is bound to slip through our fingers. Faced with this pain, the pain of having to let go when we really, really don’t want to let go, what do we do? In practice, what we do is to make a determined ‘grab’ at it, and content ourselves with the illusion that we have actually got something permanent there in our hands. We make do with a ‘theatrical victory’, which is where we clutch hold of a prize that is really just a ghost or ‘phantom appearance’. To use the terminology that we have been playing around with in this book, what we do is to take the deal that is being offered to us by the system of thought.




Our identification with the rational modality means that we can never quite shake off the belief that some things are permanent. Deep down in me, there is something that demands to know just why it is that everything has to be transient. We are generally very stubborn indeed in our refusal to swallow this particular argument. “Why is it,” we say, “that there can never be such a thing as a permanently achieved goal?” Suppose (to use an argument that will be familiar to anyone who has read Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games) I work very hard during my time at school and college and after many years of study I am awarded a PhD in microbiology. I have succeeded in my goal – I have obtained the hallowed qualification, and (as long as it cannot be proved that I have in some way cheated, or that the institution that gave me the award is bogus) no one can undo this achievement. It cannot be taken away from me. But although the event (as represented by the system of thought) is final and forever, the meaning that this event has for me must, and will, change with time. In other words, I will feel great for a while, but the feeling cannot last. Nobody gets to be euphoric all the time, even if the goal in question is still ‘achieved’ (according to the system of thought). For example, if I buy a new top-of-the-range BMW I will feel great just sitting in it for the first couple of days; after a while however, sitting in the thing (or even driving it) will not necessarily do anything for me. It’s just a car – which is to say, the ‘specialness’ has gone out of it.


Just for the sake of the argument, let us say that I am willing to concede the point that goals are spuriously immutable, or that the way they manage to be immutable (which in a sense they are of course) is by becoming ‘unreal’. Even if I concede this, how does that prove that reality itself is transient? After all, the world that I see around me seems to be eminently reliable in terms of its ability to persist in being what it is. The logical deduction would seem to be that there is basic kind of a building block ‘out there’ which goes to make up the substance and materiality of the physical world. We can however, throw a bit of doubt at least on this deduction. The argument goes as follows. Since we have agreed that goals are unreal (and therefore falsely permanent), we must also agree that all concepts are unreal by virtue of the fact of their unchangeable nature. Goals are obviously concepts, but concepts are also (though less obviously) goals. A goal is the projected end-point of a procedure (an end-point which is assumed to correspond at some point with a fixture in reality), and a concept is also the projected end-point of a procedure – the procedure of cognitive evaluation. The end-point of the evaluative procedure is that information pertaining to the outside world is allocated into the appropriate category-of-knowledge and the satisfying mental click that accompanies the successful operation of our ‘engine of knowing’ is generally enough to convince us that we have indeed obtained valid positive knowledge about the world around us. But the fact remains that the mental category or groove which I am using as a yardstick to tell me stuff about the world can only ever (at best) be said to have a pragmatic or approximate validity (or correspondence). It is a guess (as Robert Anton Wilson says) and it is also a guess that can never ever be finally verified.


I cannot ever prove, via the operation of the system of thought, that my thoughts actually mean anything (in a ‘objective’ sense) because in order to do that the system of thought would have to be able to escape itself and look at itself from some external vantage point. My thoughts being mere mental projections, I would have to find some means  – not of thinking about these projections, or analysing them, which comes down to the same thing – but of actually visiting the ‘thing’ itself, as it is in itself. Since getting outside of itself is the one thing that the system of thought cannot do, this means that the validity of my rationally obtained conclusions must forever remain unproven. But we can push this attack on the rational mind even further. What we are essentially saying is that the actual category of <REAL> (or <MEANINGFUL>) is itself only real (or meaningful) in a conditional sense. In other words, the idea of real is itself not absolutely real, it is only relatively real – it is only real in relation to the context of thinking that we have to adopt in order to think about it. So where does this take us?


Well the point of this argument was (initially) to try to show that there is no way on earth that we can ever prove the existence of immutable or unchangeable essences that go to constitute reality. But we have to take stock again at this point, in the light of what we have just said; we now have to take into consideration the fact that the actual concept of <STAYING THE SAME> is a mental construct, and all mental constructs have only ‘arbitrarily assigned meaning’. We can try to make this clearer by the following argument. All conceptualization involves ‘comparison-making’ and all comparison-making involves ‘freeze-framing’ reality, i.e. doing that funny thing that the rational mind always does to everything – seeing it upside-down, ‘through a glass darkly’. The key to understanding the rational faculty is to see that it works by focussing exclusively, like the famous prisoners in Plato’s cave, on two-dimensional shadows playing on the wall. This shadow-play is its source of information, its so-called infallible guide to ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’.


‘Staying the same’ requires what Wei Wu Wei calls split-mind: in order for something to be seen as ‘staying the same’ an absolute framework is needed; this absolute framework is ostensibly divorced from our subjective mind – it is assumed to be ‘outside’ of the mind, but actually of course it is just a projection of that mind and as such is very much ‘non-external’. But within our heads there are two things: there is the thing which stays the same, and the absolute frame of reference that I compare is with to show that the thing which stays the same is actually staying the same. This is of course no more than a trick which we play on ourselves in order to spuriously validate the mental operations that we are carrying out – it is a trick which I use to cause the notion of <STAYING THE SAME> appear meaningful to me. Actually, nothing can ‘stay the same’ because there is nothing to stay the same as (any more than there is anything to be different from). Once we accept that all comparisons are the invention of the ‘split-mind’ mechanism, then we are forced to drop the whole argument where it stands. After all, just what exactly are we trying to prove (or disprove) anyway?


The very basis of my inquiry is unreal – I am debating the all-important issue of whether there is an essence to things which always stays the same, yet by the very act of doing this I am cutting off the possibility of questioning whether the actual concept of ‘staying the same’ is meaningful in the first place. The one-sided focus of my rational inquiry means that I am only superficially in finding out the answer to the question; on a deeper level the actual function of the process of rational inquiry is to deny the possibility of examining the validity of the assumptions that I have had to make in order to formulate the nature of the inquiry to myself. Rational thought always does this – that is how it works, by building castles in the clouds, and preventing us (at the same time) from seeing that the castles in question are actually floating most improbably in midair.




Essentially (or ‘covertly’, under cover of something else), we are attempting to prove that the categories of the system of thought are universally meaningful or valid (actually, of course, this is the secret agenda behind all of the system of thought’s operations). But all that is really going on is that the rational mind is playing about, as always, with its own tautological concepts. The whole argument is a fraud, from beginning to end; it was all just a red herring – the system of thought doesn’t actually care about anything outside of itself at all; it cannot say anything about Reality, and – if we were to get right to the very heart of the matter – we would see that it have the slightest interest in doing so anyway. So where all this gets us is the realization that ‘the issue’ that we were so worked up about isn’t actually an issue at all. Actually, all we are doing is ‘feeding the nullity’.




As the Buddhist traditions all emphasize, contemplating transience is an extremely valuable exercise. Once I gain insight into transience, then there is no way that I can obtain the same ‘buzz’ from obtaining my goals that I used to. Euphoria is always the result of successful self-deception, of a false belief in some kind of finality. Self-deception might seem like a bit of a harsh term to use here but if in the run up to obtaining my goal (as well as at the actual moment of triumph) I omit to focus on the fact that my victory is transient and not at all final, then this is ‘deception-by-omission’ and deception-by-omission is every bit as deceptive as any other type of deception. To penetrate the nature of this involuntary self-deception (or ‘automatic short-sightedness’) is valuable – we might say – because it is the only way to escape from our usual condition of being ‘a puppet to the Nullity’.


Once we talk in terms of ‘specialness’ (as we were a minute ago) then it becomes easy to understand why euphoria cannot be a permanent fixture. Special is special because it stands out against the dross, so to speak; without the ‘non-special’ there can be no ‘special’. This is the basic principle behind all dualistic phenomena – the two opposites which we try so hard to separate all the time are in fact mutually supporting aspects of the same thing. ‘Special’ is what I badly want, but if there is something that I want, then there must also be stuff that I don’t want (i.e. special cannot exist without the non-special). With regard to euphoria we can say the following:

In order for me to elevate one area of my life I must necessarily depress the other; generally speaking I do everything I that I possibly can in order to gain the specially good feeling that comes when I walk the high path, but when the time comes for me to walk the low path I feel hard done by and I ‘suffer uncomprehendingly’, as it were.


The truth of the matter is of course that every time I choose to press the button that generates the prized feeling of euphoria I am also pressing the button that produces the dire experience of depression that I hate so much. It is also true to say therefore that when I live for my goals I am condemning myself to an eternal round of ups and downs, no matter how good I am at obtaining those goals. The reason this is so hard for us to appreciate is because it is inbuilt in us to assume that for the real winner (such as we all want to be) there is no down-side. That’s what being a winner means; if there was a down-side then that wouldn’t really be winning. After all, as the Abba song says, ‘the winner takes it all’ – he or she does not have to spend any time at all moping around ignominiously in ‘failure city’ (or ‘loser-ville’) like the rest of us no hopers. Needless to say, this unexamined belief that we ought to be able to ‘win out’ and escape permanently from our pain makes us feel even worse. Since this business of ‘living for goals’ traps us in the up-down cycle of winning and loosing, so too must it be the case that living within the realm of the rational-conceptual mind traps us in the sterile circle of euphoria and dysphoria, since our goals come from nowhere else other than our concepts and our concepts come from nowhere else than the good old system of thought. We have been saying that when I finally obtain the goal that I have been longing for there is nowhere else for me to go but down; it is similarly the case that my rational mind has ‘nowhere else to go’, apart from oscillating endlessly between YES and NO in the way that is dictated for it by the binary logic of its finite categories. It is this endless succession of YES and NO that constitutes what Bennett calls ‘the Nullity’.




We have said that the original task (which is the ‘internal task’ mentioned in the introduction) has the property of appearing impossible when we think about it. When we see the problem directly however (i.e. when we perceive it exactly as it is) we discover that our situation – which we have construed as problematic – is in fact perfectly possible and perfectly workable just so long as we pay the price, which is ‘the rational mind’. The ‘rational mind’ basically equals our desire the fix (or escape from) the difficult situation, along with a system of beliefs about what the problem ‘is’, what the ideal solution would be, and how we can get from ‘where we are’ to ‘where we want to be’. Once we do discard this mind, this intertwining of desire and belief (i.e. once the entrance fee is paid), then we find that we are on the ‘long road’ that is the ‘journey of consciousness to an unknown goal’ that Jung has talked about. This is the genuine task of life and whilst it can be indefinitely delayed, it is something that cannot – in the long run – be avoided.


The surrogate task, on the other hand, (which is the external task mentioned in the introduction) has the property of appearing possible (or solvable) when we think about it, and what is more, it appears that we can carry it out without paying the price that we fear to pay, i.e. the loss of the controlling self. However, the truth of the matter is that the external task is a circular task, and a circular journey, which we can walk forever without getting anywhere at all. The best we can do is to derive an illusory sensation of progress, and even this is only possible for some of the time. If we really look into what is going on, we will see there is no real progress at all, what there actually is can be described in terms of a cycle that is made up of two complementary phases: there is the ‘hopeful phase’ in which there is the appearance of progress (or, failing this, there is the ‘appearance of the possibility’ of progress). This is followed by the

‘despairing phase’ in which the positive spin that we had put on our situation turns into negative spin, and so instead of believing that we stand to gain what we wanted to gain, we start to believe either that we stand to lose what we wanted to gain, or that we stand to gain what we didn’t want to gain (which is clearly the same thing).


The point behind all this is simply that if we live in our beliefs – which by their very nature always involve the formulation of a specifically defined state of affairs that we either feel positively or negatively towards, then the price we pay for being to enjoyably entertain a positive belief, is that we have to at some point entertain the negative aspect of this belief. All sticks have two ends, and we can easily demonstrate that a belief – in this respect at least – is a stick. The argument goes like this: in order to believe that certain outcomes are good and certain other outcomes are bad I have to identify with a particular system of belief. Without a specific angle on things there is no good and no bad; I have to have a defined position in order to evaluate outcomes because no definite position means no <good> and no <bad>; in other words <good> and <bad> only exist with respect to that particular ‘fixed and unquestionable’ standpoint. No unquestionable standpoint means no possibility of comparing, no possibility of saying anything ‘positive’ about the world; in short, if I do not take a definite position then everything dissolves straight back into the Perfectly Symmetrical (and therefore Perfectly Unknowable) State.


A definite position is basically a ‘belief’ – it is ‘a way of looking at things that I do not question’.  Now, if I believe that it is good to possess a certain object this enables me to experience euphoria when I do possess it, which is a state of affairs that I am very fond of; but when I subscribed to the belief I also let myself in for the reverse state of affairs since I must now also believe (obviously) that it is bad to not possess the object. This means that I am just as liable – in the long run – to feel dysphoria as I am to feel it’s opposite. Basically I am equally prone to both states of mind, and there is no way that I can ever ‘separate the two’ any more than I can separate <hot> and <cold> or <win> and <lose>. Opposites belong to each other and although we can yearn for the one and hate the other, that does not mean that we can experience the one without (at some point) also experiencing the other. Put simply, a belief is a game, and one way of defining a game is to say that it is an exercise in self-deception where the underlying agenda is to kid ourselves that it is possible to effect permanently separation of the opposites.


Where there is a game, there must also be some sort of ‘hidden compensation’ going on. If I am playing a game that means that I am seeing things in a one-sided way without acknowledging that I am seeing things one-sidedly. This means that I do not see that it is impossible for me to have one end of a stick without also having the other end, and so I am constantly trying to perform ‘the impossible act of having only one end of the stick’. In my head (in my game) this is possible, but in reality it is not, and so something obviously has to happen to correct my misconceived actions so that they accord with reality. We can state this as follows:


All the impossible acts that I perform as a result of my assumption that I can in fact effectively separate the opposites must in reality be compensated for by way of a mechanism that remains invisible to me.


This is what John Bennett refers to as the ‘law of compensation’. This principle or law can also be expressed more basically as follows:


The time spent enjoying the feeling of pleasurable positive expectation is balanced out by the amount of time we spend in disagreeable negative expectation.


Which is to say –


The amount of time spent in the state of positive goal-orientated state is matched by the amount of time we spend in the state of negative goal-orientated state.


Even more basically, we could just put it like this:


The amount of time we spend living as slaves to the rule of greed is equal to the amount of time we spend living as slaves to the rule of fear.





We have said that ‘the system’ equals a consistently biased way of looking at the world. We have also said that the degree of compulsivity in a situation is directly proportional to the degree of bias we have in construing that situation; in other words, compulsivity increases proportionally to the crudeness of our mental map. ‘Crudeness’ here can be related to informational poverty, which is essentially a function of the number of evaluative categories that I have available to me when I am trying to make sense of the world. If I only have two categories, for example <buddy> and <enemy>, then my mental map is very crude indeed and the degree of ‘driven-ness’ that lies behind my actions will be at a maximum (i.e. my freedom to see reality as it actually is will be at a minimum). Interestingly, the rapid collapse of the number of available mental categories to <buddy> or <enemy> is a well known side-effect of alcohol intoxication (although it is probably true to say that this is more commonly encountered in the male sex).





Another way to envisage the parameter of ‘conceptual crudeness’ is to say that it is like the graininess of black-and-white photo, which depends of course on the number of dots that are being used to create it – the more dots involved in making up the picture, the less grainy it will be.  Conceptual crudeness can therefore be said to be a function of the number of genuinely different ‘thought-pixels’ that I am using with which to construct my mental world (the number of ‘thought-pixels’ correspond to the number of evaluative classes that I am using in my data-processing operations). The fewer basic categories there are in my overall system of classification there are, the lower is the complexity of my mind, and the lower is the complexity of my mind, the more superficial I am in my interactions with the world. This superficiality is invisible to me (because I am far too superficial to be able to see it) but it does indirectly influence me in the form of constraint or compulsivity. What this means is that when I inhabit an extremely oversimplified version of reality (for example when I am possessed by blind rage) then there is a tremendous sense of being ‘compelled’ and this sense of compulsion is characterized by the threat of great discomfort if I don’t react, and the promise of great relief if I do react.


In practice, I do not particularly notice the way in which I am being compelled because I am in too much of a hurry to throw myself down that specifically indicated ‘avenue of reaction’ to worry about the philosophical question as to whether I actually have any choice at all in the matter. But from the outside, it can readily be seen that the person concerned is reacting in a very rigid and predictable way, like a machine that always does a certain thing when you press a certain button. The basic effect of anger is that it turns me into a ‘machine’ which always reacts in the same way to certain key stimuli, and the unfortunate transition that I undergo from being a relatively free agent beforehand, to a purely mechanical being afterwards, is the result of compulsion (i.e. it is the result of rules that are being imposed on my functioning). One way of looking at these rules is to say that they have the form <when X happens you must do Y> but prior to this behavioural rule comes the ‘rule-of-perception’ which says <when such-and-such a collection of elements are present you must identify the situation as being X>. Very clearly, when there are mechanical rules controlling the way we see the world, then these same mechanical rules are controlling the way we think and interact in the world. Or to put it another way, when we conceptualize the world that we live in, the crudeness of our concepts takes away our freedom to see (and generally relate to) the world as it really is. Furthermore, we ought to note that when it comes right down to it, there really is no such thing as a concept that isn’t crude).




Following on from the above, we can also say that the cruder my mental map is, the more powerfully I experience the tendency to identify with the mental image of ‘self’ that the map produces. <Self> is, after all, just another category, just another crudely misrepresentative construct (or ‘image’) that the rational mind produces for us as part of its ongoing attempt to grasp hold of reality. Because <self> is a category it is exclusive – you are either in or out, and the operation of this exclusive (categorizing) thinking draws a very unambiguous black line between what is <self> and what is <not self>. Thinking produces ‘hard’ (i.e. absolute) limits, and the secure sense that I have of ‘who I am’ is all to do with the absolute difference between ‘me’ and ‘not-me’  – ‘not-me’ meaning the rest of the universe! From this we can see that being a self is a very isolated kind of a business, when it comes right down to it the hard-and-fast limits that securely define me and uphold my ‘special-ness’ are the very same hard-and-fast limits that mark out my prison. In one way, it’s great to be ‘special’ (because the initial effect of being made special is that I am ‘raised up’, i.e. elevated over everything else) but in another, more profound way it is also very lonely being special. It is like being stupendously rich, or like being an incredibly famous pop star – such a station may look great from the outside (to the naïve and awe-struck beholder) but when it comes right down to it it’s not really a very nice place to be. The ‘greatness’ is all in the imagination; it only exists in the skin-deep superficiality of our thinking. And if the hollowness and the isolation of it all were not bad enough, there is also the inevitable ‘casting down’ (i.e. the principle of compensation) to be taken into consideration, which is when the desirable position of being ‘one-up’ undergoes reversal to become the undesirable position of ‘one-down’.


It is fairly easy to see that the station of being a ‘self’ carries with it a high potential cost in terms of loneliness, frustration and isolation – after all, being alienated from everything else is what ‘being a self’ is all about. In the process of ‘constructing the self’, interconnections and aspects of relatedness are ignored and boundaries and differences are emphasized. The end result is the feeling that I have of being isolated or separated from everything that is not ‘me’.  The empirical self – that familiar understanding of me (or ‘who I am’) that I base my daily activities on is basically an abstraction created by thinking, as Alan Watts (1997, p 50-1) here argues:


…However, in order to bring people back to the real world, you have to temporarily suspend their abstract thinking, because it is through abstracting that you divide everything into differences. It is through abstracting that you get the notion that you are one thing and I am another, and that events are separate from each other, in the same way that minutes are separate. We try to draw the lines on our watches that separate one minute from another as finely as possible because we want to know exactly the moment one minute turns into another. And those lines, by their very thinness, show us how abstract, tenuous, filmy and unreal they are. They are measures; but don’t confuse measure for what is being measured. The world that can be seen and felt without abstractions is the world in which you are connected to everything that is, to the Tao and the whole course of nature. However, you have been taught differently because you have been hoaxed and wangled by people who chatter and explain, and who have already hypnotized themselves into a view of the world that is quite abstract, quite arbitrary, and not necessarily the way things are at all.


On the one hand the partisan way of explaining (or relating to) the universe that is sold to us so convincingly by the system of thought seems to offer the isolated and abstracted ego (its own product, its own ‘puppet’!) the promise of personal benefit or gain, but on the other hand there is also the reverse possibility which is loss or even personal annihilation (which is naturally the ultimate in disasters as far as the fundamentally biased viewpoint of the self is concerned). If its bias is ‘itself’, which is to say, if its ultimate agenda is to secure outcomes relevant to its own ‘benefit’, then the actual loss of itself is the ‘ultimate unwanted outcome’ – it is the ultimate ‘no no’, the ultimate in ‘aversive motivations’, a possibility so frightening that I cannot even think about it. Inasmuch as this ‘ultimately feared and resisted’ outcome is actually an unavoidable fact, this represents a very considerable cost to pay for the dubious benefits of identifying with the conditioned (or virtual) self. In fact, to say that the cost of identification is ‘very considerable’ is an understatement of quite stupendous proportions.


In general, we can say that conditioning, of any sort, automatically creates problems that absolutely cannot ever be solved because of the way in which it insists on certain things being such a way, and certain other things being such-and-such another way. Conditioning is made up of rules and, as we know, rules work by stating very explicitly that this is okay, and that isn’t okay; that such-and-such must happen, and some other such-and-such must not happen. The plain fact of the matter is however that reality in its essence is not ‘conditioned’, and it simply does not run according to ‘rules’. It runs the way it runs, and it certainly doesn’t need a set of extrinsic guidelines to do this. Therefore, there is always going to be conflict between conditioning and reality, and inasmuch as we are identified with the extrinsic self, which is the veritable embodiment of the system of conditioning, or the system of thought, we are always going to be caught up in a grim struggle – one minute ‘up’, the next minute ‘down’, always hoping for the final victory, which is a pure impossibility.




We can explain the key process of identification very neatly by saying that it involves the sneaky substitution of a particular (and therefore inherently absolutist) viewpoint for the universal viewpoint, which isn’t actually a ‘point’ at all since all points are granted equal validity – this latter view of things is based on an unrestricted awareness of infinite relativity, in other words. Another way of putting it would be to say that the state of having a definite a ‘centre’ replaces the state of having ‘no centre’. Just as soon as absolute identification with a centralized, absolute and local viewpoint occurs then fear and greed are born, because it is only the ‘arbitrarily-definite-fixed-viewpoint-which-doesn’t-know-itself-to-be-arbitrary’ which is capable of experiencing fear and greed. This double-sided motivation is nothing other than the force of ‘compulsivity’ which we have been talking about. Basically, not to put too fine a point on it, a self is compulsion; what we call ‘a self’ is a compelled or unfree state of being – we are compelled to be ‘selfish’, we are compelled to see the world in a selfish way. It is tautologically obvious that the self is not free – after all, if the empirical, conditioned, or ‘extrinsic’ self were free, then it would be free to see that there is no such thing as itself! In other words, if the self were free, then it would be free not to be a self, and so it wouldn’t be…


Being selfish is all about being prejudiced without realizing that I am prejudiced, and in this state of unconscious prejudice there is no freedom, no mobility, no grace. When I am a self, this means that I am forced to believe that this limited viewpoint is who I really am, and so I have no choice but to see everything in prejudiced way, think about everything in a prejudiced way, and act in a prejudiced way. In a nutshell, when I am stuck in miserable neurotic or emotional states, then I am being ruled by the ‘low law’ of selfishness (which is also the law of ‘disconnectedness’): all I think about is personal gain or personal loss, and this basic type of +/- motivation informs everything I do when stuck in these unhappy states; my behaviour is an extension of my thinking which is an extension of my perception, and all of these are founded upon an incorrigible ‘selfishness’ (using the word in an objective not a moral sense). What I call ‘good’ and bad’ are not good or bad at all in any objective sense, they are only ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for me, and when this is understood everything is put back into its correct perspective. It is for this reason that we can say that those goals that are based upon my desire or fear are simply extensions of myself. My goals are me, and so by chasing them I ensure that I never go beyond ‘me’, beyond selfishness.


Chasing what I think to be ‘good’ may bring temporary pleasure, if I am successful in obtaining the said state of affairs, but it cannot  bring happiness because the category <good> is merely a projection of the conditioned self, which means that it is ultimately no more than a construction (or artefact) of my over-simplified way of perceiving the world. It can be readily seen that when I am happy, when I am ‘without a care in the world’ (i.e. without any attachments or identifications), then there is no trace of positive or negative goals, no desire to control, and no sense of a separate self which has to spend its time forever worrying about profit and loss – which is to say, worrying about itself. Happiness, therefore, can be directly related to a mental state that is characterized by freedom from the ‘low law of self’, which is also the state of being unsusceptible to the blandishments of the system of thought.




We have been trying to put forward the case for why ‘doing a deal with the system of thought’ isn’t such a great idea. We said that when we become identified with the system of thought (as we must be if we are to avail of its offer) we enter into a state of being which is permanently dissatisfied.  All we can do to find relief is to dream our dreams of ‘final satisfaction’ which are represented to us by our goals. We grasp after closure, over and over again, and despite the fact that we really ought to learn at some point that ‘attainment of the goal’ only marks the beginning of a whole new cycle of striving for final completion, we don’t. The reason we do not learn this lesson is because we have so thoroughly externalized the problem: we are basically ‘tilting at windmills’ and so even when we are victorious with our pseudosolution of the problem the underlying need to prove ourselves does not go away. The result of this is that we have to keep tilting at windmills; we are condemned to be always tilting at windmills.


The surrogate (or ‘externalized’) problem is in fact an endless problem because as soon as we solve one manifestation of it the next manifestation comes along and demands that it now be solved. Behind that one is another and another – in fact there is an infinitely long conveyer belt of problems that just keep coming. Really, it is all just the same problem that we have to face time and time gain because the real problem is our refusal to accept pain, and this refusal manifests itself in the ‘compulsion to quit the situation’ (or ‘fix the situation’) every time things start to get uncomfortable for us. One way of looking at this is to say that we are playing an endless delaying tactic – we are continually postponing the day of reckoning, which is when an uncomfortable situation eventually comes along that I cannot in some way ‘solve’.




There is in this delaying tactic the comforting feeling of ‘being in control’ because I can choose when and how I will deal with the pain; I experience the reassuring illusion that I have some sort of ‘say’ in what goes on. Of course, the only thing I am really in control of is my delaying tactic – the only choice I have is the choice regarding how long I am going to drag it all out before I finally face reality. Krishnamurti gets at this idea – the idea that our thinking is essentially a form of avoidance – by focussing on what he calls ‘psychological time’. Here, in the following few passages taken from Freedom From The Known (1969, p 73-4) Krishnamurti explains what psychological time is, and how we create it:


Problems only exist in time, that is, when we meet an issue incompletely. This incomplete coming together with the issue creates the problem. When we meet a challenge partially, fragmentarily, or try to escape from it – that is, when we meet it with incomplete attention – we bring about a problem. And the problem continues so long as we continue to give it incomplete attention, so long as we hope to solve it one of these days.


Do you know what time is? Not by the watch, not chronological time, but psychological time? It is the interval between idea and action. An idea is for self-protection obviously; it is the idea of being secure. Action is always immediate; it is not of the past or of the future; to act must always be in the present, but action is always so dangerous, so uncertain, that we conform to an idea which we hope will give us a certain safety.


Do look at this in yourself. You have an idea of what is right or wrong, or an ideological concept about yourself and society, and according to that idea you are going to act. Therefore the action is in conformity with that idea, approximating to the idea, and hence there is always conflict. There is the idea, the interval, and action. And in that interval is the whole field of time. That interval is essentially thought. When you think you will be happy tomorrow, then you have an image of yourself achieving a certain result in time. Thought, through observation, through desire, and the continuity of that desire sustained by further thought, says ‘Tomorrow I shall be happy. Tomorrow I shall have success. Tomorrow the world will be a beautiful place.’  So thought creates that interval which is time.


We can reformulate Krishnamurti’s idea of the ‘interval’ between thought and action by saying that the system of thought is our way of meeting challenges only partially, that it is our way of distancing ourselves from problems. It seems to me that I am actually ‘doing something about it’ and this pleasant feeling of being in control is how I distract myself from seeing that I am not in control. This pleasant (or secure) feeling is what ‘being in control’ is all about: when I think about the riskiness and general uncertainty of life, what I really want is to stay somewhere safe (in the system of thought) whilst dipping my toes gingerly in the water. If it suits me I’ll jump in, I say to myself. When I am sure that it is safe, then it goes without saying that I will of course embrace it whole-heartedly. But the point is that I never actually can obtain the sort of guarantee that I am looking for and so I never will ‘jump in’; in practice, I prefer to stay in my comfort zone, even though there isn’t actually any genuine ‘comfort’ in it.


My comfort zone is my power to self-distract, and when I resort to this power I end up with the surrogate difficulty instead of the genuine article. The surrogate problem, as we have said, looks good because in the first phase it is solvable and if we look no further than this then we find it very attractive. This, however, is not the full story, and in order to properly account for the full story we would have to say something like this:


Each incidence of the surrogate problem is indeed solvable, but what I don’t let myself see is that there are an endless series of such problems, and this means that it is not solvable at all.


We could also explain this point by saying that following the first ‘apparently successful’ phase there is a second ‘gain-reversing’ phase which perfectly eradicates the progress that I had made. If we take this returning factor into account (which of course we don’t) then the any attraction that this business of ‘theatrical escaping’ might hold for us is lost without a trace. When the circular journey is seen as it really is (which is to say ‘circular’) then it no longer looks so good – if I can see as clearly as day that the deal offered to me by the system of thought is entirely fraudulent (and the gateway to a life of pure frustration into the bargain) then why would I take it?



Elsewhere, Krishnamurti talks about this whole point about the system of thought being ‘our way of not facing up to problems directly’ from the reversed angle, and he says that that the illusion of the ‘self as a centre’ arises as a result of our lazy and incomplete way of paying attention to the problem. In other words, when we utilize the system of thought as a sneaky way of dodging the issue, then the sense of a ‘me’ is created. This sense of me as a definite centre in time and space, a special locality, is an artefact of our closed way of thinking, it is a curious ‘virtual entity’ that is spuriously thrown up by the curvature of the ‘lens of thought’ through which we are looking at the world. If we take the trouble to look at things with complete attention, Krishnamurti assures us, then the sense of a ‘me’ (a ‘centre’) that is doing the seeing vanishes. When there is complete attention, there is only seeing and nothing else, outside of that seeing.


What this means is that ‘unconsciousness produces the illusion of the extrinsic self, and consciousness extinguishes that illusion.’ We have defined psychological unconsciousness by saying that it is the state wherein we are driven to act by external compulsions, whilst at the same time mistaking these compulsions for our own true will. This is what Bennett calls ‘negative will’. One way of putting this is to say that the extrinsic self is a compulsion that we do not see as such. It is this ‘extrinsic self’ that we obtain as a result of doing the deal with the system of thought – the system of thought provides me with the ‘me’ (which is actually itself in disguise), and at the same time it prevents me from seeing what this ‘me’ really is. Another way of saying that the self is a compulsion that we don’t see as such is to say that the self is an attachment that we don’t see as such. The self exists through its desires, through its compulsions, through its attachments, and in fact it would be clearer to simply say that the self is the state of being attached – the self is the state of being in thrall to one’s own thoughts, which in turn are nothing other than oneself in disguised (or ‘projected’) form.


The crucial thing to understand about these desires, these compulsions, these attachments, these thoughts, is that they never actually get us anywhere. They can’t because – as Krishnamurti says – ‘desire is based on contradiction’. The contradiction in question is sometimes called the ‘cybernetic paradox’, YES EQUALS NO. What this means is that the polar opposites, despite seeming worlds apart, are in fact ‘the two ends of the same stick’ (as Gurdjieff used to say). The basic form of all compulsions, desires, attachments etc is to try to push away one of these opposite, whilst attempting at the same time to pull the other one towards us; or as Krishnamurti says, we use the undesired polar opposite (such as ‘non-spiritual’ as a sort of springboard to launch ourselves towards the desired polar opposite, ‘spiritual’. We act aversively towards the end of the stick that we don’t like, and we act with attraction to the end that we do like, just as if the two opposites belonged on two different sticks rather than the same one. The result of this misguided effort is simply that the stick spins, presenting us with first one end, and then the other, in endless succession.


          But as we have said, the ‘external or abstracted controller’, the extrinsic self, only gets to exist as a result of the illusion that it is possible to permanently separate the opposites. It exists through its desires, or rather, through its belief in the possibility of achieving these desires. Put very simply, the self is selfish – all it cares about is itself. Its true goal is not actually to ‘get somewhere’, that is just the cover story -the true goal of the self is itself, this is the end that it serves. It itself is the point, it itself is what it is all about. This being the case, it is in the self’s best interests to do everything it can to maintain the integrity of the game it is playing, which is ‘the game of control’.

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.

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