Society is a set-up wherein our natural ‘free’ impulses to do things, or behave in whatever way, is replaced by insidious ‘have to’s. We are in other words obliged to do whatever it is we are doing; we are pressurized to do them and we internalize this pressure so that we end up compelling ourselves to do something that we would otherwise be doing quite naturally. We end up in this way imprisoning ourselves on behalf of society, as a many a sociologist has pointed out. We do all the work…
The consequences of us living within this system of compulsions are enormous, even though we never acknowledge them. The consequences are that our natural or ‘true’ nature gets to be repressed in favour of the cuckoo, which is the socialized self – the ‘self which we are required to be’. The point is not that what the natural self may do is not necessarily very different in appearance from what we are compelled to do as the socialized self, from what society requires us to do, but that the motivation behind the action is very different indeed. The difference that we are referring to here is the difference between freedom and slavery. The socialized action or behaviour may – as we have just said – look on the surface the same as the behaviour of the natural self but it isn’t. It’s a copy which doesn’t actually have any genuine content. Smiling would be a perfect example of what we’re talking about here.
In this ‘copy’ of life everything is reversed, everything is turned on its head. Freedom has been replaced by compulsion – instead of doing it because I want to I’m doing it because I have to, because I’m afraid of what will happen (or how I will feel) if I don’t perform the action. Instead of being motivated by the love of whatever I’m doing, I am being driven by fear. ‘Fear has replaced love’, we might say, to use Bill Hick’s dichotomy. It’s not ‘passion’ that I am feeling but a sense of duty, a sense of obligation. There is no ‘spark’ in what I’m doing, nothing of who I truly am. Essentially, the whole thing is a wretched sham…
We all know this sort of thing well enough. It’s very much familiar territory – the odd thing is that it doesn’t seem to bother us unduly. We don’t somehow seem to allow ourselves to see the nature of the diabolical trick that has been played upon us. And how could we say that this inversion is anything else but ‘diabolical’? Life itself has been turned into a chore; life itself has been turned into a joyless duty. It doesn’t seem possible that we should have accepted this so meekly, that we should have just ‘rolled over and taken it’ in the way that we have. How could we have ever said yes to such a dud deal? What were we thinking of? How could we possibly continue to tolerate this abominable situation, day after day, month after month, year after year?
The system works of course. There is no denying that! It works because we do tolerate it, day after day and year after year. The system works very well indeed and it works by selling itself to us via the device of incentivization, either of the positive or negative variety. What could be a more familiar scenario than this? We do something that we aren’t actually getting anything out of, that we aren’t actually enjoying because we believe that there is going to be some sort of pay-off at the end of it, some sort of return on our investment. Either that or we believe that what we’re doing, whilst entirely unfulfilling in itself, is going to enable us to avoid some kind of difficulty or penalty. As everyone knows, this sort of positive / negative incentivization works very well indeed. There’s more to it than just this however – putting it in the (familiar) way that we just have done doesn’t get across just how helpless we are in all this, how abjectly dependent upon the system of incentivization we are. This turns out to be a very good example of irreversibility – once we have switched over to the incentivized way of doing things, there just doesn’t seem to be any way to get out of it.
A good way to look at the process of becoming dependent upon the system of incentivization is in terms of addiction. To start off with the addiction lures us on with some sort of reward. This reward tastes very sweet to us and we simply can’t get enough of it! The sweetness of the reward dims inexorably with time however and before very long we are engraining in the addiction-behaviour more for the sake of avoiding the adverse consequences of not servicing the addiction than obtaining the reward at the end. In the end, we are dependent upon the thing that we are addicted to in order that we might function at all. Without it, we come to a complete standstill. There’s no more reward, no more excitement – we just have to make do with the very dull and limited type of existence that the addiction provides us with because there’s no possibility of anything better.
In the same way, the system of rewards and punishments, promises and threats that we have devised for ourselves works very well initially and so we utilize it more and more. Then a crucial point in the process is reached and things ‘switch around’ on us without us being able to see that this has happened. We don’t see the moment come, and we don’t see the difference when it has passed. The moment we’re talking about here is the moment at which the system stops being a useful tool or device for us and – instead – becomes our lord and master. No longer are we using it – it is using us.
And how very easy it is for the system of incentivization to turn around and control us instead of vice versa! It is as if this possibility was inherent all along. And actually this is perfectly true since the whole set-up was based on us handing over responsibility right from the start. The ‘machine’ is created the moment we hand over responsibility for how we feel to something outside of ourselves. We could also – and equivalently – say that ‘the machine is created the moment we start making rules for ourselves’. ‘Rules are rules’ as everyone knows and so putting rules in place is the very same thing as ‘handing over responsibility’.
The rule is saying that I can’t feel good (or that I can relax) until a certain outcome is achieved. This then is my incentive to achieve the goal – this is the device I have set up so that I can be more motivated to carry out the task. Where the device or tool takes over is when I can no longer turn off the tool or turn off the machine and when – as a consequence – I now have to dance to its tune. The machine tells me to jump and I obediently ask it ‘how high?’…
If this sort of scenario doesn’t sound familiar then it should! What we’re looking at here is the basic human predicament: we’re looking at the predicament whereby we can turn the machine on very easily (which we do without any thought because we find it so helpful) but afterwards find that we can’t turn it off again. Then system then proceeds to rule over the creator of the system. Or if we were to use another metaphor, we check into the Hotel California with the greatest of ease only to discover – as the song says – that we can’t ever leave. The thing here is however that we don’t actually discover this because once we check in we promptly forget all about checking out, just as Odysseus’s crew forget all about resuming their journey to Ithaca once they land on the Island of the Lotus Eaters. We get two metaphors for the price of one here! Once we check into the hotel we lose the capacity to see that there is such a thing as checking out (just as once we start munching the lotus flowers we forget all about the journey).
We could go on multiplying the metaphors indefinitely here. You could bring to mind the story of the magic porridge pot, or the story of the magician’s apprentice who cannot send back the demon he has summoned, or Rumi’s image of the sleeping dragon in the ice who must not be woken. We could also venture into science fiction and look at the ‘Frankenstein’s monster motif’, which remerges time and time again (for example in films such as the Terminator series. The machine takes over and it is very much the worse for us poor humans when they do! As Frank Herbert says in Heretic of Dune, “Systems, following the unconscious patterns of their human creators, always take over.”
When the system of incentivization (otherwise known as ‘the thinking mind’) ‘takes over’ then what happens is that we are always kept on the hop. We’re being kept on the hop because the thinking mind is telling us what to do and it never stops telling is what to do. The thinking mind keeps on telling us what to do just as the magic porridge pot keeps on churning out porridge, just as the demon who has been unwisely conjured up by the apprentice keeps on pouring water. Whenever there is a goal that we feel that we have to attain this is the rational mind telling us what to do. Very simply put, we can’t ever feel good (or even OK about ourselves) until that mind tells us that we can. We are completely dependent upon the mechanical mind in order to feel OK about ourselves, or feel that it’s OK to rest for a while, and what that mind does (when we give it this power) is that it keeps us busy the whole time doing all sorts of utterly inane tasks. This is precisely our situation when the machine that is the thinking mind takes over and there is surely no one who doesn’t know what this feels like!
It turns out (surprise, surprise!) that the thinking mind is most emphatically NOT a very good master. It turns out that the thinking mind is an absolutely terrible master – the worst you could ever imagine. It is continually withholding its blessing on us; as it gets into its stride it becomes ever more difficult to receive its approval – its standards become more and more ridiculous, more and more punishing and yet all we can do is gamely keep on trying to meet them. Even when we do ‘get things right’ we’re straightaway onto the next task, and the next, and the next. The harder we work for the rational mind, the more tasks it sets us. The better we get at doing them, the more it raises the bar. There simply is no good outcome to this business of ‘serving the master of the rational mind’. How could there be any good outcome when we hand responsibility for how we are to live our lives to a mere machine? How could there be any happy outcome when what we are essentially doing is handing over our freedom to a random collection of rules, because we are afraid of that freedom?
The whole thing is a deluded endeavour on a truly colossal scale. The whole point of working so hard for the rational mind is that if we work hard enough (and do well enough) then it will grant us ‘permission to exist’. This is what we are working for – the permission to ‘be’! At the heart of all this straining and striving is our yearning to be allowed just to be. This is the benediction we are craving for, whether we see it or not – we just want to feel that it is OK for us to be here, that we deserve to actually be here. We want someone (or something) to tell us this. And yet the folly of our endeavour lies in the fact that we are asking for permission to exist of something – the thinking mind – which itself is only our provisional tool, our provisional instrument. We created this thing, so how can it possibly grant us ‘permission to be’?
Our entire existence is conditional, therefore. This is what we get for making the unreal rational mind into the provider of our ontological security. Our existence is no conditional upon the rational mind granting us its ‘benediction’, its ‘validation’. Please tell me that I am valid, I beg this mechanical mind. We don’t really exist at all unless the mechanical mind tells us that we do (which is the same as saying that we don’t exist at all unless society says we do, even though society itself is entirely hollow). We start off from a position of waiting to be tested by the mind therefore; we don’t exist yet – not officially – we only potentially exist. In order to truly exist we need to jump through all the hoops successfully. In order to unconditionally ‘be’ (which is the greatest of all boons) we have to abide by all the conditions that the thinking mind sets before us. Here however lies the contradiction – how can the thinking mind (which is made up of nothing but limiting conditions) ever bestow the blessing of ‘unconditional peace’ upon us? Or to put this another way, how can rules ever set us free?
The answer to this conundrum is of course very simple – it can’t! The one thing the thinking mind can never bestow upon us is true peace, true happiness. It can only promise us these things, it can never deliver. Even if we pass every test that it puts us through (which we can’t) it can’t bestow peace or happiness upon us, which means that the whole thing is a hoax from beginning to end. When the thinking mind promises us something, it’s a lie, and when it threatens us with something, it’s a bluff. All the thinking mind can ever provide us with are its own constructs, its own categories. All the thinking mind can ever provide us with are its own constructions, its own productions, its own projections, its own formulations. All it can ever provide us with is ‘more of the same, more of the same’…
Society (which is the externalization of the system of thought, as David Bohm says) does exactly the same thing. It plays exactly the same trick – it tries to sell us something that it doesn’t actually have in the first place! What society is actually doing is to sell us conditional happiness in place of the real thing, without (of course) acknowledging that it is doing this. It is offering us conditional happiness and implying as it does so that this is the same thing as unconditional happiness, unconditional peace. It’s as if there is no difference! When we jump through all the hoops that we are supposed to jump through then – society says – our lives will be fulfilled. When we successfully follow all of society’s rules then we will be happy. We will be ‘on the pig’s back’, we will be in the highest heaven. Everything then is guaranteed to work out – there is absolutely no question of things not working out, no question of things not being absolutely fine. All we have to do is fit in with society’s plan for us, society’s idea for us, society’s formula for us – which is of course the pressure that we’re under right from the word ‘go’!
Society, then, works via a system of threats and promises. This is what rules come down to, in an extreme form – there is absolute validation if you accord with the rule, and absolute devalidation if you don’t. What could be simpler than this? What’s not to understand here? And yet, what does life have to do with ‘rules’? Life and society are opposed, whether we like to admit it or not. Society works by repressing our natural, spontaneous impulses and directing the energy that was in them elsewhere and what this means is that we end up living a life which isn’t ours and which – on this account – we don’t really want to live! Why would we after all, when it’s got nothing to do with us? We then have to force ourselves to live this false or artificial life and if there is ‘forcing’ then straightaway we know that there must be resistance. The whole thing (this whole ‘artificial life’) is like rolling a heavy boulder up a hill, therefore. We tell ourselves that there will be some sort of a worthwhile outcome to all this effort but this just isn’t the case – all that is going to happen is that when we stop pushing the boulder is immediately going to start rolling right back down the slope again. Things are going to go right back to where they started off and so nothing has been achieved. How, after all, can we expect anything be achieved as a result of forcing ourselves to live a life that isn’t really ours and which – on this account – we don’t really want to live?
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.