The everyday mind is like a dark and airless cage, whilst consciousness is like the clear blue open sky. The everyday mind is closed in its nature and so when we identify with this mind this is what gives rise to the closed sense of ‘self’ with which we are so familiar. The familiar sense of ‘being this particular self’ is the very same thing as the sense of being separate from everything else, removed from everything else, closed off or isolated from everything else. This sense of being essentially ‘closed off’ is what makes the self the self. When we operate on the basis of the everyday mind then the self is our point of reference for everything – we don’t see anything without seeing what it means in relation to this reference point.
Consciousness is not closed in its nature however and it doesn’t give rise to any sense of being a separate or isolated ‘self’. There is no self in consciousness. Consciousness is open to everything equally, it is in everything equally, and it doesn’t pick sides or play favourites. This is like what Lao Tzu says about the Tao:
The Great Tao flows everywhere,
to the left and to the right,
all things depend on it to exist,
and it does not abandon them.
To its accomplishments it lays no claims.
It loves and nourishes all things,
but does not lord it over them.
Because consciousness is open, there is no sense of a separate or isolated ‘self’ in it. Unlike the everyday mind, there is no ‘fixed point of reference’ in consciousness and so consciousness does not compare one thing to another or measure things in terms of itself. Unlike the thinking, measuring, evaluating mind, it is not always asking “What does this mean in relation to me?”
What we have said so far about consciousness is pretty much incomprehensible to us when we are identified with the thinking mind. We can understand the idea of operating from a fixed point of reference without any great difficulty but having no point of reference, no fixed basis, makes no sense at all. ‘Being like the sky’ makes no sense at all. I am me – I am this definite and limited sense of self, I am this ‘concrete identity’ – end of story. Like it or lump it. This is the nature of the illusion that the closed mind promotes; the closed mind does not just promote the illusion of the concrete self – it rams it down our throats every day. It enforces it. We have to go along with this illusion whether we like it or not. And we’re not allowed to know that it is an illusion…
On the face of it, the suggestion that I am not this fixed or concrete self – that this self is an illusion created by the thinking mind – isn’t something that makes any sense. The ordinary, everyday sense of being this self is the ‘fixed viewpoint’ that we use to make sense of the world and so the suggestion that there isn’t such a self, that this sense we have of being a separate or isolated entity is groundless, can’t possible make any sense to us! Not in our usual way of understanding things, anyway. But at the same time it’s also true that the suggestion that “I am not this concrete self” rings true on a deeper level. Deep down, we know well that we’re not this concrete self, this tiresome old fixed viewpoint which is like an opinion we have aired too many times. How could we possibly be something so very dull, how could we possibly be something so very tiresome?
The trouble is that we keep on painting ourselves into a corner. We paint ourselves into a corner and then we get stuck – which is of course what happens when you paint yourself into a corner. Not only are we stuck, we’re so very stuck that we don’t even see ourselves as being stuck. We’ve forgotten that there is anything else and so we think that we are the corner that we’ve painted ourselves into! The corner is all we know. The corner is everything for us. We’ve painted ourselves into a ‘fixed point of reference’ and so now we think that we are this fixed point of reference; we think that there’s no other way to see things, no other way other than the way than the way in which we already are seeing them. That’s how ‘trapped in the fixed viewpoint we are’. We couldn’t be trapped more. No fly stuck on flypaper was ever more stuck than this…
When we paint ourselves into a corner like this, when we get stuck in the one way of looking at things like this, then what happens is that we see ‘being trapped’ as a virtue. Everything gets turned around on is and we get institutionalized. We get adapted to our prison so that – for us – the prospect of not being trapped, not being confined, becomes frankly terrifying. Freedom becomes the greatest evil – it becomes the thing to be avoided at all costs. For us, being ‘trapped in the fixed viewpoint’ (so that there simply doesn’t seem to be any other way of seeing the world) appears like freedom. We call it various things. We call it ‘the freedom to be ourselves’, or ‘the freedom to do what we want’, or ‘the freedom to follow out goals’. This is what freedom means to us – it means the freedom to endlessly extend and recycle our current restricted situation. J.G. Bennett calls this negative freedom, which he defines as ‘the freedom not to be free’. What we want therefore – to be perfectly blunt about it – is to be unfree but not to see that we are unfree. We want to hide away, but we also want to hide away from the fact that we are hiding away…
When we get what we want, when we obtain the yearned-for boon of negative freedom (i.e. when we get to be unfree without knowing that we are unfree) then this is the trap we can’t get out of. We can’t get out of the trap because we can’t see it – we can’t get out of it because we don’t believe that it’s there in the first place! As Goethe says,
None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe that they are free.
We started off by saying that the mind is like a dark and airless cage. It’s a cage, but it’s a cage that we cannot see. The everyday mind is ‘an invisible prison’ – it’s a prison that we can’t see to be a prison. We can’t see the everyday mind to be a prison because we use it as the basis for seeing everything. We can’t see the thinking mind to be a prison because we never turn around to look at it and see it for what it is – we’re always looking outwards, we’re always looking at what the world looks like when it is seen through the filter of the thinking mind and so we can’t see this mind. We never see our conditioning – we only ever see what our conditioning makes us see. So not only do we have the illusion that the world is what our mind (our conditioning) says it is, we are also subject to the illusion that the fixed viewpoint that we are looking at the world through is ‘who we really are’. This is really ‘two illusions for the price of one’ therefore – there is the illusion of the definite or concrete world that the conditioned mind produces for us, and there is also the illusion of the definite or concrete self which is looking out and seeing that view, believing in that view.
Between these two illusions – the illusion of the definite view and the illusion of the concrete self which is the ‘fixed viewpoint’ – there is no space, no possibility of seeing anything else, anything ‘radically unrelated’ to our preconceptions. There is no possibility of glimpsing the clear blue open sky of consciousness. Consciousness is a stranger in this situation; between the crude mechanical cogs of the conditioned self and the equally crude mechanical cogs of the conditioned world which it turns upon consciousness doesn’t ever get a look in. It doesn’t get a chance. There is – as we have said – no gap, no space between these two interlocked illusions and the reason there is no gap, no space, is because the two illusions are actually one and the same illusion. The conditioned mind and the conditioned world which that mind believes in are the very same thing and that thing doesn’t actually exist.
So on the one hand we have the trap or cage of the conditioned mind which we are wholly contained within without being able to see that we contained within anything, and on the other hand we have the clear blue open sky of consciousness which we very rarely glimpse, being wholly preoccupied as we are with the innumerable illusory productions of the conditioned mind. That is our situation. We’re stuck in what Philip K Dick calls the Black Iron Prison and we don’t know it.
Living entirely within the unforgiving, unyielding cage of the everyday mind is our way of ‘being unfree without knowing that we are unfree’. Being wholly identified with the illusory idea of the concrete self is also our way of ‘being unfree without knowing that we are unfree’! The two go hand-in-hand – they are the two sides of the same thing. Because we are identified with the fixed point of reference which is the concrete self, the only way we have of understanding freedom is in terms of this self, in terms of this fixed point of reference. What we see as ‘freedom’ is therefore no more than a projection of this self, a projection of this fixed point of reference. But the thing here is that the concrete self, the fixed viewpoint, isn’t actually real. The concrete self isn’t real because we could identify with any position and then that would be ‘the self’, and yet the whole point of the self is that it is unique, that it is not arbitrary, that it is ‘this but not anything else’.
Or we could equivalently say that the fixed viewpoint isn’t actually real because the truth of the matter is that there isn’t ‘just the one viewpoint’, that there isn’t ‘just the one way of looking at things’. That isn’t true at all! We assume that there is just the one viewpoint but there isn’t. And when we can see that there isn’t ‘just the one viewpoint’ (the ‘one way to see things’) then the conditioned view of the world – which we took to be the ‘whole of everything’ – dissolves away to reveal the clear blue open sky of consciousness, in which there is no everyday mind, in which there is no concrete self…