The most precious part of ourselves, the core of who we are, is not under our control. Our inspiration, creativity and compassion are not under our control. Our joy and peace of mind are not under our control. The truly authentic part of ourselves (the essential spark of ‘who we really are’) is not under our control and that is how we can know that it is truly authentic, and not merely some act, some show, some pretence – some ‘accessory’ that we have picked up along the way. Coming at this the other way, we can say that all the stuff which is under our control is not real, not authentic, not true. We can say that all the stuff that is under our control is not who we are.
This is a very curious thing because it is generally only the stuff that we are in control of that we value, that we have time for! The side of us that isn’t under our control (which is actually not a ‘side’ at all but actually the whole of ourselves) is actually disowned – it isn’t seen as who we are at all. It’s something awkward. There is (as far as the thinking mind is concerned) an intrinsic problem with this whole business of ‘stuff not being under control’ – if I can’t control it, then how do I know that I can rely on it? How do I know that it won’t let me down just at the crucial moment? And it’s not just the case that we can’t ‘rely’ on the part of us that we can’t control – we can’t know what it is either. It’s a mystery to us. We can’t get it to do what we want, when we want it to, and we don’t even know what it is in the first place! So from the point of view of the rational intellect, this ‘side’ of us just isn’t trustworthy at all…
Actually, from the POV of the rational intellect, what we have been tentatively calling ‘the other side of ourselves’ doesn’t even exist at all. It isn’t granted the status of being a real thing. It isn’t mentioned in the psychology books (which as it happens are all written by the rational intellect). If there is something there that cannot be defined or measured, predicted or controlled then what this means – to the rational intellect at least – is that this so-called ‘something’ doesn’t actually exist. From the POV of the thinking, analysing, measuring mind all these short-comings spell one thing and one thing only – they spell the evident non-existence of whatever it is that is under investigation.
The type of rational culture that we live in is all about valuing the definable and the quantifiable, the predictable and the controllable. Since this is so (and who can deny it?) it is no surprise that we are brought up to discount and devalue what we have been calling ‘the other side of ourselves’. This is nothing less than full-scale repression – it’s not just ‘the stranger within’ we’re talking about here but ‘the unwelcome stranger within’, the stranger who is turned away from the door every time. The most precious part of ourselves, the core of who we are, has been abandoned, gotten rid of, jettisoned, betrayed, forgotten, etc, under the pressure of having to adapt to a rational-technological culture, a culture that values (although it won’t admit it) the quantifiable ‘machine aspect’ of ourselves over the non-quantifiable spontaneous aspect. The core of who we are (elusive and indefinable as it is) has been discounted and dismissed to such an extent that we don’t even know that it is there and instead we have put all our energy into the part of ourselves that can be defined and quantified, the part of ourselves that can be predicted and controlled.
How this gets to happen is easy to see within any social context – after all, we all want to be understood by those around us and so we strive to be understandable. We want to fit in and so we strive to develop the predictable and controllable aspect of ourselves that does fit in. This is a straightforward mechanical process – in order to be accepted we have to be identified as ‘belonging’ and in order to be positively identified (or recognized) in this way we have to be understood and in order to be understood we have to conform to the prescribed pattern, the prescribed format. We need to present ourselves within a shared context of understanding in order that we might be understood and so once we have done this then things generally seem to go very smoothly. Everything seems to be fine and we are able to get on with the business of living our lives. Adaptation is however ‘violence that we cannot see as such’ and violence cannot be glossed over quite as conveniently as all that, for all that we always do so. What has actually happened here in this mechanical process of adaptation is that the understandable side of ourselves (the quantifiable, definable side) has replaced the other side – the side that can never be understood by anyone, not even by ourselves. The generic has replaced the unique; the banal has been substituted for the extraordinary.
Within any social context (family, friends, work, the world at large) we are always expected to be a particular, specified way. This is how things work. This is the rule. As soon as we depart from this established role, this established identity, we start to receive funny looks, we start to receive censorship from our peers. Depart too much and we will experience social ‘devaluation,’ social exclusion, social rejection. Each one of us knows how this process of ‘negative feedback’ works only too well and this is why we make such an effort to stay within the appointed bounds of ‘who we’re supposed to be’. For most of us this becomes ‘second nature’ and we do it so well that we don’t even know we are doing it. Social censure occurs only rarely and amounts to no more than the occasional embarrassing moment, quickly forgotten about. For others of us (the ones who can’t adapt so well) we never feel very far from ‘standing out’ (or being ‘conspicuous’) in a way that we particularly don’t want to and so we are for the most part always painfully aware of the necessity to try not to stray from what is expected of us, and what happens when we don’t. In more pronounced cases, this discomfort gets diagnosed as ‘social anxiety’ or ‘social phobia’. Whether we see what’s going on or not however the mechanism is that we get rewarded for ‘fitting in’ and punished for ‘not fitting in’. Whether we like to accept it or not this is how society works…
The thing about this however is that who we are encouraged to be (the role we are required to play) is not who we actually are. On the contrary, it’s ‘who we are pretending to be’. It’s ‘who we are pretending to be in order to be accepted by the group’. It’s a generic template! We may not think that we’re adapting to a generic template but we are. The bottom line is that we have adapted to a social fiction in order to be understood, in order to feel that we ‘belong’. And the process of adaptation doesn’t stop here – it doesn’t stop on the outside. Once we have adapted to the social fiction (to the generic template) then we use this as a basis for understanding ourselves! This is doubly confusing therefore – we are confused on both fronts. We have been given a basis for understanding ourselves and the world that just isn’t true; we have been given a basis for understanding everything that isn’t true, and so there is absolutely no way that this is going to work out for us (even though the system that we have adapted to keeps on saying that it will, keeps on giving us promise after promise us that it will).
Life is never going to ‘work out’ when we try to live it on the basis of a generic template, a social fiction – even to imagine for a moment that it might do so is palpable absurdity. This endeavour can’t possibly work out because what we’re essentially trying to do here is make something that is fictional be ‘non-fictional’. To put this more bluntly, we’re ‘defending a lie’: because we’ve gone along with our social conditioning, we’re trying to make something that isn’t true be true and this is not exactly what you might call ‘a promising cause’ to get caught up in! Or rather it is promising, but the promises here are all lies. The incentives that we are bombarded with are all completely false; the guarantees we have been given are not worth the paper they are printed on. There’s no way in a billion billion years we’re ever going to succeed in the doomed task of trying to make what is not true be true. We’ve been conned into undertaking an impossible task and what’s more, we’ve been led to believe that we have to succeed at it!
Now in a way, this is OK. It’s a thing that we’re allowed to do – it’s actually a thing that is quite natural to do. This sort of thing is called ‘playing a game’. Nature – according to Heraclitus – loves to hide itself. Nature loves to pretend to be what it is not, we could say. We could also say that there is humour (or irony) in nature and that if we don’t get the humour, if we don’t get the irony, well – that’s OK too! That’s part of the game. Not seeing that the game is a game is part of the game – in fact it’s not just ‘part of the game’, it’s what makes the game a game in the first place! When we are very rational about life, and see things in a strictly literal way (so that we believe things to be what they seem on the surface to be) then this is ‘not seeing that the game is a game’. This is not seeing that the universe has a sense of humour, a sense of irony, and this humourless, mechanical outlook also makes us see ourselves in this flat, literal, non-ironic, non-playful sort of a way. We understand ourselves to be (literally) ‘what our thinking tells us we are’. This is the same thing as ‘who society tells us we are’ because ‘who society tells us we are’ is predicated upon a generic template and generic templates are never ironic (just like institutions never have a sense of humour)!
There is a hidden drawback in being literal-minded, in accepting the generic templates of the thinking mind, and this drawback is so substantial, so all-encompassing, that the word ‘drawback’ actually doesn’t come anywhere close to doing justice to what we’re talking about. The ‘drawback’ is – quite simply – that being so uncritically accepting of the image (or idea) of ourselves that our thinking (or society) provides us with inevitably means that we lose the core of ourselves. We lose who we really are. We become ‘coreless’. By losing our sense of humour, our sense of irony, we lose our connection with reality itself.
Our misunderstanding of ourselves is truly extraordinary – we are flatly convinced that we are the part of ourselves which we can control, which we can regulate, which we can name and analyse. We are convinced, in other words, that we are the same thing as the rational representation of ourselves, the rational projection of ourselves. Any part of ourselves that can’t be controlled, can’t be regulated, can’t be named or analysed, is – at best – something of an embarrassment. It’s a kind of a ‘loose cannon’ – a kind of a random element. And yet the part of ourselves that falls within the domain of rational knowledge is not who we really are at all. That’s not us – it’s just a projection of the rational mind, an abstraction that exists in the virtual reality world of its own construction. It’s just the ‘puppet-self’ – the self that is under the control of the dictatorial thinking mind. It’s a superficial theatre. It’s the game we’re playing and don’t know we’re playing…
We all know this really. If I have to stop and think about what I’m saying then clearly what I’m saying isn’t true! The very fact that I have to consider it, edit it, regulate it, etc, shows that it’s false. The only way what I say can be genuinely true is – as we all know – if it bursts right out of me with no premeditation, no regulation, no editorial control. This isn’t just true for things that we say – it’s true for the whole of us. The only part of us that is true, that is genuine, that is authentic, is the part that isn’t pre-meditated, that part that we aren’t regulating. And yet – as we have said – it’s only the part of us that is under our strict control that we bother putting time and effort into developing. That’s the only part we care about. It’s no wonder therefore that we are so bored with our lives! The only way we wouldn’t be totally bored with our lives (which is to say, totally alienated from ourselves) would be if we weren’t flatly (or non-ironically) identified with our mind-created identity, our conditioned sense of ourselves, the superficial theatre of ourselves.
When we see this truth – which is as we have said something that we already know very well underneath it all – it makes a mockery of everything that we normally do to help ourselves or benefit ourselves. How could it not do, seeing as the self we are trying to help or benefit isn’t actually who we are? The only thing we can do to help ourselves is to ‘let ourselves go’, to free ourselves from our restrictive thoughts about ourselves, and we can’t even really do this, when it comes down to it. We can’t even really do this because it’s out of our control! This isn’t just another technique that we can learn, another theory or model that we can master. It’s the greatest art of all and there is no one out there who can tell us how to go about getting the hang of it. There is no instruction booklet, no set of rules for it that we can knuckle down to and learn. Society can’t tell us how to ‘be ourselves’ – all society can do is pressurize us to conform to the generic template it has for us. Our own mind can’t tell us how to be ourselves either because the thinking mind isn’t who we are – all it can do is pressurize us to accord with its ideas, its categories, its standards for how it thinks we ought to be. There is no special theory it can come up with to enable us to be truly ourselves. How can the thinking mind teach us to be free from itself? How can there a theory for how to be free from theories, a technique to enable us to be free from techniques?
Getting in touch with who we truly are isn’t something that can be done by deliberately ‘changing the way that we are’ because the part of us that wants to change the way that we are is the part that isn’t really us. As Alan Watts says somewhere, the part of us that wants to change us is the part that needs changing! Once we see this it tends to take the wind out of our sails, but since our sails were only taking us astray anyway this isn’t such a bad thing. What does help – we could say – is developing an uncritical interest in ourselves just the way we are, rather than being rigidly fixated upon being the way we want to be, the way we think we ought to be. This is generally called ‘self-acceptance’! Self-acceptance doesn’t mean what we tend to think it means however. This is not something that we can make a goal of, it’s not something that we can aim at and try to methodically bring about. Purposeful self-acceptance is a contradiction in terms – it is an impossibility since, as Alan Watts says, the very moment I try to accept myself I am rejecting myself as I actually am, which is the me that is thoroughly unaccepting of itself. I am ‘rejecting my non-acceptance’ therefore, and this is not in the spirit of acceptance at all! Being deliberately ‘self-accepting’ is therefore a ridiculous impossibility that we only get caught up in as a result of having lost our sense of irony. It is an endeavour we can only take seriously when we are being flatly and humourlessly mechanical in our outlook on life.
The thing about self-acceptance is that it’s more about seeing who we are (or seeing the way that we are) than anything else. When we see ourselves without controlling or correcting or criticizing what we see something very interesting – we see that we aren’t who we thought we were at all. We see that we aren’t the pattern of being that we were previously stuck in, and helplessly identified with. Very strangely, therefore, when we see ourselves ‘non-judgementally’, we see that we are not the self (i.e. the ‘identity’) that we are seeing! There’s no problem here therefore! To see illusion is to depart from illusion, as the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment says. And the flip-side of this is the insight that it was only because we were forever trying to change/correct ourselves (forever judging ourselves, seeing ourselves as either good or bad) that we were so stuck, so identified, so caught up in the ongoing drama of it all.
So it is at this precise moment – when we clearly see that we are not who we had always thought we were – that humour and irony come back into the picture. It is at this moment that we see that all that really matters about us (which is to say, the core of you we are) is forever beyond all possibility of control, or being ‘regulated’, of being criticized or corrected. We are freed from the thankless joyless interminable illusion of being the regulated self, the ‘approved or disapproved self’, the self which is forever being defined and controlled and monitored by the thinking mind…