The Problem the Self is Trying to Fix is Itself

don quixote-illustration

The problem the self is forever trying to fix is itself. Not that there is a problem in it, but rather that it itself is the problem. Naturally this is the last thing the self is ever going to allow itself to be aware of! Instead, the so-called ‘problem’ is displaced outwards into the world at large and we ride out like don Quixote on his steed to fix it, with our trusty sword in one hand and our lance in the other…

 

The fact that we have displaced the so-called ‘problem’ onto the outside world means that there is endless mileage in the quest. This is something that we will never get to the end of, something that we will never complete – for all that we have our hopes pinned on doing just this. We’ll never complete this quest because the problem we’re trying so determinedly to fix isn’t the problem at all. The real ‘problem’ (if we can call it that) is something we are never going to face. We make sure we never confront the true issue by the way we always let ourselves get caught up in all the false ones. As soon as we solve one surrogate problem, there is another ten waiting around the corner to be fixed!

 

Every time we get excited about some great goal it’s never the actual stated goal itself that we’re getting excited about: we’re actually fighting a different battle entirely to the one we think we’re fighting. The goal we’re getting so excited about is actually standing in for something else – it’s a surrogate for something that we can’t let ourselves know about. It’s a theatre. It’s a displacement of the real problem and so if we succeed at it then we get to feel (in some unacknowledged way) that we’ve licked the original problem, the original problem being the ‘big one’, the one that we can’t ever let ourselves know about, the one we’re running away from, the one we know deep down that we can’t ever solve…

 

We’re always banging on in the most tiresome way about ‘goals’ and ‘targets’ and ‘agendas’ and ‘planning’ and ‘solutions’ and all that sort of stuff. We’re forever getting worked up, all ‘gung-ho’, about this type of heroic purposeful activity – it’s a cultural phenomenon. It’s practically irresistible. We’re intoxicated with the notion of success, intoxicated with the idea that we’re going to achieve something great, intoxicated with the notion of being a winner in life rather than a loser, a nobody, or whatever, and the reason for this is that we’re playing the game of denial for all we’re worth. What we’re doing with all of our ostentatious gung-ho ‘in your face’-type purposefulness is denying that the problem is really ourselves.

 

All of this super-confident talk of goals and targets and solutions to this, that and the other ought to give the game away. It’s all pretty suspicious, really. What exactly are we fighting against all the time? Why is our language so very aggressive? Why can’t we just chill out and enjoy life? Why do we have to be forever ‘improving’ stuff or ‘fixing’ stuff or looking for ‘solutions’? What the hell are we at? What’s our issue?

 

Aggression always stems from concealed or denied weakness. If there is inner strength (or ‘honesty’) then there is no need for aggression. If there wasn’t some kind of inner deficit then there wouldn’t be the burning need to be forever improving things. There would be no need to charge around being intoxicated by goals and ideas the whole time, no need to be getting forever worked up by them. If I am getting all fired up by some goal, by some idea, by some theory or system then what this plainly means is that I am suffering from some inner deficit that I am not willing to look at. The helpful thing to do would therefore be to attend to that ‘problem’ where it is rather than projecting it out onto the outside world where it then becomes invertied so that it turns into some kind of an attractive or seductive promise that I can then get excited about, euphoric about, aggressive about.

 

The point is here of course that attending to the inner deficit requires courage, whereas it is so very much easier to run away from the challenge, so very much easier to chase off madly in the opposite direction and distract ourselves with some kind of superficial theatre. Trying to fix external problems (or chasing after glittering goals) looks positive, looks brave, looks ‘heroic’, but it isn’t. Really it’s just fear in disguise! I’m afraid of facing the real issue and so I ride off in the opposite direction fighting a thousand and one surrogate battles, acting like I’m ‘tackling the problem,’ acting like the hero, when the truth is that I’m just running away…

 

Forever trying to win, forever trying to ‘succeed’, looks positive but the truth is that it is the easy option – it’s the option of ‘avoiding the essential existential challenge’ rather than facing it head on. It’s the big cop-out, the one we’re all involved in. What then – we might ask – is this ‘essential existential challenge’ that we’re talking about? What is this ‘inner deficit’ that we all find so terrifying? What is it that we’re so afraid of looking at? What could be so scary? There are a number of ways in which we could try to get at this. One very straightforward way would be to say that we’re afraid of seeing that who we think we are isn’t who we are at all, afraid of seeing the person we take ourselves to be only an empty fiction. Another way is to say that we’re afraid of finding out that everything we’ve ever believed to be true actually isn’t true at all. We‘re afraid of discovering that our existence is based on lies, on falsehoods, on made-up stories; we’re afraid – in other words – of finding out that the foundation we’ve built our lives on doesn’t actually exist. It could also be said (as the existential philosophers did) that what we’re afraid of is freedom. We’d much rather be slaves to the mediocre lies and crappy self-limiting deceptions that we tell ourselves than face up to the reality of our own freedom…

 

Carlos Castaneda puts this point across by saying that we’re afraid of seeing the Immensity that is reality, and so we hide away from it with the help of our petty concrete preoccupations. We keep ourselves busy with nonsense, with trivialities, with banalities. We bury our heads in the sand rather than face up to the vastness of the universe. We invest big time in ‘small concerns’. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, what we’re running away from is our own true nature, which is the same thing as ‘the pure white light of unmitigated reality’. Rather than facing this dazzling white light, and recognizing it as our own true nature (the Buddha-nature), we develop an attraction towards the various dull or opaque lights of the lower worlds. We opt for the particular ‘style of distraction’ (to use Chogyam Trungpa’s phrase) that corresponds to whichever of these lower worlds we are attracted to, and stick to this particular distraction modality like glue. We stick to it through thick and through thin, in the hope that it will see us through, in the unspoken hope that we can avoid reality forever…

 

Another way of explaining why we’re distracting ourselves with dramas the whole time is to say that we’re fundamentally terrified of Radical Uncertainty – the electric all-consuming uncertainty that falsifies all our constructs, all of our conceptions, including the construct or concept of ourselves. We could therefore say that the idea which we have of ourselves is our defence against Radical Uncertainty – that it is our way of blocking it out, our way of shielding or barricading ourselves from it. As long as we continue to believe in this little self (and the concrete world that it lives in, and the very familiar activities that it continually engages in) then we are successfully keeping Radical Uncertainty at bay. We are denying it. With our unremitting purposeful activities we are saying that there is no such thing as Radical Uncertainty (since purposes or goals are by their very nature always certain).

 

The error right at the core of our scheme is however that we aren’t this little self. We aren’t who we say we are, no matter how many times we might say it. This is the error that we cannot fix – we can’t fix it because fixing it means ‘making what is not true be true’, and that is beyond our power. Nobody can do that. Since we can’t fix the central problem we deflect it outwards to make sure that we encounter it only in camouflaged form, in disguised form. We externalize the problem in other words – we ‘analogize’ it in a thousand and one different ways and then we lose ourselves in the futile task of trying our hardest to fix what can never be fixed…

 

There is always going to be an error in the system, a fly in the ointment, a spanner in the works. And from the point of view of the game this is a good thing! It’s not just a good thing, it’s an essential thing. What would we do if everything was already perfect, and we didn’t need to do anything anymore? Of course, we’re all going to all say that this would be great, that this would be wonderful. We’re going to pay lip service to the idea that it’s going to be great. This is very much like the idea of heaven – of course we all say that getting to heaven will be great, that it will be wonderful, etc, but we never think beyond this. We never consider what exactly we’d do in heaven, when there is no need to be continually having plans to make things better anymore, no need to carry on with our characteristic (or defining) patterns of thinking and behaviour any more.

 

Nominally speaking being in heaven is great but it doesn’t go beyond this, it doesn’t go beyond the label. Why is it great? What would we do with ourselves? How would we live without all our goals and plans and agendas and solutions? That goal-driven stuff is our bread and butter. It’s what we do. Even more to the point, what would we do without thinking since all of that problem-solving stuff is essentially thinking? ‘No problem’ means no need for thinking and the scary thing about this is (even if we can’t see things quite as clearly as this) is that thinking is who we are. Or rather, ‘thinking is who we think we are’, which – on the pragmatic level – comes down to exactly the same thing. Without problems, without goals, without some kind of agenda, without some kind of system to be buying into, there is no self, and this is the real problem for us. This is the problem we are making very sure never to address, the problem we are always running away from…

 

This is of course only a problem from the point of view of our thinking (which is to say, from the point of view of the thought-created self). Outside of this context, there is no problem at all. Or as the Zen saying has it, “No self, no problem”…

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