Who could ever give us permission to be? Whatever could we possibly do to deserve the permission to be, to earn the permission to be? How would we go about making ourselves eligible for a favour of such unthinkable magnitude? Nothing comes free after all, and so what would the price for the ultimate boon of being be?
This is of course – whether we realize it or not – a profoundly deep philosophical question, a philosophical question that has immense ramifications in our everyday lives. From the point of view of our normal conditioned mind, we would have to do a hell of a lot to be worthy of being. This is a big deal. If we spend the best part of our lives paying off the mortgage on a semi-detached house, how long would we spend paying off this debt? It’s like telling somebody – as ministers of the Church have been telling us for centuries – that Jesus died for your sins, so what are you going to do to make it up to him? This is a burden we can never crawl out from under – as Alan Watts (himself an ordained minister) says, we can’t even find it within ourselves to feel properly grateful for what has been done for us, never mind pay back the debt! The best we can do is go around feeling guilty about the fact that we can’t feel as grateful as we should – a permanent sense of guilt being one way that we have of paying off the debt (or of at least paying off the interest on the debt).
Another way of putting this is to ask “What are we going to do to earn the grace of God, to deserve the grace of God?” Obviously there is nothing we could ever do and so we’re banjaxed right from the start – we’ve been placed under an obligation that we can never fulfil, a debt that we can never pay, and this kind of thing clearly suits the establishment very well indeed! It’s like being in debt to the bank to such an extent that we’re obliged to keep on working at a job we hate to the end of our days, which is needless to say an all-too-familiar scenario. These days people tend to be less concerned about the need to earn or deserve the grace of God. We don’t phrase it (or understand it) like that anymore, but this doesn’t mean that we aren’t caught up in the same glitch, the same trap – we still feel that we need to be allowed to be by some external authority, we still need to be given special dispensation of some kind. We can’t do anything without this permission, but we don’t know where it is to come from. This isn’t so much of a spiritual dilemma as it is a basic everyday psychological one. We can’t just go ahead, we can’t just ‘be’ – we need external validation, we need someone to tell us that it’s ok. We need to be told that we deserve the status of ‘being here’ in the world so that we ourselves may believe this to be the case. Other people need to agree that we deserve to exist, in other words! The most obvious example of what we’re talking about here is society – society (we might say) is a system within which we can be granted varying degrees of, if not being itself, then some sort of analogue of being, some sort of substitute for being…
All societies are predicated upon some sort of ‘ranking system’ which allocates status in accordance to how well we measure up with regard to the unspoken (but nevertheless very well understood) rules of the game. The lowest rank is where we have no status because we haven’t managed to jump through any of the hoops, and the highest is where we have jumped through all of them and emerged at the other end covered in glory. It could also be said that the ranking system is based purely upon the amount of money we have, which is a much simpler way of determining who gets to deserve existence: if we have no money then we are inconsequential and worthless and no one cares a damn about us, and if we are extremely wealthy then we are by definition very consequential and worthy indeed. We are then said to have ‘substance’!
Since the usual way to obtain money is to adapt ourselves wholeheartedly to the social system and dedicate our lives to the sort of stuff that society thinks we ought to be dedicating ourselves to, this turns out to be a very handy way for the system to be guaranteed our continued support – if we want to be granted the ‘permission to be’ (which equals ‘social acceptance’) then we have to play the game, then we have to conform to the rules. It’s as simple as that – it is the social game that grants us being (or rather the ‘conditioned analogue of being’) and so we have no choice other than to learn to play the game as well as we possibly can. We have to compete for being within the social matrix, which means that there are going to be winners and losers. The divine unconditional gift of being has thus devolved into a limited commodity that has to be fought over – a limited commodity that is controlled by an elite group of ‘winners’!
Another variant on money might be said to be ‘fame’ or ‘public visibility’ – in this case we could say that the more people know about us then the more of the ‘analogue for being’ we possess, and so the more real we feel. This is a very well understood formula – if nobody knows me then I am invisible and I don’t therefore exist, and if I am the name on everybody’s lips then I am granted existence in spades. I am as a result of my fame as real as real can be and no one (including me) can doubt it. This too is a competition since – very obviously – we can’t all be famous! We can’t all be rich since money has to be a limited commodity in order for the game to proceed, and the same is of course true for fame. The winners get to be ‘somebody’ whilst the losers (who are always going to be in the overwhelming majority) are obliged to suffer the utterly ignominious fate of not being anybody. Existence is for the privileged elite. All we can do is dream of being somebody; all we can do is hope and yearn to be somebody…
Within the overall game that we are playing which is society there are innumerable lesser games – games within games within games. In all games we are competing (even in one-player games we are competing – we are competing against ourselves) and what we are essentially competing for (no matter what we say it is) is the analogue of being, the inferior substitute for being. Generally speaking, we just call this ‘winning’! The good feeling that we get from winning is therefore analogous to the good feeling that we get from being. We have wangled it so that we get to feel that are – because we have won at the game, whatever that is – deserving of being. Who can say that we aren’t – aren’t we the winners after all? If the winner doesn’t possess this ultimate existential validation then who does? Haven’t we achieved the most that can be achieved within the terms of the logical system that we are adapted to, the logical system that we have substituted for reality, the logical system that we take to be reality?
The other side of the coin here is of course the side in which we fail to win at the game and instead of ending up as winners we end up as losers instead. If being a winner means that we are granted being (because we deserve it), being a loser means that we are not granted being because we don’t deserve it! We have nothing and so we aren’t anything – we don’t show up on the map at all because winning is how you get to be on the map. We don’t show up on the map and so we have no existence. The types of games we may play within the overall game which is society are multitudinous – the goals we compete for may range from ‘what kind of job you do’ or ‘what part of town you live in’, to something as simple as ‘who gets to have the last word in an argument’ or ‘who has the smartest put-down’. Everything is a game. Even science has become a game, according to Professor Lovelock – it’s not about being curious about reality and finding some kind of universal truth, it’s about competing with all the other science-game players to see who can get the most papers published, who can get the best name for themselves.
All we know are games, generally speaking. All purposeful activity is a game of one sort or another – the game is to ‘achieve the stated purpose, to ‘obtain the stated goal’. If I achieve the purpose then I have won at the game and I get to feel good; if I fail to achieve the purpose then I have lost at the game and instead of feeling good I feel bad. So going on what we were saying before, the real aim of the game isn’t to control the situation effectively enough to ensure that the desired outcome comes about, the real aim is to obtain being as a result of this effectiveness. This type of statement (saying that we play games in order to obtain being, or that we engage in purposeful activity in order that we might get to exist) doesn’t of course make any sense to us because it seems so very obvious that we already have being, that we already ‘exist’. This seems to be pretty much a given! Who would doubt this?
Psychologically speaking however the type of being that we have is promissory rather than actual – it’s just that we never focus on this because we are so very used to dealing in promises that to us it has become the ‘real thing’. This might seem strange when we first hear the idea but it’s the same thing as money – money isn’t wealth, it isn’t ‘value’ in itself, but rather it is a promise of value. Going back in the history of banking, this promise used to be written on the banknote itself – the Bank of England used to inscribe “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of ten pounds” on ten pound notes, for example. These days we don’t have the gold standard whereby the bearer of the note can (theoretically) go into the bank and exchange the note for gold, but rather the ten pound note can only be exchanged for other notes that add up to the same value! This of course is nonsensical but nobody minds because we don’t bother to look too deeply into it. The basic principle remains the same, however – money is a promise of value rather than value itself. This is obviously true – as is often said, you can’t eat money! There’s no nutritional value in banknotes…
Moving from the peculiarities of economics to the peculiarities of human psychology, we can therefore say – quite straightforwardly – that all of our mental constructs or thoughts are promises of being rather than being itself. Naturally this is true – our thoughts and concepts are representations of reality, not reality itself. And it is also true that exactly the same conflation has occurred that we have just been talking about – we have got to the stage where we treat the mental constructs as being ‘the real thing’, and so we don’t bother to look any further. This is what Jean Baudrillard is talking about when he refers to the realm of ‘the hyperreal’; according to the Wikipedia entry,
Hyperreality is the inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, especially in technologically advanced postmodern societies.
It could be said therefore that whenever we think some thought or other, we do so because that thought carries the promise of being. This can work in two ways (since all mental constructs are dualistic in their nature): the thought in question sucks us in either because it promises to lead us to being, in which case it is a pleasant thought, or it sucks us in because it warns us of possible ‘loss of being’, or possible ‘danger to being’ in which case what we’re talking about is an unpleasant (or ‘repellent’) thought. Either way, the thought has a magnetic hold on us – it grabs our attention equally well in both cases, both the positive and the negative. Because the mental representation has become conflated with the reality which it is supposed to be representing the ‘promising thought’ makes us feel good, and the ‘warning (or threatening) thought’ causes us to feel bad. Thought has thus become an actual reality in itself since if the thought alone is enough to produce a state of euphoric bliss, where is the need for anything else? Thought alone is enough to produce mental states of heaven or hell, therefore…
We are surrounded by promises of being – which is to say, promises that if we do this, that or the other then we will be (or alternatively, that if we do X, Y or Z then we will avoid a threat to us being, which is the same thing only backwards). This is not quite how we understand it (the thoughts aren’t phrased in exactly this way) but this is what it nevertheless comes down to. The underlying implication of living in a promissory world (as we do) is that our situation is lacking in some very significant way, but that this deficiency may be remedied by if we do what thought tells us to do. We implicitly understand ourselves to be lacking in some way but at the same time the specific remedy for this ‘lack’ is presented to us in some suitably attractive and plausible format. This is of course what advertising is all about, just to give what is probably the most obvious example of this sort of thing – we’re motivated by a perception of lack, by a perception of need. We’re sold the idea that we’re not good enough the way we are. When we conceive some sort of an attractive or alluring goal, this is exactly the same thing – every time our attention is magnetized by some thought, some idea, some mental construct, this is motivated by the hope of remedying some kind of ‘assumed deficit state of being’. Why else would it have such a hold on us?
Once we reflect on the matter then we can see that all of our purposeful behaviour (and the world-view or model that this behaviour arises from) is predicated upon this business of ‘remedying a deficit’. In one way this might seem obvious since the whole point of purposeful behaviour is to ‘obtain something that we don’t already have’, but what we’re talking about here goes much further than just this. If I haven’t got a hat to wear and I go and get myself a nice hat this may be superficially construed as ‘remedying a deficit’ but from a psychological point of view there is a world of difference between me obtaining a hat because I pragmatically need one (to keep the sun off my head, for example) and because I unconsciously believe that possessing a fine hat will remedy my deficit state of being! In the first case I am essentially OK in myself either way (whether I get a hat or not) but in the second case I am only OK if I manage to get a suitable hat (because I am sadly deficient in being or substance and only possessing a fine hat can remedy this unfortunate state of affairs). The first behaviour arises out of freedom (or equanimity), and the second out of ‘blind need’ – which is to say, it arises out of a non-negotiable need whose actual nature we are unconscious of.
It is not really the surface level physical aspect of the behaviour that we are talking about here therefore but the unacknowledged symbolic aspect. In the realm of the mind it is of course exclusively the symbolic level of meaning that we are dealing with, which is to say, it’s not the actual ‘thing-that-is-to-be-obtained’ that is important but what the ‘thing-that-is-to-be-obtained’ represents to us. So for example we can say that the purely biological realm of motivation is one thing (if I am hungry then food becomes attractive, etc) but almost always our motivation goes beyond this pragmatic level of meaning into whatever the object of my desire represents for me on another (non-pragmatic) level of meaning. In the case of food these two levels of meaning operate simultaneously – I eat because I need to ingest food in order to stay alive but I might also be eating to fulfil various symbolic levels of meaning that I am very unlikely to be aware of. This could of course be one reason why I continue to eat after my biological need has been fulfilled – because there is some other deficit that I am trying to remedy, some intangible psychological deficit that cannot be so straightforwardly satisfied as simple physical hunger!
The ‘intangible psychological deficit’ that we are on about here is as we have said a deficiency in being. Acting on the basis of a perceived deficiency of being is what makes us needy and fearful on the one hand, and aggressive on the other hand. If I wasn’t suffering from a deficiency of being then this would change everything – I would no longer be helplessly driven by Deficiency motivation (D-motivation) but instead I would be operating on the basis of what Abraham Maslow calls B-motivation (i.e. Being motivation). The difference between D-motivation and B-motivation is that when I act out of the former I act out of a sense of inner fullness, but when I act out of the latter I act out of a sense of inner lack! The first type of action is playful and sensitive, and is more about exploring the world than anything else (which is to say, accepting it on its own terms) whereas the second modality of action is serious and crudely deliberate and not at all sensitive to ‘the way things are’. D-motivation is fundamentally aggressive – rather than being about exploring the world that we live in it is all about ‘getting what we want’ or ‘meeting our agenda’ which comes down to exploiting the world around us (or the people around us), all for the sake of assuaging our unacknowledged inner lack, our unacknowledged inner deficiency.
Essentially, operating on the basis of D-Motivation means that we are behaving in a driven and ruthless way. The ‘unplayful’ nature of our interaction with the world shows itself on the one hand in our goal-orientatedness, and on the other hand in our crudely concrete understanding of the world, our flatly literal descriptions of the world. Literal descriptions of the world – although we don’t generally see this as being the case – are pure naked aggression against reality and this aggression comes out of a lack of being. Being itself never manifests in terms aggression – it doesn’t need to because it hasn’t been backed into a corner. It doesn’t need to be because it isn’t defending a lie. Being doesn’t need to be violent or aggressive or controlling; lack-of-being on the other hand always has to be this way. It always has to be because it is driven by desperation – the desperation of trying to exist when you don’t!
We could say therefore (in a rough and ready kind of way) that there are two ways of trying to obtain being – one is to obey some external authority in the belief that it will grant us permission to be when we finally manage to fulfil all its requirements, and the other is to say that we become that authority ourselves and attempt to take being for ourselves by sheer force, by sheer aggression, by sheer brutal coercion. Neither way works however, either the passive or the aggressive. There is no way that either can work because the starting-off point in both cases is wrong – if we start from a deficit state that we are going to carry that deficit state along with us wherever we go. Or we could say that if we start off from a place of wanting then we are going bring that wanting (that hunger) along with us wherever we go.
Really the D-motivation that we are talking about is another way of talking about fear – when we have no being then everything is about avoiding having any awareness of the reality of our lack of being, everything is about ‘displacing our attention’ away from this terrifying truth. What causes our attention to be displaced the whole time (one way or another) is fear – the fear of seeing the truth of our situation. Truth itself has become the enemy, although we won’t of course see it like this. So when we are in the ‘deficit mode of being’ all of our motivations are nothing other than disguised fear. It’s all fear. Fear is our master in everything – although we are of course too afraid of seeing the truth to ever allow ourselves to see this!
This is therefore a thoroughly rotten situation, a thoroughly rotten set-up, no matter which we look at it. What’s good about this? What could we possibly find to say that is good about living life on the basis of disguised fear (which is to say, living life on the basis of being who we’re not)? The only good thing about this thoroughly wretched situation is when we learn to see beyond it! And yet this was not always the case. If we were lucky enough to have had loving parents (parents who themselves were not too cruelly driven by D-motivation) then as small children we would have felt ourselves to have ‘the right to be’. We would not of course have reasoned it out for ourselves in this way, but we would nevertheless have felt ourselves to have ‘the right to be’, just by being there. We would have understood (not in any ‘rational’ way, of course) that we don’t need to do anything (i.e. ‘prove ourselves) in order to feel that we are allowed to be. We would have known – quite naturally – that this grace is freely bestowed on us all, no matter what our situation might be…