Freedom from the Self


True freedom is freedom from the self. This type of freedom – which is actually the only type of freedom – is almost entirely unknown to us. We can’t imagine what it might be like. We can’t even begin to imagine, we can’t even get near imagining, and the reason for this is that we are seeing everything backwards. We’re seeing everything backwards because freedom has been replaced by a ‘copy’ of freedom, a ‘phoney version’ of freedom that is actually slavery in disguise.


The only type of freedom that we know is conditioned freedom, which is the freedom for the conditioned self to do whatever it wants, whatever it pleases. Clearly, on the face of things, this is going to look very much like freedom. It’s going to look like freedom to the conditioned self, that’s for sure! So if we perceive ourselves to be this conditioned self – as we almost always do – then as far as we are concerned this actually is freedom. It’s the only type of freedom we’re in any way interested in. If I am able to do whatever I want to do then – most of us would agree – this is a perfect definition of freedom! What more could we want?


The only thing that stops conditioned freedom from being the genuine article, (as we take it to be) is that we aren’t this conditioned self that we take ourselves to be. This turns out to be a rather major ‘fly in the ointment,’ a rather significant ‘spanner in the works’. And not only is the conditioned self not who we are, the modality of being that it is constructed upon, the modality of being that it exemplifies, is wholly antithetical to our true nature. It denies our true being. To be who we are not denies who we are – the one possibility drives out the other…


Going back a bit, we said earlier that ‘conditioned freedom’ is the freedom for the conditioned self to do whatever it wants. Even saying this much ought to give the game away: the conditioned self – after all – can only want what it is conditioned to want. This is what it means to be conditioned! To be conditioned means that there are conditions placed on your existence – it means you can only perceive things within the terms of the conditions that have been given to you to perceive things. The conditions say “This is how you are going to see the world” and “This is how you are going to act within the world”. The conditioned self is therefore the unfree self – when we take it as being ‘who we are’ then we are swallowing a whole package of restrictions that we can’t even see. We are given this unchallengeable idea of who are and we just have to get on with it. That’s all that’s left for us to do. As Alan Watts says, we simply can’t resist this false identity, this phoney version of ourselves –

When your identity is defined by society, you cannot resist it. You don’t have the knowledge, you don’t have the wisdom, you don’t have the resources to understand that something is being put over on you. You cannot but help believe the definition of you as a free agent. But you believe yourself to be a free agent as a result of not being free, that is to say, of being hopelessly unable to resist society’s identification of you. So, in the whole sense of our personality there is a contradiction, and that is why the sense of ego, of being oneself, is simultaneously a sense of frustration.

Our hopes and our fears come out of this conditioned identity and when we are facilitated in acting these hopes and fears out (when we are able to get what we want and avoid what we don’t want) then we call this ‘freedom’. But what kind of a cock-eyed version of freedom is this? I’m free to be who I’m told I must be? I’m free to be the type of person that I’ve been conditioned to believe I am? I’m free to act on the basis of all the desires and fears that have been built into me? I’m free to obey all the rules that I have been programmed with, without ever realizing that these rules aren’t the same thing as ‘my own free will’? How bizarre does this sound? This isn’t freedom – it’s a joke! It’s a mockery of freedom, a charade of freedom.


It is possible – if we live life superficially enough, unreflectively enough – not to see that conditional freedom is a mockery of genuine freedom and it is understandable that we would prefer not to see this, given the magnitude of the revelation. It is understandable that – having been offered only a very thin illusion of freedom – we would want to avail of it as best we can. It’s all we have been offered, after all, so why would we want to jeopardize it? And yet at the same time this is – even at the best of times – a joyless and unforgiving type of an existence. This type of life – where we stick like glue to the literal description of the world that is offered to us by the humourless thinking mind – has no ‘grace’ in it, no poetry in it, no kindness in it, no ease or tranquillity in it. Conditioned life is life with all the freedom taken out of it, but then what else would we expect? How can the rational mind – which is purely mechanical in nature – provide us with freedom?


The thing about the conditioned self isn’t just that it isn’t who we are – it also isn’t real. It’s a fiction, and as a fiction it needs us to be continually keeping it propped up – it needs us to be continually supporting it and maintaining it so that we don’t see the illusion of the conditioned self for what it actually is. If we take a break we start to see what’s really going on, we start to see that the illusion is an illusion. No breaks from the agenda are permitted when we’re talking about the maintenance of the conditioned self. The agenda never lets up…


The fact that we then go on to understand ‘freedom’ as meaning ‘freedom for the conditioned self’ is therefore tremendously ironic. This is the biggest irony there ever could be – ironies simply don’t come any bigger than this! I’m not free to be who I actually am in the first place – all of this baggage is just landed on me – and then (as if this were not enough) the only type of freedom I can ever have is the freedom to successfully obey the rules that come with this ‘obligatory mind-created identity’ and at the same time make sure that I don’t ever look too deeply into what I’m doing. That way I will be able to keep on believing in the flimsy illusion that all of this is actually what I want to be doing! The only type of freedom I have available to me is ‘the freedom not to see that I am not free at all’, in other words. And to cap it all – even if I go along with all of this and accept it at face value and never look any deeper into what’s going on it’s still not going to ‘work out’. It can’t work out because the life I am leading is fundamentally self-contradicting, fundamentally self-sabotaging…


The conditioned self is the defined self (to be conditioned is to be defined) and the defined self can only ever operate on the basis of what we might call ‘abstract extremes’ – it can only ever operate on the basis of opposites. Either something is good or it is bad, either exists or it doesn’t exist, either you are my friend or you are my enemy, either I am a success or I am a failure, etc. This is sometimes called ‘black-and-white thinking’ and the thing about black-and-white thinking is that it can clearly be seen as a crudely dysfunctional way of apprehending the world around us. Black-and-white thinking is generally said to be ‘an error’, but what we gloss over in saying this is that all our thinking is based on mental categories and a mental category is the most black-and-white thing there ever could be in the entire universe!


What we mean therefore when we say that ‘we shouldn’t be so black-and-white in our thinking’ is that we shouldn’t just have the extreme ‘categorical divide’ of “I am a success / I am a failure” (for example) but that we should have intermediate categories that paint a more moderate picture somewhere between one extreme and the other. (An example of this might be “I make mistakes sometimes but so does everybody.”) This is fine as far as it goes (in the sense that it reduces the most obvious level of self-judgement and suffering) but what we miss is that this intermediate category is still a category of thought just like any other and as a category it is – in its nature – quintessentially ‘black-and-white’. For every category under the sun there are only two possibilities, i.e. either you’re IN the category or you’re NOT in it. Categorical thinking is therefore all-or-nothing thinking on a very basic level – on an irreducible level, in fact. You can’t get the logical either/or nature out of thinking because that is the thinking! It’s there in the very pixels of our rational constructs…


Wherever there is all-or-nothing (categorical) thinking there is going to be suffering. This is a basic principle that we just can’t get away from. Once we actually reflect on the matter we can see this perfectly clearly – how can we squeeze everything into boxes that aren’t actually there in reality and expect this to actually work for us? Reality itself does not exist in the form of YES/NO (binary) categories so to insist that it does constitutes a fundamental act of aggression. And if we start off from a position of aggression (or ‘control’), trying to get things to be what they’re not, then this is clearly not going to work out well. Aggression only ever leads to the need for more aggression, control only ever leads to the need for further control, and this escalation of the need for aggression/control is very clearly not exactly what we might call a happy or peaceful state of affairs! Aggression only ever takes us to a bad place…


Categorical thinking can only ever lead to suffering, and – as we have suggested – this suffering is implicit in the ‘EITHER/OR’ nature of categories. Categorical thinking, we might say, has this peculiarity in it in that it always (by its dualistic nature) creates illusions! Categories create opposites, they create YES and NO by the very way in which they work. They create ‘logical extremes’, such as the polar opposites of <IS> and <IS NOT>. On the face of it there is a whole world of difference between the opposites – we are holding them as far apart as we could ever hold anything! Yet here lies the illusion because both <YES> and <NO>, <IS> and <IS NOT> have their root in the very same thing, which is the framework that we are imposing on the world. Or we could also say that both opposites come from the question that I am asking – I ask a question that is founded up some unconscious assumption about ‘the way things are’ and then – because of this fundamental (if disguised) act of aggression on my part – the ‘answer’ has to come within the format that I have covertly determined that it shall do. I slap a condition on the world, and it then has to respond to my subsequent inquiries in terms of this condition. So with this ‘condition’ of mine I have divided everything in two. This division however (as we have already said) doesn’t actually exist in reality – it only exists as a result of the way I have chosen to look at reality. Actually, the apparent division (which is to say, the polar opposites) are a reflection of this condition, a reflection of the evaluative rule or criterion which I have aggressively (and arbitrarily) subjected the universe to…


What this means is of course that the opposites aren’t actually ‘worlds apart’ at all. They’re actually the two sides of the same thing, the same thing in question being the condition, the rule, the YES/NO, IS/ISN’T framework that we have arbitrarily imposed on the universe. So although we say that there is a tremendous gulf (an insurmountable gulf, in fact) between the two opposites this is merely a convention of thinking. It isn’t true at all – it’s only how we have chosen to look at things. There was no split before we came along, no duality before the thinking mind came along.


This business of treating the opposites as if they really were different, as if there really is a world of difference between them, has consequences. If we were to express these consequences in just one word this word would be frustration! The whole point of all of our desiring, all of our craving, all of our effort, all of our blood, sweat and tears, is to get ‘one opposite and not the other’ so that when the opposite we want turns out to be inseparable from the other opposite (the one we want very badly too avoid), how can this not be frustrating? ‘Frustrating’ is too mild a word for what we’re talking about here! We chase the opposite we want and when we think we finally have it cornered it slips through our fingers and transmutes into the opposite of what we thought it was. Exaltation turns into despair, pleasure turns into pain…


How this turnaround happens (or the fact that it even does happen) is not at all clear to us. It’s far from clear. Generally speaking, the whole thing about the ‘identity of the opposites’ and the consequences of this identity is something that we ignore completely and when it is brought up this is usually very baffling to the Western mind. A simple example might help to clarify the point, however. Suppose that it matters very much to me that people should have a good opinion of me and not a bad one. Suppose that it is very important that people should hold me in good regard, that I should be of good standing, that people should not think badly of me, etc. [This, needless to say, is a fairly normal and uncontroversial thing to suppose!] I am therefore chasing peoples’ good opinion – their positive regard, their approval is the goal that I prize so much. What I can’t see however is that at the same time as chasing the prize of other peoples’ good opinion, I am also chasing their bad opinion! I am putting myself in line for the one just as much as the other! Or we could say that the more I manoeuvre so that I might get regarded in a good light, the more vulnerable I am making myself to being seen in a bad light. After all, the more central I make people’s approval of me, the more weight I am attaching to their disapproval, and there is no way around this.


Approval and disapproval, praise and blame, are separated only by a razor’s edge – actually they are inseparable from each other. Losing is as much a part of the game I am playing as winning is so how can I say that when I opt to play the game I am not putting myself in line for the one as much as the other? This is the meaning of the Buddhist saying, “Praise and blame are both the same.” The usual response to this is to ask, “Well, what are we supposed to do – just give up and not care about anything?” We’re so caught up, so immersed in the theatrical life that we don’t see that it is totally meaningless anyway – it’s meaningless whether people approve of me or disapprove of me, I’m not living my life for them, after all. The same goes for when I am trying to satisfy my conditioned mind and get its approval. The thing about ‘conditioned life’ is that we are ALWAYS living life in order to satisfy the conditions of the mechanical mind – if the mechanical mind says I did well then I feel great and if it says I messed up then I feel lousy. Or to put this another way, if the way that I am falls neatly within the specified mental category then everything is hunky-dory and if it doesn’t then there is no way that I am allowed to feel good about this! What this means is that I’m living life in order to please the thinking mind, as if this mind (which is a collection of arbitrary rules that I have somehow inherited or been programmed with) were the supreme unquestionable authority in the universe. This is however complete nonsense – its ‘living life backwards! This is putting the cart before the horse in a big way; this is the tail wagging the dog…


Trying to live life so as to satisfy the thinking mind is a bad road to go down. It is – as we have already indicated – an unkind and ultimately unforgiving road to go down. And to cap it all, when it comes right down to it, it’s not even possible to go down this road! It’s not possible to do what the mind wants – it’s not possible to satisfy the conditions of the mechanical/thinking mind anymore than it is possible to be ‘a successful perfectionist’! The conditions that we are trying to satisfy (the categories that we are trying to fit into) don’t really exist in reality. They are razor-thin abstractions and when we try to accommodate ourselves to them (as we do) we inevitably cut ourselves on them. Trying to accommodate or please the mechanical mind is an infallible recipe for suffering! Allowing this mind to define us – to say ‘who we are’ – is an infallible recipe for suffering. Adapting to the mechanical mind is the archetypal ‘bad road to go down’. It doesn’t seem so bad at first but it just goes on getting worse and worse. The mechanical mind ‘puts the pinch on us’ and keeps on ramping up the pinch as it gets us more and more in its power. It gets all the more unforgiving the more and more it gets us in its power…


The carrot that is forever being dangled in front of our nose (the carrot that is leading us on and on) is the promise of freedom. But the type of freedom that we are being promised is false freedom, illusory freedom. What is being offered to us is actually a mockery of freedom! The more we try to avail of this so-called freedom the less real freedom we have. The more we try to avail of the theatrical freedom (the more we follow the carrot, like an obedient donkey) the more we are separated from who we truly are and the more we are identified with the mind-created identity (which is not who we are). The mind-created identity is an illusory identity, an identity that doesn’t exist, an identity that ‘no one is’, and its single purpose in life (which it can never come right out and admit to) is to try to prove to itself that it DOES exist. It tries to do this by chasing ever more fervently the ‘carrot of false freedom’ which – if only we could see it clearly – is freedom for a self which never did exist, and never could…


To see this – to see our conditioning and the fact that we are not our conditioning – is not as impossibly difficult as we may think it is. Living life as the conditioned self turns out in the end to be impossibly difficult (since it means living life on the basis of an illusion, living life on the basis of what isn’t true) but seeing this truth is not impossible, as Jiddu Krishnamurti says here –

To free the mind from all conditioning, you must see the totality of it without thought. This is not a conundrum; experiment with it and you will see. Do you ever see anything without thought? Have you ever listened, looked, without bringing in this whole process of reaction? You will say that it is impossible to see without thought; you will say no mind can be unconditioned. When you say that, you have already blocked yourself by thought, for the fact is you do not know.


So can I look, can the mind be aware of its conditioning? I think it can. Please experiment. Can you be aware that you are a Hindu, a Socialist, a Communist, this or that, just be aware without saying that it is right or wrong? Because it is such a difficult task just to see, we say it is impossible. I say it is only when you are aware of this totality of your being without any reaction that the conditioning goes, totally, deeply; which is really the freedom from the self.



One comment

  1. imonpradhan · September 28, 2015

    Simply speaking, consciousness can only be purest when concepts and definitions are buried. Great read !


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