The Realm of Familiarity


When we think we get drawn into ‘the realm of familiarity’. When we don’t think – on the other hand – then we find ourselves in the realm of mystery. ‘Mystery’ easily becomes a rather bland sort of a word – mystery, mystery, mystery. It’s so easy to say it, so easy to over-use the word, or use when we actually mean something trivial. The type of mystery we’re talking about isn’t trivial – when we don’t think (when we don’t allow ourselves to get drawn into the familiar context of thought) we find ourselves in what we could call ‘a realm of electric uncertainty’. Normally we make sense of everything by relating what we are experiencing to the framework that is provided for us by thinking – take away this framework and all of a sudden we’re looking at the world in a way that is distinctly unfamiliar. When aren’t utilizing the framework of thought to make sense of everything then we enter into a state of being in which we are ‘radically free’ from all the dull old preconceptions that we are normally tethered to – chief amongst which is the dull old preconception of ‘who we think we are’!


When we think the operation of thought creates not just the object of thought (the ‘thing that we are thinking about’), it also creates the context within which this object is understood. This might not sound hugely significant but it is. This is actually immensely significant. It’s tremendously significant. We normally imagine that we encounter things just as they are – as far as we are concerned we are ‘seeing’ whatever it is, as it actually is in itself. We imagine that we are encountering the world without any artificial context. We are – as it were – playing the game that there isn’t this ‘artificial context’ which we use to make sense of everything we come across, even though it’s there the whole time, as a necessary prerequisite to the rational modality of consciousness. The ‘artificial context’ that we’re talking about here is simply the everyday thinking mind.

When we think we focus on the object of thought but what we don’t focus on is the context that we assume in order to be able to focus, in the way that we do, on the objection in question. This is just how it works – we ignore the ‘ground’ so as to highlight the ‘figure’. We have to ignore the one in order for the other to be brought into focus as an actual ‘thing’, as an actual ‘positive object’. By ignoring the fact that we have assumed a particular context, the object gets to be real for us…


But what this of course means is that the mental object isn’t real at all. It’s only real when we ignore what we have done in order for it to appear to be real (i.e. ‘assume a context’). It’s only real – in other words – when we pretend that the object exists on its own, as an actual objective fact, and turn a blind eye to the way in which we ourselves have created it by assuming the particular artificial context that makes it real. So the game we’re playing here is the game of ‘creating a mental object and then saying that we didn’t create it’, that it was there all along. We’re divorcing ourselves from our own mental projections and we are creating thereby a ‘false reality’ or a ‘false world’ for ourselves. This is a neat trick that we do all the time without knowing that we are doing it!


When we create both the object of thought and the context within which this object is to be thought about, then naturally there is going to be an ‘air of familiarity’ about this object (about this reality, about this world). Of course there is – we made it ourselves! Talking about ‘familiarity’ is actually understating the matter – we’re not really doing justice to the matter when we merely say that there is ‘an air of familiarity’ surrounding the known things which go to make up our everyday world. We’re not going far enough – the defined element or event that we are thinking about in terms of an assumed context, an assumed ‘framework of reference’, is of course the very same thing as that context, as that framework of reference. It couldn’t be otherwise, it couldn’t be anything else than the framework. There is nothing in what we are thinking about that hasn’t got there via the strictly mechanical process of ‘comparison with the assumed context’ and so of course it’s going to be continuous with the artificial context that we are using to think about it.


So when we utilize thought to know about the world what happens is that we get saddled with a context without noticing that this has happened. We don’t see the context (obviously), and neither do we see that we have been saddled with it. As Guru Granth says ‘we swallow the fly along with the sweet’. What we really want is the sweet (which is the thing that we are focussing on) but we keep on getting that fly as well because of the hasty and careless way in which we go about things. If we didn’t want to get a mouthful of flies every time then we should moderate our heedless greedy way of eating the sweets! We should pay a bit more attention.


The thinking mind draws everything into its ‘taken-for-granted’ context of interpretation and by doing so it ensures that everything will be generic; it ensures that everything will be ‘more of the same, more of the same…’ It is a machine doing a job – it’s like a machine for making sausages for example. If there is a machine for making sausages then it is inevitably going to be the case that the sausages in question are generic products, this is implicit in the nature of all machines, after all! So in the same way the ‘product’ of the machine which is the rational mind is also inevitably going to be generic – the product in this case being ‘the world that we know and believe in’!


We are as a result submerged on a daily basis in this ‘more of the same’, in this ‘generic product’ – we are buried deep beneath it, and the more deeply we get buried beneath the generic product of the thinking machine which is the mind the further away from reality we get! On the face there seems to be some sort of honest curiosity going on with regard to the world around us but this apparent (face-value) curiosity disguises a fundamental conservatism, a fundamental ‘fear of the new’. We might look as if we are trying to create some kind of a relationship with the world but really we are making sure everything is on our terms so instead communicating with the world around us we are actually engulfing it. It’s a take-over bid!


Whatever we engulf straightaway becomes part of ‘the realm of familiarity’. Everything we that we engulf, everything that we subsume, straightaway becomes ‘more of the same, more of the same…’ so although we might feel that we are reaching out with our thinking and finding out stuff about the world we’re doing nothing of the sort. We’re pulling in the world into us, we’re pulling it into our sphere of influence and making it ‘part of us’ and this is an aggressive act. Our whole attitude is aggressive; our whole approach is aggressive; our whole way of being is aggressive…


Whilst aggression as a tactic offers the opportunity of a short-term benefit it doesn’t really get us anywhere in the long run. We aren’t actually ‘on a journey’ – we’re just bringing everything down to our level the whole time. We’re acting as a fixed centre, as if this fixed centre were ‘the most important thing’. We’re resisting change, resisting anything that we don’t already know about. Aggression means that we get to ‘gain’ in terms of our ability to control and exploit our environment, but this ability to control and exploit comes at a price and the price is the ever-increasing impoverishment of our environment, the ever-increasing ‘over-simplification’ of our environment. We inevitably degrade our environment (and ourselves too into the bargain) by embarking upon path of maximized exploitation! We’re shooting ourselves in the foot with our efforts to help ourselves – when I see the world purely in terms of myself I’m not seeing the world at all and if this doesn’t constitute ‘an impoverishment’ then nothing does!

This then is what it means to say that by over-using the instrument of the thinking mind we get drawn deeper and deeper into ‘the realm of familiarity’. The world we are so familiar with is the world that we have impoverished by seeing it entirely in terms of ourselves. In our normal modality of being we’re looking at things exclusively in terms of our ‘assumed framework’ and this is a gross oversimplification of the world. We’re reducing everything to our own narrow terms; we’re making it into ‘more of the same, more of the same…’ We’re homogenizing our environment – we’re turning it into a bland monoculture and treating this bland monoculture as if it were the actual world rather than just our own construct. We sing hymns of praise and adulation to this bland monoculture!


The only way not to impoverish (or ‘informationally-degrade’) the environment in this way would be to see it on its own terms, not on ours. This means looking at the world in a non-exploitative, non-acquisitive way. it means that we relate to the world in a genuine way, a respectful way – not a controlling, bullying way. There is actually no possibility having a ‘relationship’ with anything when there is controlling – a relationship means that there are two sides involved not just the one, and when there is controlling there is only the controller, there is only the fixed centre. There is only ‘me’. An actual honest-to-goodness relationship enriches our world precisely because it takes us out of ourselves, away from ourselves. Enrichment occurs as a result of extending oneself, therefore, which is something we all know on some level or other. Hence, M. Scott Peck says,

Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth…

The idea that enrichment occurs as a result of us extending ourselves makes perfect sense, abundant sense, as far as our heart is concerned, as far as our intuition is concerned, but not as far as our calculating, controlling risk-avoiding head is concerned! The head doesn’t get this at all.


There are two entirely different directions that we might go in, therefore: [1] The direction of impoverishment, the direction of ever-increasing ‘sameness’, and [2] The direction of enrichment, the direction of ever-increasing openness and diversity. Put like this, it doesn’t seem to make any sense at all that we would ever opt to move in Direction [1] rather than Direction [2] – even though we actually do go for this pain-filled option over and over again. Why on earth would we ever want to travel in the direction of ever-increasing closedness and sterility and impoverishment? What possible reason could be persuasive enough to compel us to go down this the grimmest of all possible directions? And if we do pause to ask questions of this sort, the chances are that an answer will present itself to us – the only motivation that could be persuasive enough or strong enough to get us to go down this dark and barren road is the motivation of fear.


When we find ourselves constantly thinking – thinking about this, thinking about that, thinking about the other, then it is fear that lies behind it. Even when these thoughts don’t seem to be anxious or fretful in nature, it can still only be fear that is behind them – odd though this statement may seem. All rational thought – without exception – is based on the desire to increase the control we have over our environment, over the world in which we live; we’re seeking ‘purchase’ on reality, we’re looking for an angle that we can exploit! All rational thinking is an attempt to ‘gain territory’ – as Chogyam Trungpa puts it. At root, the desire to gain purchase on reality is grimly serious; gaining territory is an endeavour that by its very nature is completely lacking in sense of humour, completely lacking in lightness of touch, completely lacking in sensitivity. The urge to extend territory has nothing whatsoever to do with the wish to communicate, the wish to engage in a relationship with reality. It is nothing to do with that at all. It’s another type of thing altogether – a much darker type of a thing.


Under most circumstances we remain utterly unaware of the underlying seriousness of our modality of being in the world – the fact that we are constantly trying to gain and hold onto territory. Our thinking doesn’t seem to have the character of grasping desperately onto reality, the character of holding on tightly and grimly onto reality. It might appear quite playful – frivolous even. But no matter what apparent form our thinking might take, not matter what ‘type’ of day-to-day thinking we’re engaged in (be in ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ or whatever in-between) – what’s going on here is the ceaseless attempt to gain ground, the ceaseless attempt to acquire ontological territory…


No matter what we’re thinking about, no matter what type of thinking we’re engaged in, what we’re really doing is converting everything into our own terms. We’re engulfing everything. We’re importing everything wholesale into ‘the realm of familiarity’. This is what thinking is – there’s no way thinking can work any differently. It assumes stuff and ignores that it assumes and this creates the illusion of familiarity. So as soon as we think about something it gets pulled into the realm of familiarity. It gets made familiar – how after all can our own thoughts be unfamiliar to us? The more we think about this ‘something’ the more familiar it gets and what we eventually discover is that ‘familiar’ actually means unreal because the more often we think a thought (without taking a break) the less meaningful it becomes! We think the thing we’re thinking about to death, as it were. Whatever we go over and over again in our own heads becomes in the process more and more impoverished until it become entirely meaningless. Whatever we’re turning over and over proceeds inexorably to the point of being ‘terminally impoverished’. It approaches – with grim inevitability – the state of ‘maximum entropy’.


Familiarity is a funny sort of a thing. It can be perceived in two totally different ways – there are times when we are fond of it and there are other – much rarer – times when we can clearly see it as an obstruction, as a block or barrier between us and reality. Our familiarity is not with reality after all, it’s with our own mind-produced version of reality! This is like saying that we are familiar with our own opinions or our own beliefs – that’s pretty much a foregone conclusion! We’re familiar with our own dull preconceptions of the world, familiar with our own dull preconceptions of ourselves. When we’re fond of the sense of familiarity that is associated with the known world what’s happening here is that we are experiencing fondness for our own particular way of escaping from reality. This is like the fondness an alcoholic would feel for the bottle, or the fondness a heroin addict would feel for the syringe. We’re fond of our means of escaping reality, but at the same time we hate it. We hate it because it’s also our prison…


When we experience familiarity with the known world then we’re experiencing familiarity in relation to a hallucination. It’s hallucinatory familiarity we’re talking about here. We’re fond of this sense of familiarity therefore insofar as our agenda is to turn our backs on reality, run away from reality, hide from reality, etc, but the other side of this is that if we’re not trying to escape (if our motivation isn’t that of flat-out denial of what we know deep-down to be true) and we actually do want to reach out and taste life (rather than merely tasting our own flavourless generic version of it) then what good is our ‘sense of familiarity’ going to be to us then? The sense that we are ‘familiar’ with the world around us (that we actually ‘know it well’) is going to be like a thick wall of glass that we’re trapped behind.


Familiarity only exists in relation to a hollow (and fundamentally unchallenging) illusion, whereas wonder exists in relation to a reality that is not hollow, and which is profoundly challenging. Put like this, it might seem like a very strange thing that we all tend to go for the suffocating familiarity of ‘closing reality down’, rather than the wonder and electric uncertainty of ‘opening reality up’. And yet how we relate to familiarity (either with fondness or without fondness) depends entirely upon where we’re coming from. If it’s security that we’re looking for then familiarity looks very good to us! It looks very good indeed. If we running away from fear then familiarity looks like the very thing we want – it ticks all the boxes, it meets all the criteria. The realm of familiarity is where we want to be when we’re looking for security and we certainly aren’t going to be looking any further than this! We’ll stick. We’ll keep it as superficial as possible and then – hopefully – we can just forget about the fear-demon that was on our tail. We can go safely to sleep…


When fear is the motivation then if there’s one thing that’s absolutely for sure it’s that we aren’t going to be examining our nice secure reality to make sure that it really is as secure as it looks on the surface to be. We won’t look beyond the ‘comfort value’ of the familiarity that cloaks the hollow illusion of what we ‘think we know’. Why would we do this? We’re not stupid, after all. We know what side our bread’s buttered on. So just so long as its security we’re in the market for, then we’re going to be very happy indeed with the realm of familiarity and we’re going to make damn sure that we don’t ever look too closely into it…