Holding Onto a Solid Situation


According to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, everyday life is made up of two types of situation. One type is solid and tangible and readily understandable to us – it is of a nature that we can easily get a mental grip on, so to speak – whilst the other type is where there is a ‘gap’ between one solid situation and the next one and where, therefore, there is nothing to get a grip on. So there are two ingredients here: there are the solid structures, and there is the gap that between the solid structures, which is called the bardo state in Tibetan. Sogyal Rinpoche defines bardo as follows –

Bardo is a Tibetan word that simply means a “transition” or a gap between the completion of one situation and the onset of another. Bar means “in between,” and do means “suspended” or “thrown.”

Saying that life is made up of solid situations on the one hand and the gaps that exist between them on the other isn’t final either – that’s only a provisional description, being based purely on our normal everyday way of seeing the world. Ultimately speaking, these reassuring solid and understandable situations aren’t really there – they just seem to be there. They just give the appearance of being there. In reality, there isn’t a gap between one solid continuous situation and the next, there is only the gap. It’s a ‘stand-alone discontinuity’. It’s like a crack in the pavement only there isn’t a pavement! It’s like the hole in a doughnut without the doughnut! Or as we could also say, it’s like the smile of the Cheshire cat without the cat…


Another – more technical – way of talking about the ‘solid situation’ is to say that it’s a logical continuity. An example of a logical continuity is the number line 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc., (or any other string of logically related numbers). There is an unbroken ‘thread’ that connects all of the numbers in the sequence and this ‘thread’ is the logical continuity. The continuity is therefore what offers us the opportunity of getting some sort of mental handle on what is going on – we just have to ‘catch on’ to what the connection is, what the underlying rule is. Suppose there is the sequence {1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32…} – I can in this case very quickly grasp the pattern that is behind these numbers, I can very quickly see what is going on. There is in other words a basic predictability to the situation as well as there being a sense of development or progression, a sense of ongoing change.


As ridiculously simple as this example is, it sets out very clearly the two essential ingredients needed to make what we are calling a ‘solid situation’ – the first ingredient is that there should be this basic predictability (or consistency) and the second is that there should be the apparent possibility of there being some sort of orderly progression. For the solid situation to come about there needs to be rules saying what can and what cannot happen, and in addition to these rules there needs to be the apparent possibility of us getting somewhere new, somewhere different as a result of us playing by these rules. When we talk about ‘holding onto a solid situation’ we mean two things therefore – we mean that we can [1] understand what is going on (which is the predictable element) and we mean that we can [2] have the possibility of controlling what is going on. ‘Understanding’ and ‘controlling’ both equal ‘holding on’ – although when it comes right down to it even if we can’t influence what is going on but do understand it then this in itself is holding on, this in itself is providing us with a basic form of ontological security.


A ‘solid situation’ is therefore a game. A game is an interaction (or series of actions) that take place on the basis of a fixed set of rules. If we didn’t have the fixed rules then we couldn’t have a game, but if we had the rules but didn’t do anything with them then there also couldn’t be a game. In order to have a game we need both to have the game-rules and play by them.


Everyone understands the concept of games but what we aren’t so clear about is the idea that all interactions that take place on the basis of rules are technically games. If we were to accept this definition of games we would see that by far the biggest part of all of our interactions in life (both with other people and the general environment) comes down to game-playing of one sort or another. A game is a mapped-out territory, a known domain – nothing that happens in it can ever be truly unexpected, truly surprising, because nothing can ever happen in a game that is not determined in advance by the rules of the game.


Nothing new, nothing unpredictable ever comes about as a result of following rules – this is the whole point of rules. What type of a rule would it be after all that gave different results each time it was followed? And yet at the same time there is always the possibility of trivial change (i.e. superficial variation) occurring within a game that will lawfully arise as a result of playing by the rules. There can’t ever be radical uncertainty (something that I simply couldn’t foresee) but there can be uncertainty of the trivial variety (i.e. when I flip a coin I wonder if the result be ‘heads’ or ‘tails’). Black or White, YES or NO are the only possibilities in the game…


We’re fond of games because we can rely absolutely on nothing radically unexpected ever turning up during the course of play, whilst at the same time being provided with an effective distraction from the underlying ‘static’ or ‘unchanging’ nature of the rule-based situation. Saying that we’re fond of playing games is the same thing as saying that we’re fond of holding on, therefore. ‘Holding on’ is playing the game; the ‘solid situation’ is the game. We’re fond of holding on because of the sense of security this gives us, because of the guarantee that we have in this situation that there will never be any radical challenge. We are protected from ‘radical surprise’ – holding on to the solid situation of whatever game it is that we are playing means not only that we are never going to encounter radical surprise, it also means that we don’t even know that there is such a thing! The reason the situation is ‘solid’ (and not ‘spacious’) is precisely because we don’t have any way of knowing that there could be such a thing as radical surprise.


The solid situation is a dream we don’t know to be a dream, it’s being asleep when we don’t know that we’re asleep. It’s a game that we don’t know to be a game because the game has replaced reality. Reality itself is the ‘radical surprise’ and the Number One rule of the game is that no radical surprises are allowed!


We don’t have any way of knowing that that there is such a thing as radical surprise because all we know is the game and the game doesn’t have any way of facilitating radical uncertainty, of representing it. The only thing in the game is the game. ‘Discontinuity’ (i.e. something that isn’t the game) is the one thing the game can’t facilitate, therefore!


We said earlier on in this discussion that the solid situation which we are always holding onto in life is essentially a logical continuity. We went on to say that an example of a logical continuity would be any sort of geometrical progression (e.g. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16…). Once we understand the pattern that is being manifested in the series of numbers (i.e. once we understand the underlying rule) then we aren’t ever going to be taken by surprise. We now ‘know what’s going on’. We’re orientated. We know how to play the game, and this is what gives us our sense of security about things. We know how to work the system and we also know nothing radically unexpected is ever going to jump out at us and give us a fright. We can look at the discontinuity in the same way and say that a discontinuity is where there is no underlying pattern, where there is no rule we can follow to tell us what is going to happen next. ‘No rule’ means that the numbers making up the sequence that we are looking at are not connected!


If the numbers we are looking at aren’t connected then clearly we can’t predict what is going to happen next. If the numbers aren’t connected by some sort of recognizable logical thread then there’s no predictability and if there’s no predictability then there’s no way to ‘work the system’. There’s nothing to hold onto in a discontinuity, there’s no way to predict, there’s no way to work the system. Instead of walking on solid ground therefore we are in freefall! As Chogyam Trungpa says,

The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.

So we hang on as tight as we do, as persistently as we do, as stubbornly as we do, because we are living in mortal terror of this situation that Chogyam Trungpa is talking about above. We’re terrified of suddenly discovering that we’re in free fall without a parachute! We’re terrified of the discontinuity (even though we don’t consciously know that there is or could be such a thing). We want everything to be a solid situation; we want everything to be known territory. We don’t want for there to be a gap. Our basic manoeuvre is therefore to jump from one solid situation to the next without ever seeing the inevitable break between the one and the other.


As Sogyal Rinpoche says in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying when we find ourselves (as we do from time to time) in that uncomfortable, eerie, uncanny ‘in-between zone’ where one thing has ended and the next has yet to begin then we straightaway involve ourselves with some familiar routine or procedure in order to re-engage ourselves with the next solid situation, the next logical continuity. We skip over the gap as quickly as ever we can to the next episode that is to be broadcasted by the rational mind (which is really only ever a repeat or rehash of the previous one) and we pretend that the weird in-between bit (the bardo) never happened. we gloss over it. We paper over the crack. We forget all about the bardo state, we develop profound amnesia around the whole subject. Amnesia about the gap means that we ‘go back to sleep’…


The thing about the logical continuity is as we have said is that it very much has the appearance of being a progression, of being a progressive state. It isn’t progressive at all really though – it can’t be progressive for the simple reason that it (by definition) contains zero possibility of radical surprise. If there was the possibility of radical surprise (or radical uncertainty) then there would be the possibility of change. Radical surprise or radical uncertainty is the only way things can change. That’s what change is! In the solid situation (in the logical continuity) nothing can ever change – there can never be any change in a logical continuity because the system simply doesn’t contain the capacity for change…


The logical continuum appears to be a progressive state just as a geometrical ‘progression’ (!) does, but this is an illusion. The whole thing about a logical progression is after all that we can deduce the underlying rule, but if there is an underlying rule then the one thing we know for sure is that this rule itself never changes. It can’t do. So if we take the geometrical progression {1, 2, 4, 8, 16…} the rule is that the starting number gets doubled every time. Simple! But what this means is that nothing new ever happens – it’s just the same old thing (the same old rule) being repeated forever. Once you’ve got the hang of the first step then you’ve got the hang of them all. That is after all precisely what we like the logical continuity for – it’s inherent and unremitting predictability. We like it because it comes with a guarantee of nothing new, nothing radically unexpected ever coming up. But the flip-side of this coin (the coin of ontological security) is that nothing ever changes. That’s what we’re really looking at here – stasis, lack of development, lack of change…


Another (perhaps simpler) way of putting this is to say that the logical continuity doesn’t really exist! After all we have this thing called ‘the logical continuity’ and it is a number line, a rule-based progression, but at the same time there’s nothing in it because it never actually gets anywhere. It only has the illusion of getting somewhere. In reality it never even starts off in the first place! It can’t start off getting somewhere because it’s a tautology. It’s a tautology because where it’s going is contained in its initial starting off position. If the ‘far side’ of the number line is simply a restatement of where it started off from (the ‘near side’) then clearly nothing actually happened. The whole endeavour is bogus. There is no number line. The whole thing is an illusion.


Solid situations are an illusion therefore – they are illusions that we hold tightly onto! The only thing that isn’t a mind-created illusion is the discontinuity, the bardo, which is the unaccountable gap between known areas of experience….


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