There is an Indian saying which says “What you don’t give away, you lose”. This is not too far away in its meaning from the basic principle behind Western psychotherapy, a principle which can be expressed as follows:
The more you risk, the more you are; the less you risk, the less you are
This ‘paradoxical principle’, which lies either hidden or not-so-hidden at the heart of all forms of psychotherapy, can be stated in a more extreme fashion, in which case it goes beyond the limits of conventional psychotherapy and enters into the strange realm of what is generally called ‘mysticism’ –
If you risk everything, you are everything (i.e. you gain everything); if you risk nothing then you are nothing (i.e. you lose everything)
In psychological terms the avoidance or elimination of risk means control, whilst in more general terms it means being faithful to the original idea or pattern. This is where the old-fashioned phrase ‘hi fidelity’ as applied to sound-systems originally came from. In mathematical terms risk avoidance means linearity – linearity is where the essential proportionalities (or ‘ratios’) inherent in the original pattern get preserved at any cost. Things might get shuffled around a bit, or altered in some systematic fashion, but in linear change the essential relationships which make up the pattern have to stay the same.
This ‘preservation of proportionalities’ means that the actual message inherent in the pattern remains unaltered, even if the means of expressing or representing that message changes beyond all recognition. This unbreakable but often invisible logical consistency underwrites all of our rational thinking – it is no coincidence that linearity can be defined in terms of the preservation of key ratios and the word ‘rationality’ contains a ‘ratio’.
Linearity ‘risks’ nothing, it controls itself absolutely, it never deviates from itself – not ever. Its absolute fidelity to its starting-off position constitutes an infinite aversion to ‘taking a chance’.
The rationally-constructed self is exercise in pure, undiluted linearity, which is to say, logical continuity. As an exercise in pure linearity the self’s sole aim is to continue, as it is, forever (and to resist not continuing, as it is, as much as it can). Another way of putting this is to say that the self’s enemy is change. If there is any change, then the continuity of the logical thread which is the self is broken, and this means that ‘the self’ comes to an end. It cannot let go of the pattern that is its ‘self’ and still be ‘true to itself’.
‘Self’ is an immunological term – self is what matters and if anything is not self it does not matter. In fact if something is not self then it is a threat best eradicated from the system.
Self’ means logical continuity – it means an unbroken thread, a continuum or linear cause-and-effect. Any discontinuity (any break in the thread) represents the loss of the self, it means that the self stops being there all the time, which contradicts its prime directive. The self wants to ‘be there’ and it doesn’t want to be ‘not there’. Another way of putting this is to say that the self equals holding on and it doesn’t equal letting go.
The curious thing about this is that it doesn’t matter in the least what it is that is being held onto. That is not the point. The point is that whatever the self started out with, it will proceed to hold onto. Whatever pattern we start off with (whatever that happens to be) we hang onto and pugnaciously assert and defend from then on just as if this pattern actually was or is ‘our self’. On the deeper level however we don’t really care what the structure is that we identify with and believe in just so long as we have a definite structure to identify with and believe in. We hold on not because of the intrinsic worth of what we are holding onto but rather we hold on for the sake of holding on. We hold on for the sake of the sense of security that ‘having something to hold onto’ gives us.
Whatever I start with, I continue. Whatever I am given in the beginning, I want to hold onto for ever. This loyalty to what I know, to the pattern that is me, is not the proud virtue that I say it is, but rather it is a craven vice. I hold on because I am afraid of not holding on – I hold on because I am afraid of taking a risk. The self’s enemy is change – the self fears what it does not know (the ‘new’) above all else. This is the essence of conservatism – what is old is good and what is new must be repressed at all costs. Human kind has proceeded on this basis since time immemorial. Right-wing political organizations are the quintessential example of this immensely powerful (and remarkably ugly) tendency; large amounts of money – pretty obviously – also influence people heavily towards unyielding conservatism.
Psychological conservatism means that I never question or look at whatever it was that I have been given in the beginning. If I did start to examine it then this would be the beginning of change since I would start to see that there is nothing inherently worthwhile about the pattern that I am adhering to. Instead of examining my starting off point, I put all my energy and attention into asserting the pattern, into propagating it and promoting it. I put all my energy and attention into ensuring its continuance, into holding onto it as if it were the most precious thing in the universe. The pattern is like a sacred tradition which has to go on and on forever and at the same time it is also like a totally pointless rule that we always obey simply because we never think of not obeying it…
The self never admits that its enemy is change. It never owns up to the fact that it fears the new and hangs onto the old, for ever and ever and ever, ad infinitum, time without end. Instead, it manages to give the impression that it embraces change and that it is genuinely interested in growth, in new things, new ways of looking at the world. It claims to be dedicated to promoting and sustaining change – it claims to be always pushing forward. This is the number one trick in the self’s collection of tricks and the self is a very tricky customer indeed. Its tricks are its livelihood – its tricks are its guarantee of hanging in there as a going concern, and the one thing the self wants above all else is to carry on hanging in there!
The type of change that the self embraces is ‘change on its own terms’, which is to say, ‘change that suits its own ends’. One of its favourite words for this type of change is progress. When the self says ‘progress’ what it means is ‘progress for it’ and in the same way when the self says that something is ‘good’ it means ‘good for it’. Good for it could well mean bad for everything else in the world but that is beside the point as far as the self is concerned. The point as far as the self is concerned is to promote itself, safeguard itself, augment itself, enhance and embellish itself and so on. Anything that helps towards this aim is good; activity that leads towards this aim is progress.
The continuous unremitting optimization of its game constitutes a huge amount of busy-ness, busy-ness that is by its nature very absorbing and therefore very distracting. It is very easy indeed to get caught up in this ‘optimization activity’, to never ever question it or wonder if there is actually any real sense or purpose to it. Unreflective optimization creates a fine impression of industry and progress, as we can see any time we look out over a big modern city, but all this impressively efficient activity only comes down to one thing – activity for the sake of keeping things the same.
Similarly, behind the smokescreen of frenetic purposeful activity – its ‘busy-bee’ type industry – the self conceals its true intention, which is that there should be no change.
What this comes down to is the plain fact of the self’s implacable resistance to ever risking itself. It will risk anything else, but not itself. This is nothing more than the actual nature of self-hood – that is what it means to be a self. Behind everything it does there is always shrewd calculation – if there wasn’t this shrewd calculation then there would be risk and ‘risk’ and ‘the self’ are two incompatibles. The self gets to be the self only because it never ever takes a risk with its own continuance. The self is the sacred tradition that has to go on and on and it is also the pointless rule that we only obey because it never occurs to us to not obey it.
The self thinks it is being smart by always working to secure its own well-being. But because of the principle by which “the less you risk the less you are” by following the self and its self-orientated logic we become less and less. The self risks nothing and so – when it comes right down to it – it is nothing. The self partakes in the infinite richness of reality not one bit – it is forever excluded, it is forever the spectre at the feast. The self is the perennial hungry spectator, the perennial lonely onlooker.
The more we try to gain (the more we try to satisfy our terrible hunger) the more substance we lose. The more we scheme and manipulate the poorer we become in spirit. This expression makes us laugh because we don’t really believe in ‘spirit’ – we are trained from an early age only to believe in the material world and so all we really believe in is our body and our possessions. But the joke is on us because if or when we do obtain the socially-prescribed ‘over-kill’ in terms of material satisfaction, we do so at the price of losing any sense whatsoever of any deeper meaningfulness about our existence.
Even if we aren’t successful in obtaining the profusion of material goals that are said to matter so much, the fact that we still wish we could achieve them, and the fact that we envy those who have achieved them, means that we end up inwardly impoverished. The attempt to find and avail ourselves of ‘the good stuff’ inevitably results in inward poverty. This idea is found expressed with great clarity in the suppressed Gospel of Thomas –
Jesus said, “If those who lead you say, ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds will get there before you do. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ the fish will get there first. Instead, the kingdom is inside you – and it is outside you. When you come to know yourselves then you will be known, and you will realize that you are the children of the living Father. If, however, you do not come to know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty and you are that poverty.
Because it is at its core hollow, devoid of anything worthwhile, the self is perennially miserable, embittered and frustrated. It is driven ever-onwards by its hunger and its fear, which are at root the same thing. The more driven by its desires and fears, the more it seeks to control and the more it seeks to control the more cut off from the source of everything it becomes. The pain caused by this fundamental alienation makes the self even less interested about anything other than the satisfaction of its own narrow agenda. Its pain – when acted on – causes it to take its game ever-more seriously, even though it is this game that has caused all the problems in the first place.
If we let go of what we are so tightly holding on to we discover something very surprising. We discover that what we were holding onto so hard wasn’t life, but a kind of a mockery of life. The life that we hold tightly onto is a parody of life because life can only be life when we do not hold onto it. In the absence of ‘letting go’ what we call ‘life’ is a sort of a grim duty, a sort of humourless, joyless chore that we are bound to keep enacting day after day. In this case life isn’t so much a precious gift as it is a heavy millstone around the neck. The main feature of my existence is the burden of suffering that I am carrying – suffering that is made up of a million unfulfilled expectations, a million thwarted hopes, a million worries that never go away. And all the time I am driven to carry on trying to win out in a grim struggle that I know deep down I am losing.
As trouble-filled and burdensome as my life might be I still have no wish to risk it. Even if the pain were to get so bad that my thoughts start turning inevitably (as they will) to suicide, this still has nothing at all to do with ‘risk’. When I think about suicide I am not risking anything – suicide is a shrewd, calculated move to protect the self against further pain. The self tries to save itself by removing itself out of the picture – there is no ‘risk’ to the self in this because the whole endeavour is for the sake of the self, just as everything else I ever did was. Suicide is a logical, calculated method by which the self aims to obtain a specific goal, a goal which suits itself. Because it is a method (which is to say, a defined sequence of actions or moves which lead unfailingly to a specified goal) it has nothing at all to do with risk. Methods are all about avoiding risk, they are all about ensuring that we obtain whatever it is we want to obtain.
Genuine risk means relinquishing control, not striving desperately for a preconceived goal. The whole point about risk is that I don’t know where I am going, whereas with control the whole thing is that I do know. As James Carse says, the point about control (or as he calls it, finite games) is that I play in order not to be surprised, rather than playing in order that I might be surprised. When I let go then I am surprised because I discover that what I was holding onto wasn’t life at all. When I let go I no longer have to go through the exquisite torment of having all my worst fears regularly confirmed and instead I discover that life is actually something quite unexpected.
The life of the conditioned self is an unconscious life and unconsciousness is all about ‘the confirmation of our secret or not-so-secret expectations’. This comes down to one thing and one thing only – a life in which I am always reacting against (or fighting against) my own worst fears. We strive to look on the ‘bright side’ of things and thus we say that life is all about aspiring towards positive goals – enjoyment, happiness, peace, creative excellence, knowledge, beauty, and so on. Put like this it all sounds very fine but in reality – as Krishnamurti always pointed out – the constant striving towards one opposite merely strengthens the hold of the other, complementary opposite. As Krishnamurti says, when we try to change ourselves from being violent to being peaceful, the peacefulness that we strive to attain is merely the denial of our violence, which is where we started off from. My so-called ‘peacefulness’ is merely my violent self trying to pretend that it is not violent.
‘Asserting the positive’ is the same thing as ‘denying the negative’. James Carse explained this point (which is notoriously hard to grasp) by saying that we only want to win in order to prove to ourselves and anyone else who might be looking on that we are not the losers we secretly suspect ourselves to be. In the same way, we only strive to find enjoyment, happiness, peace, creative excellence, beauty etc in order to prove to ourselves that the opposite situation is not in fact the case!
The strength of the motivation to reach after the positive is a measure of the degree to which we secretly believe the negative to be true. A fanatical ‘positive thinker’ is a person who is very convinced of the negative and their struggle to ‘be positive’ is nothing other than their desperate denial of what they secretly fear to be their actual situation. The actual situation of the conditioned self is that it is ‘doomed never to amount to anything’. The conditioned self is essentially a knot of localized impoverishment that is ceaselessly trying to enrich itself – the irony in this is that the more the self tries to augment and enrich itself, by engulfing and controlling and taking over all that is around it, the more hungry and empty and sterile it gets. Its attempt to escape from itself is what creates and perpetuates its dreadful predicament.
The self’s positive goals are what lie behind its constant busy-ness and these goals are the denial of its fate. In other words, the self’s activity is the denial of its own true nature, which is why John Bennett speaks of the self that is ‘divided against itself’. Our never-ending industry is important to us because it is only by constantly distracting ourselves from our true situation that we are enabled to carry on with the game. What lies behind the game is the secret, all-powerful master of fear. By striving for a life that is free from conflict, unhappiness, pain and loneliness what we are doing is ‘aspiring to the positive.’ By aspiring to the positive we are strengthening the negative; because we are basically afraid all of these negatively defined states it must be the case that our positive striving equals ‘the denial of fear’. The denial of fear equals ‘fear of fear’ and ‘fear of fear’ simply equals ‘fear’.
At root the conditioned or game-playing self is driven by fear – fear is the tension in the spring that keeps the clockwork mechanism moving. On the face of it the motivation of the spring arises out of intense aversion towards ‘the worst case scenario’. Our suspicion that our own worse nightmare is about to come true in glorious Technicolor detail is the underground driving force. The worse case scenario is however merely the flip-side of what we want to be true, i.e. – our very worst fears are the inevitable consequence of the position I have taken, and have called ‘myself’. Any position, when asserted (i.e. defended) instantaneously creates its own antithesis, its personalized nemesis. It is impossible to take up a position with out calling into being that position’s antithesis. In fact, the position (i.e. the definite statement) and its antithesis are the two poles of the same thing.
On the surface-level the self is motivated by its need to avoid its worse case scenario. The game-playing self is driven by its need to win. On a deeper level of reality however this game is empty and so we can say that what drives the self to keep on playing is its intense aversion to seeing that both ‘its defended position’ and ‘the threat to this position’ mutually create each other. What we are afraid to see is that both ‘me’ and ‘my worst fear’ only exist relatively, which is to say, they only exist in relation to each other (just as ‘up’ and ‘down’ only exist in relation to each other). Just as there can be no ‘up’ without a ‘down’, so too there can be no ‘me’ without ‘my own personalized nemesis’.
Reality is neither the self, nor that which the self fears above all else. It could also be said that Reality is neither the self, nor that which it desires above all else (what the self desires above all else is to be safely delivered from what it fears above all else). Reality is ‘a radical surprise’. Since the self is profoundly averse to radical surprises this also means that the self is profoundly averse to the truth and it is this profound aversion that secretly drives the self in everything it does.
The self fondly imagines that it can talk about reality. Without realizing the gross impertinence of the assumption we are making, we imagine that we can say something meaningful about reality – we imagine that we can ask relevant questions about reality, that we can make relevant statements about reality, obtain knowledge about reality, and so on. But this is ridiculous – all of my questions, assertions, inferences etc are merely logical extensions of my self. In other words, my descriptions of reality are inevitably going to be part of the linearity (i.e. the continuity) of ‘me’.
Because everything I understand is necessarily going to be part of the linearity of the system of my thinking, this means that my thoughts are ‘meaningful-only-in-relation-to-me’ and so they suffer from the flaw of being ‘infinitely relative’. My thoughts are true only with respect to my arbitrarily assumed position – they are the ‘up’ to my ‘down’, or the ‘down’ to my ‘up’. Without the ‘up’ the ‘down’ has no meaning, and vice versa. Similarly, without ‘me’ my ‘thoughts about reality’ have no meaning, and without ‘my thoughts’ my ‘me’ has no meaning. This means that the self and its descriptions do not partake in reality even a little bit. My self and the continuum of thought whereby I entertain conjectures about ‘what is and what isn’t’ are not different, whereas Reality is always radically different, radically other. Reality (from our rational point of view, at least) is the Great Discontinuity – it is the ultimate unguessable, the ultimate surprise.
Whatever I think, whatever I believe, whatever I know are always going to be an extension (or projection) of the same old unsurprising continuity. Thinking, believing, knowing etc, are all exercises in assiduous risk-avoidance – they are the means by which I avoid the risk of encountering Reality! For this reason there is no way that I can partake in Reality without giving up what I think I know, giving away what I think I have, and letting go of what I think I am.