How can the tyranny of a fixed repeating pattern ever bring itself to an end? The answer to this question is simply that it can’t. The pattern has no way to bring itself to an end – whatever the pattern does is the pattern and so there’s no way out from this. How can the pattern do ‘no pattern’? How can the pattern do ‘the absence of itself’ when everything it does is itself?
This is the key psychological insight. It is the key psychological insight and it is also the one thing we never see to get. Even our most highly qualified psychologists don’t get it. We are all suffering from the same type of mental blindness. We are after all always trying out new ways of ‘ending the pattern with that same pattern’ or ‘changing the pattern on the basis of that same pattern’. We never tire of looking for a ‘new, improved way’ of changing the pattern on the basis of that same pattern and we never give up the hope that one day we will find it…
The pattern that we’re talking about here is the pattern which is our everyday mind, the pattern of our habitual way of seeing things and doing things. This is the pattern that we’re stuck in, the pattern that we’re always trying to escape from (either consciously or unconsciously). It’s our very limited ‘way of being in the world’. Another name for this fixed repeating limited pattern that we’re always trying to escape from is the self.
Saying something like this tends to sound rather strange. It sounds strange because for one thing we don’t see ourselves as being ‘stuck’ in the self, and for another thing we don’t see ourselves as always trying to escape from it! This awareness would of course be incongruent with the whole general accepted idea of ‘the self’ – if I am who I am (which presumably I am) then how can I be ‘stuck’ in who I am? If I am always trying to escape from the self then this would imply that the self is in its nature ‘lacking in freedom’. If it wasn’t lacking in freedom then why would I need to escape from it? And yet who sees the self as being a ‘fundamentally unfree situation’?
A ‘fundamentally unfree situation’ is however exactly what the self is – the self is a pattern of perceiving, thinking and behaving that we are stuck with, it is a fixed and repetitive pattern of seeing the world that we can’t do anything about. How after all can we do something about the way we see the world? Suppose I don’t like the way I see the world, suppose that it is causing lots of difficulties for me, lots of problems for me, and I am trying on this account to change it. Any way that I try to change my way of seeing the world (or my way of thinking about the world) is inevitably going to be guided by that same modality of seeing, by that same modality of thinking. Whatever I do to try to change my way of seeing the world is that same way of seeing the world because I simply don’t have anything else to go on. This constraint (or ‘blinkeredness’) is the very problem in the first place!
What I understand the problem to be is a function of my way of seeing the world, just as my understanding of what constitutes ‘the solution’ to the problem is a function of my way of seeing the world. How can I escape from my way of understanding the world on the basis of this same understanding? How is this ever going to work? My way of seeing the world (or thinking about the world) is behind me, not in front of me. It’s always behind me. It’s my blind-spot. It determines me, I don’t determine it. If I get caught up in trying to change myself then I am as Alan Watts says like a puppy feverishly chasing its own tail…
This is why we are saying that the self is an ‘unfree’ sort of a thing. I might – in the general run of things – think that I am the boss, that I am the one who is in control, but how can I be the boss, how can I be the one who is in control, if something else that I am not able to see is controlling the way I understand the world? What kind of a joke is that? It is my pattern of seeing the world (or thinking about the world) that is really in control. The pattern is in control. As we have said, it determines me rather than the other way around and so how can I possibly say that I am free?
There are two basic ways in which we can (try to) get around this fundamentally ‘stuck’ or ‘unfree’ situation. One is to say that that we agree with the position that we don’t have any choice about so that the problem of us having no choice in the matter never gets to be highlighted, never gets to come to our attention. In this case I say that I am not controlled to see things in the particular rigid way that I do, but I actually want to see things this way. This is my way of seeing things and to hell with any other way! Or as we could also say, this way is the right way and all other ways are the wrong way. This ploy allows me to feel good about being confined to the particular pattern of being in the world that I am confined to – in this way my lamentable lack of freedom is turned into a virtue! I am validating my own unfree position…
This is like Robert Anton Wilson’s joke about the fiddler who torments his wife by playing the same note on his violin over and over again day after day, week after week, month after month. “Can’t you play other notes as well,” she finally asks in desperation, “like other violinists do?” Her husband snorts in derision. “Those other guys are still looking for the right note,” he answers, “I’ve found it…”
Validating our prison is one way that we have of solving the problem; the other way is to make ourselves feel better about being stuck by continually imagining that things are improving (or could improve for us if we play our cards right). This is ‘unreal escaping’. We make ourselves feel better about being stuck in the prison that we are stuck in by investing our hopes in plans and strategies to improve our situation, to upgrade our situation. This is of course something that we do just about the whole time – every time we get excited by some goal (or by the prospect of obtaining some goal) we are trying to ‘better our situation’. Anytime we hope anything we are investing our emotional wellbeing in the notion that we can better our situation. This sort of thing (having hopes about this, that or the other) is an inherent part of everyday life, after all. We wouldn’t see anything peculiar about it at all…
In one way we could of course say that it is perfectly legitimate to strive towards improving our situation. In order to stay alive and healthy in this world we have to keep on making goals to ‘benefit’ ourselves. This is a rather big part of life. This is ‘the survival game’. A lot of what we do is not orientated towards straightforward ‘survival needs’ however – there is another type of agenda that has crept into the picture (without us seeing that it has) and this ‘sneaky agenda’ can be seen in terms of ‘the need to assuage our unacknowledged existential insecurity’. If I am hungry because I haven’t eaten for 24 hours then this is a straightforward biological need but if I want to be seen in a particular fancy restaurant hobnobbing with the rich and famous then this is of course another thing altogether! If I need to get a place to live so that I can stay warm and protect myself from the elements then this is one thing, but if I want to have an address in a good neighbourhood then this also is another thing altogether.
Instead of saying that the ‘secret agenda’ that creeps in has to do with our need to compensate for our unacknowledged insecurity about who we are or what we are about, we could also say that it has to do with augmenting our self-image. We want to look good, both to ourselves and to others. Alternatively (and equivalently) we could say that the secret agenda is to change or improve our ‘inner state’, which is to say, the state of being that we happen to be existing in. Thus, if we are feeling some sort of ‘unconscious existential pain’ (such as dissatisfaction, insecurity, alienation, fear, loneliness, boredom, ennui, meaninglessness, frustration, sadness, etc) then this unacknowledged mental pain gets deflected onto our everyday goals, whatever they may happen to be, and it makes these goals ‘call out to us’ much more than they would otherwise do. It makes these goals ‘shine like gold’; it makes them especially appealing, especially attractive, especially motivating…
What we are talking about here is the most basic of psychological mechanisms, the mechanism in which –
the practical, ‘down-to-earth’ meaning of what we’re doing gets hijacked with another, unacknowledged type of a meaning – the type of meaning that speaks to our hidden insecurities, frustrations and fears.
What is actually happening here – as we would know if we paid proper attention to ourselves – is that we’re trying to remedy the unacknowledged pain of our inner hollowness by chasing after this goal and that goal in the outside world. We’re keeping ourselves constantly busy by ‘chasing after illusions’ in other words, and the reason that the illusions are as attractive to us as they are is precisely because we’re not attending to the pain of the hollowness where it really belongs. That’s why we’re seeing it (the pain of the ‘inner absence’ or ‘inner deficit’) where is doesn’t belong, in ‘reversed form’, as glitteringly attractive promises in the outside world. We’re attracted to the wonderfully seductive promise of our inner deficit being ‘magically made good’, only this is happening in an entirely unconscious way.
What we’re really trying to do here – when it comes right down to it – is to escape from the narrow dusty little pigeon-hole which is our way of seeing the world, our way of thinking about the world, our way of being in the world. When we try to ‘improve our situation’ what we’re really trying to do is to escape from the painfully narrow mind-set that we’re permanently trapped in. When we’re attracted to a goal, energized by a goal, motivated by a goal, then what we’re being attracted to, energized by, motivated by is the prospect of escaping from our habitual pattern of seeing things, our habitual way of being in the world, only the limited modality of understanding that we’re trying to escape from doesn’t – by its very nature – allow us to see this.
This is where the irony comes in. What’s leading us on and on, and keeping us forever glued to the narrow track that we’re running along on, is the lure (or ‘carrot’) that is continually being dangled in front of our noses by the over-valent purposeful mind. What’s causing us the pain (i.e. the narrow, concrete and impossibly rigid thinking mind) is the very thing that we using to try to escape from the pain, and so the same basic situation is perpetuating itself over and over again, with no end in sight. This is of course the way it is with all addictions – the cure is the very thing that brings about the need for the cure in the first place. The cause of the pain and the cure for the pain are one and the same thing. As Homer Simpson’s toast goes – “Here’s to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
The fixed and repetitive pattern which is the thinking mind is like an impossibly narrow corset into which we keep on squeezing ourselves. This is in itself only how thinking works (thinking being a narrow, logical sort of a thing, an abstract domain with no actual space or freedom in it, only the goal or solution that we are aiming at). When we’re caught in the situation of thinking all the time however, with one thought forever following on the heels of the next and then the next and then the next, then this means that there is never any space or freedom left to us…
This narrow, rigid way of being in the world (in which there is no space or freedom but only the hope of obtaining the goal) then becomes the only thing we know. It becomes the only reality we know – the only reality we are capable of knowing. We ‘identify’ with this narrow, rigid, constrained pattern of being in the world and we think that it is ‘who we are’. We protect it, we defend it, we promote it and feel good about it. We also feel correspondingly bad about it, but one way or the other we’re stuck with it. We can’t deliberately ‘bring it to an end’ and free ourselves from its pointless tyranny (which is ‘the pointless tyranny of the old’) because – as we have been saying – our attempts to free ourselves from the pattern simply embroils us in it all the more….
And yet this does not mean that we cannot become free from the pattern that we are so painfully (and pointlessly) stuck in. We just need to find the courage to see it for what it really is rather than constantly validating it to ourselves and others. We just need to observe the fact of our own constant self-validating, and this will straightaway give the game away! Similarly, we just need to impartially and compassionately observe the absurdity of our own constant ‘false escaping’, the constant ‘self-deception’ by which we keep on imagining that we can make our situation better by assiduously jumping through this hoop or that hoop, by doggedly chasing after this goal or that goal. Once we find the courage and the curiosity to see what is actually going on (the courage or curiosity to ‘see through the game’) then the prison dissolves all by itself. We don’t have to ‘do’ anything….