Imaginary Work


If we say that psychological work is where we have the capacity not to automatically resist our own inner state (i.e. not to try to make it different to the way it actually is) then clearly ‘non-work’ is where we aren’t able to draw upon this capacity. ‘Non-work’ – we may say – is where we do automatically resist our inner state, one way or another. It is where we are constantly (and insightlessly) trying to make things be what they aren’t…


It is however not sufficient simply to say this. When we are ‘resisting’ we do not perceive ourselves to be engaged in non-work – if we did perceive this to be true then this perception would constitute genuine honest-to-goodness psychological work! To see that we are in the state of non-work is itself work. To see the truth is always work – it is ‘work’ because we are not simply passively accepting what is given to us. Seeing the actual truth is psychological work because we are not automatically (or ‘helplessly’) identifying with the generic, mind-created version of what is supposedly the truth. There is some degree of wakefulness involved, rather than mere mechanical acceptance of what we are being told.


When we are resisting we imagine ourselves to be working even though we are not. I am ‘straining towards a goal’ and thus any movement (any ‘progress’) in the direction of achieving this goal will be seen as evidence of work. Even if I am not visibly progressing (or even if I am ‘going backwards’) with regard to obtaining the desired goal I will still perceive myself to be working because I am fighting, because I am struggling. There is ‘straining’ involved. My habitual automatic resistance is therefore what I see as work. The point is though that just so long as I am straining, just so long as I am tensing up inside myself, this is not psychological work. It’s ‘running away without realizing that we are running away’. This is therefore the exact reverse of how we would normally see things – usually we feel that if we are trying to change things then this is work and if we aren’t trying (if we aren’t ‘straining to reach some goal or other’) then this definitely isn’t work. This is the difference between genuine psychological understanding and what we might call non-psychologically minded understanding – to our regular type of everyday understanding straining to obtain a goal is always regarded as work.


‘Work’ is here being understood as being identical to ‘control’ (or identical to ‘the attempt to control’). This however is looking at thing backwards – if I am attempting to control then I am resisting my inner state, and ‘resisting my inner state’ is as we have defined it non-work. If I am attempting to maintain control then I am trying to escape from ‘not being in control’, and this is non-work! Or to put it another way, if I am controlling then what I am essentially doing is running away from uncertainty, running away from risk. I am running away from something that frightens me – I am running away from my own vulnerability and attempting to reach the maximally-defended (or maximally-protected) state of being ‘totally in control’. When I am controlling I am trying therefore to reach the ‘closed-down’ state of being invulnerable and so in what way can we call this work?


Work – very clearly – would have to be where I am not running away (for all I am worth) from my own vulnerability. To ‘be’ is to be vulnerable and so when I run away from my own vulnerability I am running away from my actual being and this ‘running way from my own being’ is what non-work is all about. So work is where I am not running away, obviously. There’s no way that ‘running away and not even seeing that I am running away’ could ever be work! Work is difficult and it is ‘difficulty’ that we are running away from.The understanding of what constitutes either work or non-work is however a subtler sort of thing than we might at first imagine, as we have already suggested. I can’t fight against myself so that I am no longer running away – that would be me trying to control the situation, which is ‘security-seeking’, which is ‘risk-avoiding’, which is non-work. Control is always non-work. The glitch is that if I try not to be running away (if I try to not to be in the state of non-work) then my motivation for doing this is fear and so I am simply ‘running away from running away’. This of course is not really changing the situation! I’m doing the same thing I always do, so it can hardly count as ‘work’…


Running away from my running away is not solving the glitch, it is adding another loop to it. It is another twist to it. Any sort of straining to either avoid one situation or facilitate another is control and control – as we have said – is always non-work. It’s just ‘trying to get away from what we don’t like’, which is the basic bog-standard mechanical motivation that we always follow. ‘Not straining’ on the other hand sounds like failure to us – it sounds as if we are going along helplessly with whatever ‘bad thing’ is happening to us. It sounds like we are going along with whatever despairing feelings might come along when we stop fighting. We all know what ‘giving in to despair’ is like and this unhappy state of affairs surely isn’t work! This is therefore what we are afraid of if we stop trying, if we stop straining, if we stop with the goal-orientated efforts, if we stop with the positive thinking. But if this is our motivation to keep fighting (which it is!) then what this means is that we are ‘afraid not to be positive’ and what this means is that our trying, our positivity, is simply fear by any other name. Our constant positive trying is ‘fear in disguise’, as we would know if we were in any way psychologically-minded.


We don’t want to fall into the swamp of despairing feelings because we know how hard it is to get out of it again. We don’t want to give up, we don’t want to succumb, and so this is why ‘not resisting’ sounds wrong to us. Getting caught up in despair isn’t what ‘not resisting’ means however. Despair is a ‘closed down’ state of mind – we’ve already decided that the place that we’re in is ‘just not workable’ and so we’re just closed down to it. We’ve switched off. Instead of being overtly aggressive we have become passively aggressive and this is just the same game being played another way – passive aggression is resistance just as aggression is! Saying that ‘everything is going to be terrible’ is non-work just as saying that ‘everything is going to be great’ is – either way we’ve ‘made up our minds’ and are not relating to reality any more. We’ve ‘closed down’. We’re just relating to our own conclusions, our own thoughts. Although we don’t see it as being the case, whenever we relate to the world that is made up of our own thoughts as if this were reality (as if this is ‘the way that things are’) we are in the state of despair! Whenever we’ve closed ourselves down to reality this is despair – what else could it be? How else could we describe it? How could the closed-down state ever not be despair?


In the closed down state (which as we have said is the state in which we relate to our own conclusions as if they were a final reality) there are only two possibilities – there is either the possibility of elation or the possibility of despair. And since – as Johannes Fabricius says in The Royal Art of the Alchemists – elation is only the denial of despair, it’s the same basic package either way. Either we have despair or we have the denial of despair. Take your pick. Thoughts – when we concretely believe in them – can only ever do two things for us – they can either give rise to the state of elation or to the state of despair and ultimately there is no difference between the two. It’s the very same coin spinning endless around and around, showing first one face and then the other. This is the coin of samsara, samsara being ‘illusion that we can’t see to be illusion’.


Work therefore is where we relate not to the world that is made up of our thoughts (i.e. the ‘projected world’) but the world as it is in itself, which we cannot conceptually ‘know’. How can we despair about a situation that is in its very essence uncertain? Our situation may be extremely difficult, extremely painful, but it is nevertheless at all times a living situation, a dynamic situation. The world of our thoughts – which is to say the world of our definite conclusions – is however not a living situation. The world of our thoughts is static rather than dynamic and relating to the static picture that is being presented to us by our thoughts (in such a way that we flatly believe in this picture, in such a way that we take it at its face value) is never work. How can relating to illusion that we can’t see to be illusion ever be work?


Accepting the world that thought presents to us at face value cannot ever be work because this is an entirely passive sort of a thing to do. All we do is ‘passively receive the imprint’; all we do is ‘allow ourselves to be moulded by the official template’. Thought tells us that things are good, that things are great, and we’re over the moon. We’re as happy as Larry. We’re in top form. We’re delighted. Thought tells us that our situation is bad, that things are really terrible, and we’re down in the dumps, we’re in a rotten mood, we’re in the depths of despair. Where’s the work in this? Along with telling us that things are either great or terrible thought also tells us that we need to control so that we can obtain the one outcome rather than the other. Once we believe that one outcome is great and that the other is terrible then – obviously – control is the only way to go! What else can we do? We have to control. Evaluation and control are thus one and the same thing. They are inseparable – evaluation is control and control is evaluation. When we’re tied into the evaluating / controlling modality then we’re tied into a formulaic, black-and-white way of seeing the world, we’re tied into a generic, pre-conceptualized way of understanding the world, and being completely restricted to this formulaic, black-and-white way of seeing the world, this generic, pre-conceptualised way of understanding the world, is the very essence of what we are calling ‘non-work’.


Everything that happens on the basis of the generic mind is non-work. Everything is pre-decided and all we have to do is ‘go along with it’ and even this isn’t a choice because we don’t know that what we’re going along with is ‘a pre-decided or generic version of the world’. We think that we’re making genuine choices. We think we’re acting freely. We ‘fit into the generic pattern’ without realizing that we’re fitting into anything and this unconscious compliance is the very essence of non-work. Work – in contrast to this passive state of affairs – means not automatically seeing things in the same old way that we always see them. It means not compliantly seeing the world within the terms of the generic format that we have been presented with. Work means – in short – not automatically believing our own thoughts!


What we have here therefore are two different ways of looking at what ‘psychological work’ is. The first way is to say that-

Psychological work is when we have the capacity not to automatically try to change (or resist) our own inner state.

And the second way is to say that-

Psychological work is when we have the capacity to see the world in a way other than the way that we have been given to see it by the ubiquitous thinking mind.

These two ways of approaching the crucial question as to what is meant by the term ‘psychological work’ may sound different but they come down to the same thing. If I can’t help struggling to change things (in accordance with how I think things should be) then this clearly isn’t work because I am being controlled by my need to control. I am entirely pre-determined in what I am doing, and if I can’t see the world in any other way than in the way that has been provided for me by the thinking mind this is also very clearly not work for exactly the same reason. I am passive in both cases. I am being controlled without realizing that I am being controlled. I am ‘being taken for a ride’ by the thinking mind…


Both of these two ways of looking at what constitutes work and non-work follow on from each other because seeing things in such a way that I have to struggle is a function of the way in which I have unwittingly opted to go along with a particular limited way of seeing things. Buying into the black-and-white picture of reality that thought provides us with is also buying into ‘the need to fight against things not being the way I think they should be’. Furthermore – for reasons that will become clearer shortly – the need to fight against things ‘not being the way I think they ought to be’ is the same thing as ‘the need to try to change my inner state’.


If I fall into a specific limited way of seeing the world without realizing that I have fallen into anything, and this specific limited way of seeing the world (which is not mine, but has been ‘given to me’) causes me to perceive reality in a particular way, think in a particular way, act in a particular way, then this is not work and never could be work. Everything about me (including how I think and how I act) has been determined by the template that I have unwittingly adopted – everything about me actually is the template that I have adopted – and since what we are calling ‘psychological work’ is predicated upon me having autonomy in my mode of being in the world, nothing but non-work is ever come out of this situation. Nothing new is ever going to happen – it’s all a foregone conclusion. I don’t have any bearing or influence on what happens – only the assumed template does.


What we are really talking about here are games – we are talking about games and the way we have to unconsciously give away our own freedom in order to play a game. If I have given away all my freedom and at the same time have also given away my freedom to know that I have given away my freedom then there is no way that anything I do from this point on can ever be called work! What I am doing when I hand over my freedom to the game is that I am ‘passively adapting to a determinate structure’. I am passively adapting to a formal system and the thing about a formal system is that there is no free will in it. I am free only to choose between the options that the system offers me; I am free only to see things the way the system demands that I see them; I am free only to ‘want what the system wants me to want’ and this is no freedom at all…


The crucial thing to understand about a game is that I am not free not to play it. I have no choice but to go along with it – I have no choice but to struggle as hard as I can to win and not to lose. In a game I am not free not to be constantly struggling to win; I am not free not to want to win. It’s an involuntary thing – I can’t help wanting to win. Everyone playing a game wants to win – that’s the necessary precondition for playing it! To play a game is to want to win the game, it’s the same thing. When I am playing a game I will say that I very much want to win and I will experience this as being an accurate statement of my true volition. For me it will be ‘subjectively true’ that I really do want to win. But the actual truth – as I could easily find out if only I tested it – is that I have zero choice in the matter. If I have to want to win (if I have no choice in the matter) then how can I possibly say (as I do say) that I really and truly want to win? How can I say that winning is ‘my’ goal? This is such an easy thing to see if we look into it, but the fact of the matter is that we never do look into it. This insight never seems to come our way. We give ourselves over to playing games so much that – as a culture – we have zero capacity to understand what they are all about…


So the thing about games is, as we have said, that there is no freedom in them. To play a game is to enter into a fully pre-determined situation, a situation in which nothing can happen unless it has been determined beforehand. The only choices I have are the choices that are provided for me and so these aren’t really choices at all; all that’s happening is that the determinate system is providing me with the illusion of choice, the illusion of freedom, the illusion of free will. This being the case, we can reiterate that there is no possibility of work within a game. If there’s no free will then there can’t be any work – no one else can do psychological work for us, after all. A mechanical system certainly can’t! There is however the illusion of work and the ‘illusion of work’ is when I strive as hard as I can in order to achieve the specified goal, when I try as hard as I can to win at the game. Striving to obey the rule thus becomes a substitute for genuine work. Striving to obey the rule might feel like work but actually it is the antithesis of it – striving to win (or striving to obey the rule) can’t be work because it is involuntary. Work-within-the-terms-of-the-game isn’t work, it’s just the illusion of work. It’s imaginary work!


Another way of saying that there’s no freedom within games is to say that a game always contains pain. To have zero freedom is to be in pain – this, we might say, is something of a ‘basic psychological principle’. Wherever there is no freedom there is pain because freedom is our inherent nature. Taking away our freedom is therefore ‘an act of violence’. This pain and our desire to escape it constitute the essential mechanism of the game – this is how the game works. When we strive to ‘win’ what we are really doing is striving to avoid the pain that is in the game. ‘Winning’ looks as attractive to us as it does because it covertly represents the cessation of the pain. Our goals are as shiny and glittery and enticing as they are because they covertly represent relief from the unacknowledged misery that we’re in. Because we are not consciously attending to the pain that we’re in (since our attention is ‘outwardly directed’), its promised cessation appears as an actual positive thing that is outside of us, it appears as an external positive value. The motivation in games is all about trying to escape from unacknowledged inner pain. Or we could equivalently say that it is all about chasing unacknowledged inner pain that has been projected onto the outside world as an actual positive value. No other motivation is needed – everything runs on the basis of this very simple displacement mechanism. In a goal we’re trying to escape inner pain and we’re trying to win back our freedom – the two are the same thing. Winning represents ‘relief from the unacknowledged inner pain’ and it also represents freedom from the constraints of the game. We’re ‘playing for our freedom’, in other words.


This is of course a total contradiction in terms because we’re trying to use the game in order to escape from the game and this doesn’t make any sense at all! As James Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games, the contradiction inherent in all games is that they are played against themselves. Our unexamined assumption is that if we invest in the game enough, if we take it seriously enough, then we will somehow be rewarded from this investment by being granted freedom from the game. The incentive to play the game is that if we get good enough at playing it then we won’t have to play it any more. The reason we play the game is to be free from the game! The incentive is deceptive however because the more invested in the game we become (i.e. the more seriously we take the game) the more we let it define us, and the more we let the game define us the less free we are! The ‘unconscious assumption’ is thus that freedom can come about as a result of giving away our freedom (as a result of passively identifying with the rules of the game) and this is clearly the most absurdly nonsensical assumption that it is possible for us to make!


To lose all our freedom is to lose ourselves – it is to lose the essence of who we are – and if we lose ourselves (if we lose sight of who we essentially are) then how can there be such a thing as work? The pain we are running away from is ‘the pain of not being there’, the pain of ‘not being who we essentially are’, and very clearly running away from this pain (which is an awareness) is not going to return us to ourselves, return ourselves to our original state of Wholeness. It’s going to have the very opposite result. This constant unremitting pressure not to see our own essential absence (because we are afraid to see it, because we can’t bring ourselves to face seeing it) is what gives rise to the characteristic activities of our daily lives. In our everyday lives we validate this displacement activity – we see it as being ‘positive’, we see it as being admirably industrious and hopeful. We see not being involved in constant purposeful activity as being reprehensible, as being irresponsible, as ‘letting the side down’. We see our constant purposefulness on the other hand (restlessness, really) as being synonymous with work. But it isn’t work. It’s imaginary work. It’s the avoidance of seeing ourselves as we really are, and the striving after comforting illusions. What we call ‘work’ is us running away from ourselves!