The default situation is one in which consciousness is held prisoner by the thinking mind on a full time basis. We don’t ‘think’ that this is the default situation but it is. There are – we might say – two elements here: on the one hand there is the thinking mind (which is made up of repeating patterns) and on the other hand there is consciousness, its captive.
Consciousness is the fair maiden and the thinking mind the fearsome dragon! This dragon – as dragons usually are – is more than a match for any ordinary opponent. Only a hero has a chance against such a powerful adversary, and heroes are few and far between these days. They are somewhat thin on the ground – this, it is fair to say, is not an age for heroes. Consciousness, it appears, is not about to be freed from its grim prison any time soon…
In this age, in this modern ‘enlightened’ era, we have no understanding of consciousness as being in any way different or separate from the lumbering thinking mind. The suggestion that consciousness has its own life outside of thought and the realm created by thought does not tend to resonate particular strongly with us. It does not tend to resonate at all. Without the over-arching framework of thought (so we ‘think’!) what could consciousness possibly get up to? How could it be any use – what ends could it serve?
As we have just indicated, this is what we think, and the thinking mind never sees its own limitations. It never sees that there could be any life outside of it and its tiresome machinations. As far as thought is concerned everything has to be directed towards an end; if something isn’t serving some end or other then what use is it, what’s the point of it? This is the way rationality looks at things. Because we live in a world that is governed by thought, has been constructed by thought, nothing is given any value unless it serves some end. Thus, to say that something is ‘pointless’ or ‘useless’ is to roundly denigrate it; when we say this there is real viciousness, real unpleasantness in it – the thinking mind has no time for anything ‘useless’. But when we consider the bigger picture – which is something that the thinking mind cannot ever do, since it can only ever concern itself with a single slice of the pie, not the pie itself – we see that all this talk of things ‘having a purpose’ or ‘serving some end’ is quite ridiculous. When we gain a bit of perspective all of this talk becomes utterly nonsensical.
When we consider the whole pie (i.e. life as a whole) rather than just the slice then we see that the notion of purpose (or ‘having a purpose’) is pure foolishness. It is not simply foolish, it is deranged. ‘Uses’ or ‘purposes’ exist only in relation to the narrow view of things; they only come into being when we are looking at the relationship between the elements that we see as existing when we look at a partial (or fractional) view of life. I can say that I am doing X because of Y, that Y is the reason for X and this works fine just as long as we are looking at the fractional view of the world (which is to say, when we are unconsciously excluding anything that does not fit into or have any bearing on this narrow viewpoint). Causality (or ‘purposefulness’) only has any meaning when we take the part to be the whole, in other words; it only has any validity when we are not relating to life / the world as a Whole, which is of course what it is.
Living life on the basis of ‘purposes’ or ‘uses’ is like robbing Peter to pay Paul – it only seems to work on the small scale of things. In reality – as we all know perfectly well – it doesn’t work at all! In exactly the same way we can generate the illusion of ‘progress’ by taking a very narrow view of what’s going on , but this again is pure trickery – we’re only chasing ourselves around in circles. All we’re ever doing is keeping ourselves perpetually busy, perpetually ‘on the hop’. The thinking mind is always working towards some end or other; the thing about this however is that – in reality – there are no ends!
What happens when we reach one of these supposed ‘ends’? Clearly when we get to the end we stop; we stop because we have to stop, we stop because there’s nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. So we just sit there in our imaginary ‘end-point’, satisfied that we have now ‘got there’, satisfied that we have now ‘arrived’. We dig in, we set up camp; we get entrenched and start erecting heavy-duty fortifications (just in case something or someone wants to dislodge us). We’ve attained the prize and we’re not about to let someone take it away from us! So we make a meal of not moving on, of staying stuck in our so-called ‘end’ that isn’t an end at all but only something that the thinking mind has made up. We make a virtue of being stuck, aggressively ignoring or pushing away all the other possibilities that life has to offer and this is the way that consciousness gets to be held prisoner so effectively by the thinking mind.
This ‘imprisoning mechanism’ functions (we could say) on two levels. The first and primary level is the one that we have just been talking about: because of the way we see the arbitrary mind-created position as ‘who we are’ and then spend all of our time defending and promoting it, trying to make everything in our environment serve it, we never see that we don’t have to be doing this. We have – because of what the thinking mind is telling us – made a virtue of our stuckness, our unfreeness, which means that we are now totally and implacably resistant to hearing a word said against it. We have become stubborn, we have become obstinate and the more pressure we’re under the more stubborn and obstinate we become! This is one way which in which we are imprisoned – by being brainwashed by the thinking mind (which loves concrete categories and fixed viewpoints) into implacably resisting change, or by ‘celebrating a fixed and reality-resistant self’ (which is of course the same thing).
The secondary way in which consciousness is imprisoned by thought follows on from the first. The thing is that when we are identified with a fixed and reality-resistant self (i.e. when we reach the ‘terminal destination’ of who and what thought says we are) then we find of course that we suffer greatly from our stuckness. Stuckness is suffering, ‘stuck’ is another word for suffering. We have become sterile, we have become barren of possibilities – all we can do is to keep on going through the same old manoeuvres, the same old stale and tortuously familiar routines. The compulsory repetition of the old, the familiar is torture, even if we are at the same time perversely fond of it, so at this point, rather than being about ‘exploring the new’, life becomes all about entertaining ourselves so as to distract ourselves from being aware of our terminal stuckness.
Our modality of entertaining ourselves follows exactly the same pattern we started off with when we identified with the fixed or final viewpoint that is the conditioned self – we pick out an arbitrary position as being ‘an end in itself’ and then work as hard as we can towards attaining or realizing this end. Once we have an ‘end’ in mind then everything else becomes subsidiary to it; nothing exists for us or has any relevance unless it has some sort of relation to the goal we are trying to attain. We develop ‘tunnel vision’, in other words, and this tunnel vision over-simplifies reality for us so that everything becomes about either succeeding in our task or not succeeding. This is a profoundly unreflective state of mind- we are in no way interested in asking questions about why it is so great if we attain the goal, or so bad if we don’t. All our attention goes into the ‘how’ of the situation not the ‘why’. Then when we have attained the goal we move on to the next, and the next, and the next, ad infinitum.
This terminal unreflectiveness is precisely what ‘consciousness’s prison’. This is what makes up the jail that we are perpetually languishing in – the compulsion that we do not see as a compulsion, but our own free will. The compulsion that we are talking about here is the compulsion to obey the rules of the game that has been set up for us to play, without ever questioning them. The game that we are playing is our prison, in other words. We think we’re playing the game but we’re not – the game is compulsory, which is to say, the tables have been turned without us realizing it and the game is playing us!
The thinking mind is the game creator. If we were to know the thinking mind for what it is, we would know it as the creator of games! It doesn’t let us know it as such however – it veils its true nature from us better than anything is ever veiled. We never see the mind’s productions as games! To suggest to someone that their thoughts are merely games, and that the mind-created picture they have of themselves and the world is also a game is to invite incredulity, if not outright hostility. Our thoughts are serious; our idea or beliefs about ourselves and the world are deadly serious – wars are fought over these arbitrary mental constructs. Actually, all the wars that have ever been fought are ultimately over ideas that we refuse to see as just ‘ideas’, thoughts that we take as seriously as can be. All aggression, all violence, all cruelty comes from taking the productions of the thinking mind seriously, and never ever looking beyond them to their mechanical creator, the rule-based mind.
When we do see beyond the humourless productions of the thinking mind then this is consciousness escaping from its prison of seriously, its prison of ‘a game that it cannot see to be only a game’. A game, as we have said earlier, is where we have a tunnel vision of reality. What attracts us to the tunnel vision of reality is the very thing that strangles and suffocates us – it’s closure. We are attracted to having everything decided for us, everything determined for us, because it is safe, because there’s nothing there that is ever going to take us by surprise, because we never going to learn that what we previously took to be true isn’t actually true at all. That really isn’t the type of surprise we want to have! What we’re forever chasing after are definites, outcomes that makes sense within the accepted framework, outcomes that reflect the values of the accepted framework, outcomes that are the concrete manifestation of the accepted framework. We don’t like to have the uncertainty of not knowing whether we should chase after these outcomes or whether we should not – we like to have all of these details ‘decided for us’ by the game. [We don’t like freedom, in other words.]Then all we have to do is put all our efforts and attention into achieving the designated goals, the designated outcomes. All we have to do is ‘successfully obey the rules’…
So playing the game ensures that we will never have to be reflective, and this means that everything is going to be ‘safe’. ‘Safety’ comes out of never being reflective, which is the same thing as never being conscious. We could also say therefore that the thinking mind keeps consciousness in prison by constantly finding tasks for it to do. We are kept constantly busy; we are constantly tied up with petty tasks. Hence Socrates says, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” It doesn’t matter what game we are playing, or what the goals are – that’s not the point. The point isn’t the real point. The real point is to keep us busy, to keep us tied up. That is the point behind all games. The ‘horror’ is pointless never-ending self-validating busy-ness therefore and this is exactly what our culture or ‘civilization’ provides us with on a full-time basis. That’s what our culture is all about – empty distractions, empty entertainment, futile tasks, all dressed up and made somehow glamorous. We are in thrall to Norton Juster’s The Terrible Trivium.
The prison is unremitting concrete purposefulness. Purposefulness is the prison because when we’re caught up in it (i.e. when we’re taking our purposes seriously) – then we’re just not there. We’re absent.There is no consciousness in concrete unremitting purposefulness and yet consciousness is who we are.
What happens if we stop being busy? We notice the world around us with all its wonders. What happens if we don’t stop, if we stay locked up in our sterile games? Then we notice neither the world around us nor ourselves….