What happens when we create worlds for ourselves that are existentially ‘non-challenging’ is that we promptly fall asleep on our feet. This isn’t just something that is probable (or even very likely) – it is an inevitability. It happens every time…
An ‘existentially unchallenging environment’ is one in which everything is defined for us and if everything is defined, if everything is ‘in its right conceptual box’, then where’s the existential challenge in this? Everything just becomes an exercise in accounting. Because there’s no challenge in the moment there is no ‘being present’; because there is no more than ‘what superficially appears to be there’ there is similarly no more to us than ‘what superficially appears to be there’. We are (pretty much) the products of our environment – when we adapt to an environment that is only skin-deep then the same becomes true of us, when the only world we know is a world that has no actual content then neither do we. This is because – in the absence of an effort in the direction of self-inquiry – we can’t help using our environment to define ourselves.
This tends to be a point we don’t immediately get – we’re only too used to realities that have already been defined for us, predigested realities, realities in which there is never any more than ‘what superficially appears to be’. Because of this it is hard for us to see that there is anything peculiar or untoward about this situation. The reason the ‘world of appearances’ is a peculiar one is because reality itself is not merely ‘an appearance’ and so we’re diverting from what is real without knowing it. Appearances are what we see and relate to but that is strictly our own affair – what we see or understand as ‘being real’ has nothing to do with reality, nothing to do the actual nature of reality itself. Appearances have a particular form to them – they have hard edges which we can focus on to the exclusion of anything else. We ourselves create these ‘edges’ and having created them we proceed to treat them as if they are the only important thing in life – we treat the edges that we’ve made as if they themselves are reality. The ‘edges’ that we’re talking about here come out of our thinking, needless to say, because thinking is all about edges, or ‘cut-off points for our attention’.
When ‘an edge’ equals reality then everything straightaway becomes flat. The world becomes flat – there’s no depth involved. Depth doesn’t come into it – the idea of ‘depth itself is lost. Where the edge is then that’s what’s real and behind that sharply uncompromising edge there’s nothing, nothing has been defined, nothing has been presented and that means that as far as we are concerned there is nothing. It’s as if we have turned up the focus on our focussing mechanism to make the image we’re seeing as sharp as possible; it’s only the mechanism (i.e. the conceptual mind) that does this however – this two-dimensional sharpness doesn’t exist in the world itself. The world itself has nothing in common with the image that is presented on a flat plane, as if nothing else existed but that flat plane.
If we take the time to relate to the world without the help of this focussing mechanism (and hitting a flat-plane representation with nothing behind it) then we will encounter this unfocussed phenomenon that we have called depth. Depth means that ‘the more you look, the more you see’ (as Robert M Pirsig says); reality reveals itself when we give it the space to do so, when we don’t hurry it along by ‘pressing for a conclusion’. If we press for a conclusion then we get the conclusion that we have pressed for and that’s all we get. We never go beyond it, we never get surprised. When we don’t ‘take charge of the process’ in this way then we keep on being surprised, we keep on seeing more than we thought there was to see. This quality of there being more in the situation than we initially perceived there to be constitutes what we have called ‘depth’ and depth is therefore the existential challenge that we have said designed environments don’t contain.
The essentially open nature of reality constitutes an existential challenge for us because of the demand that is being made on us to be present with a reality that has no precedence and which on this account we are not prepared to deal with. All we have is ourselves and this is a challenge because we not used to dealing with reality ourselves – we’re used to dealing with it with the help of external authority of the thinking mind, which is a collection of gimmicks and procedures and formulae that have been passed down to us, not ‘all on own’, which is what is required of us now. Life is making a demand and that demand is that we attend to what is happened right now, which has never happened before, rather than assuming that we know what is going on and moving on to the next (known) thing, which is what we usually do. The demand to attend to an unknown present moment is also the demand to attend to (or question) ourselves, and this is the one thing we never want to do. This then is the boon that the constructed environment bestows upon us – the constructed (or ‘designed’) environment bestows upon us the boon of not ever having to look at ourselves. Because the world we are relating to is made up of sharply-defined surfaces with nothing behind them so too have we become a ‘sharply-defined surface with nothing behind it’ and because there’s ‘nothing behind it’ we don’t need to examine ourselves. There’s no point because we already know everything there is to know. We are thereby protected from what Chogyam Trungpa calls ‘a direct perception of what is‘.
The question here is then, why is the challenge of having to examine who or what we are so very frightening to us? Why are we so very keen to run away from it? One way of explaining our ‘reluctance to examine things too deeply’ is to say that we simply don’t want the apple-cart to get upset. Seeing that the world is other than the way that we took it to be means that we have to go right back to the drawing board and that means a lot of hard work. It also means seeing that we have wasted a huge amount of time and effort on the wrong idea of who we are and what life is all about, and seeing this is in itself hard work. That is actually the hardest work of all! Everything we thought was wrong. Having to let go of everything we thought we knew and go back to the drawing board is the hardest work there is and so it is hardly surprising that we would want to run away from something like this. Faced with the two possibilities of either carrying on in our denial and ‘putting off the moment of truth’ for as long as we possibly can, and deciding to turn around from the road of denial and go back to start again it is clear what the easiest (and therefore most attractive) option is going to be…
We had this comfortable little illusion going for us there – we thought we had everything sussed out, we thought we had a handle on everything, when all of a sudden the rug gets pulled out from under us and we discover that we were only fooling ourselves. We’d been asleep, in other words, so now is the time to wake up. This is still puzzling however because when we wake up there’s a whole interesting world there to find out about and this has got to be the most exciting challenge ever! Why then do we react so badly to this challenge? Admittedly – as we have just said – we have to overcome our initial resistance to seeing the truth, but is this enough by itself to explain our tremendous antipathy to encountering ‘reality as it actually is’? The world that is made up of defined surfaces isn’t that great a world, after all; far from being in any way ‘great’ it is completely sterile, completely lacking in anything that can ever genuinely surprise us, and so why are we so very keen to stay in it, not knowing of any other world and not wanting to know either? Why do we refuse the richness of the non-conceptual mind in favour of the generic ten-a-penny two-dimensional pseudo-world that the thinking mind constructs for us? What the hell – we might well ask – is going on here?
What we’re really asking here is “Why is psychological work so very inimical to us?” Why is the existential challenge that is inherent in life itself something that we are just not prepared – under any circumstances – to countenance? The answer to this question is very simple – when we have identified with the mind-created self, which is the self that is constructed out of edges, out of hard-and-fast boundaries, then psychological work is a complete impossibility for us. There couldn’t be a more complete impossibility than this. Psychological work (or ‘conscious work’) means going beyond our boundaries and the mind-created self can’t do this – it can’t do this because it IS its boundaries. That’s the whole point of the defined self – that it can’t be what it isn’t defined as being! The defined self is only what it is defined as being and so it can’t ever go beyond these limitations (no matter how much pain and frustration they might entail) – going beyond its own boundaries is the same for the defined self as dying. To embrace the new is to let go of the old and the bottom line is that we just don’t want to do this – our resistance (or ‘inflexibility’) here is absolute…
As soon as we being to attend to the world around us we are challenged. Our idea of ourselves is challenged and that idea is sacred to us. That idea IS us. Our orientation towards life is totally based on this idea of ourselves – our interest is totally in the direction of ‘acting on behalf of this idea’, not ‘questioning it’. That would be going in the other direction entirely! There are two entirely distinct modes here – ‘doing mode’ and ‘reflecting mode’ – and if we’re in the first mode, the purposeful mode, then questioning ourselves doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s giving up or sacrificing the very thing that’s most important to us (the only thing that’s important to us!) because it’s only through unreflective purposeful doing that we can perpetuate the illusion of the controller, the illusion of the doer, the illusion of the purposeful self. The purposeful self only gets to exist because of the way it always defines itself by consistently relating itself / orientating itself to the sharply defined surfaces of the constructed world, as we said earlier.
‘Being asleep’ means that we have identified ourselves with a whole bunch of mental constructs. We can’t even differentiate between what we have called ‘the constructed world’ and the idea of who we are (i.e. who it is that inhabits this world) because each requires the other in order to carry on existing. The purposeful self and the defined world within which it lives are mutually conditioning phenomena – they are the two sides of the same coin. Inasmuch as I experience myself to be this ‘mind-created me’ I am going to have no interest in what lies beyond the sharply-defined representations of the world that the mind has created for me; not only am I ‘not interested’ in the reality that lies beyond my concepts, I am mortally afraid of it. I am never going to admit its existence, no matter how much pressure I am under. Admitting the existence of a reality that lies beyond my concepts is the same thing as admitting my own non-existence!
Our relationship with unconditioned reality – when we are identified with the defined self – is the relationship of fear. ‘Fear’ is relating by not relating – we don’t know what we are relating to because we aren’t relating to it, but at the same time we can’t help knowing about it for the very same reason, because we are so deliberately not relating to it. To consistently turn away from something is to orientate oneself towards it in a negative or reverse fashion so when we are afraid of the unconditioned reality (which is the world beyond our constructs) then our whole lives are based on fear, even though we can’t see it. Fear is what lies behind our rigid posture in life, our constant tedious tropism towards defined goals or definite outcomes, but at the same time we never look at why we are the way that we are. We have no curiosity towards ourselves; fear does not examine itself, after all – if I am afraid I do not want to see deeply into the nature of this fear! We don’t see what we are afraid of for what it is – we don’t see unconditioned reality for what it is, we simply know that we need to avoid it at all costs… If we saw that what we were so afraid of is actually reality itself, then this would tend to give the game away big time, and that’s what we don’t want!
It is because we don’t want the game to be ‘given away’ that we are so very fond of conditioned environments, environments that we have created for ourselves out of the thinking mind, environments which are seamlessly defined so that there is no radical mystery in them anywhere. To gaze upon a radical mystery would be to gaze upon the beginning of our own non-existence – the self-which-is-a-construct-of thought cannot afford to have any dealings with the Great Mystery which is reality! The constructed self is most emphatically not a philosophically-minded type of an entity – it is – as we have been saying – purely practical in its approach. It just wants to know what the goal is, and how it is to obtain it, and then it is happy. It is like a wind-up clockwork toy in this regard – we just have to prime it and then we can let it off to ‘do its thing’. Being wound-up clockwork toys, all we want is to ‘do our thing’! We don’t want to know why we are to do it – we just want to ‘get on with the job’, we just want for there to be nothing obstructing us in the fulfilment of our mechanical task. If something stands in the way of us going through our predefined routine then this is immensely irritating, immensely frustrating to us. There’s nothing worse!
‘Going through our predetermined routines’ equals being asleep and when we’re asleep we want to carry on being asleep. We don’t want to be disturbed. Beware waking up sleeping people, as Anthony De Mello says! They won’t like it, they won’t be happy with you. When we’re asleep we just want to whizz around and around and around on the tracks that have been laid down for us. We don’t want anything to get in our way. We just want to play our games. It is for this reason that we have created a world for ourselves that is made up entirely of defined surfaces, which is a world that has had all the actual content taken out of it…
Art: Sean Norvet