The Exclusive Existence of the Conditioned Self

Whatever we plan for, hope for, anticipate, dread, whatever we imagine life to have in store for us, whatever we feel life to mean to us, or signify to us, we do on the basis of a conception of ourselves that is entirely wrong, entirely lacking in any truth at all. We do all of this planning, hoping, anticipating, dreading, imagining, etc, on the basis of us having some kind of ‘private’ existence, some kind of existence that is ours alone, an existence which no one else can share. “For the waking there is one common world, but when asleep each person turns away to a private one.” says, Heraclitus [Fragment 22]. This is an ‘exclusive’ type of a life therefore – it is a life that we lead in exclusion of everyone else. We live as if we alone truly have a life, as if ours alone is the only life that truly matters…


We will of course strenuously object to this suggestion – it sounds very much as if we are being accused of being narcissist or a psychopath, or something of that sort, and naturally this is not something that we would want to go along with. There is no kudos in being narcissistically self-absorbed and callously indifferent to the lives of all other human beings! Our objections are disingenuous however; we all know well enough that there is a core of truth in this ‘accusation’. It is very much inherent in the actual nature of the concrete self to only really value its own private or exclusive existence – that pretty much goes with the territory. That’s pretty much what everyday egoic existence is all about – that’s the nature of experience that comes with this mode of being in the world…


Intellectually, we know that other people exist and have lives that matter and so we are generally respectful of this to some degree or other (although not always, obviously) but this does not mean that we experience other peoples’ lives as being ‘just as real as ours’ – clearly we don’t. As we have said, the experience of ‘being this self’ is the same thing as ‘not being any other self’. This is necessarily an exclusive rather than an inclusive kind of a thing; there is no such thing as an inclusive self, a self that includes everything – there was then that wouldn’t be ‘a self’, it would be reality, which but its nature is unbounded, undivided, unfragmented. The mechanics of the self involves ‘not-self’, just as the mechanics of UP always involves DOWN.


All of this talk of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ and ‘psychopathy’ is therefore a bit of a red herring. The ego – by its very nature – is a purse narcissist, a pure psychopath. We just don’t to see this because we are committed to that modality of existence, and so we have to make the best of it. We have to put the best possible spin on it that we can, and part of this spin involves demonizing anyone who makes obvious to us all these less-attractive aspects of selfhood. The state of ‘being a self’ is the state of being an encapsulated and therefore fundamentally alienated narcissist and there is no point being squeamish about this. There are of course varying degrees to which consciousness gets trapped in the capsule of the self – we can be partially free from this grim prison in our everyday lives – but if we imagine (as we do) that the self could ever be ‘non-narcissistic’ or ‘non-psychopathic’ in its essential nature then we are simply fooling ourselves…


Once we have got this straight (and we’re not going to get anywhere until we do) then we have at the same time got another thing straight too – we are now able to appreciate the true absurdity of our position as conditioned egos, which comes about as we have said because of the way in which we have been unwittingly compelled to live our lives on a completely false basis. As we started off this discussion by saying, we are – whether we want to admit it or not – living (on some deep unacknowledged level) as if our life were the only one that is truly real, the only one that really counts. Each one of us is doing this (we’re all doing this in tandem) and that’s what conditioned existence is all about! Living life on this basis however guarantees that our so-called ‘life’ will not be real. Life lived within the closed remit of the rational-conceptual mind (which is the same thing as life lived as a compartmentalized self) is always unreal.


Consciousness is not exclusive, only the thinking mind is exclusive in its operation and the thinking mind is not who we are. How can the thinking mind be who we are when it is only a device that we are using, when it is only a way of arbitrarily organizing things? The thinking mind is a pattern of organization but who we are is not this arbitrary pattern but what it is that is being organized. We are the medium not the waves that are being propagated through that medium; we are consciousness itself, not the thoughts or ideas or memories that consciousness facilitates. Consciousness is always whole, never divided. Because it is always whole it has no ‘selves’ within it! It is quite ‘selfless’ in other words although using this term tends to confuse matters because it sounds like some sort of lofty moral stance that we are taking; it sounds like some kind of ‘moral attainment’. Selflessness most definitely isn’t a moral attainment however because the only one who could be ‘attaining’ anything is the one we are trying to get rid of! The only one who could be attaining anything is the self and the self can hardly be expected to attain the state of selflessness, very obviously!  This would be like a fish learning how to be ‘unfish’, as Wei Wu Wei says.


What this means is that the whole of what we call ‘morality’ and ‘moral behaviour’ is really just a preposterous façade. It’s a big joke that we’re just not getting. It’s the narcissist pretending to be non-narcissistic; it’s the psychopath pretending to care! This is hardly going to prove to be a very popular viewpoint on things but that’s purely because our allegiance lies squarely with the ‘comforting illusion’ rather than the inconvenient truth. This isn’t a cynical approach however – we’re not saying that people are at root psychopaths or narcissists but rather that when we operate on the basis of thought (which inevitably entails imagining ourselves to be this compartmentalized or isolated ‘self’) then we can’t really care about anything other than this ‘self that we mistakenly think we are’. It’s not that we can’t be genuinely caring and compassionate, just that we can’t be genuinely caring and compassionate at the same time as being the ‘compartmentalized’ or ‘mind-created self’!


The mind-created self possesses no virtues, much as it likes to imagine that it does. It has no virtues because it has no freedom – very clearly there can be no virtue without freedom. If I am being compelled to do whatever it is that I am doing without seeing that I am being compelled then nothing that I do has any ‘virtue’ because nothing that I do has anything to do with who I actually am! This is not too hard to see if we want to see it – if I am pretending to be somebody without letting on to myself that I am doing this, then how could anything that I am doing on this false basis ever be said to be truly virtuous (speaking in the Daoist sense here rather than the conventional Christian sense)? Nothing can come out of a false basis other than further falsehoods, nothing can come of a lie except more lies…


Virtue can only arise from who we really are, not from the mask that we are wearing without knowing that we are wearing it. The mask (or persona) cannot care and it cannot genuinely mean anything it says; sincerity is not a possibility for the persona (since it is nothing else but a pose or posture that we have arbitrarily struck) and if there is no sincerity then clearly no virtue can ever arise. We have created an arid situation, therefore. The mind-created self (which is a mere mechanism) can’t really feel, it can’t really care, it can’t ever be genuinely happy and it can never know true peace… P.D. Ouspensky says something to the effect that wherever anger, jealousy, pride, bitterness etc arise, this always points directly to the existence of what he calls ‘the false personality’; the false personality can experience only the lower emotions (‘the six poisons’ in Buddhism and Vedanta) – the higher emotions (for example, love, humour, compassion, awe, sympathetic joy) only being possible when we transcend this concrete self.


If there is one thing that we can be sure of it is this – the conditioned identity doesn’t want to know the truth about itself. It doesn’t want to know that it is unfree and that everything it thinks and does is simply the result of it slavishly obeying one mechanical impulse after another. To know this would be to have the bubble of apparent autonomy burst and without this bubble functioning correctly the self cannot continue believing in itself. In order to hide the unpalatable truth of our profound lack of autonomy from ourselves what we do is that we align ourselves completely with each mechanical impulse that comes along; we make the immediate fulfilment of the mechanical impulse the most important thing in the world to us and this is how we create the illusion of self! The self equals ‘the arbitrary imposition of extrinsic order upon the world’ and just as long as we refuse to question or examine just what exactly we are doing here the outrageous absurdity of our conditioned existence is kept safely invisible to us.


The absurdity derives from the fantasy image that we have of ourselves, as Gurdjieff. In this fantasy-version of reality we possess all the virtues (or ‘qualities’) that make life worthwhile, that make life actually liveable. We possess free volition and sincerity, we are able to feel love or compassion for other people, we have the possibility of being genuinely happy or peaceful, we have the possibility of connecting with the world around us, and with the people around us; we have the capacity of ‘behaving unselfishly’, and so on. All of this is fantasy however; as long as we are identified with the mind-created self none of this is even remotely true; it’s true for who we really are but not for who we think we are. Buying into this convenient fantasy package means therefore that we have made truth into our adversary; we can only serve one master after all – either we serve the truth or we serve the protective fantasy….


This is – as we need hardly point out – an utterly ridiculous situation to get caught up in. Either we live the incredibly constrained (if not to say entirely futile) life of the narcissistically encapsulated self-concept which is forever trying to prove that it is more than it actually is (and more than it ever could be) or we live a life in which we genuinely can be more than just the encapsulated bubble of the unreal private self. These are the two possibilities and – somehow – it is the first one that we have opted for, and steadfastly continue to opt for. It isn’t of course right to represent this as some sort of straightforward ‘choice that we make’ – if it was then it would be very hard (to say the least) so see why we would ever go for option number one, which is, as we have said, where we have to struggle continuously (in what is actually an entirely futile fashion) to achieve something for ourselves that we can never actually have. If this was what life was all about and there was nothing else for it but to create  – as best we can – a fantasy life for ourselves in which we can get somewhere worthwhile on the basis of ‘the encapsulated self’, then that would perhaps be a different matter. But this is not the case – we always do have the ‘option’ (so to speak) of moving towards reality (and all the ‘virtues’ or ‘qualities’ it contains) instead of moving away from it in the direction of ever-increasing futility, sterility and self-deception.


If this were a straightforward choice between ‘option 1’ and ‘option 2’ then it would be something of a ‘no-brainer’, as the popular parlance has it, but the whole point of conditioned (or unconscious) life is that we don’t see anything clearly, least of all the path that we have unwittingly opted to go down, which is ‘the path of suffering’.  A perfect example of our blindness is our approach to mental health, which always involves the attempt to repair and return to its proper functioning the everyday conditioned self, which is the self that it made up of nothing other than an arbitrary collection of limits which we have, out of unacknowledged fear, attached ourselves to. The life of this self – which can never honestly relate to anything or anyone, for fear of ‘bursting its own bubble’ – is always going to be prominently blighted with suffering and frustration, no matter how much we try to cover it up and live – as a pain-avoiding strategy – entirely superficially as ‘an image in image world’. This is of course the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, which states that conditioned life is suffering (or dukka); this does not means that life itself is bound to be filled with frustration and pain (which is how the ‘Truth of Suffering’ very much tends to be understood in the ego-orientated West) but simply that the life of the conditioned or partitioned self is always going to be fundamentally unsatisfactory. If we were to cease to identify ourselves so rigidly with our walls, our boundaries, our tight definitions of who or what we are, then life would become much more than it currently is – we would not be arbitrarily it and so of course it would become much more than it currently is!


Our whole approach in mental health is however – as we have just said – to repair the ego-self, this isolated (and therefore alienated) narrow notion of who we are. If our problem, as Wei Wu Wei says, is one of ‘mistaken identity‘, then all we’re doing is re-affirming the mistake! then All of our therapies, all of our methods, all of our technologies are about repairing the sense of ourselves as separate isolated (or ‘exclusive’) egos so that we can go back to the consensus world that we have created for ourselves, which is a world made up entirely of ‘ego-games’, a world made up of pointless games for the ego to play….


The bottom line is that our hidden agenda – as a collective, as a society – isn’t to heal people or support them on a journey towards their own wholeness, their own individuation. As Robert Anton Wilson says, this was never the aim of any society! Our aim or agenda as a society is always simply to perpetuate the system, to keep it going no matter what price this may require in terms of human suffering. Society has a vested interest in fixing us when we get too unhappy to be able to function in it anymore, but it has no interest at all in our actual mental health. This consumerism-based world of ours actually needs us to be narcissists in order for it to continue functioning, as many commentators (see for example Tim Kasser in this article in the Huffington Post) have said…


We may not be having that much fun (in any real sense) but we carry on with the insecurity-driven ego-games that we’re playing all the same and whilst this may not do us any good at all, it’s good for this thing called ‘the economy’! The point is then, that we’re not living life for ourselves (for ourselves as we really are, underneath the facade) but rather that we’re living life for the facade, and this facade isn’t actually a real thing…



Art: Auguste Toulmouche – Vanity.









  1. Julie · February 17, 2018

    We’re either serving truth or the protective fantasy–yes. Beautifully expressed in so many ways–that was just one. Thank you