The Branch That Denies The Tree

‘Arrogance and anxiety are co-arising with the conditioned self’, says Tilopa. Which would we prefer?  Is one any better than the other? Clearly not – if arrogance is ‘setting ourselves up for a fall’ then anxiety is ‘the fall’! Is setting oneself up for a fall any better than the fall itself? Hardly! The only reason we might think that it is would be if we fail to see what exactly it is that we are doing, which actually happens to be the case…

 

What we don’t understand is the nature of this arrogance – the ‘arrogance’ that Tilopa is talking about implies rather a bit more than we usually understand by this word. We could perhaps explain this use of the word ‘arrogance’ by saying that it is when we are ignorant of our source. We’re like a twig that denies the reality of the branch it stems from, or a branch that imagines itself to be the whole tree.

 

Even to say this – even to say that we are ignorant of our source – sounds obscure to us. ‘Source’ – what ‘source’, we ask? We see ourselves as being self-contained units, not extrusions of some higher reality. We have no conception of ‘a higher reality’ – necessarily so since if we can conceive of it then it is of the same order of reality that we already know about. We don’t admit that there is a higher order of reality than the one we can conceptualize (or rationalize) and this is precisely this that is causing us all our problems!

 

Our basic understanding of ourselves is as ‘the rational agent’, so to speak. ‘The rational agent’ is the one who decides, the one who chooses in accordance with his or her rational picture of the world. The choices we make are therefore extensions of our logical understanding of the world – it’s all the one thing. So we see ourselves as ‘the one who makes the decisions’, ‘the one who is in control’. I am ‘the unequivocal author of my own actions’ – ‘the source of my own doings’. This perception of ours isn’t as obviously true as it might seem to us however; the understanding that we have of ourselves as ‘a self-contained unit or rational agent’ is itself only any artifact of the rational mind, the mind that (necessarily) operates by putting everything in tightly sealed categories. It’s not a universal truth, just a conditioned picture of reality.

 

It’s not too hard to see through the illusion that we are self-contained units. Whenever we are being creative we can easily sense that we are not the source, but only the channel! It is very clear in the case that I am not ‘the one who creates’ – the flow of creativity comes from beyond me, it comes from a place that I cannot see or lay claim to. There wouldn’t be any ‘flow’ otherwise – it has to come from outside of me. What flow could there be when it is my necessarily circumscribed ‘idea of myself’ (or ‘category of myself’) that is the (so-called) source? What we would be talking about in this case isn’t flow – it is on the contrary just pure naked aggression! Anything that isn’t creativity is aggression.

 

‘Arrogance’ and ‘aggression’ are therefore two perfectly interchangeable terms. There is a joy in creation that can’t be found in aggression, no matter how (apparently) successful that aggression might be. Even when we completely get our own way there’s no real joy in it – we might think that there is but there isn’t. We might think getting our own way makes us happy but it doesn’t. Actually, ‘completely getting our own way’ is a form of suffering – it is nothing else but loneliness and alienation in disguise! No one really wants to get their own way, we only imagine that we do. To completely ‘get one’s own way’ is to lose all contact with reality; it is to be sealed off in a sterile, separate universe of self and this is a ‘stuck’ rather than a ‘joyful’ situation…

 

There is no joy in controlling but there is something else, some ‘substitute’ for joy, when we are acting as if we ourselves are the source, the true author of what is coming out of us. Instead of joy we experience what we might call ‘personal gratification’ – the sense of self that we are clinging gets to be validated and this validation (of the false idea of ourselves is very sweet to us! It tastes sweet but ultimately it turns out to be very bitter indeed, but we don’t know that at the time. Vindication for the false (or ‘shallow’) idea of ourself tastes sweet but there is a grim penalty to be paid later on because we have been seduced into being untrue to who we really are. The validation – as overwhelmingly attractive as it appears at the time – is leading us astray…

 

This is not to say that ‘arrogance’ (in the sense that we are using the word) is in any way some kind of moral failing, or ‘sin’ that we are committing – we have simply become disconnected and as a result of this disconnection we have ended up feeling that ‘it’s all up to us’ and that whatever our situation might be, it is our responsibility to do something about it. We end up feeling that we have to do something about it! We start buying into terminology such as ‘fixing’ or ‘coping’ or ‘problem-solving’ because it sounds empowering, but really we’re just alienating ourselves even more. These are all ‘arrogant’ ways of speaking, ‘arrogant’ ways of looking at the world and so we are just making our situation more difficult for ourselves. We’re making the situation more difficult for ourselves because we’ve put ourselves in the impossible position of thinking that all the answers have to come from us.

 

When we feel that we have successfully ‘fixed’ or ‘coped with’ or ‘solved’ the difficult situation that were in then this is gratifying for us – the rational (or ‘closed’) idea that we have about ourselves gets validated because we feel that we have ‘won out’ against all the odds. This is the good feeling of ‘being a successful controller’, the good feeling of ‘being a winner rather than a loser’. This is the best feeling our culture knows of – to be ‘a winner’ is the ultimate accolade as far as we are concerned! Really however – as we have just said – all that’s happening here is that we are setting ourselves up for a fall. We have been suckered by the sweet feeling of having our idea of ourself validated into going down a road that leads only to more and more suffering. We’ve actually committed ourselves to this road so that when things get rough we have no other option other than to invest even more in controlling, even though it is this reliance on controlling that is the root cause of our problems. This is the via erratum that Jung speaks of – the ‘way of error’.

 

As a result of going down this road we see no other way other than ‘the way of controlling’ and so if we can’t control the situation well enough then very great trouble is going to be in store for us. ‘Not being able to be a successful controller’ equals ‘very great trouble’ and this is anxiety in a nutshell! Everything hangs on how good I am at controlling – I can either ‘do well’ and my sense of self gets validated, or I can ‘do badly’ and my sense of myself gets painfully devalidated.  Naturally enough, we don’t complain just as long as things continue to go well for us. No one complains about success! Just as long as things continue to go my way I am receiving pleasurable validation for my illusion of myself as ‘the competent controller’ but sooner or later this honey-coated illusion is going to let me down – sooner or later this cherished illusion of mine is going to backfire on me very nastily and then I am going to start complaining…

 

Being the controller upon whose actions everything depends is a very isolated place to be in when things start to go wrong and our attempts to control are no longer working for us. This is a very profound form of suffering so we are very likely to be complaining about it! Anxiety is the inevitable result of believing that we are this ‘reified self’, this self which is by its very nature fundamentally disconnected from the rest of the universe, so that we feel that we feel that we have to be always fighting against the world (or ‘getting the better of it) in order to maintain our integrity. As we have already said, we get seduced into this unenviable position by the euphoria that comes with being ‘a successful controller’ – we really do think that we have this power to assert our will upon the world and so when we discover that this so-called power was only an illusion (because the self which wielded it is an illusion) the distress and fear that come with this discovery is so much the greater. The more we enjoyed ‘being in control’ when things seemed to be going well the more cruelly we suffer from the inevitable reversal. The ‘reversal’ of which we speak is inevitable simply because we have linked our well-being with a fictional thing – the brittle idea of who we are which has been created for us by the thinking mind. Things can never work out for us in the way that we blindly hope because we’ve ‘put our money on the wrong horse’.

 

It’s not just that we don’t know how reverse the process of identification with the reified (or ‘conditioned’) self but rather that we have no way of seeing that this isn’t who we are. The suggestion that we aren’t the conditioned self simply doesn’t make any sense to us – it makes zero sense to us. We don’t know what it means to say that we have become ‘disconnected from our source’ – we have ended up forgetting about our source, just as the twig forgot about the branch or the branch forgot about the tree. We have forgotten about our source and as a result we’ve become confused into thinking that we actually ‘are our own source’. This is what the ancient Greeks knew as hubris (or hybris).

 

‘Anxiety’ and ‘believing that we are this separate reified self’ (the self which sees itself as being but one ‘thing’ in a world made up of infinitely many other ‘things’) are forever inseparable. The reified self is ‘an anxiety-producing illusion’ and so as long as we are operating on the basis of believing that ‘this is who we are’ then anxiety is going to be our constant bed-fellow. We’ve been suckered into this situation by the nice feeling that arises as a result of our (imagined) successful controlling but once we’re caught on the hook then it all turns against us and the euphoria reverses into dysphoria. We then experience the ‘nasty’ side of the illusion. We have lost our freedom to ‘be otherwise’ at this stage – we’re locked into the game we started playing and now the game has become real. We’re stuck with the limited reified self, which sees the world world in terms of itself! We’re locked into the pointless merry-go-round of this self’s life. Our freedom ‘not to play the game’ has become invisible to us, inaccessible to us and as a result we have to take the illusion-based highs along with the equally ‘illusion-based’ lows, the euphoria along with the dysphoria. That’s all the conditioned self is at the end of the day – it’s a ceaseless cycle of pleasure and pain, hope and despair, both of which belong to a self that we aren’t!

 

 

 

 

 

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