Our basic ‘everyday’ motivation in life is the drive to obtain the illusion of ontological security. ‘Ontological security’ might be explained by saying that it is when we get to feel that we are (without any question) ‘living life in the right way’ and when we feel that we are able to successfully ‘live life in the right way’ then this – for us – is the best thing ever. Nothing is better than this. This feeling is the Holy Grail to us – when we can feel ourselves to be living in the right way then we receive ‘the reward of euphoria’, and the search for the reward of euphoria is the ultimate addiction. Heroin isn’t the ultimate addiction, and neither is crack cocaine – the ultimate addiction is the search for euphoria.
That’s one half of the story, therefore. The other half is that by creating the right way we have also (unwittingly) created the wrong way. ‘Wrong is the other side of right’ and this is therefore the origin of the Great Dilemma with which we find ourselves saddled:
We like ‘right’ very much
But the harder we try to be ‘right‘
The more ‘wrong’ we create!
The possibility of ‘being the right way’ (which as we have said creates the euphoric reward for us) also brings about the possibility of being the wrong way, which carries with it the sting of the dysphoric punishment. One is ‘the prize and the other is the blame, but – as the Buddhist saying has it – ‘praise and blame are both the same’!
What does it mean to be ‘living in the right way’ though, and how on earth do we know what ‘the right way’ is in the first place? This is of course the Big Awkward Question; this is the Big Awkward Question because reality itself does not provide us with any handy template that will allow us to determine this. If we want for there to be ‘a right way’ then we have to decide on the template needed to determine this ourselves, therefore! Reality doesn’t play ball with us here and so the only way around this problem is – as Berger and Luckman say in The Social Construction of Reality – by forgetting our own crucial role in creating the template. We need to turn the ‘opus proprium’ into the ‘opus alienum’, which is the clever trick that the authors refer to as reification –
Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world, and further, that the dialectic between man, the producer, and his products is lost to consciousness. The reified world is, by definition, a dehumanized world. It is experienced by man as a strange facticity, an opus alienum over which he has no control rather than as the opus proprium of his own productive activity.
Reification means that I come up with a bunch of rules or commandments and then – having done this – I say that this is not my doing at all, but ‘God’s doing’. God is the original source of the commandments, not me. Or as David Bohm says, thought creates certain divisions in reality and then it says that these divisions were there all along and that it didn’t invent them. Thought does something and then it immediately acts all innocent and says that it didn’t do anything!
If we are to obtain the boon of ontological security then we have to obtain it via some sort of a trick therefore. We need to engage in some sort of self-deception in other words and although this might – if correctly carried out – seem to provide us with the result we want, there is a snag in it, a snag that we must make very sure never to become aware of. If we do see it then this will spoil the prize that we imagine ourselves to have gained. We ignore the snag in extrinsic meaning therefore but just because we ignore it that does not mean that we can ever get away from it! We don’t get away from the problem it is true but what we do instead is to steadfastly refuse to see it for what it is. Instead of seeing that when we create ‘the right way to be’ we also create the terrifying spectre of ‘the wrong way to be’. When we put ourselves in the position where we can receive ‘the reward of euphoria’ we also put ourselves in line for ‘the punishment of dysphoria’. We see the dysphoria as being something that we can legitimately hope to get away from (or eliminate) and this is the self-deception that allows us to continue with the game.
This then is the great struggle, the great game – to have euphoria but not dysphoria, to obtain validation but no devalidation, to receive praise but no blame. We strive to be ‘the right way’ without ever being ‘the wrong way’. When we are able to do this (or rather think that we are doing this) then we call this ‘winning’ and ‘winning’ is what we are all living for (just as long as we’re running on extrinsic meaning). We avoid the snag that has been created by our original self-deception by hoping that things will one day work out for us, when the truth is that they never will. We create the snag when we engage in the original act of self-deception and then we deal with it by deceiving ourselves about what we have just done; we deceive ourselves about the true nature of the snag we have incurred – we say that it is an error that can be eliminated when the truth is that it isn’t ‘an error’ at all, but the inevitable consequence of our original course of action. If we start off with self-deception then we have to continue in this way, in other words. When we start off with a lie then we have to carry on with it, as everyone knows. We’re locked into going in a particular direction and we can’t get out of it; the only way we can get out of this ‘predetermined groove’ is to admit to the original act self-deception and that’s the one thing the game won’t let us do.
Once we’re committed to this path then we’ll be ‘OK’ (within the terms of the game at least) just so long as we are able to continue to avoid seeing the truth. ‘Seeing the truth’ is the worst thing that can ever happen to us therefore – this is the ultimate catastrophe. We don’t see it like this of course – if we allowed ourselves to see that ‘being aware of the truth’ constitutes the ultimate catastrophe for us then this would in itself be ‘seeing the truth’ and that is precisely what we don’t want to do! That’s what the game we are locked into playing is all about, after all.
To say that ontological security is all about ‘being able to be the right way’ and enjoy the euphoria-producing validation that this brings this is all very well but it goes far deeper than we think. It’s all very well to be talking about ‘the right way to be’ (which, as we have said, is determined by the framework of reference that we are unconsciously assuming) but this is only half of the equation, as we have been saying. The abstract template or standard is one half of the story and what it is being applied to is the other.
This opens up a whole big can of worms however, and very lively worms they are too! What we never see is that ‘the standard to which we are to be compared with’ and ‘the one to whom this comparison is to be applied’ are both constructs of thought, which is to say, both only have existence within the terms of the overarching framework which thought has necessarily assumed. This isn’t just a fancy way of saying that ‘nothing exists’ or that ‘nothing is real’ however (which is how we can’t help taking it when we are operating in the rational mode) – all that was saying here is that nothing definite exists or nothing that is defined exists, and this is of course a perfectly straightforward and ‘non-nihilistic’ thing to say. How can saying that offend anyone? Our descriptions or definitions aren’t ‘the important thing’, after all…
If nothing definite or nothing that is defined exists because all definitions are provided by the mechanism of thought then how can there ever be a right way to be? How can there ever be ‘a right way to live life’? In the undefined world there isn’t any right way to be – how could there be? As Alan Watts asks –
Did you ever see a cloud that was misshapen? Did you ever see a badly designed wave?
How could there ever be such a thing as a cloud or wave that ‘isn’t right’? How can there be a ‘right way’ for any natural phenomenon to be? That of course would be a perfectly absurd thing to suppose. If therefore we want the security of ‘knowing’ that we are living life in the right way (which involves have some sort of external framework or template to refer to) then we going to have to manufacture this situation for ourselves and that – as the Buddha said – is where all our problems begin.