The Dark Father

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The ‘Dark Father’ of unbridled rationality eats his own children, just as Cronos did in the ancient legend. He might not actually physically eat them as Cronos the Titan did, but by the weight of his controlling and stultifying authority he represses their psychological growth – he prevents them from ever becoming what they could otherwise be. ‘Control’ – in this context – doesn’t just mean telling people what to do and what not to do, when to do it and when not to do it, it means telling us how to see the world. But it isn’t enough simply to say this. It’s not just that we have been told how to see the world, we are told in such a way that we don’t realize that we actually have been told how to see the world. We don’t realize that we have been controlled at all – we think that the world just is that way.

 

Cronos the archetypal dark father eats his own children. He devours them before they can amount to very much, he devours them before they can get to the stage of challenging his authority. Later on, as we know from the legends that have passed down to us, he slipped up (tricked by his wife) and failed to devour the infant Zeus and this ‘slip-up’ was the beginning of the end for him. Zeus – with the help of his mother who was naturally not happy to have all of her children eaten by their infanticidal father – and was reared elsewhere, in secret. Later, Zeus returned in all his strength to defeat his father and the rest of the Titans in the war to end all wars – the Titanomachy. So in a way we can say that Cronos was right to eat his children – he knew what would happen if he didn’t!

 

Cronos devouring his children – and the war between the Gods and the Titans that followed – has immense psychological significance, which is of course what gives the myth the power that it still has. Even in the second decade of the twenty-first century we are making films about this cosmic conflict – albeit not very good ones. The myth is a universal one – in the Norse tales the Gods (Odin, Thor, Loki, and the rest) had to contend with the Ice Giants, which was an another ‘titanic’ struggle. The significance that we’re talking about here has to do with the struggle between the dark, repressive force of unconsciousness, and the emergent consciousness, which despite being fragile in its beginnings is a force that in time – if allowed to grow and become strong – will overturn the whole order of things.

 

Consciousness is born in the dark cave of unconsciousness – it emerges from this suffocating darkness and all too easily returns to it. It flickers like a newly lit candle and is very easily extinguished again. It is not just that the newly emergent consciousness is precarious – the force of what we have called unconsciousness is actively opposed to it and is implacably resolved to snuff it out as if it had never existed. Jung draws upon European fairy-tales to highlight this archetypal scenario. The precarious situation of the emergent consciousness can be seen – according to Jung – in the motif of the young child abandoned in the forest, helpless before all the terrible dangers that have their home there. The motif of the child points to the archetype of the Self and what this type of story tells us is that in order for us to realize the Self in our lives (i.e. in order for us to become who we really are) we have to brave all these dangers as the abandoned child does and yet somehow come out on the other side...

 

That the child should survive all the dangers of the wild forest (just as Hansel and Gretel survived, just as the twins Romulus and Remus survived) seems incredibly unlikely to say the least! We might quite reasonably object that this is too improbable a story to take seriously, given the number of co-incidences that are needed for it to work. The point is however that whenever consciousness does come into its own (whenever the Self does miraculously come back into being after being broken apart and scattered to the four corners of the world) this is the only way that it could have happened – through an extraordinarily unlikely ‘chain of chance’. This is the same argument we meet in relation to the huge improbability of coming across a planet possessing the exact conditions necessary for the evolution of life. How unlikely is this? But the thing is of course that it is only after life has arisen and sentient beings have evolved that we can be in the position of asking the question. We’re looking at things backwards therefore – once consciousness has arisen then we can become aware of the difficulty in it ever arising in the face of all the forces that are ranged against it!

 

We can relate this point to Cronos eating his children. The odds against surviving as a child of Cronos were always formidably great. It is very nearly a sure thing that you will be immediately be eaten. But then again it only takes one helpless infant to beat the odds and you have a Zeus on your hands! Only one helpless child has to survive the tyranny of the Dark Father and there will to be a full-scale Titanomachy for him to reckon with later on! Or as we could also say, only one Romulus and Remus has to survive (or even just a Romulus) for there to be a Rome, and not just a Rome in fact but a fully-fledged Roman Empire with all the trimmings…

 

From a psychological point of view therefore we can say that the odds are very much against consciousness surviving very long before being devoured by the forces of unconsciousness. Consciousness is always being born, just has Cronos’s children were always being born, but it is very nearly inevitable that they will meet their end very quickly indeed, as a matter of course, as a matter of mere routine, we might say. We can see this drama (the annihilation of consciousness) being enacted all around us every day – or rather we can’t see it being enacted around us every day because we’d have to be consciously present to witness it and we aren’t. This is a crime without witnesses (a ‘perfect crime’, as Jean Baudrillard says) and so it is also a crime that goes widely unreported…

 

The reason for the lack of witnesses is because if we are not conscious in the first place then none of this talk of ‘consciousness being devoured’ makes any sense at all! When we’re safely unconscious then everything seems fine, everything seems dandy. Everything is as it should be. We can’t see that there is anything amiss with the world at all – everything seems to be in the proper and correct order and so there is simply no cause to be going on about this business of ‘consciousness being unceremoniously devoured shortly after it is born’. In a world where no one is their own true Self the lack of the Self is hardly likely to be commented upon! In a world where everyone is asleep being asleep is going to be seen as the right and proper way to be. In a world where everyone is telling the same lie, then that lie has become the truth…

 

Life – for us – has become a matter of ‘fitting into the format’ (although at the same time we don’t see that we have fitted ourselves into it or that there was any ‘format’ to fit into in the first place). The format has become invisible because we have fitted into it so well. When we adapt ourselves perfectly to the format then what this means is that we’re seeing the world in terms of that format (such that there is no element of our daily experience that remains unformatted) then this situation is simply seen as ‘the correct way to be’, ‘the only way to be’. Only it isn’t exactly seen as such but assumed as such so that the only time we bother our heads about the status quo is to notice when someone isn’t fitting in and is therefore standing out to everyone else because of this ‘failure to adapt’.

 

The formatted way of things is just taken for granted – we unquestioningly accept it without realizing that we have accepted anything. This is of course simply the way that ‘formatting’ works – to believe is not to know that we believe. As soon as we know that we are believing something then this is the beginning of us not believing it. As soon as we see that we have made an assumption about reality then we are ‘conscious of the assumption’ and when we are conscious of it then it is no longer an assumption. We are no longer ‘assuming’ anything in this case. We’re no longer taking it for granted.

 

This gives us a good way of what is meant by the term ‘consciousness’ therefore. Consciousness, we may say, is when the formatting that the rational mind is imposing upon us becomes visible as formatting. Normally, as we have said, the truths that make up our shared (or agreed-upon) world are so ‘self-evidently valid’ that it would never occur to us to question them. When we become conscious however this changes everything. The so-called ‘self-evident’ truths that everyone takes for granted all of a sudden get shown up as being not so true after all. They get shown up as being lies – lies that everyone automatically believes in, lies that everyone accepts as being true…

 

Becoming aware is an act of rebellion. Becoming conscious is as Krishnamurti says ‘the only revolution’. It’s the only revolution that is worth a damn – everything else is just empty posturing. Everything else is just a smoke-screen, everything else is just a red herring. Once we understand consciousness as the capacity to see our formatting (or ‘our ability to see a lie for a lie’) then we can see why unconsciousness has to react the way it does to the emerging consciousness. It can’t afford to do otherwise – it can’t afford to have the light turned on. The lie can pass itself off very easily indeed as the truth when there is no consciousness around to see it for what it really is. When there’s no consciousness then we all just accept the lie at face-value. We all just passively go along with the formatting, no matter what the formatting is. We don’t care what the formatting is – we just care about fitting into it. We don’t care what the rules are, we just care about how well we can obey them…

 

The ‘Dark Father’ is the male (or ‘rational’) authority that our society is based upon. It is the system that defines us, and regulates us once we have been defined. It is the system that tells us what life is and how we should live it. It is the system that tells us what is real and what is not real. Psychologically speaking, the reason we can say that society is based on masculine authority is because it is the expression of the rational mind – the rational mind’s essential property being that it defines (or ‘quantifies’). It ‘lays down the law’, which is the masculine (Yang-type) principle at work. The rational mind says what is, and saying what is also means saying what is not. By asserting a positive ‘truth’, therefore, the thinking mind restricts us absolutely. We become trapped in the stated world, the defined or ‘positive’ world, and being trapped means that we lose the ability to see what has been denied in order that this ‘positive world’ could be created. We lose the capacity to see what assumptions have been made, in other words. We lose ‘consciousness’.

 

This is not to say that the masculine principle is inherently evil in nature but simply that when it is overvalued (which means of course that the feminine principle has been denied) then it turns malign. The balance has been lost and the result is disaster – albeit a disaster that we cannot see! This idea of an imbalance in favour of the masculine principle was – according to Jung – well known to the ancient alchemists who spoke in terms of the need (as a certain point in the alchemical process) for the ‘Old King’ to be murdered and dismembered. The Young King uses his masculine power not in denial of the feminine but in order to protect the kingdom against misfortune and enemies. His is a wise, benevolent, tolerant authority, therefore. The Old King on the other hand has become a dark force, an embodiment of ‘restriction for the sake of restriction’, ‘control for the sake of control’, ‘power for the sake of power’. The Old King has come to love the exercise of power just for its own sake, and so the only thing he cares about is hanging on to his power, hanging on to the authority he abuses… As Paul Levi says in his article on the Dark Father motif on his website Awaken In The Dream

The figure of the dark father is traumatizing to others, as it traumatizes everyone under its dominion. Because it is attached to the position of power it finds itself in, this figure is not interested in change, and therefore has become calcified and rigid.

In Tales of Power, Carlos Castaneda speaks of how the benevolent guardian all too easily morphs into the despotic guard, which is the same idea applied to the ego (the inner ruler) rather than any external figure –

We are born with the useful aspect of having an ego as our guardian. But too often a guardian becomes a guard. A guardian is broad-minded and understanding, a guard on the other hand, is a vigilante, narrow-minded and most of the time despotic.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell talks of the ‘Tyrant Holdfast’, whose name alone is enough to explain what he is about –

He is the hoarder of the general benefit. He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine.’ The havoc wrought by him is described in mythology and fairy tale as being universal throughout his domain. This may be no more than his household, his own tortured psyche, or the lives that he blights with the touch of his friendship and assistance; or it may amount to the extent of his civilization. The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world – no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper.

 

Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence is the world’s messenger of disaster, even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions. Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then – more miserably – within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.

The Tyrant Holdfast’s grip on his kingdom is absolute and nothing is permitted to thrive in it unless it serves him. The same is true for the Dark Father of our over-valued rationality – nothing is permitted breathing space unless it agrees with the unquestionable rules of the assumed formatting. Nothing is allowed unless it serves this formatting, unless it does this formatting’s work and not its own. Independence from the framework is not tolerated, under any circumstances. It’s prohibited. As soon as we are old enough to understand language we are subjected to this insidious formatting of reality, and before very long we have lost the ability to experience ourselves and the world in any other way than the way it permits. We see ourselves via the mechanical format, via the external framework and we lose ourselves in the process…

 

There can be no part of us that doesn’t make sense within the terms of the framework. Nothing that doesn’t make sense within the framework is given any credence, any credibility at all. The only part of us that is given credibility is the part that accords with our assumptions, that part that agrees with the rules of the game that we have unwittingly agreed to play. But the ‘part’ of which we speak actually isn’t a part of us at all – it isn’t actually a part of us at all because the game that we’ve unwittingly agreed to play is ‘the game of being what we’re not’.

 

Consciousness keeps on being born into the world and the system keeps on formatting it, turning it into ‘not-consciousness’, turning it into pseudo-consciousness, turning it into a parody of consciousness. And if we think we are already conscious (and that this whole idea of over-valued rationality being the Dark Father is ridiculous) then that’s because we’ve already been devoured. That’s because the thinking mind is telling us – which it does as a matter of routine – that we’re conscious already, when the truth is that we’re not…

 

The Secret of Transformation

 

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The secret of transformation is to be where we don’t want to be. This – needless to say – isn’t necessarily how we would usually see it. Usually we have an idea of how we’d like to be and then we set out with all due determination on the path to be this way, which isn’t the same thing at all. That is ‘working towards a goal’ and ‘being where we don’t want to be’ isn’t in anything to do with goals –working towards a goal is trying to be where we DO what to be, obviously!

 

‘Being where we don’t want to be’ is easy to say, and simple to understand, but it is another thing again to put into practice. The fundamental principle of our conditioned mode of being is that we are always straining to move from where we don’t want to be to where we do want to be and there is nothing we can do to change this. Just as long as we are in the conditioned mode of being, we will be trying to ‘improve our situation’ in everything we do, and – strange as it might sound – trying to improve our situation has nothing whatsoever to do with self-transformation. It is in fact the very antithesis of transformation – that’s simply us doing what we always do!

 

The very essence of the mechanical impulse that rules us when we’re in the conditioned mode of being is to move away from pain, move away from discomfort. It has no capability to do anything else! Whatever we do when we’re in conditioned mode we do by utilizing this mechanical aspect of ourselves – it is our OS, our ‘Operating System’ – and so no matter what it is that we are trying to do we will be trying to do via the logic of ‘aversion / attraction’, via the logic of ‘moving away from the unwanted situation and towards the desired one’. So what this means is that no matter how hard we try to figure a way around it we are never going to be able to deliberately ‘be where we don’t want to be’. This is – as a moment’s reflection will show – the supreme impossibility as far as the conditioned or mechanical modality of being is concerned…

 

The ‘mechanical approach’ just won’t work for this. If I find myself having an aversion to being in a particular place and I make a goal of being in this place (if I ‘force myself to feel the pain’, in other words) then all I have done is switch things around on myself. Now, to be ‘NOT feeling the pain’ is the place where I don’t want to be and so I am busy fleeing from this place! There’s nothing new about this state of affairs – I am after all always fleeing from the place where I don’t want to be. Or suppose – just to give another example of the impossibility that we are talking about here – that I am not able to accept myself as I am, that I hate myself being the way that I am, and so I am trying to turn this situation around so that I can accept myself, so that I don’t experience this aversion to myself. In this case what I am doing therefore is trying to escape from the pain of hating myself, I am trying to get away from ‘the pain of not being able to live with myself’. I am ‘hating the fact that I hate myself’, and so again, nothing has changed. I am still averse to one thing and attracted to the other. Attraction / aversion is still the principle that is guiding my actions; the only thing that’s changed is that I’ve switched the polarity around. As always, I am running away from what I don’t like!

 

What we’re basically saying here is something very obvious. We’re saying that when we orientate ourselves towards the attainment of a goal we are running away from what we don’t like. If we try to turn this around so that we AREN’T running away from what we don’t like then of course all we are doing is ‘running away from our running away’. We have made ‘not running away’ into our new goal and so we are still trying to get away from the place we don’t want to be in. That’s all we ever do – this is (of course) the basis of all goal-orientated activity. My goal is my ‘escape’, my ‘comfort zone’. And if I try to get clever about things and say that I don’t want to escape, that I don’t want to be forever chasing after convenient comfort zones to hide in, then this is simply me trying to escape from the actual reality of my situation. ‘Not having a comfort zone’ is in this case my new comfort zone!

 

Because the mechanical side of ourselves can’t do anything without first making a goal of it, there is no way that it can ever do genuine psychological work. It automatically makes ‘not having a goal’ into a goal. There is no way that the mechanical side or aspect of ourselves can’t turn ‘not having a goal’ into a goal – as we have said, it can only function on the basis of goals. ‘Psychological work’ – we might say – means being wherever you are without having a gaol to be either there or to be not there. This is something we simply can’t do on the basis of our OS – this is the one thing the OS can’t ever do! Not in a million years can the OS ever arrange for us to be somewhere without first having a goal for us to be there. Not in a million years can we ever do psychological work on the basis of our mechanical operating system…

 

What this means – in very simple terms – is that the mechanical self can never ever transform itself. This is an absolutely crucial understanding – it is also an understanding that we are fundamentally resistant to getting anywhere close to. It’s the one thing we don’t ever want to hear. Society itself colludes in the deluded idea that we can transform ourselves on purpose, in accordance with some method or other. Wherever we go we are bombarded with mechanical recipes for change – the self-help section of the high-street bookshop is (of course) crammed with ideas of great stuff we can do to change ourselves. As a culture we are absolutely fixated upon the belief that it must be possible to transform ourselves in a logical/purposeful fashion, if only we can hit upon the right method. ‘Hope springs eternal to the human breast’, as they say, but this is very far from being a good thing! On the contrary, this tendency to go on hoping is an indication of our perennial willingness to go on fooling ourselves, our perennial willingness to go on avoiding the truth…

 

With regard to self-help books and self-development courses and ‘self-change’ therapies we would much rather go on deceiving ourselves for ever, deceiving ourselves until hell freezes over, until pigs learn to fly in formation, until multinational corporations start taking a genuine interest in the well-being of their customers, rather than see the truth! On one level we can observe that this is a deeply perverse manifestation of human nature but on another level we can also observe that this isn’t so perverse at all but rather that there is a very understandable logic to this commitment to self-deception on a grand scale. The point is that we aren’t ourselves – we are ‘something else’ and this ‘something else’ has absolutely zero interest in changing its nature, no matter what it might say, no matter what it might persuade us to believe. This ‘something else’ is what we have been calling ‘the mechanical side of ourselves’, which is not really ourselves at all. In the conditioned modality of being we are totally identified with this ‘mechanical side of ourselves’ – we are absolutely convinced that ‘this is who we are’. We couldn’t be more convinced, in fact…

 

The ‘mechanical side of ourselves’ is also known as the thinking mind. The illusion that we are suffering under is the illusion that we are who we think we are! And yet whatever it is that we think we are, this is guaranteed to be nothing more than ‘yet another generic construct of the thinking mind’ and the thinking mind is only a dead mechanical system. It can’t be otherwise. There’s no life in the thinking mind, no spark in it, any more than there is life (or ‘a spark’) in a bureaucracy (or in a government, or in a multinational corporations). Logical systems aren’t living things – they are the antithesis of living things. These are all mere mechanisms. They are dead things. The thinking mind is a mere mechanism, a mere ‘dead thing’, no matter how much we may exalt it.  As Carlos Castaneda says in The Active Side of Infinity, (1996, P 147) –

Classifications have a world of their own,” he continued. “After you begin to classify anything, the classification becomes alive and it rules you. But since classifications never started as energy-giving affairs, they always remain like dead logs. They are not trees, they are merely logs.

The human predicament is – and always has been – that we place ourselves under the power of dead things. We let our classifications rule us. This is what we do. We place ourselves under the power of the thinking mind and its systems. We let it define everything about us and how much more power could we give it than this?

 

The consequence of being identified with the thinking mind is that we are forever running, forever trying to escape something, forever trying to gain something. And the whole time we don’t really know what it is that we’re trying to escape from, any more than we know what it is that we’re trying to gain. Even when we’re not running away we’re running away – we’re running away by deceiving ourselves, we’re running away by believing in some kind of comforting illusion. This is the reason we find it so hard to be still in ourselves, the reason we find it so hard not to be always ‘active’ in a purposeful way. We’re always ‘itching’ – we’re itching to do this, itching to do that, itching to do the other. Each itch is a thought and we’re always having these ‘thought-itches’. It’s as if we’re swarming with fleas. Every thought is a promise of how we may change ourselves or our situation and get from where we DON’T want to be to where we DO want to be (either this or it’s a threat of something terrible happening when we don’t manage to successfully change our situation, and this of course comes down to exactly the same thing). It’s a goad, either way. Thoughts always want to take us somewhere else; thoughts are distractions from what is.

 

When we’re identified with the mechanical self then we can’t ever stop running because if we do then we are immediately confronted with the blankness of that self, the sterility of that self. We get instantly ‘bored’ when the distraction-stimulus is taken away and if this carries on we go from merely feeling bored to feeling that we are actually going crazy. The situation of ‘not having anything to distract us from unconditionally being with ourselves as we actually are’ turns into unmitigated torture and we see no benefit in it at all. This is ‘where we don’t want to be’ in a big way! The trouble is that there’s no nourishment, no sustenance, no humour, no poetry in the mechanical self. When we stop running, stop distracting ourselves with illusions, then it is as if we are stuck in the most arid of deserts – the desert of the soul. No terrestrial desert was ever as arid as this. The mechanical self is totally sterile and we have no ‘comfort’ in it at all unless we are chasing goals of one sort or another, goals which we invest with a very special ‘magical’ quality…

 

What is this ‘very special magical quality’, we may ask? Simply put, the magical quality we invest our goals with is the promise of ‘radical change’, the promise of relief from the interminable tedium of our current situation, the promise of release from the oppressive burden of being ruled by a mere ‘mechanical thing’. This might in one way seem like a very obvious thing to be saying – that ‘the reason our goals are as attractive to us as they are is because they promise to deliver some sort of change’, but the thing about this is that the type of change which we are so bedazzled by is the type of change no goal can ever bring about.

 

The ‘magical outcome’ that the mechanical self is always dreaming about is the outcome of ‘escaping from itself’ and this is of course the one thing that can never come about as a result of chasing goals. The mechanical self isn’t going to suddenly / miraculously become non-mechanical as a result of behaving mechanically, after all! This would be like a heroin addict hoping to become free from his addiction as a result of regularly taking heroin, or like a worrier hoping to become liberated from worry via the clever tactic of thinking worrying thoughts. Chasing after mechanical goals does not liberate us from the suffering of the conditioned modality of being, which is the modality of being in which we are forever trying to ‘get things right’ in accordance with the thinking mind. Freedom from the mechanical self cannot come about as a result of goals because goals are the mechanical self…

 

This is – needless to say – a very curious situation. The thing that we are really chasing after the whole time – without being able to see it – is ‘escape from being the mechanical self’ (which isn’t who we are anyway, even though we don’t know this either) and this unconscious ‘displacement-type activity’ is the very thing that absolutely guarantees that we will never obtain the result that we are (unconsciously) hoping to obtain. As long as we’re trying to achieve an outcome the true nature of which we don’t understand on the basis of us being what we aren’t (and don’t understand that we aren’t) then the one thing that is 100% for certain is that this type of carry on isn’t ever going to get us anywhere!

 

Once we put things like this then the assertion that we can’t ever change ourselves no matter how much time or effort we put into it becomes a lot clearer. The assertion that I can’t ever change myself (since I’m not who I think I am anyway, and since the means by which I attempt to facilitate this change puts me more in debt than ever to this false way of understanding myself) starts to make very good sense indeed! All that is needed in order for me to get myself out of the situation where whatever I do only makes matters worse (by putting myself more in debt to the false-self system) is to stop acting in accordance with the dictates of the thinking mind. I can’t do this ‘on purpose’ because all purposes, all goals, belong to the thinking mind (because all purposes, all goals are the thinking mind). Whatever the rational mind points out as being to our advantage is only ever going to be to its advantage. Whatever the thinking mind tells us to do is only ever for its benefit, not ours. If it says that something is good, then it means ‘good for itself’, not for us! And as we have already said, it is no help to simply turn things around and disobey or contradict the thinking and take the opposite tack to the one we were going to take. We’re still obeying the thinking if we do this – we’re still doing what the thinking tells us is right to do because it is the thinking that is telling us to disobey the thinking…

 

Yet despite this apparently insoluble dilemma the ‘answer’ is staring us right in the face. It’s there all the time! It isn’t actually that problematical to ‘be where we don’t want to be’ – our situation (from the point of view of the thinking mind) is after all very rarely as we would like it to be. The one thing we are never going to run short of in life is unsatisfactory situations. The one thing we may be assured of is that things are very rarely going to work out exactly as we would like them to and this is – if we are willing to use the opportunity in a conscious way rather than a rational / reactive way – is to our very great advantage. ‘The moment I’m disappointed I’m encouraged’, says Rumi. It’s not that we need to be constantly affirming to ourselves that the unsatisfactory situation is in some way OK, that our disappointment is in some way OK, etc. – that would just be the thinking mind putting its stamp on the proceedings and making ‘Not OK’ into the new ‘OK’…

 

Awareness is infinitely subtler than this, and it is not an action or approach that we can deliberately take. Awareness is there all along, if we pay attention. Awareness means that we simply pay attention to ourselves being in a situation that we don’t want to be in, and we notice ourselves reacting to that situation – we notice ourselves trying to be not in that situation, we notice ourselves thinking about how it isn’t good to be in that situation, and so on. The beauty of this is that we aren’t – in this noticing – trying to change anything. What we’re talking about here isn’t an ‘extra-clever way of trying to escape from where we are,’ this is just us paying attention to what’s going on, paying attention to reality. What usually happens is that registering what is going on turns instantaneously into ‘trying to control what is going on’. Paying attention to reality never actually happens – we just launch straight off into a full-flight of automatic mental processes and activity revolving around how we don’t want to be there and what we might do to not be there and all this automatic activity blocks out anything else, like heavy cloud cover blocking out the sun.

 

We ‘take against’ the situation we find ourselves in, in other words. We say NO to what’s going on even before we really know what’s going on (and we never know what’s going on via the thinking mind anyway because the way the thinking mind works is by ‘jumping to conclusions’. This ‘saying NO’ is an involuntary thing – a force we cannot resist cuts in and takes charge of us. The ‘mechanical impulse’ takes charge of us and leaves us no leeway to be ourselves. We react against what’s happening and this reacting goes to further fuel the mechanical self, it goes to further perpetuate and strengthen the mechanical self. But if we are so powerless against the mechanical impulse – as indeed experience shows that we are – and giving in to the coercive current of the reaction (which doesn’t feel like ‘a reaction’ at all but simply ‘what we want to do’) further perpetuates and strengthens the mechanical self, then how we are ever going to be free?

 

To the extent that who we really are (our ‘essence’) is soaked up into the sponge of the mechanical self (so that there is no effective separation between the two) then there can be no such thing as freedom from mechanical rules, freedom from mechanical compulsions. There can’t even be any sense of us not being the mechanical self – what it wants is what we want. We just go along with everything and we don’t see that we are going along. But as soon as the consciousness within us does start to separate to some degree, so as to form an independent viewpoint, then we start to see that all is not well, that all is not as it should be. Awareness is itself a challenge to the false authority of the mechanical self, which is at root nothing more than a collection of habits. Separation of essence from personality (to use Gurdjieff’s terms) occurs just as soon as we start being sincere, just as soon as we stop lying to ourselves, just as soon as we stop automatically going along with whatever propaganda happens to be going around on any particular day. Until this separation takes place – to some extent or other – nothing of what we have been discussing will make the slightest bit of sense. And contrariwise – if what we have been talking about does make sense, then this means that the separation of essence and personality has already started to take place!

 

‘Separation’ means – as we have already said – that we have a viewpoint that is not the same as that of the mechanical self. We have our own viewpoint, not someone else’s. It also means that we have the capacity to be genuinely interested in our own pain, our own discomfort. The mechanical self has precisely zero capacity to be interested in pain – either its’ own or anyone else’s. All it can do is try to get away from pain, or try to quickly eliminate it by ‘fixing it’. It has no genuine interest in pain – the most it can do is develop some kind of ‘superficial interest’ with a view to helping its ability to manage or control the pain better. It will learn only what it needs to learn about pain in order to (hopefully) get rid of the pain, in other words.

 

The mechanical self has no interest in changing and pain – whether we can understand it or not – is a forerunner of change. The more aversion we experience to being in a particular situation the more potential that situation has to change us! The more we are able to feel the pain of being in the situation we’re actually in, the more transformed we already are!

 

When I am the mechanical self then the pain has nowhere to go (and this automatic pain-refusal is what drives everything in the mechanical or conditioned world) but when the pain does have somewhere to go, when it has somewhere where it can come to rest, then we come back into reality, and reality is the gift in the situation. The ‘gift’ is that we have been transformed into ourselves, transformed into who we really are. This most radical of transformations is what happens when we ‘kiss the frog’…

 

 

 

 

The Problem the Self is Trying to Fix is Itself

don quixote-illustration

The problem the self is forever trying to fix is itself. Not that there is a problem in it, but rather that it itself is the problem. Naturally this is the last thing the self is ever going to allow itself to be aware of! Instead, the so-called ‘problem’ is displaced outwards into the world at large and we ride out like don Quixote on his steed to fix it, with our trusty sword in one hand and our lance in the other…

 

The fact that we have displaced the so-called ‘problem’ onto the outside world means that there is endless mileage in the quest. This is something that we will never get to the end of, something that we will never complete – for all that we have our hopes pinned on doing just this. We’ll never complete this quest because the problem we’re trying so determinedly to fix isn’t the problem at all. The real ‘problem’ (if we can call it that) is something we are never going to face. We make sure we never confront the true issue by the way we always let ourselves get caught up in all the false ones. As soon as we solve one surrogate problem, there is another ten waiting around the corner to be fixed!

 

Every time we get excited about some great goal it’s never the actual stated goal itself that we’re getting excited about: we’re actually fighting a different battle entirely to the one we think we’re fighting. The goal we’re getting so excited about is actually standing in for something else – it’s a surrogate for something that we can’t let ourselves know about. It’s a theatre. It’s a displacement of the real problem and so if we succeed at it then we get to feel (in some unacknowledged way) that we’ve licked the original problem, the original problem being the ‘big one’, the one that we can’t ever let ourselves know about, the one we’re running away from, the one we know deep down that we can’t ever solve…

 

We’re always banging on in the most tiresome way about ‘goals’ and ‘targets’ and ‘agendas’ and ‘planning’ and ‘solutions’ and all that sort of stuff. We’re forever getting worked up, all ‘gung-ho’, about this type of heroic purposeful activity – it’s a cultural phenomenon. It’s practically irresistible. We’re intoxicated with the notion of success, intoxicated with the idea that we’re going to achieve something great, intoxicated with the notion of being a winner in life rather than a loser, a nobody, or whatever, and the reason for this is that we’re playing the game of denial for all we’re worth. What we’re doing with all of our ostentatious gung-ho ‘in your face’-type purposefulness is denying that the problem is really ourselves.

 

All of this super-confident talk of goals and targets and solutions to this, that and the other ought to give the game away. It’s all pretty suspicious, really. What exactly are we fighting against all the time? Why is our language so very aggressive? Why can’t we just chill out and enjoy life? Why do we have to be forever ‘improving’ stuff or ‘fixing’ stuff or looking for ‘solutions’? What the hell are we at? What’s our issue?

 

Aggression always stems from concealed or denied weakness. If there is inner strength (or ‘honesty’) then there is no need for aggression. If there wasn’t some kind of inner deficit then there wouldn’t be the burning need to be forever improving things. There would be no need to charge around being intoxicated by goals and ideas the whole time, no need to be getting forever worked up by them. If I am getting all fired up by some goal, by some idea, by some theory or system then what this plainly means is that I am suffering from some inner deficit that I am not willing to look at. The helpful thing to do would therefore be to attend to that ‘problem’ where it is rather than projecting it out onto the outside world where it then becomes invertied so that it turns into some kind of an attractive or seductive promise that I can then get excited about, euphoric about, aggressive about.

 

The point is here of course that attending to the inner deficit requires courage, whereas it is so very much easier to run away from the challenge, so very much easier to chase off madly in the opposite direction and distract ourselves with some kind of superficial theatre. Trying to fix external problems (or chasing after glittering goals) looks positive, looks brave, looks ‘heroic’, but it isn’t. Really it’s just fear in disguise! I’m afraid of facing the real issue and so I ride off in the opposite direction fighting a thousand and one surrogate battles, acting like I’m ‘tackling the problem,’ acting like the hero, when the truth is that I’m just running away…

 

Forever trying to win, forever trying to ‘succeed’, looks positive but the truth is that it is the easy option – it’s the option of ‘avoiding the essential existential challenge’ rather than facing it head on. It’s the big cop-out, the one we’re all involved in. What then – we might ask – is this ‘essential existential challenge’ that we’re talking about? What is this ‘inner deficit’ that we all find so terrifying? What is it that we’re so afraid of looking at? What could be so scary? There are a number of ways in which we could try to get at this. One very straightforward way would be to say that we’re afraid of seeing that who we think we are isn’t who we are at all, afraid of seeing the person we take ourselves to be only an empty fiction. Another way is to say that we’re afraid of finding out that everything we’ve ever believed to be true actually isn’t true at all. We‘re afraid of discovering that our existence is based on lies, on falsehoods, on made-up stories; we’re afraid – in other words – of finding out that the foundation we’ve built our lives on doesn’t actually exist. It could also be said (as the existential philosophers did) that what we’re afraid of is freedom. We’d much rather be slaves to the mediocre lies and crappy self-limiting deceptions that we tell ourselves than face up to the reality of our own freedom…

 

Carlos Castaneda puts this point across by saying that we’re afraid of seeing the Immensity that is reality, and so we hide away from it with the help of our petty concrete preoccupations. We keep ourselves busy with nonsense, with trivialities, with banalities. We bury our heads in the sand rather than face up to the vastness of the universe. We invest big time in ‘small concerns’. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, what we’re running away from is our own true nature, which is the same thing as ‘the pure white light of unmitigated reality’. Rather than facing this dazzling white light, and recognizing it as our own true nature (the Buddha-nature), we develop an attraction towards the various dull or opaque lights of the lower worlds. We opt for the particular ‘style of distraction’ (to use Chogyam Trungpa’s phrase) that corresponds to whichever of these lower worlds we are attracted to, and stick to this particular distraction modality like glue. We stick to it through thick and through thin, in the hope that it will see us through, in the unspoken hope that we can avoid reality forever…

 

Another way of explaining why we’re distracting ourselves with dramas the whole time is to say that we’re fundamentally terrified of Radical Uncertainty – the electric all-consuming uncertainty that falsifies all our constructs, all of our conceptions, including the construct or concept of ourselves. We could therefore say that the idea which we have of ourselves is our defence against Radical Uncertainty – that it is our way of blocking it out, our way of shielding or barricading ourselves from it. As long as we continue to believe in this little self (and the concrete world that it lives in, and the very familiar activities that it continually engages in) then we are successfully keeping Radical Uncertainty at bay. We are denying it. With our unremitting purposeful activities we are saying that there is no such thing as Radical Uncertainty (since purposes or goals are by their very nature always certain).

 

The error right at the core of our scheme is however that we aren’t this little self. We aren’t who we say we are, no matter how many times we might say it. This is the error that we cannot fix – we can’t fix it because fixing it means ‘making what is not true be true’, and that is beyond our power. Nobody can do that. Since we can’t fix the central problem we deflect it outwards to make sure that we encounter it only in camouflaged form, in disguised form. We externalize the problem in other words – we ‘analogize’ it in a thousand and one different ways and then we lose ourselves in the futile task of trying our hardest to fix what can never be fixed…

 

There is always going to be an error in the system, a fly in the ointment, a spanner in the works. And from the point of view of the game this is a good thing! It’s not just a good thing, it’s an essential thing. What would we do if everything was already perfect, and we didn’t need to do anything anymore? Of course, we’re all going to all say that this would be great, that this would be wonderful. We’re going to pay lip service to the idea that it’s going to be great. This is very much like the idea of heaven – of course we all say that getting to heaven will be great, that it will be wonderful, etc, but we never think beyond this. We never consider what exactly we’d do in heaven, when there is no need to be continually having plans to make things better anymore, no need to carry on with our characteristic (or defining) patterns of thinking and behaviour any more.

 

Nominally speaking being in heaven is great but it doesn’t go beyond this, it doesn’t go beyond the label. Why is it great? What would we do with ourselves? How would we live without all our goals and plans and agendas and solutions? That goal-driven stuff is our bread and butter. It’s what we do. Even more to the point, what would we do without thinking since all of that problem-solving stuff is essentially thinking? ‘No problem’ means no need for thinking and the scary thing about this is (even if we can’t see things quite as clearly as this) is that thinking is who we are. Or rather, ‘thinking is who we think we are’, which – on the pragmatic level – comes down to exactly the same thing. Without problems, without goals, without some kind of agenda, without some kind of system to be buying into, there is no self, and this is the real problem for us. This is the problem we are making very sure never to address, the problem we are always running away from…

 

This is of course only a problem from the point of view of our thinking (which is to say, from the point of view of the thought-created self). Outside of this context, there is no problem at all. Or as the Zen saying has it, “No self, no problem”…