Identifying With The Generic Identity

Self-observation is all about not getting sucked into our own (or other people’s) dramas. Dramas pull us in – that’s what they do. We lose ourselves in dramas – it’s like watching a film in the cinema and being so completely absorbed that you forget all about yourself. If my life was one long drama (let us just suppose) then we could lose ourselves in it the whole time, on a non-stop basis. We would in that case get so absorbed in it that we would completely forget ourselves! This is what Anthony de Mello is getting at when he says that we are all ‘asleep’.

 

Another way of putting this is to say that we get so absorbed in our reactions to the drama that’s going on that we think we are our reactions! So suppose you say something to me and for some reason I feel hurt by your comment, then it’s the easiest thing in the world for me to identify with this reaction, and get totally sucked into the drama of it on this basis. ‘Identifying’ means that I feel that I am totally right to be aggrieved by the fact that you have said whatever it is that you’ve said, and that you are totally wrong to have said it. There is this right/wrong polarisation that takes place which then get elaborated and reinforced by the thinking process. ‘She should never have said that,’ I might think, or ‘how dare you make a comment like that!’

 

The more we get sucked in by this thinking process more indignant or affronted we feel, the more polarised we get, and this polarisation of ‘right way versus runway’ is what identification means. ‘Identification’ means that we feel intensely gratified and vindicated if things go our way, and equally intensely annoyed and stung if they don’t. In this state of being everything is about the drama, everything is about the reaction, and so as a result of everything being about the drama (or the reaction) there is no actual ‘self-observation’ going on in the sense that we have been talking about. ‘Being sucked into the drama’ is the very antithesis of self-observation as we have said.

 

The process of identification, then, is the process whereby we think that our reactions, which kick off automatically, are us. The intensity of the emotional reaction is my own intensity; it is coming right from the core of me, it is expressive of what I care about the most. My outrage is expressing my deepest most heartfelt feelings – it is coming out of the very centre of my being (or so it seems). More than this, it is an expression of me. In this way we could say that I’m ‘prizing’ my outrage, my anger, my indignation, or whatever the reaction is; it is precious to me just as I am precious to me.

 

And yet at the same time my emotional reactions have nothing to do with who I really am – they certainly don’t define who or how I am in the way that I feel that they do. What they do define is a generic version of us and so what we have here is the situation where I am very intensely identifying with this stance, this posture, this attitude, and we are saying – as strongly as we can – that this is me. I am saying ‘this is my position and I’m sticking to it whether you like it or not…’

 

There is a huge defiance, a huge obstinacy, a huge stubbornness about this and just as long as we have any strength at all left to us, we will defend this position of ours – we will defend it until our last gasp, we will defend it till the very end. This obstinacy of ours is perverse however because what we are defending is not us – what we are defending (or promoting) is ‘the generic version of us’, not the true and unique individuality of who we are. What we are defending is the acquired ‘personality’ not our intrinsic ‘essence’, to use Gurdjieff’s terms, so getting pulled into the drama causes us to think that ‘we are who we aren’t’ and – moreover – think it very strongly! We forget who we are (which is not defined in the crude, black-and-white way, and cannot therefore be ‘defended’) and identify with a ‘generic identity’ instead.

 

The reason we call it ‘the generic identity’ is because it’s the same for everybody – when we look at anyone who has completely lost their temper and has become consumed by rage we can see that everyone becomes ‘the same person’ at this point. All the nuances (the nuances which tell of our individuality) are lost and all that is left is ‘the ego of anger’, which is a generic self. As Jung says, when we allow ourselves to be ruled by ‘the passions’ then we straightaway become ‘Everyman’

The more you cling to that which the whole world desires, the more you are Everyman, who has not yet discovered himself and stumbles through the world like a blind man leading the blind with somnambulistic certainty into the ditch.

This is without question the most ignominious fate that could ever befall us – Everyman is the graveyard of individuality, a horrific type of ‘living death’.

 

This isn’t just true for anger therefore – every jealous person is the same person (the same person which isn’t actually any true person), every greedy person is the same person, every confused person of the same person, every proud or arrogant person is the same person, every slothful or lazy person of is the same person. What we’re talking about here therefore are the ‘five poisons’ that are spoken of in Buddhism or the ‘seven deadly sins’ that are listed in Christianity. The reason there are seven cardinal sins and only five poisons (or Kleshas) because Christianity counts desire three times as lechery (luxuria); gluttony (gula) and avarice (and avaritia). The point is however (the point that we are never ever told) is that these are states in which we lose our true, compassionate nature and ‘become who we aren’t’. The consumer society in which we live is based upon the manipulation of our passions (greed, envy, insecurity, etc) and it operates by causing us to identify with the generic identity. The generic identity is predictable and easily controlled, after all! Who we really are (the individuality) isn’t.

 

‘Self-observation’ essentially involves bringing awareness to this process whereby we identify with the generic identity. We see it happening. What we are observing is the way in which we get caught up in the mind-created drama and ‘become who we aren’t’, in other words. The crucial point here is that when we have identified with the generic identity we can’t ‘observe’ anything! The generic identity can’t see anything truly; it can’t see anything truly because it sees everything from a false basis – it sees everything in a ‘generic’ way, it sees everything ‘from the basis of an unreal vantage point’. This is the great difficulty inherent in self-observation therefore – the ‘great difficulty’ is that inasmuch as we are continuously identifying with a generic identity, we are also becoming unconscious, and when we become unconscious we are also unconscious of the fact that we’re unconscious. We are convinced beyond any argument that we are conscious, as Gurdjieff says. We might think that we’re ‘observing’ ourselves but we’re not – we’re just getting lost in mind-created illusions…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Method

Cumulus Clouds  602691

Mindfulness is said to be various things. Often it is spoken of as a ‘life-enhancing skill’, or in terms of a ‘tool’ that we can use to help manage stress or anxiety or anger. This tends to sound pretty good – who doesn’t want to learn a ‘life-enhancing skill’? Who doesn’t want an extra tool under their belt to help manage difficult mental states? This actually sounds pretty great – it’s a product that markets itself! The thing is – however – that this way of talking about mindfulness is subtly deceptive, subtly distorting. Mindfulness isn’t a life-enhancing skill at all. If it was this would make it just like any other life-enhancing skill that we might hear of. That would make it just one more product in a world full of products. It becomes just another accessory, just another app for your phone.

SELF-REMEMBERING

When we label mindfulness in this way it sounds as if we are valuing it, as if we are saying something good about it, but really we’re ‘de-potentiating’ it. We’re neutralizing it. We’re turning it into something mediocre, something generic. Mindfulness isn’t a skill (or ability) and it isn’t a tool. It isn’t a technical accomplishment either, for all that we tend to think of it in this way. It isn’t just another thing that we can learn to do, it isn’t just one more box to tick. What mindfulness is really is something which is at the same time very much simpler, and very much harder to comprehend. Mindfulness is what G.I. Gurdjieff calls remembering ourselves! Mindfulness is noticing that we are actually here. It is ‘waking up’ out of our habitual patterns of thinking and behaving. Or we could say that mindfulness is remembering something that we – in all our busyness – have quite forgotten. Mindfulness is remembering who we are actually are …

 

This puts a rather different perspective on things. In what way is ‘remembering who we actually are’ a skill? If it is a skill, then who has the skill? Who learns the skill and who practices it? If we say that being mindful is the same thing as ‘being conscious’, then does this make ‘being conscious’ a skill? And if we say that it is, then who practices the skill of being conscious? If I’m not conscious (i.e. if I’m not present, if I don’t remember myself) then why would I want to practice it? Why would it even occur to me? If I don’t remember myself then how am I going to remember to ‘practice’ being here?

 

What’s happening when we categorize mindfulness (or mediation) as a skill, as some kind of ‘add on’ or ‘accessory’, is that we are ‘inverting’ it whilst at the same time concealing the fact that we are doing so. We’re putting the cart in front of the horse in a big way! We appear to be valuing mindfulness but actually we are only valuing it insofar as it can benefit the one who is to utilize the mindfulness. This is not an obvious point. What – we might ask – is the difference between valuing mindfulness and valuing the one who is to practice (or utilize) the mindfulness? Why can’t we just say that mindfulness is valuable because it benefits the one who is to practice the mindfulness? What’s the distinction? Surely both come down to the same thing?

 

In this view – which is the view which we are almost bound to take – it is ‘the self’ who is to benefit from practicing mindfulness. This is precisely why it is valuable – because it is of benefit to the self. How obvious is this? The only thing is, however, that this isn’t how it works at all! This is quite the wrong idea about mindfulness! If I think that practicing mindfulness is going to benefit my ‘self’ then I am very much mistaken. If I think that practicing mindfulness is in any way going to enhance or augment my everyday sense of ‘who I am’ then I have got the wrong end of the stick entirely. Mindfulness isn’t another tool in the service of the self. It isn’t any sort of a ‘tool’ at all, no matter what we might like to think. It’s not there to prop up the status quo.

 

The reason we like the notion of ‘skills and ‘tools’ so much is of course because having them enhances us – they are extra ‘muscle’ for us, extra leverage. The more skills and tools we have available to us the more amour, the more ‘fire power’ we have in the face of difficulties. What the everyday ‘sense of self’ values above all else (no matter what we might like to believe) is the ability to control, the ability to ensue that everything goes the way it wants it to go. Any skills or tools that we acquire therefore are valued by us because they represent an extension or amplification of our ability to get things to be the way we want them to be. But the point we are missing here – in a truly dramatic fashion – is that mindfulness is not going to do this for us at all!

SEEING WHAT WE DON’T WANT TO SEE

Mindfulness – of course – isn’t about being able to control better. It isn’t about getting more effective at attaining our targets, our goals. It isn’t about helping us to consolidate our position (or ‘dig in more securely’). It isn’t about helping us to get things to be the way we think they ought to be but rather it is about finding the courage (or interest) to see them the way they actually are! In order to see reality in an unbiased or un-slanted way we need both courage and some genuine, honest-to-goodness curiosity about life because what we will see when we see things ‘as they really are’ is for sure not going to confirm what we’d like to see, what we’d like to be the case. Our likes are the same thing as our biases and so seeing the world in an unbiased or un-slanted way is pretty much guaranteed to show us stuff that we don’t like.

 

What we’re actually going to observe – if we find the courage to see things straight, in an undistorted way – is that the world doesn’t agree with our biases, with our beliefs about how it should be. Reality doesn’t humour us in other words – we humour ourselves! We arrange for ourselves to see the world that we are predisposed to seeing, and then we hide all traces of us having done so. As David Bohm says, “Thought creates the world and then hides and says it didn’t do it“. Practicing awareness shows us the previously hidden activity of the thinking mind, and how it arbitrarily creates black-and-white realities for us. On another level, we could say that if we find the courage to see things straight, in an undistorted or unprejudiced way, then what we see is that we have forgotten who we really are! What we see is that ‘who we think we are’ isn’t who we really are. What we see when we disengage from the thinking mind is that we are existing pretty much as pure mechanical reflex, pure automatic self-validating habit, with very little in the way of genuine presence there at all…

 

What I see as a result of practicing mindfulness is that the comfortably reassuring picture of myself that I am expecting to have confirmed (or consolidated) for me doesn’t actually exist. In Buddhism this is called the truth of annatta, or ‘selflessness’. What I see is that I am existing as a bundle of self-validating conditioned reflexes, and that this bundle of conditioned reflexes isn’t who I am at all. In one way this is of course profoundly liberating because there is zero freedom in existing as a bundle of conditioned reflexes, but in another way it is a disagreeable thing for me to see because I am so identified with these reflexes, these habitual ways of seeing the world. I am so very used to assuming that this bundle of reflexes (or ‘rules’) is ‘who I am’, and this assumption provides me with a huge amount of ontological security.

 

So it can be seen that mindfulness is in no way going to be useful or beneficial to me when I understand myself to be this bundle of habits, this bundle of reflexes. I want to rely on this ‘conditioned identity’ as being true, as being ‘who I really am’, and mindful self-observation is going to show me the opposite of this. Far from allowing me to consolidate my established position, mindfulness is going to thoroughly undermine it! Cultivating the light of awareness of awareness isn’t in any way going to benefit the arbitrary fiction that I am this bunch of conditioned reflexes. Quite the reverse is true because mechanical reflexes lose their power when we allow the light of unprejudiced awareness to fall on them. G.I. Gurdjieff says that the everyday self – and the unconscious mental processes that prop it up – is like a type of chemical reaction which can only proceed in the dark. Shine some light on the matter and the reactions just can’t continue!

FIXING MODE

To speak of mindfulness as if it were a skill or strategy that belongs to this ‘bundle of reflexes’ which is the conditioned self is therefore highly absurd, to say the least! The everyday or conditioned self, as it makes its way through each day, invariably runs into certain sorts of problems, which it seeks to solve the best it can. This is mechanical or ‘unconscious’ life. The notion of ‘a problem’ is a funny one however – presupposed in the notion of ‘a problem’ is the idea that whatever we are trying to do (whatever it is that we are trying to achieve) is of paramount importance. This is how ‘goal-orientated thinking’ works – the goal becomes of primary importance. This is why any sort of obstacle or opposition to what we are doing annoys us so much, or worries us so much. If we assume (as we do in goal-orientated thinking) that the goal is of paramount importance then the other side of this assumption is that anything that stands in our way is automatically ‘wrong’, or automatically ‘bad’. It is simply something to be eliminated – it is simply ‘a problem to be solved’. Goal-orientated thinking is closed thinking, therefore.

 

Clearly goal-orientated thinking has its place. If the goal is important in a practical sort of a way then it isn’t helpful for me to be put off or distracted by the very first difficulty that comes along. I wouldn’t survive long if this where the case. I would become too inefficient to ever get anything done. I’d set off to do something (buy some shopping, perhaps) and something would come up and I’d get totally deflected. I’d forget about the task at hand and everyone would go hungry! But aside from this purely practical importance (which we’re not arguing about) there is a kind of way in which the purely practical importance of my goal (if indeed there is any) can be hijacked by something that we are not at all aware of. This scenario might sound on the face of it rather odd, or rather unlikely, but actually it happens all the time. We are very prone to over-valuing the importance of our goals – just as we are very prone to over-valuing the importance of our failures!

 

What happens in practice, in the general run of things, is that our goals take on a significance that goes beyond the strictly practical, that goes beyond the actual ‘stated reason’ for the goal. When this happens then any problem that comes up automatically starts to assume more importance than it should do; the problem in question ‘looms larger’ than is should do – it starts to bug us more than it should do, it starts to worry us more than it should do. The problem takes on a weight that really belongs somewhere else, somewhere ‘out of sight’. My problems run into each other: the immediate problem becomes every problem I’ve ever had; the immediate issue serves as a flagship for all issues. What is happening here therefore is that ‘solving the problem’ becomes important to me not because of what the problem is, but because of what it represents. The particular problem I am getting to grips with has become what we might call ‘a universal surrogate problem’!

 

In general terms, we can say that the ‘problem’ represents a threat to the integrity of the conditioned self, a threat to the continued existence of the ‘self-concept’, whilst at the same time the solution to the problem represents the augmentation or enhancement of the self-concept. Essentially, my will has been thwarted and this doesn’t feel good – I don’t get my own way and as a result I start to feel annoyed or slighted or undermined in some way, I take the problem as a personal affront – a kind of an insult. Skills and tools thus represent – as we have been saying – the means by which the insecure self-concept can protect and consolidate itself. When I hear of some new skill, some highly effective new technique, this is why it sounds good to me! It certainly doesn’t sound good to me because I think that this might be a way by which I can throw light on the ways which I have of ‘pulling the wool over my own eyes’ so that I don’t have to see any uncomfortable truth! How’s that going to sound good to me? How’s that ever going to be attractive to me?

ACTIVE LAZINESS

Fixing problems feels good to us because when we can fix a problem this makes us feel more secure in ourselves, more ‘unassailable’ in ourselves. It makes us feel that we are in position of power rather than a position of vulnerability. We could also say that fixing problems feels good to us because when we successful fix a problem, however small, however insignificant, we can allow ourselves to imagine that we are fixing the unacknowledged problem of our underlying insecurity. This is the problem that we really want to fix, but which we can’t allow ourselves to see that we want to fix. Being able to control effectively is a compensatory mechanism with regard to our unacknowledged insecurity, in other words. It is as if when I fix a problem, I am fixing everything that has ever gone wrong for, everything that has ever held us back, everything that has ever made me feel bad. The type of thing we are talking about here is sometimes called ‘pseudo-solution’ – I’m not addressing the issue where it belongs but rather I’m addressing it where it doesn’t belong!

 

Pseudo-solution happens all the time without us realizing it. If we realized it then it wouldn’t be pseudo-solution! A general sense of discomfort or ill-ease about life, dissatisfaction with life, fear about life, etc, can all be channeled into concrete tasks and goals. This – according to the existential philosophers – is the number one driving force in our lives. Sogyal Rinpoche calls it ‘active laziness’. We are ‘active’ because we are always doing stuff and we are ‘lazy’ because we are avoiding doing the work of seeing something that we don’t want to see. We are avoiding the psychological work involved in seeing that all of the strategies we engage in are really for the sake of ‘protecting who we aren’t’. Seeing that we aren’t who we think we are is something that we are just too afraid to see – it’s infinitely easier just to carry on with the self-deceiving game that we are playing…

 

It is because of this ongoing ‘fear displacement’ therefore that we value skills and technical means of establishing control as much as we do. We wouldn’t talk so incessantly of them if we weren’t chronically insecure! It’s not that skills and techniques can’t be very valuable in their own right – of course they can be – but the point we are making here is that they are only valuable when they are used consciously, for the reasons that we’re ‘supposed’ to be using them. When we use skills and techniques (and our positive knowledge base) for the purpose of ‘solving life’ then this is a different kettle of fish entirely. Why would we even want to solve life? What does this say about us? Where does the impulse to want to solve (or ‘control’) life comes from?

MAKING THE BAD FEELING GO AWAY

Really, therefore, we’re using our skills and techniques to ‘make the bad feeling go away’, to ‘make the dissatisfaction go away’, to ‘make the fear go away’. The more skills we learn, the more techniques and methods we have under our belt, the better off we feel with regard to this unstated goal, therefore. This is of course natural enough – who could blame us for this? Of course we don’t want to feel uncomfortable, ill at ease, insecure, fearful, and so on. Of course we want to make the bad feeling go away. But the only thing is that we CAN’T escape from this generalized sense of dread and alienation, this ‘angst’ about life. We can’t escape from this uncomfortable feeling because it stems from our relationship with reality. This bad feeling IS our relationship to reality. We can only escape it by escaping wholesale from reality, and it is our (attempted) escaping from reality that creates the alienated and insecure feelings in the first place. We are caught in an unpleasant kind of a loop, a ‘loop of fear’ that keeps on trying to escape itself, in other words, under the apparently positive-sounding guise of ‘fixing’ or ‘controlling’. We caught in the loop of trying to escape the pain caused by our own escaping and for us – whether we realize it or not – this ‘loop’ has become the whole world…

 

So we say that we want these enhanced methods, these enhanced ways of controlling, for a positive reason, but really we want them because we’re afraid. That’s we have such an appetite for methods – we want to retreat out of reality into the abstracted illusion-realm in which we feel ourselves to be ‘in control’. Wei Wu Wei (1963, p 16) says,

All methods require a doer. The only doer is the I-concept.

We could equivalently say that there is ‘no such thing as an I-concept without a method. The ‘I-concept’ isn’t who we are – it is only an idea, only a thought, only a notion. It’s who we think we are, not who we really are. Because the I-concept isn’t who we really are it is always insecure. It is insecure because it doesn’t exist! It is insecure because it hasn’t got any reality! Because the I-concept is insecure is always caught up in some kind of controlling – it always has to have some sort of strategy, some kind of game-plan, some kind of method. It has to have a ‘gimmick’ because without a gimmick it can’t exist! Without its gimmick, without the particular ‘angle’ that it is playing, the idea that we have of ourselves straightaway starts to dissolve…

 

If we are relying on methods and techniques therefore (as we do rely on them) then what this shows is that we must be identifying with the I-concept. How can a method not be about identification? If there is a method then there must be ‘something to be gained’ and ‘something to be avoided’. There must be ‘a right result versus a wrong result’ and this is identification. In identification there is never any freedom. There is no freedom at all because everything is all about ‘getting it right and not getting it wrong’ and this is not freedom! On the contrary, this is a rule. This is the absence of freedom. For this reason, it can be seen that when we try to obtain freedom by using methods (or by using ideas) we will be forever going around in circles. There can be no other outcome – circles are all we are going to get!

THERE IS NO PROCEDURAL BASIS FOR ‘BEING’

Just as there is no procedural basis for freedom, there is no procedural basis for being. How can there be a procedural basis for being? How can there be a ‘formula’ for being? How can there be a right way and a wrong way to be? How can we ask, “What are the correct steps to take in order to be?” How can we ask “What is the correct gimmick to help us be real?” If we start off from the position of being identified with the I-concept then we are starting off from a position of ‘non-being’ because the I-concept does not exist. If we start off from a position of ‘non-being’ then no matter how many steps we take, no matter how many procedures we enact, we are never going to get anywhere else other than ‘non-being’. We are going to be dragging that ‘non-being’ around with us wherever we go. ‘Non-being’ – we might say – is our ball-and-chain. It is the maze or prison from which we cannot escape.

 

If anything we do on the basis of the I-concept is carried out on the basis of something that is itself not real, how is this ever going to get us anywhere? The movement away from the I-concept is unreal just as the I-concept is! As Krishnamurti says in The Urgency of Change (1970, p 189),

Any movement away from what I am strengthens what I am.

All the I-concept can ever understand is controlling, is manipulating, and all controlling, all manipulating, starts off on the basis of a position that is not actually real, a position that does not actually exist. And if we were able to see through the I-concept’s perennial manoeuvrings we would see that all of its strategies only ever really have one aim (albeit an unacknowledged aim) and that is to validate itself. In a nutshell, the I-concept’s ‘secret aim’ is to prove to itself that it actually is real, that it actually is who we are’…

 

So to get back to the point that we were originally making, in this over-rational culture of ours we tend to get the impression that mindfulness is some form of ‘cleverness’ – a type of strategizing that we can use to help manage the difficulties of everyday life better. And yet it isn’t really anything of the sort – to be mindful is simply to be present in one’s life and there is no cleverness in this at all! To be present is simply to be there and where’s the cleverness in this? We just have to be what we already are, nothing more. We just have to be and this is not a strategy, not a gimmick.

 

‘Being present’ is not a way by which we can manage life’s difficulties. Quite the reverse is true – it is life’s difficulties that help us to be present! When a difficult situation comes along it can either be a ‘trigger’ or a ‘reminder’ – either it will trigger us to react automatically to control it (to fight the problem or run away from it) or it will remind us to be present. In the first case we move into unreality (the unreality of the world that is created by the thinking, manipulating mind) and in the second case we find ourselves more fully in reality, we partake more wholeheartedly in reality. This – we might say – is ‘the art of being there’.

 

Practicing ‘the art of being there’ allows us to be present when, the over-riding urge, the constant habitual temptation, is to be absent, is to be not there

The Engine of Automatic Reacting

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In each of us there is something that might be called the engine of automatic reacting. Another way to explain this ‘engine’ would be to say that it is ‘force of habit’. This would be the more usual way to talk about automatic reacting, but it suffers from the drawback of being too familiar to us, so that we don’t really think about it that much. The idea of force of habit seems fairly harmless to us – at worst it is something that is annoying or frustrating. A lot of the time, it is simply invisible because it doesn’t get in the way. For example, if I have a habit of always having a cup of tea first thing in the morning I don’t generally see that as a problem – it’s just what I do. Only when I can’t get a cup of tea in the morning would it be a problem, and even then I wouldn’t see the habit as being the problem but the lack of availability of teabags, or whatever. On rare occasions we are forced to confront the fact that we have a genuinely nefarious habit that we can’t get rid of, but even when this happens we still do not appreciate how widespread or endemic the problem is, and how much of a threat it is.

 

In the following discussion we are going to suggest that the engine of automatic reacting is both a very remarkable thing, and very terrible thing. It is remarkable because it is a sort of powerhouse that goes on and on, never running out of energy. In fact, rather than running out of steam as time goes on, it gets more and more powerful, more and more ‘unstoppable’. This is why it is also a terrible thing. In its unstoppability, it is like the legendary ‘perpetual motion machine’ that generations of eccentric inventors have tried in vain to come up with. Up to now, no one has ever invented a perpetual motion machine and the reason for this is that all mechanical processes involve friction which means an inevitable loss of momentum. We just can’t produce a totally friction-free mechanism. The mental machine that is automatic reacting is friction-free however, as we can show with the help of a few examples.

TIT FOR TAT

Our first example is provided by the common and well-known phenomenon of two people having a blazing row. First I say something hurtful, then you say something hurtful back, and then, stung by your mean comment, I come back with a mean comment of my own. This is exactly like a pendulum swinging first one way, and then the other. The reason there is no friction in this continual ‘reacting’ is because the momentum (or energy) of the swinging pendulum is not absorbed by either person, but reflected back. At the heart of this tit-for-tat reacting is the refusal to accept pain, and it is the refusal to accept pain that is at the heart of all automatic mental reactions.

 

It is easy enough to see how this works: when I sting you with an unkind remark you feel bad, and the automatic way to deal with feeling bad is simply to ‘pass it on’. It is as if I hit a ping-pong ball at you, and you (having none of it) promptly hit it back at me. When you return with a stinging remark directed at me, this is a way of avoiding pain, and it is also a way of obtaining satisfaction – the satisfaction of putting your opponent in their place with the ‘ultimate put-down’.

 

Psychologically speaking, the attempt to avoid pain and the attempt to gain satisfaction are one and the same thing, they are the two sides of the same coin – the coin of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is the motivation behind ‘reacting’, the motivation behind automatic behaviour. We can see this by looking at another example of a perpetual motion machine, which is addiction. Once an addiction is established, it can go on and on just about forever. The basic mechanism is the same swinging pendulum type thing: at one end of the swing there is the grasping for satisfaction which is when I take the addictive substance. A bit later on, I start to feel bad because the high is wearing off, and I am no longer experiencing euphoria but rebound depression, or cold turkey, or something like that. This bad feeling triggers me to obtain another dose of the drug, which fuels another swing of the pendulum. This goes back and forth, back and forth, until the time comes when I get so sick of the imprisoning pattern of addiction that I am willing to swallow the pain of the negative end of the cycle without acting to avoid it. When I do this, the momentum or energy of the pendulum is absorbed, and it finally comes to rest.

 

The same is true for the swinging pendulum of an argument – one person has to unconditionally accept the pain that has been sent their way, they have got to absorb the momentum of the ping-pong ball that is coming across the table at them. This hurts, and there is no satisfaction to be had in it. It goes totally against the grain of our automatic reacting machine, but it always works in the end because unless we ‘play the game’ by reacting to discomfort (or reaching out for satisfaction) the whole to-and-fro movement of the mechanism cannot continue. It is our knee-jerk aversion to pain, and our knee-jerk attraction to pleasure, that perpetuates the perpetual motion of the engine of automatic reacting.

A NEVER-ENDING GAME

To find an example of this tendency in action, we have only to think about the phenomenon of ‘having to have the last word’ that we sometimes see enacted in an argument, where one person just has to have the final word before leaving the room. The reason this is so important is purely because of the unwillingness to accept pain, and the desire for the satisfaction of being ‘one up’. I don’t want to be put in a bad light, and I do want to put the other person in a bad light (even though I of course see it as being the correct slant on things). If both people insist on having the last word, what we have is a never-ending game of ping-pong – it has to be never-ending because for it to end someone has to not have the last word, and neither party is willing to have this happen to them.

‘ONE PLAYER’ PERPETUAL MOTION GAMES

The example of an argument is clearly a ‘two player’ game, but the same principle operates in ‘one player’ games, an example of which would checking in OCD. Suppose I have a compulsion to keep checking and rechecking my letters before I post them, because I am worried that I might have put the wrong letter in the wrong envelope. Successful checking brings a momentary feeling of satisfaction, but it also ‘feeds the engine’, which is to say, it makes the underlying compulsion stronger and stronger with time. What this means is that the next time an ambiguous situation comes along (i.e. where I can’t say for sure if the correct letter is in the correct envelope) then I am going to be on the receiving end of a bad feeling which I will want to get rid of. So I try my best to obtain satisfaction by checking, which is equivalent to the tactic of ‘returning the pain’ in an argument involving two people, only this time (obviously) there isn’t actually another person. One way to explain what is going on is to say that I am treating my environment like a giant spring: it pushes me and causes me to feel bad, and so I push back on it in order to get satisfaction. The problem with this is that by pushing (or compressing) the spring I have stored energy up in it, and so sooner or later it will push back at me and the whole familiar ‘back-and-forth’ cycle will be set in motion. I can’t actually get rid of the pain, I can only get momentary relief by pushing it away, which ensures that there will be a return later on. This ‘one person’ game also never ends, because I am totally unwilling ever to be on the receiving end without reacting to send the pain impulse away again.

 

Chronic anger is also an example of a one-person game. When I feel the initial discomfort of the anger, I react automatically in my head to blame someone (or something) else, and simultaneously vindicate myself. This tactic sends the bad feeling away, just as if the discomfort was a tennis ball and I had hit it a good whack with a racket. However, I haven’t really got rid of the pain because I have conditioned myself to react this way, and I have in the process fixated my consciousness in a particular frame of reference so that I now totally believe in the distorted (or one-sided) version of reality that I had to adopt in order to feel vindicated or justified in the first place. My solution to the problem isn’t a real one – I have in effect ‘cheated’ by fixating on narrow perspective of things in order to obtain a false feeling of satisfaction. If we say that reality is a rubber ball, then I have obtained satisfaction by squeezing it, and because I have squeezed the ball, it is inevitably going to rebound on me at some future point in time. This is what games are all about – deluding ourselves that we can obtain a [+] result without having to make an equal and opposite payback. As long as we think we can have a PLUS without also having to pay a MINUS later on, then the game can (and will) go on indefinitely. Thus, the engine of automatic reaction is fuelled by ignorance, i.e., it is fuelled by our ignoring of the fact that an UP and a DOWN always come hand-in-hand.

 

Two final examples of perpetual motion one-person games are anxiety and perfectionism. In anxiety the tactic we use to refuse discomfort is avoiding, which involves both fighting and repressing. Essentially, we think that we can evade our fear, but our attempt to evade it actually perpetuates it indefinitely. In perfectionism the game we are playing is of course chasing perfection. The ideal perfect state is always there just in front of our noses, urging us onwards, but somehow we never find the final satisfaction that we so much desire. The problem with perfectionism (and ‘fixing’ generally) can be explained by using the idea of a tablecloth that has annoying wrinkles on it. We react to the wrinkles by smoothing a patch out, but by doing this we necessarily throw up more wrinkles somewhere else. These new wrinkles annoy us, and so we busily smooth them out, thereby creating more wrinkles again, and so on and so forth. It is possible to gain momentary satisfaction by focussing only on the smooth patch that we have cleared in front of us, but this too is ‘cheating’ really because we only get to feel good because we ignore that fact that successful smoothing always comes with a price. And, as always, when we ignore the price (or believe that we can escape paying it) we have to continue the game, because the game has no end…

OVER-RIDING ONE ‘REACTION’ WITH ANOTHER

There is one possibility that we have not so far mentioned, and that is the possibility of escaping from one game by distracting ourselves with another. I might be caught up in angry thoughts, and then distract myself by eating a cream doughnut. Basically, what I do is I find something more compulsive, or equally compulsive, and I substitute that compulsion for the old one. This is exactly like coming off a heroin addiction by switching to an alcohol addiction instead. Obviously, this is always a ‘false solution’ because the new compulsion is just as much a trap as the old one. However, if I take a narrow view, it is possible to feel relief or satisfaction because I am able to believe that I have in some way ‘moved on’.

THE MOBIUS STRIP ANALOGY

Actually, this business of escaping a troublesome compulsion by over-riding it with another compulsion, which is swapping one game for another, is itself a game – it is just another level of game. On the first level, I believe that I can achieve success within the terms of the game. For example, if I am in the grip of perfectionism, then I believe that I can reach the ideal state of perfection in whatever it is that I am doing. As we said, this is a trap because, if I take the wider view, I will see that all I have done it to ‘pass the problem on’ to another part of the board. Earlier, we illustrated this idea in terms of a wrinkly tablecloth. Another way to illustrate it would be to say that it is like a Mobius strip, which the Cassel Paperback Dictionary defines as follows:

– a long, rectangular strip of paper twisted through 180 degrees and joined at the ends, to form a one-sided surface bounded by one continuous curve.

The Mobius strip is a ‘physical paradox’ – like all strips of paper, it has two surfaces, and yet with this particular strip of paper there is a twist because if you follow one face of the paper long enough you inevitably end up on the other, which obviously means that there is only one face really. Now, suppose that I am the sort of perfectionist who hates twists. Twists or bendy bits make me feel really annoyed and I have to fix them by ‘flattening them out’ by some means. Let us next suppose that my life consists of travelling around and around on the surface of a giant Mobius strip, which is, as the above definition tells us, one continuous curve. This curve or twist is really going to bug me and so I am going to have to flatten it. When I ‘iron out’ the kink in the area where I am sitting I am going to feel good- I am going to get a rush of satisfaction at having achieved ‘perfection’. However, all I have really done is to chase the kink to another location on the loop, and because I have to keep travelling around the loop (or strip), I will inevitably encounter an exacerbated kink a bit later on. The reason we say that the kink is ‘exacerbated’ is because when a part or section of the curve is flattened out, this naturally means that there must be increased curvature somewhere else on the loop to make up for it.

 

This story ought to be getting fairly familiar to us by now! What happens next is obvious. If a bit of a twist drove me cracked, then an exaggerated twist will drive me twice as cracked, and so when I encounter it I will redouble my efforts to straighten it out, and so the cycle of fixing will be set up all over again. There are two entirely different possibilities here:

 

[1] is when I persist in focussing only on the short-term gain, and ignoring the long-term cost. This involves me in an endless series of ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ – I get an ‘up’ when I kid myself that I have fixed the problem, and I get a ‘down’ when I find that I have a new problem to deal with. What I don’t see is that I am engaged in an impossible task – all I am ever doing is driving the kink around and around the loop. The twisty bit cannot ever go away, it can never be banished. And yet, as long as I think I am getting somewhere, I will keep at it, never realizing that I have actually been totally swallowed up by a perfectly meaningless (or ‘circular’) task.

 

[2] is when I take a broader view and see as a result the impossible nature of what I am trying to achieve, and I therefore perceive the meaninglessness of what I am doing. I see as clearly as day that for every gain (or PLUS) I am bound to get a corresponding loss (or MINUS). I see that PLUS equals MINUS. This is ‘seeing through the game’. To see that I am attempting the impossible takes the guts out of the engine of automatic reacting, because in order to keep fuelling the engine I have to actually believe that I can obtain a [+] without incurring an equal and opposite [-] to cancel it out a bit later on. Even though the engine does not run out of steam straight away, seeing through the game is the beginning of the ‘winding down’ process by which the power of the automatic mechanism gradually dwindles away.

THE HIDDEN PARADOX

We were on the subject of ‘swapping one compulsion for another’. We started off by talking about the ‘first level of the game’, which we defined by saying that it is where we believe that we can obtain ultimate success within the terms of that game. Alternatively, we could say that the ‘first level’ is when we think that we can eradicate the ‘hidden paradox’ in the game (this is what Professor Carse calls the ‘contradictoriness of finite play’). The paradox is hidden because we just don’t see it, but it is of course still there just the same, as we can clearly see from the example of the Mobius strip. I just need to ‘pull back’ enough from my purposeful behaviour so that I can see what I am doing, and I will see it.

 

The second level of the game is where we swap one distraction for another, one game for another. When we think about it, we can of course see that this is exactly the same thing. We think that we can fix the problem this way, whereas all we are really doing is endlessly exchanging one problem for another. This is what ‘neurotic fixing’ is all about! What this shows, therefore, is that there is no way to ‘cure’ a compulsion on purpose, because ‘purposes’ are themselves compulsions, and you can’t cure compulsivity with yet more compulsivity. However sophisticated our game, our situation is essentially the same, which is to say, it is a dead-end which no amount of cleverness will free us from. The problem is insoluble, and so cleverness is not the answer.

‘TRAPPED’ VERSUS ‘FREE’

What we are basically looking at here is a trap for consciousness. When we get caught up in a circle of thought (or a circle of behaviour), and believe that we are genuinely going somewhere when we are not, then our awareness has effectively been put in a prison. This is the most complete sort of a prison there could be, because we think we are actually free. We are ‘going nowhere for ever’. This is the state of psychological unconsciousness, where we are fully engaged in the pursuit of illusory progress, utterly distracted from the reality of our situation. To be genuinely free, we would first have to see the circle of thought within which we are trapped, we would have to see that we are eternally distracted in Taking A Trip To Nowhere. Freedom is, therefore, seeing through the trick, seeing the paradox. To put it most succinctly, believing that [+] doesn’t equal [-] is the state of unconsciousness, and seeing that [+] equals [-] is consciousness. These are the two possibilities: either we are trapped in the realm of illusion, which is when we are totally absorbed in thinking that we are getting real results when we are not, or we are free, which is when we see the illusion for what it is, and do not get pulled into it.

THE WHEEL OF UNCONSCIOUSNESS

In a way, we could say that are two ingredients to unconsciousness. The first is the ‘illusion of progress’ that keeps leading us onwards, and the second is the sheer force of the compulsion that makes us want the progress. It is because of the force of the compulsion that we don’t examine the illusion too carefully – if it wasn’t there we would be so ‘stupid’. As we have been saying, there is no magic short cut for getting rid of this force, which is the momentum of the engine of automatic reacting. We cannot oppose this momentum, or deflect it, without adding to the momentum. Any reaction to it feeds it; any purposeful response at all feeds it, because goals are themselves compulsions.

 

The way to break into the closed circle of unconsciousness is not through purposeful action but through insight. In other words, we can’t do anything to (directly) slow down the momentum of automatic reacting, but we can puncture the ‘illusion of progress’, i.e. the belief that it is possible to free ourselves on purpose. When we have insight, the force of compulsion is still there, and we still find ourselves reacting to it, but by ‘seeing what is going on’ (i.e. seeing the trick) we are unconditionally accepting pain, and the fact that we are no longer allowing ourselves to believe in illusory progress as a means of escaping pain means that we are no longer fuelling the machine.

 

We have used various analogies to describe the engine of automatic reacting – one final analogy would be to say that it is like a huge iron wheel that is turning with apparently unstoppable momentum. Normally, our refusal to experience pain ensures that the wheel turns in a friction-free fashion, it ensures that the machine stays in perpetual motion. As soon as we puncture the illusion that we are actually getting somewhere by reacting, then there is friction. The momentum is being absorbed – the ‘insult’ is being swallowed, the blow is being allowed to land. The energy of the wheel, which is refused pain, is gradually transferred and as it is transferred the wheel slows, until eventually it comes to a complete halt and we are free. This is a long drawn out process, and it is a very major undertaking. Inevitably we wish for a quicker way, a faster result. Methods abound for ‘quick fixes’ and sometimes they seem to be working. The only problem is, when will we encounter the negativity that we have thrust somewhere, out of sight?

 

Paradoxically, it is the wheel itself that teaches us about the error of reacting against negativity. For the majority of us, the engine of automatic reacting is out of sight, somewhere below the surface, and so we have no way of knowing that it is there. We never draw the connection between positive gains we make and the periods of payback we go through, and so we never see the way in which our cleverness as avoiding pain only ever rebounds on us. And yet, when the wheel comes to the surface and visibly affects us, and we start to lose the illusion of the freedom we thought we had, then that is a blessing in disguise because it is only when the chains bite into our flesh. It is only when the rules (or limitations) that bind us and cause us as a result to keep going around in petty circles, start to cause us pain that we realize that we are not as free as we thought we were.

WANTING TO BE IN SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES

Between those who are aware of their bondage to the wheel of unconsciousness, and those who are not, there is a world of difference. When we are caught in the unforgiving jaws of neurotic torment, we find ourselves wishing that we could be in the shoes of someone who is not undergoing such trials. We try to live a normal life but we are frustrated at every turn, whereas everyone else just seems to sail straight ahead with no real problems. “Ignorance is bliss,” we say. And yet it is our very frustration that is giving us a valuable chance for freedom. What we can’t see is that the satisfaction of being successful within a game (for that is what unconsciousness is) is hollow. It is all appearance and no essence; success in the game looks good from the outside but when we obtain it the satisfaction soon evaporates leaving nothing but the craving for yet more ‘theatrical victories’.

 

For example, I might think that it must be great to achieve the social status of a chart-topping pop star, and look no further than this in my ambitions. But even if the million-to-one chance comes off and the dream comes true, the euphoria soon pales. When it comes right down to it, nothing has really changed! When I lie in bed at night with no one to tell me how great I am, I feel exactly the same as before. It is the same old ‘me’. Victory in a game is purely bogus, when it comes right down to it. Furthermore, what goes up must come down, and so the day will come when my special social status is revoked and I am just another person, just another face in the crowd. All I will have will be the dubious comfort of my memories. I might argue with this, and say that I don’t want to be a rock star, I just want to make something of myself and find happiness. Happiness cannot be found in a game however – momentary satisfaction, yes, the thrill of the chase, yes, but happiness, no. Happiness is itself paradoxical in this respect because when we try to deliberately obtain it our very ‘successes’ become our downfall. Happiness comes despite ourselves and our purposeful activity, not because; it is something that comes unexpectedly when we drop our agendas, our ideas about ‘what is important’.

 

In contrast to ‘attainments within a game’ (which have to be externally validated in order to mean anything), there is such a thing as real attainment, real change. The real task is for me to grow, to become the genuine individual that I potentially am, to win freedom from the easy but essentially meaningless life of psychological unconsciousness. Most of us are only potentially free. Even the great and the mighty are slaves to the hidden forces that determine their actions – imagining that they are calling the shots when in reality they only ever react. The president of the United States is as much a slave to his negative emotions as the guy who takes out the trash! And maybe he is more of a slave, if the guy who takes out the trash has worked on his self and has woken up to his unconsciousness. In the end, it is only internal freedom that is worth anything – all other attainments are phantoms, mere passing things. As G. I. Gurdjieff has said, we are all mere ‘reaction-machines’ until we break the spell and the power of the trance of unconsciousness. The ‘satisfaction’ (if we can use that word) that comes from radical transformation of the personality against all the odds, is real. No one is going to come along and pin a medal to our chest, there will be no mention of it in the papers. Yet because it is a real, and not a ‘theatrical’ change, it cannot be taken away from us. What we are saying here is not that practical (or ‘external’) attainments are pointless or unworthy of us, but that when we use them an excuse to avoid inner change, then we are thwarting our need to grow.

 

Deep down we know that life requires more from us than merely ‘fitting in with general expectations’ and doing well within the framework of meaning that has been handed to us by society. However, daunted by an unacknowledged fear of the hugeness of the true task in life, we seek fulfilment in petty gains and superficial victories. We ‘delight in the unreal’. We try to achieve a good feeling about ourselves by winning pointless contests. Success (or the attempt to achieve success) in games distracts us from the painful demand that life makes on us. If I ignore this demand the time will come when I will discover that through always focussing on improving my ability to ‘control what I know’, I have sold myself short.