The Mind-Produced Sense of Self

If we aren’t this brittle, insecure sense of self then who are we? This brittle and permanently insecure sense may not be much, but it all we’ve got, after all! It definitely isn’t all that much fun being tied as we are to the mind-produced sense of the self but there doesn’t seem to be any choice about it – the ‘sense of self’ that we’re talking about goes hand-in-hand with the sense that we ‘can’t do anything about it’. That’s what it means to be a self after all – it means that ‘this is who we are’. There’s no freedom involved in this, there’s no freedom involved in this business of ‘me being who I am’. How could there possibly be any freedom in it?

 

And yet there is. We only feel ourselves to be who the mind says we are because we believe in what we’re told, because we believe in the narrow little viewpoint that we have been given by the thinking mind, which is the viewpoint of the conditioned self. We’ve been shoe-horned into this tiny little slot, this tiny little compartment and because we’ve had all our perspective surgically removed by the procedure we think that this is our only possibility. You could sit me down and talk to me about it for a year and I’d still think that it was my only possibility – that’s how powerful the illusion is. As far as I’m concerned there isn’t the slightest trace or hint of a question about it (about the fact that I am this brittle, insecure sense of self) and so all I can do is ‘just get on with it’. All I can do is try to make a go of it and attempt – to the very best of my ability – to focus on the good times and ignore the bad ones…

 

The crucial point is however that this isn’t who we are – it never was and it never could be, no matter what delusions we might hold to the contrary. As soon as we have the awareness, no matter how faint, that this brittle insecure sense of self isn’t who we are then this introduces a completely new ‘note’ into the picture – the note of freedom! It’s not that having this crucial awareness necessitates us ‘doing anything about it’, just knowing it changes everything forever. We don’t need to do anything. The awareness itself is the freedom. We can’t actually be aware of anything without this freedom because without being free from the delusion that we are this brittle, insecure mind-produced sense of self what we think is ‘awareness’ isn’t anything of the sort – it is awareness that has been conditioned by our narrow viewpoint and conditioned awareness is enslaved awareness, awareness that isn’t free to see reality. We can’t be aware of the world as it is in itself when we see everything from the point of view of the mind-produced sense of self because all we see is ‘the world as it appears to this unreal viewpoint’. We haven’t the freedom to see anything else – all we can ever do is ‘react in accordance with what the conceptual mind shows us’. All we can ever do is react. Reacting is not the same as ‘being aware’ but reacting is the only possibility that the MPSOS ever has open to it. It can react this way or it can react that way but ‘not-reacting’ is simply not an option. It can choose X or it can choose Y but it cannot forebear from choosing…

 

Another way of putting this is to say that when we are in the ‘identified’ state everything we do has to be done on purpose. Everything we do when we are ‘identified with the idea that we have of ourselves’ is necessarily purposeful. For this reason we can refer to the MPSOS as the purposeful self. The purposeful self always operates in relation to ‘a plan’ – this plan (or model) may be highly sophisticated or it may be as rudimentary as they come but there has to be a plan of some sort. There has to be some sort of ‘fixed basis’ (or framework) for what we do and what we think. With regard to our ‘plan’ (i.e. our ‘idea about what we want and what we don’t want’) outcomes are of course always going to be seen as being either ‘right’ or being ‘wrong’. All situations or eventualities are always going to be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ therefore and the point here is that when something is automatically seen as either good or bad, and reacted to accordingly, then there is no freedom in this situation. If an outcome is ‘good’ then we react to secure it, and if it is ‘bad’ then we react to avoid it or push it away. ‘Reacting’ simply means ‘acting without freedom’ in other words. We are acting in a way that has been predetermined by our compartmentalized way of seeing and thinking about the world, which we are not free to question. We the slaves of the categories that we are obliged to operate within, without even appreciating that they are only mind-created ‘categories’.

 

The purposeful self always acts without freedom precisely because it is the ‘purposeful self’ therefore; it has no freedom precisely because it always has to be acting for one purpose or another, and these purposes are simply ‘mental categories’. We could also (and equivalently) say that the purposeful self always acts without freedom because it is always operating from within its dualistic view of the world. ‘Dualistic’ simply means that we see the world as being essentially divided between two polar extremes such as ‘right versus wrong’ or ‘good versus bad’ – either a thing is one way or the other, either you are a friend or an enemy, either you are for us or against us, either you’re a true believer or you’re a godless heathen, etc. Actually, there is always another possibility and that is that we really don’t care in the slightest one way or the other but the possibility ‘sublimely uncommitted to either pole’ is not acknowledged to have any existence within the dualistic framework. Everything has to be ‘polarized’ because that’s the narrow way in which we understand things. Just as long as we see the world through our thoughts we are always going to be looking at things from a dualistic viewpoint. Thought is always dual. Thought is always dual because thought is based on categories and categories are based on boundaries. A boundary is ‘duality in a nutshell’ because it is nothing other than ‘right versus wrong’, ‘good versus bad’, ‘in versus out’. It’s a line that has been drawn, a line that marks out what is included on the one side, and what is excluded on the other…

 

So the upshot of all this is that the purposeful self has no freedom even though it thinks that it does. The purposeful self doesn’t actually understand freedom – it understands freedom in an upside-down way and this is the only way it can understand it. For the PS, freedom is when it can realize its goals, or ‘successfully enact its purposes’. What it doesn’t (and can’t) see is that these purposes were never ‘free’ in the first place – they are merely categories that have been foisted upon us. We can’t see that we aren’t the PS until we have the freedom to see this, and yet the precise point that we are making here is that it doesn’t have any freedom. That’s how the purposeful self gets to be the purposeful self – by not having any freedom in it! It’s essentially a game that we play and – as James Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games – we can only play a game when we give up our freedom, and put ourselves in the situation where we can’t see that the game is only a game. What this means is that when we do see that we aren’t this brittle, insecure mind-produced sense of self then this is because freedom has come back into the picture. We can’t say that ‘freedom comes back into the picture when we see that we’re not the MPSOS’ because we can’t see that until we have freedom! There isn’t a causal relationship going on here. Without freedom, as we have said, we can’t have genuine awareness of anything. Freedom doesn’t come about as a result of anything we do therefore – freedom isn’t one of the purposes of the purposeful self! Freedom isn’t a category – it’s when we don’t have to conform or submit to any mind-produced categories, and this state of affairs isn’t itself a category!

 

Freedom doesn’t happen as an outcome or result of any causal relationship and causal relationships are all the purposeful self understands. We can’t understand how the process happens but that doesn’t actually matter – the important thing is that it does happen, not how. Freedom does come back into the picture; somehow consciousness separates itself from the personality construct and until this separation takes place we will have no genuine awareness of anything – we will only have this thing that we have called ‘conditioned awareness’, which is not awareness at all but its inverted analogue. We can’t be aware of what’s going on because we’re seeing everything through the ‘coercive lens’ of duality, which represents everything to us as in terms of polar opposites. We’re trapped in the dualistic illusion and we have no way of knowing that it is an illusion – we don’t suspect that anything odd or peculiar is going on at all, despite the fact that we’re living in a world that has no freedom in it at all.

 

Once we have had the first insight into what genuine freedom is (and have seen that freedom is simply not possible for the conditioned or purposeful self) then the illusion is broken. Things can never be the same after this, even though the power of the dualistic trap is such that it will keep on dragging us back into it. Moments of freedom will come and go and as we become more acquainted with freedom they will come more frequently. Our ‘connection’ to the awareness that we are not this brittle, insecure mind-produced self may be unreliable but – as we have said – once we have had it then this changes everything. The two situations are fundamentally different – in the first case, which is the situation where we have never had any awareness at all that there is a radically different way of looking at things then the appreciation that there is this thing called ‘unconditional freedom’ (which is so is so very different to anything we have ever known before) simply does not exist. You couldn’t explain it to me, no matter how you tried. We only ever see freedom in completely false terms – we only ever see it in terms of us being able to act out our attachments, in terms of us being able to do what we are being compelled to do, whilst not seeing that we are being compelled. How very far from genuine freedom this is, and yet it is nevertheless the ‘closest’ thing to freedom that we will ever get.

 

In the second situation no matter what happens we know on some level or other that what we want to do (or want to see happen) we only want because we are being compelled or coerced to want, and this turns everything around completely – even if we still can’t help being coerced! We don’t believe in this coercion in the same way that we used to and so it no longer has the absolute power over us that it used to. We know (on some level or other) that it doesn’t really matter if we don’t get what we want to get – we have a degree of equanimity, therefore. We no longer take the game quite as seriously as we used to, in other words, and when a game is no longer taken seriously this dramatically changes the nature of the game. It’s a game changer! As we were saying earlier, when we no longer take a game absolutely seriously then it no longer works as a game. The bubble has burst – freedom has come back into the picture. This addition of this one little ingredient is enough to radically change our view of everything, including ourselves…

 

Having had a glimpse of what freedom really is allows us to appreciate just how terrible it is to have no freedom, and to have to live life on this basis. How is such a thing even possible, we might wonder? How is it possible to live life on a totally false basis, where we think that we are this brittle, fundamentally insecure, mind-produced sense of self, this sense of self that comes complete with its own inbuilt dualistic distortion which compels us to see the world (and ourselves) in a way that isn’t true, in a way that we get helplessly trapped in? How can we live in this world where all freedom has been taken away, and still manage to ‘make a go of it’? Nothing we see is true, nothing we think is true, and nothing we do is ‘true’ either since we are being compelled to do it! The things that matter to us very much (our attachments) don’t matter to us at all really – they only matter to the false, brittle, insecure sense of self which is who we think we are. Why these things matter so much to the false sense of self is very easy to explain – the MPSOS is insecure not just because it isn’t who we are but also because it isn’t who anyone is and because it absolutely has to compensate for this underlying it greatly values whatever will validate its position, just as it demonizes anything that devalidates (or threatens to show up) the lie that it takes so seriously. When we take up a false or arbitrary position without knowing that we are then the world immediately gets divided into those things that validate us and those things that do the opposite of validating us – the world is divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, in other words. We think that good and bad have an objective existence out there in the world around us but really they are only functions of our deluded viewpoint!

 

The mind-produced sense of self is insecure for a very good reason – there’s no way that it couldn’t be insecure – and out of this irreducible insecurity arise all its attachments, both positive and negative. All of its activities exist for the sake of compensating for its unacknowledged insecurity – nothing else really interests it! Because of its insecurity the MPSOS has to be forever trying as hard as it can to acquire validations for itself and avoid de-validations. These are our attachments – these are the things that matter so much to the false sense of self but don’t matter at all in the bigger scheme of things since who really cares if an illusory sense of self gets validated or not? Nothing the FSOS does (as a result of trying to enact its purposes) makes sense really. Everything it does is all for the purpose of proving that what isn’t true actually is true, and where’s the sense in this? The FSOS is forever trying to assert itself, and ‘itself’ isn’t true! We don’t see any of this when we are identified with the false sense of self however – it has us completely hoodwinked and we never even come close to seeing through it. We’ve fallen under its spell completely. We don’t know what the mind-produced sense of self is really up to with all its activities and what’s more, we are extremely unlikely to ever find out. It could be said that this is the best-kept secret of all – there never was a better kept secret than this! The profoundest ignorance there ever was is reserved for this matter; the darkest of all shadows falls over this secret business of ‘what the false sense of self’ is really up to with all its manoeuvrings. It ‘puts us off the scent every single time’…

 

We are ‘put off the scent’ by having attachments, either positive or negative, dangled in front of us. Either there’s something there that we very much want to acquire, or there’s something there that we very much want to get away from. Either way, as soon as we start reacting we unwittingly create a smokescreen that stops us seeing through to what our true motivation is, which is to avoid seeing the truth about our true nature. Because we put so much effort into avoiding seeing our true nature we never do, and so we’re stuck full-time with this brittle, insecure sense of self. That’s what we’re fighting to protect, after all! We’re fighting full-time to protect an illusion and ‘protecting an illusion’ means precisely that we never allow ourselves to seeing that it is one. The irony is therefore that we are fighting against ourselves the whole time – we are in a very real sense ‘our own worst enemy’ because we are insisting on a false form of freedom that is actually the antithesis of the genuine article. We’re cherishing this brittle, insecure sense of self and so – by doing this – we are cherishing what can never be any more than a life of frustration and misery. We will know occasional moments of true happiness and peace and joy it is true – but what we completely fail to understand is that these moments are the moments that happen when we momentarily (and quite accidentally) forget to cherish the mind-produced sense of self…

 

 

 

 

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Being Alive To Difficulty

In Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Ching we read the following:

It is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it. The sage meets with no difficulty. It is because he is alive to it that he meets with no difficulty.

When we are not alive (or awake) to difficulties then it is of course a very different matter! When we are not awake to the difficulties that come our way then we automatically try to push them away, full of nameless fear at their approach. When we’re not alive to difficulties then these difficulties take on a particular oppressive character to us; as everyone knows, when we’re afraid of something and try to run away rather than steadily facing it then whatever it is that we’re running away from has hugely more power over us. The fears then become fully-fledged terrors. The oppressive nature of what we are trying to avoid is not an intrinsic property of the thing itself however but simply a reflection of our own avoidant attitude. We’re assuming that the difficulty is something terrible – the fact that we are afraid to look it in the face is the manifestation of our attitude, and when we perceive that difficulty or problem as being our actual ‘nemesis’, so to speak, then as we have said what we are deludedly perceiving here is nothing other than our attitude reflected back at us.

 

When we’re not awake then anything that comes along as a difficulty or problem that needs to be solved simply reflects back at us our own reluctance to wake up. We don’t want to wake up. Sleep is sweet, as Gurdjieff says, whilst waking up is very bitter. We don’t recognize that we are ‘reluctant to wake up’ of course because when we’re asleep we always see everything backwards. We don’t recognize anything for what it is – if we did then we’d be awake. Saying that we’re not awake is another way of saying that that we’re ‘closed down’ and being ‘closed down’ simply means that we only ever perceive the meanings that we ourselves have projected upon the world. We live in a closed world therefore – a world that is made up of our own unacknowledged or unrecognized projections. According to Jung:

Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face. In the last analysis, therefore, they lead to an autoerotic or autistic condition in which one dreams a world whose reality remains forever unattainable…

We live therefore in a personalized or tailor-made ‘private’ world that is made up of our own unconscious (or unexamined) attitude being reflected right back at us, as if it actually existed in the ‘objective world’. When we are in this shut-down state then the real world is hidden from us by ‘the wall of the imagination’, as Gurdjieff says here:

Man is immersed in dreams… He lives in sleep… He is a machine. He cannot stop the flow of his thoughts, he cannot control his imagination, his emotions, his attention… He does not see the real world. The real world is hidden from him by the wall of imagination.

Our ‘reluctance to wake up’ always translates into aggression. This reluctance is aggression. When difficulties come along then as we have said we automatically try to push them away and the force of this pushing is the tangible manifestation of the degree to which we do not wish to wake up! We don’t recognize what we’re pushing away because recognizing things for what they are is not what we want to do – we wish very much to not recognize them, our entire effort is very much directed towards not being aware of what is going on. ‘Not being aware of what is going on’ is the game that we’re playing; that’s the whole point of what we’re doing…

 

So because we don’t recognize our own aggression we automatically personalize everything – the difficulties or challenges that are coming our way get personalized as an attack on us (just as someone who disagrees with what we’re saying will be seen as attacking us when we are unconsciously identified with our position). The world gets split into two halves, two possibilities – either it is for us or against us! Difficulties take on an oppressive, persecutory nature for us and because they have taken on this nature we fight back at them all the more. We push them away all the more. This of course confirms our original aggressive attitude – fighting against challenges confirms them as being something that need to be fought against. Aggression creates enemies, in other words.

 

Aggression on our part that we aren’t aware of manifests as a hostile environment that we have to fight against therefore, and when we do have this distorted perception our automatic attitude of aggression is validated and this creates a self-reinforcing circle of illusion that we get helplessly caught up in. We get caught up in it precisely because we don’t recognize our role in it – we don’t recognize that it is our own belligerence, our own hostility that is hemming us in on all sides. Rather than question our fundamental aggression we assume it as universal principle, a basic rule of existence. It’s a dog eat dog world, we say, unaware that we are at the same time both ‘the dog that eats’ and ‘the dog that gets eaten’. As Wei Wu Wei says in Why Lazarus Laughed

When you give a shilling to a beggar – do you realise that you are giving it to yourself?

 

When you help a lame dog over a stile – do you realise that you yourself are being helped?

 

When you kick a man when he is down – do you realise that you are kicking yourself?

 

Give him another kick – if you deserve it!

Our reluctance to recognize our own projections is the same thing as ‘our reluctance to wake up’. To recognize our projections for what they are is to wake up. We could also say therefore that our reluctance to waking up is the same thing as our reluctance to seeing that we are asleep; needless to say, we don’t see or experience ourselves as being ‘asleep’ in daily life – we would, on the contrary, swear blind that we are perfectly conscious, thank you very much. If challenged on this point we would insist – most vehemently – that we are awake and that we do not live – therefore – in closed world that has been created by the simple expedient of ‘ignoring anything that does not match our expectations or assumptions’. Such vehemence is of course entirely characteristic of the unconscious or ‘shut-down’ state of being. We’re vehement (or aggressive) because we’re in a state of conflict with the truth!

 

We ‘close down’ (or ‘shut off’) by refusing to acknowledge any order of being other than the one we already know about. This is the trick to closing down – this is how we do it. As soon as we do this we straightaway fall asleep – the removal of any possibility of anything genuinely new ever happening is the definition of being shut down. We’re shut down to life itself, since life is always new. The removal of the possibility of anything genuinely new ever happening turns reality into a game and when we play a game without knowing that we are playing it we are ‘asleep’. All we ever do in this state is to recycle old patterns over and over again – that’s all we ever can do!

 

Even though we have shut down, and do not recognize any order of being other than the one we already know about, this does not of course mean that reality as a whole does not in some way ‘impinge’ upon us. This is – needless to say – inherent in the nature of reality. Reality, being real, cannot be ignored with impunity! So in very simple terms, what this means is that there is always going to be something to ‘rock the boat’, even though it goes against what we want to see happening, even though we have made this unquestionable rule that ‘the boat must never be rocked’.

 

This way of expressing things makes it clear just how ‘brittle’ our situation is – we have (implicitly) said that the only world there is is the world that we know and are familiar with. We have put all our money on this; without realizing that this is what we have done, we have ‘made a bet’ that this is the case. But evidence is always coming up showing that what we have taken to be true isn’t true, that the order of being that we know and are familiar with isn’t the only one, and so we have to fight against this evidence without seeing it as ‘evidence’. We have to do our utmost to ‘stabilize our boat’ and this ‘stabilization process’ means referring to the evidence that shows we have placed a bet on the wrong horse as ‘errors’ that need to be corrected. Instead of seeing that we are ‘wrong’, therefore, we make reality wrong.

 

‘Making reality wrong’ is a very brittle business, however. It’s a wretched business. We have placed all our well-being in the one basket and that basket is the basket of reality being wrong rather than us. We have made a rule saying that the boat mustn’t ever be rocked, that it is very bad indeed if the basket is rocked, yet the stability of the boat depends entirely upon our half-baked assumptions about reality being true. The stability of our bat depends entirely upon there being no order of being other than the one we know and are so deeply familiar with. Our sense of well-being in the world is thus always going to be under serious threat.

 

A sage is one who does not put all his eggs in the basket of ‘him being right and the universe being wrong’. A sage is one who doesn’t put any eggs in that basket – only a fool would do that! A sage is one who doesn’t mind his (or her) boat being rocked, in other words. Whether we live life in a brittle, aggressive way or in a peaceful and secure way depends on how we look at things, therefore. If I say that my way of understanding the world is the right way and that no other way exists then I am creating a world of brittleness for myself and a world of brittleness is a world of suffering. There are always going to be cracks appearing and I am (as a result) forever having to try to paper them over. Life very quickly comes down to this futile endeavour of ‘papering over the cracks’. There are difficulties and problems everywhere. This is what life is like when we are asleep, when we are closed down to reality itself. We engaged in a gruelling and fruitless ‘fight against the truth’, even though we are quite incapable of seeing this.

 

But we don’t of course have to make this rule that ‘my way of understanding the universe is the only way’ (or that ‘my way of being in the world is the only way’). If we don’t make this rule, if we don’t put all our eggs in this basket, then every time our boat gets rocked it isn’t bad news. Each time my boat gets rocked this means that I am learning something new and if I am ‘learning something new’ then this means that I am finding out that the universe is a bigger, deeper and more mysterious place than I previously thought it was. What could be a better thing to learn than this? What could be more exciting and thrilling than this? Of course, if I have put all my eggs in the basket of ‘the universe being what I say it is’ then the discovery that the world is a bigger than I thought it was isn’t going to be exciting or thrilling at all. In this case it’s not going to be the most wonderful discovery there ever could be – on the contrary, this discovery is going to manifest to me as ‘the most terrifying thing there ever could be’…

 

 

The Game Creator

The default situation is one in which consciousness is held prisoner by the thinking mind on a full time basis. We don’t ‘think’ that this is the default situation but it is. There are – we might say – two elements here: on the one hand there is the thinking mind (which is made up of repeating patterns) and on the other hand there is consciousness, its captive.

 

Consciousness is the fair maiden and the thinking mind the fearsome dragon! This dragon – as dragons usually are – is more than a match for any ordinary opponent. Only a hero has a chance against such a powerful adversary, and heroes are few and far between these days. They are somewhat thin on the ground – this, it is fair to say, is not an age for heroes. Consciousness, it appears, is not about to be freed from its grim prison any time soon…

 

In this age, in this modern ‘enlightened’ era, we have no understanding of consciousness as being in any way different or separate from the lumbering thinking mind. The suggestion that consciousness has its own life outside of thought and the realm created by thought does not tend to resonate particular strongly with us. It does not tend to resonate at all. Without the over-arching framework of thought (so we ‘think’!) what could consciousness possibly get up to? How could it be any use – what ends could it serve?

 

As we have just indicated, this is what we think, and the thinking mind never sees its own limitations. It never sees that there could be any life outside of it and its tiresome machinations. As far as thought is concerned everything has to be directed towards an end; if something isn’t serving some end or other then what use is it, what’s the point of it? This is the way rationality looks at things. Because we live in a world that is governed by thought, has been constructed by thought, nothing is given any value unless it serves some end. Thus, to say that something is ‘pointless’ or ‘useless’ is to roundly denigrate it; when we say this there is real viciousness, real unpleasantness in it – the thinking mind has no time for anything ‘useless’. But when we consider the bigger picture – which is something that the thinking mind cannot ever do, since it can only ever concern itself with a single slice of the pie, not the pie itself – we see that all this talk of things ‘having a purpose’ or ‘serving some end’ is quite ridiculous. When we gain a bit of perspective all of this talk becomes utterly nonsensical.

 

When we consider the whole pie (i.e. life as a whole) rather than just the slice then we see that the notion of purpose (or ‘having a purpose’) is pure foolishness. It is not simply foolish, it is deranged. ‘Uses’ or ‘purposes’ exist only in relation to the narrow view of things; they only come into being when we are looking at the relationship between the elements that we see as existing when we look at a partial  (or fractional) view of life. I can say that I am doing X because of Y, that Y is the reason for X and this works fine just as long as we are looking at the fractional view of the world (which is to say, when we are unconsciously excluding anything that does not fit into or have any bearing on this narrow viewpoint). Causality (or ‘purposefulness’) only has any meaning when we take the part to be the whole, in other words; it only has any validity when we are not relating to life / the world as a Whole, which is of course what it is.

 

Living life on the basis of ‘purposes’ or ‘uses’ is like robbing Peter to pay Paul – it only seems to work on the small scale of things. In reality – as we all know perfectly well – it doesn’t work at all!  In exactly the same way we can generate the illusion of ‘progress’ by taking a very narrow view of what’s going on , but this again is pure trickery – we’re only chasing ourselves around in circles. All we’re ever doing is keeping ourselves perpetually busy, perpetually ‘on the hop’. The thinking mind is always working towards some end or other; the thing about this however is that – in reality – there are no ends!

 

What happens when we reach one of these supposed ‘ends’? Clearly when we get to the end we stop; we stop because we have to stop, we stop because there’s nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. So we just sit there in our imaginary ‘end-point’, satisfied that we have now ‘got there’, satisfied that we have now ‘arrived’. We dig in, we set up camp; we get entrenched and start erecting heavy-duty fortifications (just in case something or someone wants to dislodge us). We’ve attained the prize and we’re not about to let someone take it away from us! So we make a meal of not moving on, of staying stuck in our so-called ‘end’ that isn’t an end at all but only something that the thinking mind has made up. We make a virtue of being stuck, aggressively ignoring or pushing away all the other possibilities that life has to offer and this is the way that consciousness gets to be held prisoner so effectively by the thinking mind.

 

This ‘imprisoning mechanism’ functions (we could say) on two levels. The first and primary level is the one that we have just been talking about: because of the way we see the arbitrary mind-created position as ‘who we are’ and then spend all of our time defending and promoting it, trying to make everything in our environment serve it, we never see that we don’t have to be doing this. We have – because of what the thinking mind is telling us – made a virtue of our stuckness, our unfreeness, which means that we are now totally and implacably resistant to hearing a word said against it. We have become stubborn, we have become obstinate and the more pressure we’re under the more stubborn and obstinate we become! This is one way which in which we are imprisoned – by being brainwashed by the thinking mind (which loves concrete categories and fixed viewpoints) into implacably resisting change, or by ‘celebrating a fixed and reality-resistant self’ (which is of course the same thing).

 

The secondary way in which consciousness is imprisoned by thought follows on from the first. The thing is that when we are identified with a fixed and reality-resistant self (i.e. when we reach the ‘terminal destination’ of who and what thought says we are) then we find of course that we suffer greatly from our stuckness. Stuckness is suffering, ‘stuck’ is another word for suffering. We have become sterile, we have become barren of possibilities – all we can do is to keep on going through the same old manoeuvres, the same old stale and tortuously familiar routines. The compulsory repetition of the old, the familiar is torture, even if we are at the same time perversely fond of it, so at this point, rather than being about ‘exploring the new’, life becomes all about entertaining ourselves so as to distract ourselves from being aware of our terminal stuckness.

 

Our modality of entertaining ourselves follows exactly the same pattern we started off with when we identified with the fixed or final viewpoint that is the conditioned self – we pick out an arbitrary position as being ‘an end in itself’ and then work as hard as we can towards attaining or realizing this end. Once we have an ‘end’ in mind then everything else becomes subsidiary to it; nothing exists for us or has any relevance unless it has some sort of relation to the goal we are trying to attain. We develop ‘tunnel vision’, in other words, and this tunnel vision over-simplifies reality for us so that everything becomes about either succeeding in our task or not succeeding. This is a profoundly unreflective state of mind- we are in no way interested in asking questions about why it is so great if we attain the goal, or so bad if we don’t. All our attention goes into the ‘how’ of the situation not the ‘why’. Then when we have attained the goal we move on to the next, and the next, and the next, ad infinitum.

 

This terminal unreflectiveness is precisely what ‘consciousness’s prison’. This is what makes up the jail that we are perpetually languishing in – the compulsion that we do not see as a compulsion, but our own free will. The compulsion that we are talking about here is the compulsion to obey the rules of the game that has been set up for us to play, without ever questioning them. The game that we are playing is our prison, in other words. We think we’re playing the game but we’re not – the game is compulsory, which is to say, the tables have been turned without us realizing it and the game is playing us!

 

The thinking mind is the game creator. If we were to know the thinking mind for what it is, we would know it as the creator of games! It doesn’t let us know it as such however – it veils its true nature from us better than anything is ever veiled. We never see the mind’s productions as games! To suggest to someone that their thoughts are merely games, and that the mind-created picture they have of themselves and the world is also a game is to invite incredulity, if not outright hostility. Our thoughts are serious; our idea or beliefs about ourselves and the world are deadly serious – wars are fought over these arbitrary mental constructs. Actually, all the wars that have ever been fought are ultimately over ideas that we refuse to see as just ‘ideas’, thoughts that we take as seriously as can be. All aggression, all violence, all cruelty comes from taking the productions of the thinking mind seriously, and never ever looking beyond them to their mechanical creator, the rule-based mind.

 

When we do see beyond the humourless productions of the thinking mind then this is consciousness escaping from its prison of seriously, its prison of ‘a game that it cannot see to be only a game’. A game, as we have said earlier, is where we have a tunnel vision of reality. What attracts us to the tunnel vision of reality is the very thing that strangles and suffocates us – it’s closure. We are attracted to having everything decided for us, everything determined for us, because it is safe, because there’s nothing there that is ever going to take us by surprise, because we never going to learn that what we previously took to be true isn’t actually true at all. That really isn’t the type of surprise we want to have! What we’re forever chasing after are definites, outcomes that makes sense within the accepted framework, outcomes that reflect the values of the accepted framework, outcomes that are the concrete manifestation of the accepted framework. We don’t like to have the uncertainty of not knowing whether we should chase after these outcomes or whether we should not – we like to have all of these details ‘decided for us’ by the game. [We don’t like freedom, in other words.]Then all we have to do is put all our efforts and attention into achieving the designated goals, the designated outcomes.  All we have to do is ‘successfully obey the rules’…

 

So playing the game ensures that we will never have to be reflective, and this means that everything is going to be ‘safe’. ‘Safety’ comes out of never being reflective, which is the same thing as never being conscious. We could also say therefore that the thinking mind keeps consciousness in prison by constantly finding tasks for it to do. We are kept constantly busy; we are constantly tied up with petty tasks. Hence Socrates says, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” It doesn’t matter what game we are playing, or what the goals are – that’s not the point. The point isn’t the real point. The real point is to keep us busy, to keep us tied up. That is the point behind all games. The ‘horror’ is pointless never-ending self-validating busy-ness therefore and this is exactly what our culture or ‘civilization’ provides us with on a full-time basis. That’s what our culture is all about – empty distractions, empty entertainment, futile tasks, all dressed up and made somehow glamorous. We are in thrall to Norton Juster’s The Terrible Trivium.

 

The prison is unremitting concrete purposefulness. Purposefulness is the prison because when we’re caught up in it (i.e. when we’re taking our purposes seriously) – then we’re just not there. We’re absent.There is no consciousness in concrete unremitting purposefulness and yet consciousness is who we are.

 

What happens if we stop being busy? We notice the world around us with all its wonders. What happens if we don’t stop, if we stay locked up in our sterile games? Then we notice neither the world around us nor ourselves….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Paradox of Being in the Present Moment

authenticity paradox

I can’t make myself be in the present moment. I can’t push or coax or cajole myself to be ‘in the now’ – that’s just not the way it happens. I can’t achieve this by following any method or developing a skill in using any particular technique. The reason for this is simple – there’s no me in the present moment!

 

The sense of there being a ‘me’ is a sense of separation, or a sense of ‘separateness’, and there’s no separation / separateness in the present moment. There is a complete lack of separateness and there is also a complete lack of a separate self who is there and who can therefore see this marvellous lack of separateness! There is no me there to experience the marvellous lack of a me, no commentating self there to comment on the wonderful lack of a commentating self…

 

Understanding this rather tends to take the wind out of our sails. If being in the stillness of the present moment is so great then who is it great for? Who benefits? The whole thing sounds rather perplexing – I can’t in any way cause myself to be ‘in the now’ and that’s because there isn’t a me in the now and never could be. So what the ‘me’ – who is the wanter, the desirer, the planner and striver – is trying to do is get rid of itself and this isn’t really what it set out to do here!

 

From the point of view of the self which seeks to instigate all this, the whole business of ‘being in the now’ – which sounds so marvellous and so straightforward – is fraught with paradox. It’s not quite so straightforward after all. The purposeful self is all about skills, all about methods, all about techniques; it loves accumulating ‘know how’, recipes or algorithms for how to do things. And yet there is no skill, no technique, no strategy for reaching the state of non-separateness! There is no algorithm for it; no matter how smart you might happen to be there is still absolutely no way for you to ‘hack into’ the present moment…

 

The big question –and the question that we tend to skip over very quickly – is “Do we really want to surrender our ‘separate sense of ourselves’ (and there is no sense of self that isn’t a ‘separate sense’, that does not involve separation)? If I say that I do want it, that I do want to surrender this sense of being separate then straightaway we have this old paradox again because the sense of separateness which is the self can’t want to lose its separateness. It is functionally incapable of wanting this. How can it want what it can’t conceive of, what it can’t ever hope to understand? The self can only ever desire its understanding or idea of what ‘unity’ means and that is a very different sort of thing altogether.

 

Being a ‘separate sense of self’ (or seriously imagining ourselves to be ‘selves’, if that isn’t too clumsy a sentence-construction) is always to incur irreducible pain. There’s no way for us to see things from the point of view of the self without creating pain that we can’t ever shake off, suffering that we can’t ever off-load. This pain – which in the usual run of things is not experienced for what it is – gets projected onto the outside world where it appears in the form of ‘attractive possibilities’. Or in the form of ‘goals’, as we might also say. We then experience desire towards these attractive / alluring possibilities which on an inaccessible level of our consciousness we equate to ‘an end of the pain of our separation’. All purposeful or goal-orientated behaviour (unless its carried out perfectly consciously) is an attempt to find our way back to the source that we are cut off from without knowing that we are cut off. It could be said therefore that all of our trying, all of our striving is at root the attempt to complete ourselves since deep-down we can’t help feeling that we are painfully incomplete…

 

We don’t really want to complete ourselves however because ‘completing ourselves’ means losing the only sense of ourselves that we have, which is our separate sense of ourselves. Completing ourselves means losing ourselves therefore and this was never really on the agenda. Nothing is actually being lost however because the thing that we think we’re losing is the sense of us existing separately and we never existed separately in the first place. We never had this! We’re losing the sense that we had that there was some kind of ontological security there, some way of effectively ‘checking up on ourselves’ so as to make sure of ourselves, but this imagined ‘ontological security’ doesn’t actually exist anyway. It’s a trick we play on ourselves!

 

But even though in reality there is ‘nothing to lose and no one to lose it’ the paradox remains. The paradox is that if I say that I want to be ‘one with everything’ (i.e. no longer separate) I don’t really. I like the idea of it (i.e. I like what that idea means to me) but because that ‘me’ doesn’t exist in the first place this idea that I have of unity is a red herring through and through.  What this idea of ‘being one with everything’ means to me is of course all about me and has nothing to do with ‘unity’ itself (which as we keep saying has no me in it).

 

Another way of approaching this paradox is to say that wanting always involves the wanter. There can be no such thing as wanting without the wanter. What this means therefore is that the whole idea of ‘wanting to end separation’ is inescapably jinxed. We never really want to end separation; we never really want to end the sense of there being a separate self. We just think we do. It’s a lie that we do because the very wanting itself creates the sense of separation!

 

Wanting to be in the present moment is thus a perfect paradox. Wanting to be ‘in the now’ excludes us from the now. “I want to end the sense of separation between me and everything else” is a statement that perfectly contradicts itself! The self only exists because it is not in the present moment. The alienated, isolated egoic self wanting to be reunited with everything, reunited with the ground of its being, is perpetuating its alienation, perpetuating its isolation. This is the game the separate self plays without acknowledging that it is playing any game. Wanting is my way of surreptitiously perpetuating myself – ‘wanting’ is the game.

 

It’s not that there’s this awkward paradox that stands in the way of us being in the present moment. That’s not what we are saying. What’s getting in the way of us being in the present moment is the game that we are playing without admitting that we are. We could talk about this in terms of insincerity – we’re being insincere in everything we do but at the same time we’re functionally incapable (as conditioned selves) of knowing that we’re being insincere. The egoic sense of self – no matter what it says to the contrary – is functionally incapable of sincerely wishing to sacrifice its (spurious) sense of being separate….

 

This is like wanting to be free from the misery that comes from clinging to a fixed position but at the same time being fundamentally unwilling ever to let go of this fixed position. It’s not just like ‘wanting to be free from the misery that comes from clinging to a fixed position but at the same time being fundamentally unwilling to let go of that position’ – it actually IS that! That’s exactly what it is – that is our essential predicament in a nutshell… This is a double-bind and the only way out of it is to entertain / distract ourselves with a whole load of tediously insincere stuff about how we really do want to be free, happy, at peace, willing to see our comforting illusions for what they are, etc. Our situation is absolutely that of someone who is unhappy with their situation but at the same time very deeply unwilling to ever do anything about it. Our only option therefore is to keep on complaining about things. That’s the only relief we can get – that’s the only way out of the double-bind that we’re in!

 

This is exactly our situation when we are trapped in the idea of ourselves which is the ‘separate sense of self’. All we can do is fantasize about ‘doing something about it’ – a fantasy life is our only option because deep down we know very well that we’re never actually going to ‘do something about it’. If there’s one thing that’s for sure it’s that we’re never actually going to put our money where our mouth is! That was never on the agenda; that was never a possibility. We know deep down that we don’t have the slightest intention of ‘doing anything about it’ but at the same time we’ll never admit this to ourselves. All we can ever do is complain about our situation not being right and make out to ourselves that it’s always the fault of someone else that we’re not free, not happy, not peaceful, etc.

 

This then is the dilemma of the insincere self which is functionally incapable of knowing itself to be insincere. No matter what we do on this basis (on the basis of our unacknowledged insincerity), no matter how hard we try, no matter what promises we make to ourselves, we’re never going to be able o get past this central paradox, this central flaw. Nothing we can do is ever going to get us out of this mess because the one thing that we could do is also the one thing that we never ARE going to do!

 

Everything I do as ‘my idea of myself’ is based on an unexamined self-contradiction so of course that’s never going to get me anywhere! This is like saying that nothing I do on the basis of a lie is ever going to get me anywhere. Anything I do is only ever going to add to the lies, add to the insincerity. And yet the whole time the way out of the mess is delightfully simple – all I need to do is see the paradox. All I need to do is be honest with myself about that the fact that I don’t really want to do what I say I want to do. This honesty will set me free. It will free me from the game that I am playing without knowing that I am playing – the painfully-frustrating game of being this ‘separate self’….

 

 

 

 

The Engine of Automatic Reacting

collision_balls

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.