Validating the Status Quo

Thought’s ‘cover story’ (i.e. its ‘excuse for being there’) is – obviously enough – that it is actually useful! That’s how thought gets to make such a major claim on our attention, by claiming to be of actual utility. ‘Think me, I’m useful!’ the thought says, and we – gullible as ever – go right ahead and think it. We fall for this claim every time, like citizens who can’t help voting for an idiot leader…

 

Some thoughts really are useful of course but the interesting thing is to try to work out the ratio of ‘genuinely useful thinking’ to ‘useless’ or ‘space-filling’ thinking. This is the same as talking – sometimes we talk because we actually have something to say, at other times we might talk simply to fill an empty space. Is it even possible to work out how much of our day-to-day thinking is genuinely useful rather than being purely redundant? It might be argued of course that thinking doesn’t have to be ‘genuinely useful’ (or ‘genuinely meaningful’) – it could after all simply be comforting to us.

 

This could indeed be true – no doubt thought very often is comforting to us – but just because something is comforting doesn’t mean that it is good for us though. From a psychological point of view the exact opposite is always true – ‘comfort’ leads to addiction/dependency and addiction/dependency robs us of our autonomy, and without our autonomy what are we? Our biggest problem is that we prefer what is comfortable to what is true and so arguing that ‘pointless thoughts’ are okay because they are comforting doesn’t really hold any water! We are simply ‘validating the status quo’, which is pretty much what we always do, come rain or shine. Being committed to validating the status quo (no matter what that status quo might be) is however no way to live.

 

Again, we might ask exactly what the problem is with this business of ‘validating the status quo’ – this sort of thing is after all very highly regarded in some quarters; there are lots of people who think that validating the status quo is pretty much our moral duty (and that not to do so is an act of heinous immorality). We can answer this perfectly legitimate question (and what questions are not legitimate?) by arguing that they are two great tendencies in life – one is ‘conservatism’ (which equals ‘risk-avoidance’) whilst the other is ‘rebelling against the norms’ and pushing ahead into new and uncharted territory. We either ‘hold onto the past’ or risk ‘letting go of the past’, in other words. We either consolidate our supposed gains or we look for a new challenge. It’s not that we’re saying here that we ‘should’ be one way rather than the other, we are simply making an observation. If there were some ‘authority’ saying that we should either be the one way or the other then listening to this authority, wherever it comes from, would constitute a loss of our autonomy and – as we have said – our autonomy is all we’ve got. Lose that we lose everything!

 

Using ‘have to’ or ‘should’ or ‘ought’ as leverage to change our thinking or behaviour is always a sorry joke – it’s a sorry joke because it only ever digs us deeper into the hole that we’re in. It only ever adds to our suffering, and why would we want to do that? From a psychological point of view (rather than a ‘conventional morality point of view’) the only thing we can’t do without is our autonomy and this brings us face-to-face with an intractable paradox because there is no way to ‘leverage’ ourselves to regain our autonomy once we have lost it. We can’t say we ‘have to be autonomous’ because that ‘have to’ is a loss of autonomy in itself. That’s like saying that we ‘have to be free’, when ‘have to’ is itself the very absence of freedom. Submitting to authority (which includes the authority of our own ideas or theories or beliefs) will never free us from the ills that afflict us. No ‘authority’ is ever going to save us – ‘Where there is authority there is no freedom’, as the graffiti on the wall says…

 

So to come back to our argument, we can say that there are these two tendencies or motivations in our lives, one being the conservative motivation and the other being the exploratory motivation and the key observation here is that the former type of motivation always leads to suffering. It can’t not lead to suffering because the movement of life itself is forwards and ‘into the new’ (rather than ‘back into the past’). The ‘holding on’ type of motivation is resistance to life therefore. There is no one saying that we shouldn’t resist life or that it’s wrong to resist life; that would be ridiculous – resisting life is very natural tendency and we all do it! All we are doing is observing that ‘resisting life inevitably causes suffering’, which is of course perfectly obvious. Holding onto the old and fearing the new is clearly never going to do us any good – it’s never going to do us any good because we’re thwarting the process of growth in ourselves. We’re refusing to grow out of fear…

 

Our next observation, which is perhaps not so obvious, is that thinking is itself resistance. All thinking is resistance, without exception – there is no such thing as ‘thinking which helps us to let go of the old’! There is no such thing as helpful thinking (from a psychological point of view) – from purely practical standpoint they can be but from a psychological standpoint there can never be. This may not be immediately obviously, but it is nevertheless abundantly clear once we reflect on it – thinking operates by saying ‘what things are’ (or ‘what things should be’) and what is this but resistance? Thought doesn’t ever allow things to ‘be what they actually are’; that is what consciousness does, not thought. Thought is a tool for fixing problems not allowing them to be there! Thought (we might say) is by its very nature aggressive whilst consciousness is not; consciousness relates as to what is whilst thought relates to ‘what we say reality is’, or ‘what we say reality should be’.

 

Coming back to what we were saying earlier therefore, it can very clearly seen that our constant, space-filling thinking isn’t useful for the point of view of reducing the level of suffering that we going through – our habit of non-stop thinking doesn’t ‘save us from suffering’ (is it implicitly claims to) it actually creates it. There are two fundamentally conflicting ways of looking at this however, not just the one. If our orientation is life is such that we want security above all (and want therefore to ‘stick with the known’) then thinking can indeed be said to be ‘useful’ to us. It’s ‘useful’ in terms of the short-sighted goal of ‘increasing our spurious sense of security in the world’. In this very provisional sense of the word thought is (at least temporarily) ‘saving us from insecurity’. From a wider perspective however thought is not saving us from anything – if we take the bigger view of what’s going on we can see that whilst thought might be helping us with regard to to the goal of obtaining a temporary sense of security, it is doing this at the cost of creating great suffering in the future. Depending upon whether our orientation is towards the short-term benefit of perceived-if-not-actual security, or towards our ‘greater good’ (which inescapably involves relating honestly to ontological insecurity) thought is either ‘useful’ or the exact opposite of ‘useful’, therefore.

 

The key point here – the point that we keep on reiterating – is that we are perfectly free either to be in ‘conservative’ or ‘exploratory’ mode. These are the two possible approaches to life, after all – one, as we have said, is ‘holding on’ and the other is ‘letting go’; one is ‘closing down our horizons’ and  the other is ‘opening them up’. Not only are we perfectly free to be in either mode it is also the case that we can’t deliberately switch from one mode to another. There is absolutely no choice here in other words, even though it naturally seems to us that there is or should be. It’s certainly true that when I am in conservative mode I can act as if I’m interested in or committed to ‘opening my horizons’ but the bottom line is that I’m not – I’m just playing at it. And why wouldn’t I throw myself into this role – isn’t it a very attractive and appealing one? Who wants to know that they are ‘hiding from life’, after all?

 

What are we talking about here is what Chogyam Trungpa calls spiritual materialism, which is where we ‘throw ourselves into the spiritual way of life’ and we ‘do all the spiritual things’ whilst behind the scenes it is the ego that is very much in charge, which makes the whole thing a sham. The ego never wants change – change would be the end of it so of course this isn’t what it really wants. As Chogyam Trungpa says, it wants to make a lovely cosy nest or playground for itself that it never has to come out of! What’s actually happening when I’m in this ‘disguised conservative mode’, is that I am seriously investing in hiding from the awareness that I don’t want to change, which is of course a painful awareness to face up to. That’s like saying that we don’t want to be free – we don’t but we certainly aren’t going to admit to it!

 

For the most part however the conservative mode doesn’t need to be disguised since its usual tactic is to glorify ‘staying the same’ or ‘not wanting to change’ on the grounds that the way we are is actually ‘the right way’ and all other ways are ‘wrong ways’. This is of course this is of course how most of us are – we’re locked into one ‘equilibrium-world’ or another for the sake of security. What else is religion after all if not the situation where our way of seeing things (surprise, surprise) is ‘right’ and all other ways are said to be ‘wrong’? This is the oldest dodge in the book. When we are in the ‘conservative mode’, then, thinking – or rather ‘the right type of thinking’ – is not just ‘helpful’ but absolutely obligatory, and from the point of view of blindly upholding whatever belief structure it is that we are tied into this logic makes undeniable sense! If however we were somehow to catch a glimpse of the ‘bigger picture’ – which as we have said is not something that we can do on purpose, by any kind of clever trick – then we would see that thinking (any type of thinking) is most emphatically not helpful from the point of view of ‘saving ourselves from future suffering’. We’re thinking ourselves into a hole, not out of it! This ‘future suffering’, as we have said, is always going to be lying in wait for us because of the way in which we are ‘holding on’ when life itself is a ‘letting go’. This is simply a restatement of the principle in Buddhism and Vedanta that ‘says attachment causes suffering’.

 

‘Holding on’ – when it is our fundamental orientation in life – stores up suffering (we might say) because [1] it’s not possible to hold on to what we are so trying so desperately to hold onto and [2] because what we are trying so desperately to hold onto doesn’t exist. [And clearly, these two reasons actually come down to pretty much the same thing!] Life is ‘an unfolding of the new’ not a fixed form to cherish or guard jealously; the corollary of this statement is therefore that when we do ‘hold on’ to life what we holding onto isn’t life. It’s something else – it is just some random token that we are sworn to protect and protecting this ‘token’ means (as we might imagine) never questioning it. This is why, when we are in conservative mode, the greatest virtue – as we all know – is ‘never questioning’. Validating the status quo is of course all about never questioning – that’s the agreement we make and we’re free to make it. We’re perfectly free to make it but at the same time we shouldn’t expect this agreement of ours to do us any good!

 

 

Art: Phlegm, on beautifulbizarre.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Psychostatic World

Our fundamental orientation is towards obtaining a sense of security in life and this is another way of saying that our basic orientation is towards illusion. This is of course a rather difficult thing to take on board! How can we take ourselves seriously if this is the case (i.e. if it is the case that we are illusion-lovers rather than truth-lovers’). What kind of relationship would we have with ourselves if we were to see this about ourselves? To say that this would be ‘an uncomfortable awareness’ would be a vast understatement…

 

This is a kind of trick question in a way however because just as long as we are orientated towards illusion rather than the truth we are never going to allow ourselves to see that we are orientated this way. Because we are almost always orientated towards security (or illusion) we simply aren’t going to be able to address this fact and so our relationship with ourselves doesn’t actually exist; it doesn’t exist because the only type of relationship there could be is an honest one and there’s no honesty here. We could call this a ‘basic principle’ therefore – the principle being that when we are orientated towards delusion then we can never know that we are – the former precluding the possibility of the latter. [This is almost too obvious to say but we will say it anyway.]

 

When we are orientated towards illusion we don’t know that we are but instead, it seems to us that we are benefiting ourselves, helping ourselves, it seems that we are (at least potentially) progressing in life in a legitimate or meaningful way. If it were the case that the illusion were not an illusion then this story would have a happy ending but because it is there is never a happy ending! It feels good to move in the direction of increasing security but because this isn’t a real thing the feeling that started off being ‘good’ sooner or later turns ‘bad’.

 

The only way the good feeling wouldn’t turn bad later on would be if our perception of ‘security’ were a real perception instead of a false one and as we keep saying, it isn’t. There isn’t any such thing as security’ (in the ontological sense of the word which is how we mean it) and so the perception – convincing though it might be – can’t be real. There is no such thing as ontological security (or ‘security of being’) because what we essentially mean by it is ‘lack of change’. Lack of change is the one thing we can’t ever have however and this is of course a key principle in Buddhist metaphysics (i.e. the ‘principle of impermanence’). We don’t need to take this principle on trust however – an observation of the world around us shows us that everything is changing – some things quickly and other things less quickly, but either way change is a universal principle!

 

We can it is true also spot examples of ‘non-change’ ‘when it comes to human behaviour or human cognition and this is the principle of conservatism (or the principle of neophobia (or ‘fear of newness’, if we want to call it that). We hang onto our habits, our opinions and our beliefs for decades on end, perhaps even for the whole of our lives. It is very possible indeed for any of us to become ‘frozen in a moment’ or ‘frozen in time’ in this way – more than just possible it is practically an inevitability. The tendency that we all have to resist change is so well known that we hardly need to go into it – to be human is to fear change. The world may change around us, but that doesn’t mean that we have to…

 

This might seem therefore to be a contradiction of ‘the Principle of Change’ – the universe (we have said) never stops changing and yet we human beings – very often if not almost always – don’t change at all (not in any important way, anyway). This turns out not to be such a hard puzzle to work out – real things change, whereas ideas (or beliefs) don’t. An idea can go for any length of time without changing – it’s a fixed or frozen type of thing anyway, it belongs to ‘the abstraction realm’ which is – by definition – ‘the Realm of No Change’. It is like Narnia under the spell of the White Witch Jadis in the story by CS Lewis – frozen forever in time, waiting for a Christmas that never comes. This is the Psychostatic World – the World of Recycled Time, the World of Eternal Reruns.

 

So here we have two worlds which we ordinarily fail to distinguish between – one is ‘the natural world’ – so to speak – (i.e. the world that follows its own inscrutable law) and the other world is ‘the world of our own devising’, ‘the world of our own constructs’, the ‘abstract world’ which we read routinely mistake for the naturally occurring world. In the abstract world there is no such thing as change (since genuine change cannot ever be translated into abstract form) and when we gravitate towards this realm (and define ourselves in terms of it) then we don’t ever change either. This is why we can say that ‘the ego or concrete self never changes’ – because the ego or concrete self is an abstraction and not a real thing. We can optimise ourselves (or our performance) so as to get closer and closer to some abstract standard or value, but optimisation is as far away from true change as it is possible to get. Optimization is worshipping the fixed, the static (even though there is no such thing as ‘the fixed’ or ‘the static’).

 

When we say – therefore – that our fundamental orientation is towards ‘security’ or towards ‘illusion’, then this is about the very same thing as saying that our orientation is towards the abstract world of our thoughts and ideas. Our ideas about reality inexorably replace reality itself (as Jung says) and so it comes about that this whole sorry business of ‘security-seeking’ becomes a legitimate (and indeed laudable) endeavour rather than an exercise in being totally deluded. Security-seeking becomes ‘the way to go about things’, ‘the reasonable course of action’, ‘the officially recommended behaviour’, and so on and so forth.

 

This behaviour is two things at once therefore – it’s what we want to do out of our weakness, out of our prejudice, out of our hopeless addiction or dependency, but it’s also what everyone says is good, what everyone says is advisable and right. This is the ‘social collusion’ in a nutshell and this is more the reason why we invariably band together in groups rather than for any altruistic motives. It would be nice to think that human society is predicated upon both practical good sense and altruism towards our fellows but if we see things like this then we’re failing to pay attention to the true situation! What we are really doing when we join a group is to turn our backs on something we don’t want to know about, something we don’t want to be dealing with; there is an aspect to our lives that we don’t want to pay attention to and so what we do is that we get together in order to collectively ignore this key aspect of what it means to be human being. None of us individually want to confront the fact that what we’re doing on a full-time basis is ‘seeking security’ and collectively we are even more opposed to becoming aware of this truth. Whatever chance we might have had of owning up to our blatantly fear-based behaviour as individuals, we have zero chance of acknowledging when we are in a group!

 

Taking responsibility for our situation means going against the group therefore – not only do we have to ‘go against the group’, we have to ‘go against the group’ and then do the very thing that we were afraid of doing in the first place. Not only do we have to forgo the security that is provided (however spuriously) by the group, we also have to confront head on the very fear that drove us to join the group in the first place.

 

There is difficulty awaiting us both on the outside and on the inside, in other words! There’s nothing we have to ‘do’ as such of course – it’s more a matter of not doing what we almost always do what we usually do, which is to treat our orientation towards security-seeking as if it were some kind of a good thing. We won’t (in all probability) be able to undo the habit of a lifetime and start walking bravely off in the direction of zero security – and head off into the unfathomable mystery of the unknown – old habits die hard, as they say – but what we can do is to start seeing this security-seeking behaviour for what it really is. We see it without automatically legitimising it, in other words. We don’t have to wrestle with ourselves so as to become different from the way that we always have been; there’s no ‘wrestling’ involved here – it’s not a matter of wrestling or fighting and struggling but simply a matter of not blocking ourselves from seeing the truth about our situation in the way that we are so very prone to doing. It can be said that there is a type of struggle involved here perhaps, but it’s not a ‘struggle’ as we usually understand it; we’re not trying to change anything!

 

This is such an extraordinary thing – to be ourselves as we always are and yet at the same time not automatically align ourselves with the mechanical forces that are governing our lives. When we do align ourselves with the security-seeking mechanical motivations (and all mechanical motivations are security-seeking) then we are nothing at all, we aren’t there – we are in this case profoundly unconscious and ‘the mechanical life’ just happens without us ever being any the wiser as to what’s really going on. It’s a predetermined affair, like clockwork winding down.

 

It’s not as (we have just said) that we have to fight against the tendency to gravitate towards what we perceive as ‘a state of increased security’ since  resisting resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of the universe is only going to complicate matters even more. That will complicate things to the nth degree. Resisting what’s going on isn’t going to help us; what does help is to see what’s going on – seeing what’s going on straightaway acts in the opposite direction from  identifying with the ‘mechanical’ or ‘equilibrium-seeking’ forces. This disidentification is a gruellingly painful process but it is at the same time a ‘freeing’ one. ‘Wisdom arises as a result of suffering’, says Aeschylus. Or as he says in his play Agamemnon

Nothing forces us to know / What we do not want to know / Except pain.

Awareness of our mechanical nature isn’t something that comes about because we want it to, because it suits us that it does – this awareness reflects a profound and involuntary change in our inner orientation – instead of being orientated firmly towards the apparent comfort of illusion, the mysterious ‘inner compass’ in our hearts is now pointing in the direction of the truth…