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:
 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.
 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.