The Twist

Life has a hidden twist in it. Or rather we should say that when we live life in the way that we always do live it, then it has a hidden twist (or glitch) in it.

 

The twist that we’re talking about here is very easy to explain – life isn’t purposeful and yet we nevertheless live it on purpose.  This involves ‘a twist’ because once we start living life on purpose then we can’t stop, we can’t go back. What’s more, we can’t see any way in which life couldn’t be purposeful – we’ve become incapable of seeing that it could be any other way. This means that we’re living life one way, as if it were one thing, whilst really it is another thing entirely – something that we really don’t understand and this puts a kind of ‘kink’ or ‘glitch’ in life that keeps tripping us up. We’re somehow ‘at odds’ with the basic nature of things and we can’t see it.

 

There are therefore two parts to this twist – one part is that we can’t go back to the way life used to be, and the other part is that we can’t understand how life could be any way other than purposeful. That has become incomprehensible to us – if we don’t live our life on purpose, deliberately, by design, according to our intentions, then how is it going to happen, we ask? Someone has to be in the driver’s seat, choosing what direction we’re going to go in, deciding what is going to happen next, avoiding problems that may lie ahead, making plans for the future, etc…

 

Both of these two parts make up one and the same twist of course – we’re stuck in ‘not being able to go back’ and we’re also stuck in ‘not being able to see that there is anywhere to go’. We’re caught up in living life purposefully and that’s that. It won’t happen for us spontaneously any more – if we don’t make it happen then it’s not going to. So now we’re in this situation where we’ve got this thing that we have to push around ahead of us wherever we go, like a rusty old supermarket trolley full of rubbish, and as soon as we stop wrestling it and struggling with it the thing goes off the track and ends up in the ditch. This is why as a culture we’re always banging on about ‘having a goal’ or ‘having a plan’. It’s also why we’re always talking about how great it is to be motivated.

 

‘Motivation’ is what gives us the energy and stamina to somehow keep pushing ahead with the old shopping trolley, uphill struggle though it is. It is the magic ingredient that makes it possible for us to keep the show on the road, and keep forging ahead to our Big Goal (whatever that might be) and with all the necessary (and usually very tedious) steps that lead up to it. We have to keep on ticking all the boxes until we hopefully get where we really want to get in life and finding the motivation to do this can be a challenge. It’s a challenge to do all the stuff that we’ve got to do along the way because we’re not really interested in that but we have to do it all the same and that’s why ‘motivation’ is such a magical word for us. It sounds good to us because that’s what’s missing! When faced with the artificial type of life that we’re supposed to be getting on with our natural motivation tends to depart and that’s why we have to go to motivational seminars and such-like nonsense.

 

There is something very terrible about all this talk of ‘motivation’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘tools’ and ‘goals’. It’s a horrible way of speaking. We shouldn’t have to be looking for ways to trick ourselves to stay motivated; we shouldn’t have to be using goals and targets all the time as a means of giving meaning to what we’re doing. Pretty clearly, something has gone badly wrong when we have to do this. What’s really going on here – loathe as we are to see it – is that we have had to substitute all of this goal-driven stuff, all of this ‘extrinsic motivation’, for ‘intrinsic motivation’, which is motivation that happens by itself. It’s as if the engine in our car has conked out and we have to get out and start pushing the thing ourselves instead. This will work fine if we’re going down a hill, or even on the flat if we’re strong enough, but once we start going up against a major incline we’re going to run out of steam very quickly. Then we’re in trouble because the car’s going to start rolling back down the hill again, in exactly the opposite direction to the one we want it to go in.

 

Replacing intrinsic with extrinsic motivation is going to prove untenable in the long run not just because its unremitting hard work with no actual joy or creativity in it, but also because the whole thing is inevitably going to reverse on us at some point or other. Our own will, as indomitable or as trusty as we might like to think it to be, is going to turn traitor on us and let us down. It’s going to start working against us instead of for us. It’s going to ‘flip-over’  – having been pushed one way as far as it will go the pendulum is going to reach its limit and go into reverse on us. It’s going to swing the other way. The fact that we can ‘achieve our goals’ is one thing and we’re very fond of trumpeting on about how great and wonderful and inspirational this is, but just as well known (if much less likely to hit the headlines) is the fact that we are forever undermining and sabotaging ourselves too. We are forever pursuing ‘perverse goal’ – goals that if we were in our right mind we wouldn’t really want to achieve, goals that are to our disadvantage rather than our advantage. This ‘reverse-current’ of our will-power is every bit as well known to us as the positive variety, it’s just that we don’t like talking about it so much.

 

This ‘reverse current’ of will might seem incomprehensible to us, it might seem like something that we ought to be able to ‘therapize’ away by coming out with lots of frothy psychobabble or ‘positive thinking’ (or possibly CBT) but we only think this because we don’t understand what we’re dealing with. We’re trying to ‘will away’ glitches that have been caused by our own wilfulness; we’re trying to deliberately iron out problems that are the result of our own pernicious ‘deliberateness’. What we’re actually coming up against here is the resistance that has been set up by the over-use of our rational will – this is what happens when we try to ‘rationalize life’ and make everything into a puzzle we have to solve, or task that we have to purposefully do. When life is made into a problem that needs to be solved or a task that has to be completed then resistance comes into the picture and then we find out (eventually) that we’re actually fighting ourselves.

 

As we started off this discussion by saying, life is essentially spontaneous in nature (i.e. it isn’t governed by rules) – it isn’t purposeful, it isn’t a movement that is on its way to a specified goal! As Alan Watts says over and over again, life isn’t something that’s done for a reason, in order to ‘get somewhere’ by it. The universe didn’t come into existence for a reason, it doesn’t exist in order serve our rational will. There’s no ‘plan for life’! Sometimes we hear talk about ‘God’s plan for us’ but this is the very same thing – it’s our own absurdly clunky rational thinking projected onto God because we can’t imagine anything else apart from ‘goal-orientated activity’. There always has to be a goal – where we are right now can never be good enough! There always has to be something missing, something that we need to reach out for. But all of this is quite ludicrous – we don’t live so that we can kill ourselves trying to obtain this, that or the other dumb concrete goal. To imagine that this is the case is to degrade life to the level of a game…

 

The ‘twist’ is therefore just another way of talking about resistance. The twist is what happens as a result of resistance – we’re resisting life happening the way it wants to happen by imposing our own brand of order on it. We’re trying to make life be the way we think it ought to be and we never see anything odd about this at all. We always try to make life be the way we think it ought to be simply because that’s ‘the way we think it should be’… We never look any further than this. That’s the end of the matter, as far as we’re concerned. We never look any further than ‘what we think’ – we never look any further than our own thoughts. What we have called ‘the twist’ is nothing other than our own resistance to life. When we strive to achieve a goal that we see as being good and wholesome that is resistance and when we perversely go against ourselves and ‘score an own goal’ that’s resistance too. It’s all resistance. Anything purposeful is resistance, by definition! We’re trying to achieve something that isn’t already the case and so by definition we’re resisting what is the case. Resistance is our basic activity – when we try to promote and further our ‘idea of ourselves’ this is resistance and when we ‘shoot ourselves in the foot’ this also is resistance. It’s all what we have called ‘the twist’.

 

Life itself isn’t twisted, we are! We are the twist, we are the glitch. We are the spanner in the works. This of course all sounds very negative (reprehensibly negative, in fact) to our rational-purposeful way of looking at things. No square-jawed, steely-eyed, high-profile motivational speaker is going to go along with this! The formulation of our predicament that we just presented here doesn’t give us a leg to stand on. It isn’t affirming for our concept of ourselves at all and that’s what self-help gurus, popular psychologists (or any kind of conventional psychologist, come to that) always offer us – affirmation for our idea of ourselves. affirmation for the self-concept is a lot like flattery – it might feel good at the time but it certainly isn’t doing us any favours in the long run!

 

Life’s a lot simpler without the twist. That’s like being a child again – life works with you not against you. With the twist – which we can’t see and don’t know to be there (since it is us) – complications and entanglements keep on piling up. Things don’t go smoothly, even though we will have periods when we think that ‘things are going our way’. The very notion of ‘things going our way’ is glitched however – life isn’t supposed to be going our ‘way’, it’s supposed to be going its way! Life isn’t supposed to be falling in line with some arbitrary mental construct (or idea) that we have come up with, and that we have put on a pedestal as if it were the most important thing in the universe. If that’s the way that we want to live life then we’re in for a bumpy ride and no mistake…

 

Ultimately, those bumps aren’t a bad thing though. They’re there to remind us of something – they’re there to remind us that life isn’t supposed to be purposeful! Or as we could also say, the ‘bumps’ are there to remind us that we aren’t really the idea that we have of ourselves. It helps to see that these bumps – our trials and tribulations – aren’t a bad thing. It helps because then we don’t take against them so much! We won’t hate them so much. Insight into the nature of things is always liberating – insight is always liberating because it shows us that everything is already in the process of sorting itself out. Everything is already in the process of sorting itself out and so there’s no need for us to intervene. ‘Insight’ is actually the mirror-image of paranoia in this way, because paranoia always shows us that something bad is happening and that we very much do need to intervene! Paranoia is ‘twisted insight’…

 

Insight shows us that we can’t do anything about being identified with the thinking self, even as it shows us that we aren’t really that self. We can’t do anything about our situation – if we try to then we just make matters worse. We pull the knot even tighter than it already is. The way that we are is the way that we are and that’s that! We are the way that we are but that’s OK because when we act as the purposeful self (as we always do act) then this creates a backlash which works – if we let it – as a reminder to remind us that we’re aren’t really this ‘purposeful self’, that life isn’t really this ‘deliberate’ or ‘forced’ thing that we have made it into. This isn’t a reminder to ‘do something about it’ however because as we have said there’s nothing we can do about it! It’s a reminder in the sense that it reminds us to remember something that we have always known, deep-down, but which we have nevertheless forgotten…

 

Knowing that everything is already in the process of sorting itself out means that we can ‘relax into’ whatever it is that is happening, so to speak. And if we can’t relax into what’s going on then that’s OK too because that too will sort itself out – all we need to do in this case is ‘relax into not relaxing’, therefore! Whatever level the tension or conflict exists on, we can relax into it being there and in this case, even though the twist is still there, and very much in painful evidence, we know on a very deep level of our awareness that it’s OK for the twist to be there because the twist ‘is its own solution’, so to speak. When we know that it’s OK for the twist (or glitch) that’s in life to be there (when we know that we don’t have to fight against it or try to fix it) then – curiously – knowing that stops the twist being the twist. We’re connected with our deeper awareness of who we are (the deeper awareness that knows that there’s no need to ‘do stuff on purpose’) and so there is no more divide. The twist only functions as a twist when we resist it – paradoxically therefore, if we allow it to be a glitch then it no longer is a glitch….

 

 

Image:The Birth of Venus (Audio Editor glitch) by Omletofon

 

 

 

 

 

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.