All Thought Is Conjecture

The most basic ‘error’ that we make in life is to our base our sense of well-being on our thoughts. We allow ourselves to feel good on the basis of our thoughts, and we also allow ourselves to feel bad on account of them – we can’t really have the one without the other! So – just to give a simple example – suppose I am about to sit an exam: I can think to myself that the exam is ‘in the bag’ that I’m going to ace it, in which case I will of course feel great, or I can think that I am definitely going to flunk it and fail miserably, in which case I will of course feel correspondingly bad.

 

This is such a commonplace example that we will in all probability think nothing of it. Of course some thoughts make us feel good whilst others make us feel bad – what of it? The point is however that this is completely ridiculous; thoughts are conjectures, they are guesses about what is going to happen, or what is happening, so how can we possibly feel good or bad on this basis? We’re actually being very lazy here – we’re jumping to the conclusion the thought is the very same thing as the reality and we’re not even bothering to notice that we have made this assumption! We’re jumping to conclusions without noticing that we’re making the jump. What we’ve done is that we have flagrantly ignored the uncertainty that is inherently involved in everything, and at the same time we have ignored the fact that we are ignoring it.

 

The uncertainty that we are ignoring so happily as the difference between ‘reality’ and ‘the thought about reality’ and this is a very big difference indeed. What bigger difference could there be than the difference between ‘the description of the thing’ and ‘the thing itself’? To assume that there is nothing in the thing that is not in the description of it our description of it is very lazy indeed; to be completely and uncritically accepting at the veracity of our own conceptualization of the world is what we might call ‘a terminal lack of curiosity in life itself’, and this is, of course, what ‘laziness’ (that innocent sounding word) ultimately comes down to.

 

The ultimate form of laziness is – we might say – where we fail to differentiate between the formal description and the thing that is being described, where we fail to look beyond the conventional labels that we have for things and what these conventional labels actually refer to. We fail to look beyond our thoughts, in other words, and – by default – take our thoughts to be synonymous with what is being thought about. This is like a deep dark hole that we fall into, and what happens when we do fall into this hole is that all the intrinsic uncertainty goes out of our life, and all that we are going to be left with are various dull shades of ‘certainty’, various shades of grey.

 

The black-and-white nature of this grey world (which is the conjectural world that thought has created for us) gives rise to various corresponding states of feeling. The type of concrete conjectures we make about the world (without realising that we have made a conjecture) conditions us to feel a particular way – either ‘good’ to a lesser or greater extent or ‘bad’ to a lesser or greater extent. The important point to note here is therefore that we wouldn’t feel ‘automatically good’ or ‘automatically bad’ in this way if we did know that we are reacting to pure conjecture. If there is some ‘reflex reaction’ of either feeling good or bad about the concrete reality that is been identified by thought then what this means is that (on some level) we have lost sight of the fact that ‘thought’s conjecture is only conjecture’. Our reactivity shows that we have ‘gotten lazy’, in other words!

 

When we fall into this hole of ‘forgetting about intrinsic or irreducible uncertainty’ (which is the same as ‘forgetting that our thoughts are only conjectures’) then we have to get everything out of the conceptual/concrete world that thought produces for us. There is nowhere else to look and so of course everything has to be bought in this one shop. The only ingredients are the ingredients that can be found in this pantry and if the pantry is limited then there’s nothing we can do about it! We just have to cook up a meal with limited ingredients… As far as we’re concerned the concrete, thought-created world is the only world there is and this necessarily makes us very concrete too. Our emotional reaction to the world becomes ‘jerky’ in nature – we are constantly either ‘going up’ or ‘going down’ depending on whether the situation we are in is deemed by thought ‘favourable’ or ‘unfavourable’, ‘advantageous’ or ‘disadvantage us’. Thought pulls the strings and we jump this way or that accordingly.

 

There is no peace or stillness to be had in the concrete/conceptual world therefore – we are always either ‘heading in a positive direction’ or ‘heading in a negative direction’ and there is no possibility of us ever finding ourselves in a situation where we don’t have to be either constantly ‘seeking the advantage’ or ‘avoiding the disadvantage’. That just isn’t going to happen. The rational mind always has to be on duty, in other words; everything always has to be controlled, everything always has to be regulated. ‘Controlling’ is a job that never comes to an end; there is no question of us ‘controlling so successfully that we never have to control again’ – we think that there is this possibility, but there just isn’t!

 

The one thing we will never find in the mind-created world is peace, therefore. There simply is no peace, no stillness to find there and to be searching for peace (as we are, whether we know it or not) with no chance of ever finding it is a fundamentally unhappy sort of an existence, no matter which way you look at it! Not only is it unhappy because we are always (whether we know it or not) looking for the one thing we can never have, it is also ‘an unhappy existence’ because how we feel about ourselves and the world is always being determined by our thoughts, by the thinking mind, which we have very unwisely put in charge of our (perceived) well-being.

 

If thought sees us as ‘gaining the advantage’ then we automatically get a feel good, and if it sees us as ‘incurring a disadvantage’ (or ‘being at risk of incurring a disadvantage’) then we feel we automatically get to feel bad. What kind of a ridiculous situation is this however? How on earth can life be reduced to a matter of always seeking the advantage in everything we do? How can life be reduced to just a game in this way? The full gamut of neurotic pain arises from this grimly mechanical orientation of ours; as we have just said, what we are essentially doing here is putting ourselves at the mercy of the thinking mind and asking that very unforgiving mind what it wants us to do so that it will be pleased with us and reward us with a good feeling. We are assuming that there is a way of ‘pleasing the thinking mind’ however, and there isn’t! The mechanical mind is a complete and utter tyrant, and what’s more – it is a tyrant that (in the long run) is never going to be pleased. In this respect, the everyday mechanical mind is more like a bully than a straightforward tyrant – the more we give in to it and try to please it the more cruelly and ruthlessly it will bully us. Anyone who has ever had any experience of neurotic suffering knows this.

 

The ‘cure’ for neurotic pain (which is the meaningless pain of always trying to please the machine-mind which is in charge of us) is simply to stop believing in everything it tells us. The default situation is for thought to tell us something and for ‘the way we feel about things’ to change according to what it has told us. We are emotionally coupled to our thoughts, in other words. We bob up or sink down, we perk up brightly when a ‘positive thought’ comes along and then we get knocked back down again by a ‘negative one’. Our strings are pulled and we respond obediently, we respond automatically. Nothing we think can change this and this is something that’s very hard for us to understand (naturally enough, since we are so habituated to using the thinking mind to solve everything); we see thought causing us to feel bad when there is no need for us to be feeling bad, and so we try to use thought to correct this error, in a nice logical way, and we don’t see any problem with this. But in doing this we are of course handing over responsibility to thought even more and this is the very last thing we should be doing! We’re still trying to please the bully – we’re still trying to please the machine-mind. We haven’t ‘got it’ yet….

 

There is only one helpful thing that we can do and it’s a lot simpler than falling into the treacherous morass of ‘using thought to correct thought’. There is only one helpful thing we can ever do and that is create some space the between us and our thoughts’ so that we have some degree of independence from them. This is the space between stimulus and response that Viktor E. Frankl speaks of in this well-known passage –

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

This is the gap that gives us back our autonomy and peace of mind – without it there can be no possibility of either! Cognitive restructuring is no good to us because every time we use thinking we ‘close the gap’, obviously! The only thing that brings about this gap, this life-giving discontinuity between consciousness and thought, is paying attention. Not ‘paying attention with a view to fixing anything’ (which would mean that our ‘noticing’ is serving the master of the rational mind) but ‘noticing for no reason’, or as we could also put it – simply being aware. Actually, simply being aware (or ‘noticing without an agenda’) is the very same thing as the space between stimulus and response that Viktor Frankl is talking about. That space is consciousness.

 

To simply be aware means not being pulled in by the urge to fix (the urge to correct) all the time, and this is at root nothing more than fear. We are afraid to let things be. This is also the reason we always are always so quick to make guesses about the nature of reality and instantaneously forget that our guesses are only guesses. This is the concrete manifestation of fear – fear makes us want to fill up all the available space and when it comes right down to we don’t really care what type of nonsense it is that we are filling it up with! This is what fear is – it’s the overwhelming desire to fill up all the available space. Fear is the overwhelming need to ‘run away from space’. We’re driven by the urge to ‘shut down space‘; we’re afraid of space because space equals irreducible uncertainty – ‘space’ is another word for the intrinsic uncertainty which allows for the unfolding of all things. Intrinsic uncertainty is (we might say) like a blank page – a blank page is ‘uncertain’ because it hasn’t been written on yet! We like the thinking mind’s concrete conjectures because then we can just get on with the ‘matter-of-fact’ task of accommodating ourselves to the script that has been given to us. The script that the mind gives us is ‘already finished’ – everything has already been decided and so all we have to do is ‘get on with it’. We don’t have to relate to the Bigger Picture (which is always uncertain), we don’t have to ‘ask any of the big questions’. All we need to do is ‘act out’ the script; all we need to do is ‘follow the stage directions’. All that is required is for us to ‘do what the script tells us to do, say what it tells us to say, and feel what it tells us to feel’. That’s all we know of life, all we need to know!

 

‘Ignorance is bliss,’ in other words, although it isn’t really any sort of ‘bliss’ at all but simply ‘ongoing drudgery’ – the ongoing drudgery of believing that the thinking mind’s unexamined conjectures are a ‘concrete reality’ that we have to adapt ourselves to. Who doesn’t know this drudgery? We are promised great things at the end of it all of course but that’s merely a cheap trick that is being used to incentivise us. What ‘great things’ could ever come about as a result of us forgetting that the rational mind’s conjectures are only conjectures? The ‘Great Thing’ that we’re looking for is to be found in the intrinsic uncertainty of life itself (which is synonymous with what we have called the ‘Big Picture’) not in what the dogmatic old ‘machine-mind’ has to say on the subject…

 

 

 

Art: Graffiti by Achilles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Displaced Insecurity of the Self-Concept

Anxiety is of course nothing more than the insecurity of the self-concept projected outwards onto the world at large. It is ‘displaced insecurity’, in other words; if it wasn’t displaced then it wouldn’t be anxiety – it would on the contrary be an accurate (and thus valuable) perception of reality. Until we can see the insecurity where it belongs therefore we cannot avail of this valuable perception – we’re left chasing red herrings instead and even if we do catch them (which we won’t!) that isn’t going to do us any good…

 

Just as long as we can see that there is such a thing as the ‘self-concept’ then it is very straightforward to also see that anxiety is the displaced insecurity of this self-concept, and that we don’t on this account have to go looking for any other explanation for it (or indeed go looking for any fancy ‘cures’ or ‘solutions’ for it). Everything then falls into place and we realize that any effort we put into fixing the situation is actually feeding into the cause of the anxiety in the first place (as is always the way when we try to ‘fix insecurity’). But the difficulty is that we are fundamentally resistant to looking at our everyday ‘sense of self’ in this way – we are both culturally and personally fundamentally averse to questioning or examining this taken-for-granted sense of self.

 

In the Wikipedia entry on the Apollonian dictum ‘Know Thyself’ we read: “Socrates says, as he did in Phaedrus, that people make themselves appear ridiculous when they are trying to know obscure things before they know themselves.” The actual quote from Phaedrus reads:

But I have no leisure for them at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things.

When we try to know anything when we neither know ourselves nor have the slightest interest in knowing ourselves is necessarily to make ourselves ridiculous. When we try to understand anxiety without first seeing the nature of the self-concept this is to make ourselves doubly ridiculous since anxiety is – as we have said – the result of our lack of insight into ourselves in the first place. If we try to understand the anxiety that comes about because of our lack of insight into what is really going on with ourselves whilst maintaining this wilful ignorance of ourselves then matters can only get worse! All of our purposeful activity (including our misguided attempts to do something about our anxiety) stems from our ‘lack of awareness of the true nature of the self-concept’ and this is not an easy thing to do anything about since we don’t actually want to have this awareness! We’re always heading in completely the opposite direction to that of  ‘increased awareness of the insecurity of the self-concept’…

 

If we allow just for the sake of the argument there is such a thing as the ‘self-concept’ then it stands to reason that it would be insecure! Being a self-concept is a very precarious business – I am whatever I think I am (or whatever you think I am) and so how precarious, how insecure is this? When we look at life from the POV of the self-concept then all we see is a long list of things that could go wrong. It is of course equally true to say that when we look at life from the POV of the SC then all we see is a long list of things that could go right. That is equally true thing to say and it is also – when we look further into it – equally deluded. It is ‘deluded’ because what goes wrong for the SC (or right for it) doesn’t really have anything to do with us. It’s all hypothetical – we will feel good if the SC incurs an advantage in life but this good feeling relies totally upon the proposition that who we genuinely are is this SC, and that just isn’t true! Both good luck and bad luck (or ‘things going well’ and ‘things going badly’) are nothing more than spin.

 

The SC can put one of two different types of spin on the world – it can put the ‘optimistic’ sort of spin on things or it can apply the ‘pessimistic’ sort. It can be hopeful of the positive outcome, or fearful of the negative, both of which represent perfectly legitimate motivations. The SC can just as easily go one way or the other – it is equally ‘at home’ in going both ways, so to speak. We of course think that the answer to anxiety (or ‘preoccupation with the negative outcome’) is to find a way to switch the spin back around to the optimistic or hopeful sort; then – we naively imagine – everything will be OK again and we can carry on with our lives in a happier and healthier way.

 

This isn’t the case, however. It is very far from being the case! The optimistic (or positive) spin and the pessimistic (or negative) one are both equally unrealistic, and for this reason neither can lead to happiness. An unrealistic attitude to life can hardly be expected to lead to anything wholesome, after all! Unrealistic thinking is never a recipe for happiness, even if it is unrealistic thinking of the optimistic kind. The point that we are making here is that all spins are unrealistic – they wouldn’t be spins otherwise! The only view of things that isn’t unrealistic is the view that is not based on any type of spin, either negative or positive. The question is therefore – how do we see the world then? What does ‘no spin’ look like?

 

Well, if the optimistic view equals what we might call ‘positive certainty’ and the pessimistic view equals ‘negative certainty’ then having no spin (or no bias) equals uncertainty (or openness). ‘Positive certainty’ is when we strongly feel that we are going to obtain an outcome that is favourable to us and ‘negative certainty’ is when we equally strongly feel that we are going to incur an outcome that is unfavourable, and so zero certainty (or zero bias) must mean that we have no conception of any sort of outcome either advantageous or disadvantageous. Outcomes – of any kind – just don’t exist for us. They don’t come into the picture…

 

It goes further than this though. Not only is it the case that outcomes don’t come into the picture, it is also very much the case that the one for whom the outcome exists (the outcome which can either be advantageous or disadvantageous) doesn’t come into the picture either. Not only is it the case that there are no ‘goals’ (or no ‘feared outcomes’), it is also the case that there one to either ‘hope for the desired outcome’ nor ‘dread the feared one’. This is what radical uncertainty means – it means that there is no controller and nothing to control, no goal and no ‘seeker after the goal’. This is where we really come to the crunch, therefore – uncertainty is more disagreeable to us than negative certainty. Or as we could also say, ‘radical not-knowing’ is worse than ‘’knowing the worse’ (or ‘failure’).

 

If we can see this (our undisclosed preference a situation that is judged as ‘bad’ rather than a situation that is radically unknown) then we can see right into the very heart of anxiety. What is going on in anxiety is that there is a basic confusion occurring between two very different types of uncertainty, and the two types of ‘insecurity’ that are associated with these two types of uncertainty. The reason that this confusion exists is because we are strategically displacing our fear about the radical uncertainty regarding ‘how things are when we don’t put any spin on them’ onto the level of trivial uncertainty with regard to the question of whether the goal is attained or not – which is clearly not the same thing at all! Trivial uncertainty isn’t the same thing at all because it doesn’t really matter one way or the other; it doesn’t really matter one way or the other but we can’t help reacting as if it does!

 

So rather than feeling the insecurity where it is, we’re feeling it where it isn’t. We’re feeling it where it’s safe to feel it! In one way it could be said that nothing very much has been achieved by this displacement manoeuvre – we were insecure before and we’re still insecure now – the only thing that has changed is the arena. Being pointlessly worried about outcomes that don’t really matter very much is after all a distinctly unpleasant form of suffering in its own right! Who likes worrying? Who likes being in the throes of anxiety the whole time? In order to see the ‘gain’ that is being made here we have to understand why trivial uncertainty (or trivial risk) is so vastly more preferable to radical uncertainty (or radical risk). What is the difference between ‘uncertainty with regard to specific outcomes’ and ‘uncertainty in relation to the validity of the self-concept itself’?

 

Very clearly, the advantage in trivial uncertainty is that at no point in the proceedings are we risking the SC itself. Even if the outcome is a total and failure that doesn’t actually jeopardize the SC – we just become a ‘loser-self’ rather than a ‘winner-self’, in this case! The spin is switched over one way to the other. We may feel pretty bad about ourselves, but we still don’t doubt our existence as this ‘idea’ that we have about ourselves; a loser is after all just as much a real thing as a winner and what we’re playing for (even though the rules of the game mean that we can’t ever admit this to ourselves) is not ‘success with regard to designated outcomes’ but ‘success with regard to proving that the SC is an actual real entity in the first place’. That’s the type of ‘success’ that we’re really interested in…

 

The SC is however not a real thing and this is where its vulnerability lies – the vulnerability that gives rise to its chronic ontological insecurity. It’s easy to see that the SC is not actually real, if only we were prepared to look into it. No one who has ever gone to the trouble of paying attention to the self-concept and its antics (no one who has taken the trouble to observe the Apollonian Edit of ‘Know Thyself’) will ever try to say that the SC has any stability (or ‘substance’) of its own. One might as well try to claim that a shadow has stability or substance! The only existence it has is the existence we give it and this is itself a highly unstable situation! What could be more unstable than something which relies on our ongoing efforts in maintaining it if it is not immediately to vanish into thin air?

 

And it is not – as we have implied – just that we are committed, on a full-time basis, to maintaining the SC; we are committed, on a full-time basis, to maintaining it whilst not letting on to ourselves that we are doing so (which is another kettle of fish entirely). Maintaining the SC whilst at the same time not disclosing to ourselves that we are maintaining the SC is the only way that we can believe that the SC is who we genuinely are, after all. This is the only way that it going to work, when we don’t see our own hand, when we don’t see our own involvement. The same is true for all belief-structures of course – as James Carse says, to see that we have chosen to believe in a particular thing (a particular structure or statement about reality) is not to believe in it…

 

This whole business of creating our own basis for understanding and perceiving the world and then not disclosing to ourselves that we are responsible for this basis, and that it wouldn’t be there if we didn’t continue with our efforts to make it be there, is of course the most insecure situation that there ever could be. What could possibly be more insecure than this? Insecurity like this cannot be contained and so it spills out into our everyday life and when it does so we will talk in terms of anxiety. Anxiety is seen as a kind of pathology in its own right – we look at in exclusion of all other factors, trying to locate some discrete cause so that we can cure it with drugs or with rational therapy of some sort. We come out with all sorts of convoluted theories, and all sorts of elaborate methods based on these theories. But how does any of this help us with the real issue – which is our unacknowledged ontological insecurity?

 

Being identified with the self-concept places us, as we have just said, in the most insecure situation there ever could be. It is extra-insecure because we have illegitimately removed ourselves from the genuine insecurity, so as to obtain for ourselves a ‘false or phoney type of security’. This ‘false or phoney type of security’ is however a form of super-insecurity – it’s insecurity that we can’t see as such, and all this does is to give the fear that we’re hiding from extra power over us. All we’ve achieved with our cleverness is extra suffering. Being identified as we are to the SC is nothing more than a refined and extra-tortuous form of suffering. We’re all wedded to the self-concept – that is the ‘default situation’, so to speak. We’re all ‘wedded to the SC’ and no matter what efforts we may in morality or self-development there’s nothing we can do about that; we can’t will ourselves to ‘change our spots’ in some way so that we’re not so abysmally self-orientated. If we do make an effort in morality (so as to ‘improve’ ourselves) then this effort of will is only for the sake of the self that we’re trying to change. As Alan Watts says, the one who has been tasked with carrying out the change is the very one who needs changing.

 

Nothing ever happens when we try to change ourselves because whenever we try to change ourselves it is always in accordance with some idea that we have and we can never go beyond the self-concept by thinking! The suggestion that who we are in our essence has nothing to do with any idea or thought that we might have (or with any structure of any kind) is not one that we are in any hurry to take seriously. The thinking mind is running the show, after all, and the thinking mind is hardly going to acknowledge that there might be something out there that it can never know about, and which is infinitely more significant that all the things that it can know about. The thinking mind isn’t about to put itself into second place like this – even if we waited a billion years it would never do this. Thought is ‘top dog’ and if it has anything to do with it it’s going to stay that way! Just as long as thought (or the ‘rational mind’) is top dog there is going to be no questioning of the self-concept…

 

Because the rational mind is running the show we aren’t about to look at anxiety in a helpful way anytime soon. As far as mental health is concerned everything we do and say is purely for show – it’s purely theatrical, it’s not really intended to get to the heart of matters, it’s not really intended to free us from our neurosis. We will of course insist that it is – we will insist until we’re blue in the face that we’re sincere in our efforts to free ourselves from the suffering of neurosis. This is all mere bluster however – what else is the self-concept capable of other than bluster (or bluff) after all?

 

The thing about all of this – as we have been saying – is that the one thing we are most definitely NOT prepared to do is to investigate the self-concept. We will investigate (and form elaborate theories about) all sorts of things – you name it, we will investigate it, and produce super-dense bodies of opaque theory in relation to it – but we won’t look at ourselves (not in any non-rational way, that is). This brings us back to what Socrates said two thousand four hundred years ago about forming theories of the world without first investigating the assumptions – our only achievement when we do this is to make ourselves appear quite ridiculous. Just as long as we are identified with the self-concept (which is a state of ‘pseudo-being’ that relies upon our continued psychological unconsciousness) all our pretensions at wisdom are going to be ridiculous…