Escaping From Ourselves

escape

How can the tyranny of a fixed repeating pattern ever bring itself to an end? The answer to this question is simply that it can’t. The pattern has no way to bring itself to an end – whatever the pattern does is the pattern and so there’s no way out from this. How can the pattern do ‘no pattern’? How can the pattern do ‘the absence of itself’ when everything it does is itself?

 

This is the key psychological insight. It is the key psychological insight and it is also the one thing we never see to get. Even our most highly qualified psychologists don’t get it. We are all suffering from the same type of mental blindness. We are after all always trying out new ways of ‘ending the pattern with that same pattern’ or ‘changing the pattern on the basis of that same pattern’. We never tire of looking for a ‘new, improved way’ of changing the pattern on the basis of that same pattern and we never give up the hope that one day we will find it…

 

The pattern that we’re talking about here is the pattern which is our everyday mind, the pattern of our habitual way of seeing things and doing things. This is the pattern that we’re stuck in, the pattern that we’re always trying to escape from (either consciously or unconsciously). It’s our very limited ‘way of being in the world’. Another name for this fixed repeating limited pattern that we’re always trying to escape from is the self.

 

Saying something like this tends to sound rather strange. It sounds strange because for one thing we don’t see ourselves as being ‘stuck’ in the self, and for another thing we don’t see ourselves as always trying to escape from it! This awareness would of course be incongruent with the whole general accepted idea of ‘the self’ – if I am who I am (which presumably I am) then how can I be ‘stuck’ in who I am? If I am always trying to escape from the self then this would imply that the self is in its nature ‘lacking in freedom’. If it wasn’t lacking in freedom then why would I need to escape from it? And yet who sees the self as being a ‘fundamentally unfree situation’?

 

A ‘fundamentally unfree situation’ is however exactly what the self is – the self is a pattern of perceiving, thinking and behaving that we are stuck with, it is a fixed and repetitive pattern of seeing the world that we can’t do anything about. How after all can we do something about the way we see the world? Suppose I don’t like the way I see the world, suppose that it is causing lots of difficulties for me, lots of problems for me, and I am trying on this account to change it. Any way that I try to change my way of seeing the world (or my way of thinking about the world) is inevitably going to be guided by that same modality of seeing, by that same modality of thinking. Whatever I do to try to change my way of seeing the world is that same way of seeing the world because I simply don’t have anything else to go on. This constraint (or ‘blinkeredness’) is the very problem in the first place!

 

What I understand the problem to be is a function of my way of seeing the world, just as my understanding of what constitutes ‘the solution’ to the problem is a function of my way of seeing the world. How can I escape from my way of understanding the world on the basis of this same understanding? How is this ever going to work? My way of seeing the world (or thinking about the world) is behind me, not in front of me. It’s always behind me. It’s my blind-spot. It determines me, I don’t determine it. If I get caught up in trying to change myself then I am as Alan Watts says like a puppy feverishly chasing its own tail…

 

This is why we are saying that the self is an ‘unfree’ sort of a thing. I might – in the general run of things – think that I am the boss, that I am the one who is in control, but how can I be the boss, how can I be the one who is in control, if something else that I am not able to see is controlling the way I understand the world? What kind of a joke is that? It is my pattern of seeing the world (or thinking about the world) that is really in control. The pattern is in control. As we have said, it determines me rather than the other way around and so how can I possibly say that I am free?

 

There are two basic ways in which we can (try to) get around this fundamentally ‘stuck’ or ‘unfree’ situation. One is to say that that we agree with the position that we don’t have any choice about so that the problem of us having no choice in the matter never gets to be highlighted, never gets to come to our attention. In this case I say that I am not controlled to see things in the particular rigid way that I do, but I actually want to see things this way. This is my way of seeing things and to hell with any other way! Or as we could also say, this way is the right way and all other ways are the wrong way. This ploy allows me to feel good about being confined to the particular pattern of being in the world that I am confined to – in this way my lamentable lack of freedom is turned into a virtue! I am validating my own unfree position…

 

This is like Robert Anton Wilson’s joke about the fiddler who torments his wife by playing the same note on his violin over and over again day after day, week after week, month after month. “Can’t you play other notes as well,” she finally asks in desperation, “like other violinists do?” Her husband snorts in derision. “Those other guys are still looking for the right note,” he answers, “I’ve found it…”

 

Validating our prison is one way that we have of solving the problem; the other way is to make ourselves feel better about being stuck by continually imagining that things are improving (or could improve for us if we play our cards right). This is ‘unreal escaping’. We make ourselves feel better about being stuck in the prison that we are stuck in by investing our hopes in plans and strategies to improve our situation, to upgrade our situation. This is of course something that we do just about the whole time – every time we get excited by some goal (or by the prospect of obtaining some goal) we are trying to ‘better our situation’. Anytime we hope anything we are investing our emotional wellbeing in the notion that we can better our situation. This sort of thing (having hopes about this, that or the other) is an inherent part of everyday life, after all. We wouldn’t see anything peculiar about it at all…

 

In one way we could of course say that it is perfectly legitimate to strive towards improving our situation. In order to stay alive and healthy in this world we have to keep on making goals to ‘benefit’ ourselves. This is a rather big part of life. This is ‘the survival game’. A lot of what we do is not orientated towards straightforward ‘survival needs’ however – there is another type of agenda that has crept into the picture (without us seeing that it has) and this ‘sneaky agenda’ can be seen in terms of ‘the need to assuage our unacknowledged existential insecurity’. If I am hungry because I haven’t eaten for 24 hours then this is a straightforward biological need but if I want to be seen in a particular fancy restaurant hobnobbing with the rich and famous then this is of course another thing altogether! If I need to get a place to live so that I can stay warm and protect myself from the elements then this is one thing, but if I want to have an address in a good neighbourhood then this also is another thing altogether.

 

Instead of saying that the ‘secret agenda’ that creeps in has to do with our need to compensate for our unacknowledged insecurity about who we are or what we are about, we could also say that it has to do with augmenting our self-image. We want to look good, both to ourselves and to others. Alternatively (and equivalently) we could say that the secret agenda is to change or improve our ‘inner state’, which is to say, the state of being that we happen to be existing in. Thus, if we are feeling some sort of ‘unconscious existential pain’ (such as dissatisfaction, insecurity, alienation, fear, loneliness, boredom, ennui, meaninglessness, frustration, sadness, etc) then this unacknowledged mental pain gets deflected onto our everyday goals, whatever they may happen to be, and it makes these goals ‘call out to us’ much more than they would otherwise do. It makes these goals ‘shine like gold’; it makes them especially appealing, especially attractive, especially motivating…

 

What we are talking about here is the most basic of psychological mechanisms, the mechanism in which –

the practical, ‘down-to-earth’ meaning of what we’re doing gets hijacked with another, unacknowledged type of a meaning – the type of meaning that speaks to our hidden insecurities, frustrations and fears.

What is actually happening here – as we would know if we paid proper attention to ourselves – is that we’re trying to remedy the unacknowledged pain of our inner hollowness by chasing after this goal and that goal in the outside world. We’re keeping ourselves constantly busy by ‘chasing after illusions’ in other words, and the reason that the illusions are as attractive to us as they are is precisely because we’re not attending to the pain of the hollowness where it really belongs. That’s why we’re seeing it (the pain of the ‘inner absence’ or ‘inner deficit’) where is doesn’t belong, in ‘reversed form’, as glitteringly attractive promises in the outside world. We’re attracted to the wonderfully seductive promise of our inner deficit being ‘magically made good’, only this is happening in an entirely unconscious way.

 

What we’re really trying to do here – when it comes right down to it – is to escape from the narrow dusty little pigeon-hole which is our way of seeing the world, our way of thinking about the world, our way of being in the world. When we try to ‘improve our situation’ what we’re really trying to do is to escape from the painfully narrow mind-set that we’re permanently trapped in. When we’re attracted to a goal, energized by a goal, motivated by a goal, then what we’re being attracted to, energized by, motivated by is the prospect of escaping from our habitual pattern of seeing things, our habitual way of being in the world, only the limited modality of understanding that we’re trying to escape from doesn’t – by its very nature – allow us to see this.

 

This is where the irony comes in. What’s leading us on and on, and keeping us forever glued to the narrow track that we’re running along on, is the lure (or ‘carrot’) that is continually being dangled in front of our noses by the over-valent purposeful mind. What’s causing us the pain (i.e. the narrow, concrete and impossibly rigid thinking mind) is the very thing that we using to try to escape from the pain, and so the same basic situation is perpetuating itself over and over again, with no end in sight. This is of course the way it is with all addictions – the cure is the very thing that brings about the need for the cure in the first place. The cause of the pain and the cure for the pain are one and the same thing. As Homer Simpson’s toast goes – “Here’s to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

 

The fixed and repetitive pattern which is the thinking mind is like an impossibly narrow corset into which we keep on squeezing ourselves. This is in itself only how thinking works (thinking being a narrow, logical sort of a thing, an abstract domain with no actual space or freedom in it, only the goal or solution that we are aiming at). When we’re caught in the situation of thinking all the time however, with one thought forever following on the heels of the next and then the next and then the next, then this means that there is never any space or freedom left to us…

 

This narrow, rigid way of being in the world (in which there is no space or freedom but only the hope of obtaining the goal) then becomes the only thing we know. It becomes the only reality we know – the only reality we are capable of knowing. We ‘identify’ with this narrow, rigid, constrained pattern of being in the world and we think that it is ‘who we are’. We protect it, we defend it, we promote it and feel good about it. We also feel correspondingly bad about it, but one way or the other we’re stuck with it. We can’t deliberately ‘bring it to an end’ and free ourselves from its pointless tyranny (which is ‘the pointless tyranny of the old’) because – as we have been saying – our attempts to free ourselves from the pattern simply embroils us in it all the more….

 

And yet this does not mean that we cannot become free from the pattern that we are so painfully (and pointlessly) stuck in. We just need to find the courage to see it for what it really is rather than constantly validating it to ourselves and others. We just need to observe the fact of our own constant self-validating, and this will straightaway give the game away! Similarly, we just need to impartially and compassionately observe the absurdity of our own constant ‘false escaping’, the constant ‘self-deception’ by which we keep on imagining that we can make our situation better by assiduously jumping through this hoop or that hoop, by doggedly chasing after this goal or that goal. Once we find the courage and the curiosity to see what is actually going on (the courage or curiosity to ‘see through the game’) then the prison dissolves all by itself. We don’t have to ‘do’ anything….

The Creative Universe

Van Gogh

‘Being in the world’ is a completely spontaneous thing – it’s not something we do on purpose, it’s not something we do as part of a plan. We don’t intend to ‘be in the world’ – we just are! Being spontaneous isn’t intentional and neither is this thing that we are calling ‘being in the world’.

 

This sounds like a perfectly acceptable kind of a thing to say. It is not exactly what we might call ‘controversial’ or hard to understand. On the whole, most people would probably be perfectly happy to go along with this statement. And yet there is a consequence to this that we really don’t tend to think of – a consequence that is very far from being acceptable, a consequence that is most definitely controversial!

 

The ‘controversial consequence’ that we are talking about here is this – if I am being completely spontaneous then what this means is that I am not there. We’d know this if we paused to reflect on the matter for a moment or two. As we’ve said, anything that is truly spontaneous comes out of us without deliberation, without calculation, without premeditation. That’s what we mean when we say that something is ‘spontaneous’! It means we didn’t intend it; it means that we didn’t say that it should happen. If we tried to intend to be spontaneous then we’d soon find out that this just isn’t how it works!

 

‘Spontaneity’ is another way of talking about creativity – if I am hit by a sudden burst of creativity and come out with some type of a thing (a poem, a story, a song, an insight, or whatever) as a result of this creative burst then it must be true that I have not intended whatever it is that comes along! Creativity does not come to order, as we all know. It is not an intentional or purposeful act. We’re doing it without knowing what we’re doing; we’re doing it without knowing how we’re doing it! We can go so far as to say that the degree to which I already know what I’m going to come out with is the degree to which it is not creative. To repeat what one already knows – and trot it out again for the hundredth time – is not creativity, it is simply copying! It is mere ‘data-retrieval’, which is what we tend to be taught in school. It’s a mechanical thing, not a creative thing.

 

When people say – as they tend to – that they did not personally create whatever it was that they had written or composed or thought of, or whatever, this is not false modesty, it is perfectly true! They didn’t personally create it. It just came to them – it simply arrived at the scene in a way that is perfectly mysterious, immaculately incomprehensible. Towards the end of his life the Buddha stated, in answer to a question someone had asked him, “I never taught a thing”.

 

It is not simply the case that what we call creativity involves material being transcribed from an ‘unconscious’ region of the mind to a region that is more conscious, thereby (apparently) surprising us – that wouldn’t be creativity either, it would just be ‘remembering something that one had forgotten’. Again, that is just copying, that is just ‘data-retrieval’. Creativity means that it is genuinely new, not just apparently new. It is an actual thing, not a mere trick of the light, not some kind of a manoeuvre. Creativity isn’t something that we can ‘explain away’, much as the rational mind – being thoroughly non-creative itself – loves to explain away stuff. Being fundamentally uncreative in its own nature, the thinking mind cannot really appreciate that there is such a thing. In modern scientific terms, what we are talking about here is emergence. An emergent pattern is one that is not inherent in the one that preceded it – it is not prefigured, there is no ‘causal mechanism’ that we can point to. It used to be thought – back in the days of the Mechanist / Newtonian paradigm – that nothing could ever happen without a cause. In this view, nothing can happen unless what is to happen already exists (is already ‘prefigured’) in a prior state of the system. ‘If it wasn’t already there, then it can’t come into being’, is the motto of the Mechanistic paradigm. The mechanistic paradigm isn’t ‘wrong’, it just doesn’t represent the whole story. As Fritjof Capra says in The Turning Point (1982) –

Each theory is valid for a certain range of phenomena.

On one level the universe is mechanical (or deterministic), but on another, subtler level, chance enters the picture in a creative way. This isn’t chance as we normally understand it, however (chance as the rational mind understands it) – it isn’t mere ‘randomness’ but something more akin to serendipity where an unpredictable fluctuation pushes the system onto a higher level of organization. Evolution is a perfect example of this. Evolution, according to Nobel Prize winning biologist Stuart Kauffman (1993),

…is not just “chance caught on the wing”. It is not just a tinkering of the ad hoc, of bricolage, of contraption. It is emergent order honored and honed by selection.

Another example of emergence is the Mandelbrot Set – a recently discovered mathematical object sometimes poetically known as ‘God’s Thumbprint’. The Mandelbrot Set isn’t something that can be coded for and then replicated any time we want by faithfully copying out this code. Even if the entire physical universe were to be turned into code it still wouldn’t be enough to code for the M Set – it wouldn’t even be enough to code for a billionth part of the M Set! The Mandelbrot Set comes into existence as a result of emergence not copying and that’s the only way it can come into existence. The universe itself supplies the information (the order) to create this object, via multiple iterations (i.e. feedback loops) carried out by a computer, not some all determining literal formula. To appreciate how the Mandelbrot Set isn’t something we could code for, all we need to do is spend a minute or two watching one of those YouTube videos showing a ‘deep zoom’ of the object under consideration. This isn’t a predictable orderly logical pattern – this is a monster! This is what emergence is all about and it is very clearly beyond the narrow remit of the Mechanistic Paradigm.

What we’re trying to show here in this discussion of ‘emergence versus logical/mechanical determinism’ is that the fixed formula, the causal agent, the ‘controller’ who gets things to happen the way he says they say they should happen isn’t as all-important as we like to think it is! That’s just our way of thinking about it. We attach an importance, a glamour, to the controller, to the so-called ‘causal agent’ (i.e. the one who gets things to happen) that just isn’t there. That’s just the way we want to look at things. That’s just the game we’re playing. It’s a convention we have adopted, without paying any attention to the fact that we have adopted it. Alan Watts gives the example of the way we say “It is raining” – the impression given by this sentence is of course that there is an ‘it’ there somewhere that is doing the raining (a causal agent). On reflection of course we know that this simply isn’t true. There’s no ‘it’ that is doing the raining! The ‘it’ in question is a made-up thing, it’s a ‘fictional hero’! Robert Anton Wilson, following Alfred Korzybski (inventor of E-Prime), accuses the much-abused little word ‘is’ of the same fault –

Standard English [statements] all implicitly or explicitly assume the medieval view that has been called “Aristotelian essentialism” or “naive realism.” In other words, they assume a world made up of block-like entities with indwelling “essences” or spooks or “ghosts in the machine.”… E-Prime recasts these sentences into a form isomorphic to modern science by first abolishing the “is” of Aristotelian essence and then reformulating each observation in terms of signals received and interpreted by a body (or instrument) moving in space-time.

 

Relatively, quantum mechanics, large sections of general physics, perception psychology, sociology, linguistics, modern math, anthropology, ethology and several other sciences make perfect sense when put into the software of E-Prime. Each of these sciences generates paradoxes, some bordering on “nonsense” or “gibberish”, if you try to translate them back into the software of Standard English.

 

Concretely, “The electron is a wave” employs the Aristotelian “is” and thereby introduces us to the false-to-experience notion that we can know the indwelling “essence” of the electron. …

Just as there is no ‘it’ that rains (and no indwelling essences such as might be assumed by the word ‘is’) we can say that there is no controller, no reified self or ego which sits proudly in the driving seat, pressing various buttons, pulling this lever or that lever, and viciously gunning the throttle whenever needed. The controlling self is a fictional entity just as the ‘it’ is, just as the ‘assumed indwelling essence’ is. There’s no noun, there’s only a verb. Where everything is flow, there is no ‘one who makes it flow’, no one who controls or regulates the flow, no formula saying ‘how the flow should go’…

 

When we say something like “Everything is the flow, and there is no rule saying that there should be a flow or how it should flow” then what we’re saying is that everything is creativity. We’re saying that everything is ‘a spontaneous happening’. There is no controller in it, no self. Action doesn’t come out of a plan, or out of someone who has a plan. But suppose we insist that there is a controller, that there is a concrete executive self that intends things to be this way or that. And actually we don’t have to go too far out on a limb imagining what this proposed situation might be like because it’s pretty much what we do all the time. We are always insisting that there is a concrete self that gets to be centre stage and say (like a sergeant major on the parade ground) what must happens and what musn’t happen.

 

We insist that there is a controller with all of our heavy-handed purposeful activity; we insist that there is a self with all of our heavy-handed literal statements about the world. Every time we get serious about something, driven by something, humourless about something then we are insisting on a reified or concrete self. This is what we’re at. This is our game – we’re insisting that the uncreative self and its world of goals and literal descriptions is real! But if everything is creativity, if everything is a spontaneous happening then what does this say about the humourless self with all of its heavy-handed controlling, with all of its concrete goals and dogmatic literal beliefs? If the essence of everything is ‘flow’, then where does this leave the static self and its purposeful behaviour output? How do we reconcile the repetitive uncreative block-like self (the self which actually has to deny creativity in order to maintain its tight grip on the proceedings) with a reality that is in its very essence creative?

 

This is a crucial question: if reality is at heart nothing other than pure creativity, pure spontaneity, then what does this say about the static self and all its self-referential endeavours? Putting the question this way of course gives us the answer on a plate – the static or abstract self and its endeavours are unreal. If reality is pure creativity, pure spontaneous ‘happening’, then the self and the world which it creates for itself are like a ‘photographic negative of being’ – the self and the world which it relates to constitute an absence rather than a presence, it constitutes ‘an absence which represents itself as a actual presence’.

 

This inversion of viewpoint is simply a matter of convention – we can look at the world from the POV of absence (from the POV of the static or abstract framework) or we can look at it from the perspective of being. We just ‘flip over’ into seeing the world this way and then once we have done this (once we have flipped over, once we have adopted this convention) then everything looks perfectly legitimate, everything looks to be ‘as it should be’. This is like one of those visual puzzles that we can equally well see both ways. It is like for example that familiar visual puzzle that looks like a young girl when seen one way and an old lady when seen the other. When we look at the image one way then we can’t for the life of us see it the other way, and vice versa. This is called ‘perceptual competition’ – the one view excludes the other.

two faces

What we have here therefore are two mutually exclusive worlds that exist side-by-side with each other and which – at the same time – are nevertheless the very same thing. So in the same way when we adopt the convention that says that the abstract framework is the way to look at things then the world of flow disappears from view, and when we drop the abstract framework then the world that the framework showed us gets revealed as being entirely unreal. We can look at the world from the static standpoint of ‘absence taken as being’, or from the perspective of being, and in this way it is as if there are two worlds existing side-by-side, two worlds that exclude each other…

 

This naturally enough tends to come across as a rather strange suggestion. And yet we can relate to it in an intuitive kind of a way – the statement “If we control we lack being and if we have being we don’t need to control” would resonate strongly with most of us on an intuitive level. We intuitively know that when we’re ‘hollow’ then we feel the need to control more (or be more emphatic in what we are saying) in order to make up for the lack of substance we can’t help feeling within. ‘Empty barrels make the most noise’, as the saying has it.

 

When we consider how we are controlled so regularly by desire in our day-to-day lives, how we are driven by this hunger and that hunger, so that it feels as if we are always trying to fill some hole or other deep inside us, then the suggestion that the everyday self is at root an absence rather than a presence doesn’t sound like such an odd one after all. Pioneer American psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that most of our day-to-day motivations are of the deficit variety, which is to say, they arise out of a deep-down sense that we’re lacking in something, and this sense of deficiency (which we aren’t really fully conscious of) is what is driving us in most of what we do. It drives our heavy-handed purposeful activity, our ‘dogmatism’, our ‘fanaticism’. We experience a deficiency and we need to make this deficiency good; we need – by effective purposeful action – to make it not a deficiency!

 

From the point of view of the biological side of things, this type of motivation is of course perfectly sensible – I am deficient in water so I need to drink; I am deficient in food and so I need to eat; I am deficient in a mate, so I need (if I am a sexual rather than an asexual organism) to find a partner, and so on. From a psychological perspective however (and this is something that we don’t tend to appreciate) D-Type motivation is not a helpful or practical thing. In our everyday ‘base-line’ mode of functioning we are very often driven by perceived deficiencies of one sort or another which – when we act on them – actually become painfully exacerbated rather than relieved!

 

For example, I feel insecure and I act so as to compensate for this sense of insecurity but this – as any psychotherapist could tell you – compounds and aggravates my deep-down insecurity. Or if I concentrate on amassing lots of money in order to compensate for my deep-down sense of ‘inner impoverishment’ then I find that I get more inwardly impoverished than ever! If I feel the need to exert power over others (which is a very basic motivation, as Alfred Adler pointed out) then establishing this power doesn’t make the need go away (for example, as hunger will go away when we eat enough) – it intensifies it. The more I control, the more I feel that I need to control. If I am angry and I act on the basis of that anger then the anger is fuelled, if I am jealous and I act out that jealousy, then the jealousy gets more of a grip on me than ever. Any unhappy inner state that I am in will be intensified by my acting it out, rather than just allowing it to be there. These are hungers that can never be satiated, these are itches that only get worse the more I scratch them!

 

The other possibility, says Maslow, is that we act out of being rather than deficiency – we act out of a sense of ‘overflowing inner sufficiency’ rather than a sense of ‘there not being enough’. We act out of our Wholeness, not out of our lack, our ‘partial-ness’. This is B-motivation, which is not a compulsive, driven sort of a thing as deficiency motivations always are. It is an expression of our inner freedom, not of our inner ‘lack of freedom’!

 

The reason we have inner freedom is simply because we are not insisting that we are ‘the reified controller’, the ‘one who says how things have to be’. We are stepping down from this position of ‘false authority’ – which we never really had in the first place. The controlling self-concept (the ‘me’) lets go of the power it never really had in the first place, and then our inner sufficiency is returned to us. We let go of the illusion of the self-contained executive self and we recover our essential being – we then become one with the Creative Universe…