There is very odd fact about our existence that we don’t generally observe and this fact is that we can never just be in the world, we have to be in the world whilst thinking about being in the world and this business of ‘being in the world whilst continually thinking about being in the world’ isn’t being in the world at all! It is something else entirely. Being in the world whilst thinking about being in the world is the same thing as ‘existing in a desire state’ and the pertinent point about this is that desire states aren’t real.
We can never just ‘be’ in the world for some reason; this is the one thing we just can’t do. We obviously believe (on some level) that this continual thinking–type activity is highly beneficial to us, if not actually essential. Why else would we put so much energy into it – we’re obviously looking for some advantageous outcome that is going to come about as a result of our investment! Clearly, it’s not enough for us just to be in the world – that seems to be of no value at all to us – we always have to looking for some mysterious ‘advantage’. This then provides us with a very neat summary of the human situation – a continual striving for improvement, a continual searching for advantage.
It is of course fairly normal for us to be spending our time looking for some kind of advantage. We’re conditioned that way; we’re brought up that way. It is widely considered to be a good thing to be busying ourselves doing this, that and the other and ‘busy’ means – in essence – ‘looking for an advantage’. What else would it mean? We’re not investing energy in activity for nothing – we’re looking for a result, we’re trying to improve things.
‘Trying to improve things’ has therefore become a sickness for us. It’s not a bad thing in itself – obviously – but when it runs away with us so that we don’t know how to stop ‘looking for the advantage’ in every situation then it isn’t a good thing at all. It has become a horror, it has become a pestilence. Trying to improve things all the time and not to be able to stop is like having an itch that we can’t help from scratching even when this continuous scratching makes things worse rather than better and this is clearly not a happy situation. To be perfectly blunt about it, what we’re talking about here is a type of self-harming – it’s an addiction to an activity that is bad for us.
From time to time things do need ‘improving’ and that is an undeniable fact. If we’re looking for food and we need to eat something in order not to starve then this is a situation that needs improving! If we come across someone who is in immediate danger and needs assistance this is also ‘a situation that needs improving’ – the ‘advantage’ in question here is to ensure the other person’s well-being and safety. We have practical needs in life and these needs need to be looked after, obviously. But to say (or rather, unconsciously assume) that reality itself is something that continually needs improving (or continually needs fixing) is nothing short of insanity. Obviously this can’t be true and to so to be continuously and strenuously acting as if it was true is a sickness.
To be continually looking for the advantage and not to be able to stop (and, indeed, not even to be able to recognise the fact that there might be something else in life other than continually ‘looking for the advantage’) is nothing short of insanity, but it’s also a type of insanity that each and every one of us is perpetually embroiled in, which makes it invisible to us. Because we don’t come across anyone who isn’t doing the same thing that we’re doing this means that we’re not going to be able to recognise this strange situation for what it is. To us, it’s just ‘normal’. We think being busy the whole time is good.
If being (or reality) were somehow ‘deficient in itself’ then this business of ‘perpetual unrelenting fixing’ might make some sort of sense but this premise is – of course – utterly false and utterly ridiculous. How could ‘being’ or ‘reality’ be deficient? The irony is – as we started off by saying – that our continual attempts to improve reality actually degrades it – it is why we can say that continual thinking (and thinking is always an attempt to fix one way or another) is a sickness. It’s a sickness because we are continually degrading our own reality.
This is – without any doubt at all – an idea that doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense to us and the thing about ideas that don’t make the slightest bit of sense to us is that we don’t tend to entertain them very long! Our favourite activity is – or so we are claiming in this discussion – trying to improve things (either trying to improve ourselves or trying to improve the world) and the reason we are as invested or preoccupied as we are in the ‘improvement business’ is of course because we imagine that we’re making things better rather than worse! To learn that were actually doing the opposite of what we think we are and that we are degrading our reality rather than enhancing it is a very difficult thing for us to take on therefore. Human nature being what it is, when we come across an idea that is going to result in a truly radical change to the way we see the things then we just don’t go there. Our whole motivation is to preserve the integrity and stability of the apple-cart, not to upset it. We seek equilibrium, not disequilibrium.
How can we make such a claim as this however? How can we back up the assertion that we are continually degrading our own reality with our attempts to make things better? The key lies in what we said earlier, which is that ‘trying to improve things’ is fine when it is done from time to time for strictly practical reasons, but that when we’re at it the whole time then something has gone very amiss. ‘Improving things’ has in this case become an end in itself; ‘striving to obtain our goals’ has become an end in itself, ‘purposeful activity’ has become an end in itself. We might of course try to argue that striving to be a better version of oneself isn’t the same thing as continually struggling to obtain external goals but of course it is – we wouldn’t know what direction to struggle in unless we first had an idea of what ‘better’ means and what ‘worse’ means. When we talk about ‘striving to better ourselves’ what we really mean is ‘striving to better accord with our idea of ourselves’, and this isn’t the same thing at all.
When we try to improve things in accordance with our ideas, or in accordance with our thinking, what this really comes down to is ‘worshipping a false god’, since ‘the thought is not the thing’. My idea of the world is not the world and my idea of who I am is not who I am. This brings to mind the old Zen story of the finger pointing at the moon – if the finger pointing at the moon helps us to see the moon then that is helpful (that is after all the whole point of the exercise) but if we get fixated upon the pointing finger instead (as if the finger itself were the thing) then this is a very great error! In this case we are ‘worshipping the teapot rather than drinking the tea’, as Wei Wu Wei says, and the only point of the teapot is to facilitate us in drinking the tea. The teapot isn’t an end in itself.
This is one way of looking at why ‘always trying to improve things’ is a disease therefore – because it causes us to deviate from our own true nature in a ‘suffering-producing’ way. A slightly different way of looking at this is to say, as we did earlier, that ‘trying to improve things’ is the same thing as ‘looking for the advantage’ and an advantage is something that always exists in relation to a particular point of reference. The point of reference that we’re talking about here is of course the self and the thing about this is that the self is an abstraction that has been created by thought. All reference points are created by thought and anything that has been created by thought is ‘an abstraction’ (an ‘abstraction’ being something that doesn’t exist in its own right but which has been produced by drawing boundaries that don’t really exist). All ‘improvement’ comes down to expanding the Abstraction Realm that we are taken for granted and this ‘expanding of the Abstraction Realm’ isn’t actually a real thing at all. It might be our favourite activity, but that doesn’t mean that it’s real!
As we have been saying, some specific ‘acts of improvement’ are necessary or helpful – if we are cold and we need to find a way of warming ourselves up then this type of improvement is of course perfectly legitimate. This is a type of ‘improvement’ that exists in relation to the physical organism and whilst the physical organism itself may be said to be an abstraction just as thoughts are (all matter is after all an abstraction from what Heraclitus calls the Universal Flux or from what David Bohm calls the Holomovement) we also need to make the point that this just happens to be an abstraction that is legitimately important to us! Our thoughts and beliefs are a different matter however – they could be useful if viewed in a strictly provisional way but they are more likely to be the exact opposite of helpful. When we can’t stop trying to improve our situation (and this means ‘continually grasping’ or ‘continually thinking) then this is because we are trying to extend or promote the Abstraction Realm that has illegitimately become our master.
This is what we might call a ‘counterproductive activity’ therefore, an activity that has become ‘against life itself’ – life itself is not an abstraction, after all. What we are essentially trying to ‘improve’ with all our grasping-type activity is an illusion and what we don’t see is that an illusion can’t be improved, no matter how much effort we put into it…