What we succeed at can’t add anything to who we are, and what we fail at can’t take anything away. This said, why is it that we feel so great when we succeed and so very terrible when we fail? Why is it – indeed – that succeeding rather than failing (which is to say ‘successful controlling’) is just about all we care about in the general run of things? Why do we spend so much time obsessing and stressing about ‘succeeding versus failing’ if this is the case?
One very obvious answer is to say that we don’t know that what we succeed at can’t add anything to who we are, and that what we fail at can’t take anything away. We could point out that – far from knowing this – we firmly believe that absolutely everything hangs on whether we managed to succeed in our controlling (which is to say, whether we ‘succeed in obtaining our goals’). This is of course perfectly true but we need to know more than this. We need to know why we should have such a perception, which is a perception that has no basis in reality at all. ‘Who we are’ is who we are, after all – who we are is not the outcome of either successful or failed controlling!
If who we are is the outcome of a correct choice that we have made, or the result of successful controlling on our part, then we would be nothing more than ‘the outcome of our own doing’ and this is a rather strange idea. How can we be ‘responsible for ourselves’ in this way? It is of course often said that we are ‘responsible for ourselves’ but this is clearly not meant in the sense of us having to create and maintain our own identities. Am I ‘my own invention’, in this case? Am I a choice that I make, a goal that I have to identify and then strive to attain? How can I be ‘a goal of myself’?
In the most profound sense of all, we can’t be responsible for ourselves and so for this reason we can’t either feel proud of who we are or ashamed of who we are. How can we be proud of who we are or ashamed of who we are if ‘who we are’ has nothing to do with us? In practice of course we can and do feel either good about ourselves or bad about ourselves in this way – generally speaking it is either the one way or the other, it is either pride or shame (which equates to ‘winning or losing’). Conventional wisdom says that one way is good and the other way isn’t good; we know that it’s not good to feel too proud about ourselves (because that’s called ‘having a big ego’) but it is seen as being healthy to have a certain degree of positive self-regard. The healthy way (or so it is said) is for us to feel good about ourselves up to a certain point and this is called ‘self-esteem’. Good self-esteem is seen as being an important part of mental health.
Having good self-esteem is seen as being mentally healthy just as having poor self-esteem is widely regarded as being unfortunately unhealthy but the point here is that either way were taking on a responsibility for ourselves that we just don’t have, as we have just said. If we have to talk in terms of what is mentally healthy or otherwise then we would have to say that both good self-esteem and low self-esteem are equally unhealthy; they are equally ‘unhealthy’ because they are both based on a complete delusion, the delusion in question being that we are responsible for ourselves (i.e. that we are in some way the result of our own doing or our own choices). This is the classic Western way of seeing things.
If we were to see things clearly for once however (just supposing) then we would see something absolutely fascinating – we’d see something that is both absolutely fascinating and profoundly liberating. What we would see is that who or what we are has nothing to do with us. This is what consciousness (as opposed to ‘attachment’) always shows – it shows that ‘it’s got nothing to do with you’, as David Bowie says in The Man Who Sold The Moon. The nature of things has nothing to do with us; reality has nothing to do with us. We didn’t make reality after all – we didn’t make it and so how can we possibly be ‘responsible’ for it?
Seeing things in this very clear, perfectly unattached way is very rare however; it’s very rare because what we normally do is that we overlay the world with our own acknowledged projections, as Carl Jung says. We personalise the world, we ‘make it all about us’. When we do this everything gets very sticky, very claustrophobic – we have no ‘space’ any more, no more ‘sense of perspective’. We don’t have any space because there’s no space in ‘the world of projections’. Another way of putting this is to say that we can’t ‘project’ space – space equals ‘no projections’, it equals ‘not me’. Space equals – we might say – freedom from this claustrophobic ‘sense of self’, and this – of course – comes across as being rather a peculiar notion for such a ‘self-based’ or ‘self-celebratory’ culture as ours. It comes across as very peculiar notion indeed!
This is of course never actually spelt out in so many words because we are not thinking as clearly as that – our formula for happiness or fulfilment (or whatever we want to call it) is ‘add more self and stir…’ We just keep adding more and more self to the mix, as if this were a recipe that couldn’t possibly go wrong. The more self the better, after all! This might be our assumption (it certainly seems to be) but what experience shows every time is that what is refreshing for us, what is vivifying for us, what is life-giving for us is ‘not-self’, the ‘absence of self’, and not the unbearably suffocating presence of it. What we call ‘neurotic suffering’ is purely and simply the suffering of ‘too much self’.
‘Less is more’ when it comes to the self but this doesn’t mean that we have to humble ourselves or denigrate ourselves or deny ourselves. That’s still having too much self. It’s still having too much self because the self still thinks that it is a key part of the equation – it thinks that the ‘answer’ is dependent upon its manoeuvring, upon the way it comports itself. It wants to redeem itself in some way so that it can now be a ‘good’ self, so that everything will now be OK with it still being a key part of the picture. This isn’t it at all however – it’s not that we need some ‘new improved type of self’ but that we need actual space to live in, where ‘space’ equals ‘no-self’, as we have just said. ‘No-self’ is never the output of the self’s activities; the situation where there is a refreshing absence of self is not our responsibility. If we make it our responsibility then all that happens is that we fill up all the available space with yet more and more self.
The point here is that we completely overvalue our own manoeuvring, our own attitude or response to the situation – our manoeuvring has nothing whatsoever to do with reality, it doesn’t matter in the least what we ‘think’ of reality. Reality isn’t dependent on what we do about it or on what ‘attitude’ we take towards it. All of our attitudes or responses are equally irrelevant and when we see this perspective comes back into the picture. We think that ‘succeeding’ and ‘failing’ is so very important but what sort of delusion is this? We are overvaluing our own manoeuvring, overvaluing our own controlling. Being successful is a meaningless thing – it just means ‘more self’. Failure is meaningless thing – that too just means ‘more self’. What would bring a sense of meaning back to our lives would be less self not more self, and less self – as we have said – can never be the result of our manoeuvring, the matter how ‘skilful’ that manoeuvring might be! ‘Less self’ isn’t our responsibility; ‘less self’ isn’t our responsibility because ‘less self’ simply means reality and reality – as David Bowie says – has nothing to do with us.