Too Much Self

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.

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