The usual way for us to be in the world is within a sealed bubble of ‘positive pressure’. This might sound like a strange way of putting things on the first hearing, but all that we’re saying here is that we go around in daily life continuously ‘asserting ourselves’. That’s what we actually think life is all about! ‘Our-self’ is an idea and we have to keep on asserting it because the thing about ideas is that if we ever take a break from asserting them, then they stop being there. It’s like ‘putting on an act’ – an act won’t act itself so if we stop acting it then it simply won’t be there anymore! There will be no act.
Keeping up the act is a constant effort therefore, even if we don’t feel it; keeping up the idea of who we think we are is constant effort, even though it’s an effort that we’re so used to that we don’t usually notice it. When we are able to successfully assert our selves then we feel good, and when we aren’t able to we feel bad, and this just about sums up all we need to know about the self. People go on and on about ‘psychology’ but – really – when we understand this point then we see all that we need to see about the rules that govern our everyday existence. Contrariwise, if we don’t understand this point then we don’t really understand anything.
When things are going well for us and we are able to ‘successfully assert the self’ then this because is euphorically rewarding we don’t notice the effort of having to keep up the positive pressure; we’re getting the payback so we don’t register the unrelenting strain of what we are having to do. When on the other hand we aren’t able to successfully assert our idea of ourselves and this situation lasts for any appreciable length of time then of course we are not getting the payback – we are investing all the energy but we’re getting nowhere, we’re fighting a losing battle and in this case the strain of having to maintain the idea of ourselves does start to make itself known to us. Not only do we have the original suffering to contend with, but there is also the suffering of being aware of the thankless task of ‘having to maintain the bubble’.
To exist is to suffer, which is a rephrasing of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. This – which is clearly the part we have to understand first in the Buddhist message – has always been particularly unpalatable to our Western sensibilities! No matter what else we might be interested in hearing about in the Buddhist teachings, we don’t hear this. We might be super-keen on learning all there is to learn about mindfulness, for example, but we don’t really want to be brought face-to-face with the First Noble Truth, and we don’t really want to hear any mention of it made in any mindfulness course that we might sign up for. But if we don’t take this essential teaching on board (which, as the First Noble truth, we clearly have to) what good is anything we learn going to be to us?
The suffering of existence is the suffering of having to keep on asserting the self, come what may. It’s rather like a heavy wheelbarrow that we have to keep on pushing ahead of us wherever we go. Maintaining the self construct is the task that we have to keep on labouring at even though we don’t know that we are labouring at anything, and this ‘invisible’ (or ‘unconscious’) task is suffering. The only possible pay-off is the sense of gratification that we will get when we do the job satisfactorily, but this is simply ‘the pleasure of a slave who is rewarded doing his or her job well’! And then following on from the suffering of having to keep up the positive pressure the whole time, other secondary sources of suffering follow-on from this – ‘positive pressure’ equals aggression and aggression always rebounds back onto us at some stage. Aggression always rebounds on the winner just as it always rebounds on the loser; both are operating on the basis of aggression – successfully in one case and unsuccessfully in the other. There’s no such thing as ‘successful aggression’, in other words – not when we take the long view. It’s just like talking about ‘successfully stretching a length of elastic band’ – we can stretch an elastic band only by storing up potential energy in the fabric of the material, potential energy that will one day have to be released again.
Sometimes (generally within the context of religion or morality) we try to deny the positive pressure mechanism because we recognise that ‘blind self-assertion no matter what’ (i.e. self-assertion as ‘an answer to everything’) isn’t ever going to help anyone, least of all ourselves, but when we try this all that happens is that we find ourselves trying to ‘use aggression to defeat aggression’. We might well feel good about ourselves if we think that we are succeeding at the task, but really we’re doing the same thing we are always doing – we’ve just twisted things around so that it so that what we doing seems justified and laudable in the name of ‘morality’. The amount of suffering created is even greater when we engage in this type of deliberate morality however because all that we’ve done is add another level of self-deception into the mix – somehow we imagine that by getting aggressive towards own fundamental aggression we have somehow ‘improved’ ourselves and are ‘better people’ as a result.
Another way in which the fundamental aggression of self-assertion gets turned against itself is when we become self-critical or self-recriminatory – what happens here is that the ‘positive pressure’ gets flipped back on itself to become ‘negative pressure’. We’re going around recriminating against ourselves and giving ourselves a hard time. Instead of spraying out our aggression onto the world wherever we go we are directing it against ourselves; we automatically devalidate and repress all of our impulses instead of automatically ‘acting them out’. When we turn our aggression against ourselves in this way (and get to feel that we are unworthy or ‘bad’) we suffer a lot more (or so it would seem) than a person who is always assuming that the fault or error lies outside of them, and who feels good about themselves on this account, but the essential suffering is still there. It’s plainly visible in the first case whilst hidden in the second. We are just running over everyone else with the heavily-laden wheelbarrow instead of letting it slip back down the hill and getting squashed under it ourselves instead. The wheelbarrow is doing damage either way.
Ultimately, there is no difference between positive and negative pressure – something artificial has been created either way. On the one hand we have the ‘justified’ sense of self, and on the other we have the ‘unjustified or unworthy sense of the self’. Both modalities work equally well – the self can just as easily see itself as being ‘always right’ as it can as being always wrong’ – these are simply the two sides of the same coin, the two sides of the artificial or contrived sense of self. We can change our metaphor slightly at this point and talk about a heavily-laden rickshaw instead of a wheel-barrow (the difference being of course that we can sit on a rickshaw and pedal it like a bicycle). There are two possibilities here therefore: one is where we are cycling the rickshaw down a long incline and so the weight we are carrying is actually working in our favour – we’re at the mercy of our own momentum but going in the right direction so we’re happy! We can just enjoy the ride… The other possibility is the less happy possibility where the effort to cycle the heavily laden rickshaw up the steep gradient becomes too much for us and we slip back down the hill going the opposite way to the way that we want to. We lose ground rather than gaining it. Because we perceive ourselves to be losing ground rather than gaining it (because we’re moving in a negative rather than the positive direction) we experience dysphoria rather than euphoria – it’s the reverse of what we want to see happening and yet to our dismay we can’t do anything about it. What the rickshaw metaphor shows us however is that the movement in question is a downhill movement in both cases! The movement of the self-concept is always downhill, whatever happens always happens mechanically. The self is a mechanical thing and it can’t ever behave in a way that is non-mechanical, and mechanical movement – by definition – is movement that is downhill. A rule is being obeyed and this means that we are heading towards an equilibrium state – we’re not going anywhere new, we’re not going anywhere that’s going to surprise us, we’re only ever going to stay trapped within the gravitational pull of the equilibrium system.
The ‘pressure’ that we started off talking about is a rule – rules are pressure because we have to obey them ‘no matter what’. The rule here is that the self (whenever that might be!) has to be asserted, has to be propagated, has to be maintained. When we obey this rule, when we obey this pressure, then we’re heading to the bottom of the hill, we’re heading straight towards the ultimate equilibrium state. Reacting to the relentless pressure to assert the self – as we always do react – never leads to anything new, very clearly! It’s not supposed to lead somewhere new – how can a rule following the rule lead us ‘somewhere new’? The whole point of a rule is that it won’t lead us somewhere new. The whole point of ‘the Task’ is that we fulfil that task, not that we do something different, something unrelated to the task, something that will lead us in a direction that is unrelated to the all-important fulfilment of that task.
What we are really talking about therefore, when we talk about ‘the task of asserting the self’, is simply fear of the new (or we just say ‘fear’, because all fear is ultimately ‘fear of the new’). So are we saying here is that psychological pressure – of whatever sort – equals fear. Fear denies life. Fear denies life because life is always new, because life is always about ‘becoming something different’. The pressure we are obeying is the pressure to avoid life therefore and it doesn’t matter whether the pressure in question is positive or negative. The true nature of the task that we are engaged in (without knowing that we are) is the task of avoiding life, in other words. Succeeding at the task is therefore perpetuating the basic problem, perpetuating the fundamental source of our suffering.
What we can’t understand is that life ISN’T a task, and that ‘being who we are’ ISN’T a task either. How can ‘being who we are’ be a task? How did we ever fall into the trap of believing such a thing? What sort of craziness is that? And if life isn’t a task then this perceived necessity to keep on struggling as hard as we can to maintain the bubble of ‘the positively-defined self’ is the biggest (and most costly) misunderstanding that it is possible for us to make!