The Spectre At the Feast

When we’re living in the unreal world pretending that its real this is always going to make us anxious. We’re anxious that we’ll be found out! That would of course be the ultimate disaster because then we’d know – the cat would be out of the bag. The cat would be out of the bag and no mistake and so then we’d have to admit that there’s no cat! We’d have to admit that there’s no bag either…

 

So this is of course the prefect recipe for anxiety. There’s none better, in fact. What could be better than this? We’ve hit upon the thing, the very thing we need to do in order to create the spectre of anxiety – the spectre which is going to haunt us for just as long as we keep up the pretence. This is ‘the spectre at the feast’, the ghostly presence that we can never confront. This, naturally enough, is what gives anxiety its power over us! We can never allow ourselves to find out what we are anxious about because finding that out will take us in the one direction we don’t want to go down – we’ll happily go down any road but not this one…

 

We can never allow ourselves to find out what the actual reason for our anxiety is – that is after all the very thing that we are never supposed to find out. If the game we are playing is the game of pretending that the game is real (and not a game) then we can find out anything we want just so long as we don’t find out this one thing, this one thing that changes everything. We have the freedom to discover anything at all just as long as we don’t discover that it’s all a big charade. We’re free to discover anything at all just so long as we don’t discover that we don’t actually have any freedom!

 

If we were to find out that we’re living in an unreal world pretending to be real then this wouldn’t be bad in relation to any of the terms of reference that we have available to us in the game. No terms of reference exist to explain why finding out that ‘everything is just a charade’ would be so very bad! And yet we know that it would be bad – we know that it would be bad in a way that we can’t even allow ourselves to understand and straightaway therefore this makes it really, really bad. Engaging in this particular sneaky manouevre makes the unwanted outcome superbad. It potentiates it to the nth degree.

 

Knowing that the unwanted outcome is bad in a way that we can’t even allow ourselves to know about (because it is so very bad) is the worst and most frightening category of ‘bad’ that there could ever be. This is the ‘perfect recipe for anxiety’ – this is anxiety in a nutshell. This is what makes anxiety be anxiety – the fact that we can’t allow ourselves to know what it’s all about. This the fear that swallows everything up – we’re afraid of the fear and so we’re caught up on the vicious circle that Alan Watts talks about – running away from fear is fear. The fear feeds voraciously on itself and the outcome is anxiety…

 

We don’t need to know anything about the unwanted outcome other than the fact that it is bad. That’s enough – the unwanted outcome is bad and so we’re not allowed to let it happen. There are no other levels of meaning, no other possible interpretations. Everything is black and white – we just have to make sure that the bad thing never gets to happen and that is that. Getting interested in why the bad thing is so bad is not allowed and so that makes it a bad thing too. It’s actually the same bad thing – knowing about the bad thing is the same as the bad thing. Knowing that knowing about the bad thing is also the bad thing is also a bad thing. It’s all the same bad thing…

 

Certain tasks are impossible and one such task in never letting ourselves know about the bad thing. The very fact that we have made a rule about the bad thing saying that we should never let ourselves know about it draws our attention to it. By denying it in the way that we have done we’ve actually made it the most important thing in the whole world. Everything we do is done for the covert reason of not thinking about the bad thing and that means that we have to make sure to live our lives only on the overt level of meaning, the theatrical level of meaning. This doesn’t leave us much space for living, however. It doesn’t actually leave us with any space and this lack of space is in itself anxiety-provoking because it tells us that something dodgy is going on in the background.

 

We have to keep on pretending that the lack of space that we are so painfully suffering from (the lack of space that is unrelentingly oppressing us) isn’t there.  We have to keep on pretending that the lack of space that we’re living in actually is space. We have to keep on pretending that the theatre is real. We have to keep on living in the unreal world whilst pretending that it’s real, and this is why the spectre of anxiety is always with us. Even when we manage to temporarily forget about him by immersing ourselves as much as we possibly can in the superficial theatrical world (so that we can at least make a good pretence at enjoying the feast) he’s never very far away. He’s watching over our shoulder…

 

 

 

 

Shrinking The Self

We build ourselves up with our thinking – we are constantly building ourselves up with our thinking, and this is not helpful thing! It doesn’t matter whether our thoughts are of the ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ variety as far as this is concerned; it doesn’t matter because we’re building ourselves up either way!  No matter whether our thoughts might be considered destructive or constructive, helpful or unhelpful, realistic or unrealistic, it’s a positive accumulation. All thought (no matter how we may see it) is an accumulation and that’s not doing us any good at all…

 

Now we might of course say that we want to build ourselves up in a positive way, we might say that this is a good and healthy thing. We probably will say this. We implicitly see a ‘positive accumulation’ as something that will give us a better life; we see having a solid well-defined positive self-image as being an indication of good mental-health. Having a positive (i.e. a confident and empowered) self-image is where we see our happiness lying. Happiness doesn’t come about as a result of an accumulation however, no matter what it might be that we are accumulating. Happiness isn’t synonymous with having a positive self-image; far from being synonymous it is fundamentally incompatible – the two cannot co-exist.

 

It is our simplistic preconception that happiness and fulfilment in life can come about as a result of an accumulation of the right sort of things and this is a preconception that – needless to say – has informed our modern way of living. This assumption it what underlies the whole of our Western consumer society – we are all trying to ‘consume our way to happiness’ as fast as we can! ‘Consume’ equals ‘accumulate’ – we add more and more stuff to the pile and the bigger the pile the better it is. Successful accumulation equals a happy life whilst failure to accumulate means an unhappy life – or at least, that’s what the adverts say!

 

Accumulation occurs on two levels. There is the ‘outer’ accumulation of ‘stuff’ and there is the ‘inner’ accumulation of memories, ideas, beliefs, techniques, theories, models, and so on. The two processes run along side-by-side and we can’t really separate the two – there’s the inner clutter and there’s the outer clutter and both of these stand in the way of our genuine happiness. We all know that clutter isn’t conducive to happiness but somehow we don’t see our thoughts about ourselves and the world as being mere ‘clutter’, which they totally are. Thoughts aren’t the ‘real thing’, after all, they are simply stuff we say about the real thing. They are just our comments. Our thoughts and beliefs are an opaque overlay that covers up reality so that – in the end – all we have left to relate to are our own mental constructs. Or as Alan Watts says, all we have to think about are our own thoughts, which is a process that doesn’t take us anywhere good…

 

There isn’t a ‘beneficial’ type of clutter, as opposed to a ‘harmful’ type. Clutter clogs up the space around us, eventually reducing our mobility (our freedom to move) to zero and then we’re stuck, frozen into a single cramped posture. Clutter chokes our creativity and – eventually – turns us into clutter too. This is easy to see with clutter that exists on the outside but not so easy with regard to our positively constructed idea of our self, our memories and habits, our history… We would be shocked, on the whole, to hear that our ‘accumulation of ourself’ (or the ‘personal narrative’) is nothing more than clutter, nothing more than dead wood and not who we essentially are at all. The accumulation of undigested mental impressions and constructs that surrounds us hems us in and chokes who we really are because who we really are is always new, always fresh – it isn’t a ‘yet another reworking of the old’, even though we are totally convinced that it is.  Our thoughts about ourselves become our mausoleum; or as John Berger says, ‘the past gradually grows around one, like a placenta for the dying’. There is no sort of an accumulation of thoughts or ideas about the world and ourselves that does not put a stranglehold on who we really are, and since happiness can only about as a result of us being ‘who we really are’ (and not as a result of us being mistaken or deluded in this regard) the accumulated or constructed self can never be happy.

 

But if the constructed self can never be happy then why do we have such an unhealthy obsession with it? Why don’t we just ditch it? Why don’t we give up it (as one gives up on a bad thing or a road that doesn’t take us anywhere) and stop putting all our energy into it? If obsessing over the mind-created self and its fortunes doesn’t make us happy then why pursue the matter in the way that we do? Unhappiness – we might say – is an indication that we have wandered away from ourselves, an indication that we have got lost along the way, and yet somehow we never go into this enough to see what it is that we have wandered away from. Instead of paying due attention to the loss of our natural happiness (or ‘inner freedom’) we implicitly treat this issue as somehow not being very important, and substituting other values in place of it, so as to try to ‘make do’ in some way. Instead of going down the road of philosophical enquiry, therefore, we opt for whatever cheap tricks we can come up with to mask the pain that we’re in.

 

Modern society is all about looking for substitutes for genuine happiness! We have – even though we will never admit this to ourselves – given up on happiness and have opted for other ‘commodities’ instead. We have made goals of being secure, being approved of, being in a desirable social / financial situation, having a position of power over others, having a belief structure that we don’t have to question and all these types of things. As John Berger says, we have opted for the good feeling that comes with being ‘envied by others’ even though this is a hollow attainment at best because even if we do play the game well enough to get other people to envy us we can’t help knowing – deep down – that we have nothing worth envying. Deep down – no matter what we say – we know very well that there’s nothing there, that it’s all a sham…

 

As a society, we have all agreed together (whether we know it or not)  to play this hollow game in which we strive as hard as we can to accumulate the theatrical analogues of happiness, the markers or indicators that we say show that we are happy, even though we are not. We have opted for the theatrical analogue of happiness which is the outward appearance of happiness, the outward appearance we agree not to look beyond. The best possible outcome of this game is therefore to have the perfect mask which we are not ever going to be able to look beneath, to see who is actually wearing it. Playing this game actually means that the more successful we are the more miserable we are! This is the paradox involved in chasing theatrical happiness – the better we do at the game the worse off we are. And if we fail at the game, if fail at the very serious task of creating an enviable mask that everyone, including ourselves, can believe in, then we aren’t going to be happy either because we’re going to believe (quite wrongly, as it happens) that we’ve missed out, that we’re not getting our slice of the pie that everyone else is enjoying. This is the great irony that we have made ourselves quite incapable of seeing…

 

The question is however, why would we do this? Why would we actively chase misery in the way that we do? Why would we pursue something that actually precludes us ever being genuinely happy? Why would anyone be so denying of themselves that they would want to do this? One answer is simply to say that we do it because we’re confused – we have confused the mental image that we have of ourselves with who we really are. We have confused the ‘positive self’ (the self that can be defined, and made understandable to ourselves and others) with the negative self, which is the self that is not an object of the rational mind with its cut and dried categories.

 

That’s one way of answering the question that we just posed. Another – parallel – way is to say that we aren’t ‘thinking for ourselves’ (so to speak); we’ve handed over responsibility for living our lives to the theatrical self, the mind-created self, the self which exists purely for the sake of appearances. As a result of this endeavour, we obtain, if we are lucky, the plausible appearance of happiness – a version of happiness that we can both buy ourselves and sell to others. When on the other hand we fail to obtain a version of happiness that convinces both ourselves and others, and not only this but start to gain insight into the fraudulent nature of the whole enterprise, then our peers will say that we are depressed. We will be prescribed medications to correct our abnormally negative way of seeing the world; we will be medically treated for the socially-constructed sickness of ‘seeing through the fraudulent nature of the theatrical self’…

 

 

From the point of view of the theatrical self (the self which is who we’re not, but cannot see that we’re not) happiness never really was a goal anyway. It was never our agenda to be genuinely happy. If happiness only exists for the true self (the self that doesn’t define itself) then what good is it to the theatrical self? Naturally enough therefore, the theatrical self has zero interest in real happiness – if the truth were known it would actually run a mile if it ever came across the genuine article. The theatrical self is mortally afraid of happiness because it knows that happiness is only there when it isn’t! Any time genuine freedom or happiness starts to appear on the horizon the everyday self will start sabotaging as fast as ever it can – it knows on which side its bread is buttered. The reason we never want to give up our neuroses is because these neuroses serve a very important function – they are what keep the theatre of ourselves going.

 

This then is the reason we gravitate towards misery in the way that we do. This is the reason we cling to our unhappiness as stubbornly as we do – it’s because we are letting the theatrical self run the show and it’s only interested in itself. It’s only interested in perpetuating itself, whatever the price; the agenda of the theatrical self is simply to ‘hang in there’…  If we’re feeling good because our self-image has been affirmed by events, or by other people, then this makes us think more because we’re trying to perpetuate the experience, and if we’re feeling bad (as a result of the self-image being disrespected by events or other people) then as everyone knows this makes us think more too – we’re thinking more because we’re trying or correct or ameliorate this insult to the self-image. We’re busy spin-doctoring the narrative. But whatever type of thinking it is that we’re engaged in it only ever adds to our misery; we accumulate more and more causes for suffering as we go along and we can’t help doing this. We accumulate suffering no matter which way we turn; we’re powerless – so it seems – to do anything other than accumulate suffering and the causes or suffering!

 

‘Shrinking the self’ (which is the only way to reduce or free ourselves from suffering) is the one thing that can never be done deliberately, on purpose. This isn’t the obstacle it sounds however because the shrinking of the self-concept is something that happens quite naturally just as soon as we develop an interest in seeing the truth. To see the truth is to see that we are not the self-concept and to see that we are not the self-concept is to stop putting so much of our energy and time into maintaining and promoting that construct. The self-image is very greedy for attention and resources; it is very high maintenance and so as soon as we start to see that its benefit is not our benefit then the dynamics of the situation are going to change all by themselves.  The truth is what frees us, not our perennial machinations; as the well-known verse reads in John 8:32 –

 ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’.

 

As we stop putting so much of our energy into maintaining the theatrical self (or self-image) it starts to shrink – it stops taking up quite so much space and as it stops taking up so much space we become lighter, we become less driven and therefore more playful. This doesn’t mean that the self-construct disappears but rather that we are no longer restricted to just this one (humourless) perspective on things. We can look at the world in more than just the one way. What this means therefore is that we are living life on two levels at once: we’re living life on the basis of the self-image (just the same as we always do) and we’re also living more freely, not from any fixed or determinate basis. The insight that we’re not who or what the thinking mind says we are means that we have more mobility, more flexibility, more freedom. In this new, more essential way of living we are aware (to some extent, at least) that we are not this concrete self but the space around it. We’re aware – sometimes more so, sometimes less so – that we aren’t our thoughts but the elusive gap between them. We’re not the positive or defined self but rather we’re ‘the negative self’ – if we can say that there is such a thing! We’re something far more subtle and hard to get a handle on than that clumsy old ‘concrete self’….

 

This playful awareness arises just as soon as the self-concept gets small enough for us to see around it. This is the unexpected benefit that we receive as a result of letting the self be shrunk by our ‘willingness to see the truth’! This doesn’t mean that we see it as a good idea to have our sense of self shrunk and take steps to bring that about – it’s not that we’re trying to ‘attain some advantage’! If we were, then that ‘advantage’ would be for the self-concept, and so we would be going around in circles. When it comes to it, the self-concept is only ever interested in expanding itself, not shrinking itself. It can never shrink itself, even though it might pretend that this is what it is doing, or that this is what it is interested in doing. But when we find the courage (or curiosity) within us to let reality shrink the self-image, we discover that we have gained something, not lost it. We have gained space, with all that comes with it. ‘Less is more’, as they say!

 

This isn’t a matter of deliberately ‘humbling oneself’ or ‘denying oneself’ – that would only be another strategy, another mental manoeuvre designed to provide us with some sort of advantage in the game. It’s not some manoeuvre that we’re talking about here but simply not taking ourselves so seriously.  It’s not that we have a found a new and highly effective way to improve our situation, but rather that we no longer feel compelled at every turn to keep on ‘playing the game’…