The more present we are (i.e. the less removed or abstracted we are from the non-conceptual immediacy of our lives), the greater the quality of our life is. This isn’t ‘quality of life’ in the usual sense of the phrase we’re talking about here but quality in the sense of what is called in Buddhism suchness. Suchness (or tathata) is generally described as just being the way things are – it is said to be a perfectly ordinary experience, with the proviso being that this is the type of ordinariness that we almost always miss. The Wikipedia page on tathata quotes Thích Nhất Hạnh –
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child – our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
The more present we are the more we appreciate the extraordinary ordinariness of everyday life. The more present we are the more suchness we experience. The suchness is the miracle. But the thing about suchness is that, by its very nature, it can’t be defined or explained. It is quintessentially inexplicable, and yet all the more real for this!
The more removed or abstracted we are from the immediacy of our lives the better able we are to describe our situation – the more removed or abstracted we are from the immediacy of our lives the more given we are to describing and defining and explaining everything about our situation, everything about the miraculous world we find ourselves in! The more removed we become the keener we get to put a name, a definition, an explanation on everything we see. We are both better able to launch into describing and defining and explaining everything, and less free not to do so…
It quickly gets so that naming and defining and explaining are all we care about – this activity becomes not so much a ‘passion’ as a full-blown obsession. It is as if there is a kind of steep ‘gradient’ that we are liable to roll down – a gradient from ‘being present’ on the one hand (and experiencing the miraculous suchness of the world) and ‘being absent’ or ‘removed’ on the other and getting caught up in this never-ending business of analysing / theorizing / evaluating / categorizing / conceptualizing / defining the world (which is to say, this never ending bureaucratic business of runaway compulsive ‘mental processing’). Although being present in the world (and present in ourselves) is the simplest situation (as well as being the most natural) it is also the least likely one for us to find ourselves in.
Another thing we could say about this ‘gradient’ from being completely present on the one hand but being unable to describe or rationalize the experience (even to ourselves) to being entirely absent or entirely removed from our actual situation (and yet be more-than-able to talk at very great length about it) is that being present is essentially a state in which we are unconditionally free whilst the counter-state of being absent, removed or abstracted from ourselves and the world is one which is characterized by a brutally uncompromising lack of freedom..
Nothing compels us to be present, in other words. There is no rule saying that we have to be present. There is no moral obligation to be present. When we travel down the abstraction gradient however then we are compelled in everything we do, even though we don’t usually see it. When we roll down the gradient then we ‘act under a compulsion’ – we are compelled to name, to describe, to define, to explain…
All of this defining and analysing and naming and explaining comes down to the same thing – we are running away from radical uncertainty, we are running away from not knowing, we are running away from suchness. We don’t run away because we choose to – it wouldn’t be running away if that was the case. It would be the free expression of our volition. If we are in the grip of fear and we give way to the overpowering urge to run (as indeed we are very likely to do!) then this is of course not a free thing. There is no freedom in it. And yet there is a twist to this story that we don’t usually pay much (if any) attention to – there is a kink here. The kink in question is that although we are running away in a very unfree way, in a way that the fear is compelling us to do, we nevertheless experience ourselves as doing what we want to do.
This is how fear works – fear is a compulsion and compulsions (just like addictions) work by ‘operating us from the inside’. Compulsions work not against our will, but by taking over our will, by subsuming our will. It is not that the compulsion or addiction compels us to do this or that from the outside, but that we are compelled from the inside, as it were, so that we feel as if it is our own true volition that is doing it. The compulsion has replaced our true volition without us realizing it. This is for addictions and it is also true for pain-filled emotional states such as anger, desire or jealousy – we go along with the mind-state in question whilst not generally seeing that we are ‘going along’ with anything. The emotion possesses us, without us knowing that we have been possessed. In the same way we go along with the mind-state of fear – fear subverts our will; it substitutes itself for our genuine volition. This is why J.G. Bennett speaks of fear as ‘a negative condition of will’ rather than a ‘feeling’ or ‘emotional reaction’. We identify with the fear so that it’s will becomes our will.
There is another way of putting this and that is to say that when we identify ourselves with fear (so that I now feel that it is I who am afraid, rather than realizing that I have been possessed by fear) then a very restricted and misrepresentative version of ourselves is created which automatically replaces us, which substitutes itself for who we really are. We do not see that that we have been replaced with an inferior version of ourselves because we are identified with that inferior version, so that we now feel it to be ourselves and cannot remember any other, freer, self. This is how identification happens; this is how ‘possession’ happens. We have identified with the ‘false self’ and so it does not seem false. We have entered into an inverted state of will and as a result are seeing everything backwards.
When we enter into this inverted state of will (without of course knowing that we have done so) our modus operandi is to run away from uncertainty. We don’t see this as ‘running away’ therefore but as the ‘upside-down version’ of running away; we see running away from uncertainty as a heroic quest – we are (it seems to us) expanding the frontiers of our positive knowledge ever-outwards. We are describing the world, naming the world, defining the world, explaining the world. We are bringing the light of our rational consciousness to all the murky corners of the world and banishing forever the darkness of ignorance and superstition. We are ‘converting the unknown into the known’ and this sounds a lot better than merely ‘running away from uncertainty’!
The point we’re making however is that when we run away from uncertainty we’re running away from suchness, running away from reality. This doesn’t sound quite so heroic! This is what we started off by saying – that there is a gradient that leads down from the state of ‘being present’ to the state of ‘being removed’ or ‘being abstracted’ from reality; we can also say that there is an inexorable tendency that – in the absence of awareness – causes us to move away from unconditioned being towards the state of being ‘removed’, towards the state of being ‘lost in abstractions’, ‘lost in descriptions’. This ‘inexorable tendency’ functions in what students of thermodynamics would call an irreversible way. It’s a ‘one-way valve’ – we can go one way without the least bit of difficulty (in fact the movement is actively facilitated) but when we turn around to look behind us (even supposing that we had the presence of mind to do so) we discover that the door which we came through has disappeared without a trace, leaving us with no way of retracing our steps (even if we had the interest in doing so). Virgil draws our attention to this ‘spiritual irreversibility’ when he writes –
…easy is the descent to Avernus (for the gate of black Dis stands open by day and by night),
But to recall your steps and to reach the upper air,
This is the task, this the labour.
The irreversibility comes about – we might say – as a result of the turnaround that happens without us even knowing that it has happened. We can run away from being present with the greatest of ease (the process facilitates itself, in fact) but as soon as we do so everything flips over for us without us realizing that it has flipped over and the result of this inversion (which we have already spoken of) is that ‘absence’ now appears as ‘presence’ to us. It appears in back-to-front form but we don’t know this difference. ‘Absence is the new presence’, we might say. The other way of putting this is to say that we have identified with the ‘false self’ (the ‘self of compulsion’) and as soon as we do so we forget entirely about who we really are and take up the game of being the false self, the compulsive self, the unfree self with grim determination. We take up the game of being the unfree or compulsive self but to us this is no game. It’s deadly serious.
When we run away from reality we cease to see it as reality anymore. Everything has turned around – reality has now become our enemy, but more than this, it has become an enemy that we are too afraid to look at, an enemy we are pretending doesn’t exist. The name of the game is denial and denial means that we can’t admit that there is anything to be in denial of. “What scary thing?” we say, “There’s no scary thing that we’re too frightening to look at…” Instead of the reality of radical uncertainty (or ‘openness’) which we are deadly afraid of, we create our own safe (i.e. ‘closed’) version of reality, the version that has been created by the rational mind, the version that is made up of ‘definite things’. We create an ‘inverted form’ of reality that is a known territory, a safely mapped out terrain.
When we talk about being ‘lost in our own descriptions’ (lost in our own definitions of ourselves and the world) then this is exactly what’s happened, only it suits us down to the ground to be in this situation. Being lost in our descriptions (so that we no longer know them to be descriptions) is the whole point of the exercise. So we’ve done very well indeed – we have actually surpassed ourselves in the most astonishing way. Who would have expected us to succeed so well in our aim? We’ve played a blinder. And yet of course our success is our downfall because we have ‘won against ourselves’. We have ‘succeeded at our own expense’. The greater our triumph in defeating the enemy (which is radical uncertainty or ‘openness’) the greater the price we are going to have to pay for it…
The thing that our literal descriptions of reality don’t have is suchness. There is no suchness in them at all, not even a smidgeon. There’s not even a hint of a trace of a smidgeon of it. This ‘lack of suchness’ is the price that we are paying therefore. What Thích Nhất Hạnh says in his poem about suchness being the miraculous quality of the everyday world (which is both so precious and yet at the same time so overlooked, so taken-for-granted) is also a statement of what is missing in our rational descriptions. The miraculous quality is entirely absent.
So what happens when this quality – which is both indescribably precious and almost invariably overlooked – goes missing? Well, to start off with we can say that nothing happens. Everything just carries on. The loss is not acknowledged. If the quality we are talking about is so ‘over-looked’, so ‘taken-for-granted’ then are we really going to miss what we never actually noticed in the first place? The question therefore becomes how long can we go before we do start to notice? How will we notice, how will we find out? What type of effect will the absence of suchness have on our quality of life?
A simple answer is to say that the lack of suchness (which only the real world possesses) gives rise to a mode of being which is characterized by a kind of basic restlessness. This is only to be expected – because there is no value in the present moment (there can’t be because there is no ‘quality’, no suchness) this is inevitably going to result in the basic unquestioned perception that the value in life must lie somewhere else. Of course the value in life must lie somewhere else – what other conclusion could we come to? We intuitively know that there must be value somewhere. There must after all be reality somewhere and if there is reality somewhere then there must be value somewhere, quality somewhere. Even when it’s been removed we still know that it’s there; the difference being that we now perceive it to exist outside of us as a kind of an external factor or commodity.
We could therefore say that the absence of suchness leads to an ever-present restlessness (or ‘purposefulness’) – we’re always on the move, always on the lookout for ‘the good stuff’. We forever scheming, forever planning, forever calculating how we may best get our hands on it. We’re forever chasing after glittering surfaces, pursuing prizes that inevitably show themselves – in time – to be hollow illusions. Naturally they are illusions. Any perception that there might be value to be found just round the corner (or perhaps in the adjoining field) is bound to prove false in the end since whatever it is we are chasing after can only ever be yet another ‘description’, yet another ‘mental construct’. The only way there could be an ‘intimation of value’ that does not prove to be misleading or deceptive would be if what we had come across was not a mind-created object (a mind-produced version of reality rather than reality itself) and that eventuality is the very thing that we have guarded against so carefully!
The stark lack of suchness in the present moment (which is of course the only place it can ever be) when we are living ‘safely’ within the remit of the rational mind and its constructs means – as we have said – that we are forever looking elsewhere. We can never stop trying to ‘improve’ our situation because our situation – being barren ground as all abstractions are – doesn’t have anything in it to nurture us, sustain us. It’s a description of the meal, not the meal itself. It might excite our appetite, but it can never satisfy it.
The other way of putting this is to say that when we are living in a world that is made up of our descriptions we have no interiority – we can’t have any interiority because interiority isn’t a description! Interiority isn’t a rational thing – it isn’t something we can ‘know’. It can’t be turned into an object of our rational knowledge, in other words. Or rather it can be turned into an object of our rational knowledge but when we do so it ‘becomes what it isn’t’. In this case we are turning what was our interiority (our undefined ‘inner life’) just another component of the mind-created simulation of reality. ‘Who we are’ becomes just another ‘defined surface’ in that system of defined surfaces which is the mind-created universe and so our inner lives become something that is represented to us in generic fashion by some external mechanism. Weirdly, our lives become something ‘outside of ourselves’ (something divorced from ourselves) that we can be ‘the passive observers of’. Our lives become something that we can ‘watch on TV’…
And the thing about this – as we keep pointing out – is that this exteriorized picture or formulation of ‘who we are’, this external mechanically-rendered representation of what’s happening in our lives, is completely lacking in suchness. It’s completely drab – it’s completely hollow, just as a glossy photoshopped image is hollow. In short, this mind-created reality we’re living in (this simulated reality that we’re taking as ‘the real thing) is completely heartless…