When we’re greedy for the desired outcome, or fearful and worried about the unwanted one, then what happens as a result of this preoccupation is that we miss out on life itself. We miss out on life itself because life has nothing to do with either the ‘wanted’ or the’ unwanted outcome’ – it has nothing to do with my fears and nothing to do with my hopes and desires either, which would be a very strange thing to consider were we ever to do so.
We understand this the other way around, however. Our understanding is that we will lose out unless we get to be good at obtaining the outcomes we want, and avoiding all the other ones, and this is of course why we put as much effort into our purposeful activities as we do, why we take the attitude that unless there is a reason for what we’re doing then we are essentially wasting our time. ‘Activity without purpose is the drain of your life’, legendary motivational speaker Tony Robbins tells us. Or – even more to the point – from Pastor Sunday Adelaja we learn that ‘Life becomes a dilemma when you are living a purposeless and goalless life.’ This is the unashamed message of our era – the message which glorifies the simple-minded purposeful strivings for our goals. Here lies our fulfilment, we are led to believe, and nowhere else. But if our goals have nothing to do with life, and take us in the opposite direction (if such a thing were possible) then the question we are bound to ask ourselves (if we have any curiosity about ourselves at all) is “What on earth are we playing at?”
The answer turns out to be very simple – the reason for our perverse orientation in this matter is because our rational-purposeful culture is an exercise in denial, not an exercise in exploring (or celebrating) life, which is what we would like to believe. Our hopes and fears are our own private projections and if we weren’t the fully paid-up members of such a profoundly unconscious culture we would see this without the slightest bit of difficulty. How could we not see that our hopes and fears are our own projections? This is the most basic psychological insight there is and it is also the insight that is least likely to ever come our way – we’re kept far too busy on the Wheel of Purposefulness for that. We’re always too fixated on the goal (and the next goal after that) to ever get philosophical about what the hell we think we’re doing…
If all I care about are my projections then this means that I am very effectively ‘cocooning myself from reality’, just as Jung says. This is the best way of ‘cocooning ourselves from reality’ there is – it’s totally fool-proof! The other way of putting this is to say that our goals – precious as they are to us – are only thoughts, and thoughts aren’t real. The thought is not the thing and it never can be, and so to see the world purely in terms of our ideas about it is to very effectively remove ourselves from it. To be focused exclusively on our goals is to be concerned only with those things that make sense to our logical categories (since if something can’t be represented in terms of these categories then it simply doesn’t exist for us). When we are constantly enthusing about our plans and intentions we are creating the impression that we have a full-blooded relationship with the ‘wider world’ (or at the very least that we aspire to have such a relationship) but this is just a ploy – the only ‘relationship’ we have is with our own version private version of reality, which is of course a complete cop out.
Controlling only ever relates us to the sterile domain of our well-worn thoughts, our jaded and flavourless preconceptions, and so no matter how successful we might be in our purposeful endeavours, that never going to get us anywhere different from ‘where we already were’. Just to reiterate this point – because it’s a point we miss every time – when we concern ourselves only with outcomes (either of the good or bad variety) then this means that we are in Control Mode and being in Control Mode necessarily limits us to ‘the domain of what we already know’, ‘the domain of our preconceptions’, ‘the domain of what we have already decided is true’. We don’t ever see things this way but what it essentially means is that we are trapped in the Prison of Purposefulness. We’re lifers in this most doleful of institutions and there’s no hope of parole, no matter how well we behave…
The reason we don’t ever see things this way is of course because we take it as read that the Known World – the world that is made-up entirely of our thoughts and concepts – is pretty much equivalent to what’s actually out there in reality. We never stop to reflect on what a ludicrous assumption this is; we might be familiar with our own description of the world, but we certainly shouldn’t go around assuming that what we’re so familiar with is actually ‘the world itself’. Thought is a purely quantitative business, whereas reality only whereas in reality no quantities exist, only qualities; we all know that sugar is sweet, but we wouldn’t know what sweetness is just from the word. There’s no sweetness in the word ‘sweet’ and – what’s more – there’s no way there ever could be! There is a gulf between our descriptions and ‘the world that is being described’ which can never be bridged, not by any logic that we might be capable of putting together. We’ll never bridge it, and so rather than allow ourselves to get curious about what might lie on the other side of the abyss, we resort to ignoring it and pretending that it isn’t there.
Because the Known World has no correspondence to (or no connection with) ‘reality as it is in itself’, it is perfectly appropriate to speak of us as being prisoners thought. It is perfectly accurate to speak of the thinking mind as a person. “You are in prison”, says Gurdjieff, “all you can wish for, if you are a sensible man, is to escape.” The thing is however that we’re not sensible in this way – we’re not in the least bit ‘sensible’! We are preoccupied with anything else but escaping – anything interests us apart from the one thing that isn’t interesting (i.e., our trivial games). As Gurdjieff also says somewhere else, “our fate is to be forever turning around in a circle of insignificant interests and insignificant aims.” We ‘carry this off’ by getting excited by our aims as if they really do have some relationship to ‘the Wider Reality’. They don’t though and so no matter how much we invest in our fantasies, they are never going to bear any fruit. We devote ourselves to our distractions as if they weren’t distractions, in other words. “Are we not wasps who spend all day in a fruitless attempt to traverse a window-pane – while the other half of the window is wide open?” asks Wei Wu Wei.
Life itself (or reality itself, if we want to put it like that) exists at right angles to all our concerns, to all our interests and preoccupations. This is what Wei Wu Wei means when he says that we operate on ‘the horizontal’ dimension and ignore ‘the vertical’; the vertical dimension – we might say – is the dimension of depth, which is the ‘mysterious dimension’- it is ‘mysterious because we’re constantly moving beyond the veil of appearances. In the horizontal dimension however we never go beyond appearances and so everything we engage in here is guaranteed to be vanishingly trivial, vanishingly superficial, vanishingly inconsequential. The only difference between one outcome and another in the Realm of the Vanishingly Inconsequential (i.e., the Realm of our Games) is ‘the difference indicated by the mental boundaries which we ourselves have invented’, and so this is the type of difference that we contrive to get excited by in our games. This is the difference between one category and another (or between one idea and another) and this is an imaginary difference, a difference that is ‘only there because we say it is’. When we ‘glorify our aims’ – as we always do – it is this ‘imaginary difference’ that we are getting feverishly excited about and when we allow ourselves to get ‘excited by the imaginary’ this always happens at the expense of anything that is actually real….
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