Within the general terms of the Gnostic myth of the ‘False Reality’, or ‘Bogus creation’, we may take it as not just being the case that we are presented with a counterfeit version of the world which we – in all innocence – except at face value, it is also the case that we are presented with an equally counterfeit version of ourselves, which we accept – again – at face value, in all innocence.
We are caught in a ‘pincer movement’, so to speak; we are fooled on both fronts – the external and the internal. Between these two deceptions (which are of course ultimately the same deception) there is a vanishingly small chance of us ever finding genuine freedom. This is – beyond any doubt – the cleverest and most formidable trap ever devised. There are no inconsistencies; there is nothing there to ‘give the game away’.
When we reflect on it, it becomes obvious that there couldn’t be ‘the true self in the false world’, nor ‘the false self in a true world’. The true self would see the false world for what it is and would have no truck with it, whilst the false self would be shown up and exposed by the true world, and – as a result – be unable to continue with charade. Another (simpler) way of putting this is just to say that the counterfeit self is ‘part and parcel’ of the counterfeit world – it all comes in the same package.
This the idea of being supplied with a false a counterfeit version of ourselves is so radical, so audacious, that we would simply never suspect it. Anything else might be counterfeited and conceivably spotted, our surroundings, people in the street, our friends, our family even, but not ourselves. That’s the one place we will never look; the one place we will never think to look. My own identity is always going to be the ‘blind-spot’, in other worlds…
It’s not hard to see why this should be so. We only need to consider the coercive (and therefore unquestionable) nature of our wants, our desires, our needs – as soon as a desire (or a desire, or need) comes along we instantaneously go along with it and adopt it fondly as our own. We might fight against it but we certainly never question it. When a compulsive impulse (or desire) comes along I straightaway say it is me who wants (or doesn’t want) to do whatever it is that the compulsion wants me to do. We confuse the compulsive impulse for ourselves, in other words. There is no gap between ‘trigger’ and ‘reaction’ and it is the lack of any gap here that guarantees our identification with the impulse (i.e. that guarantees our ‘adoption of the false self’.)
When we look at things this way, it’s easy to see how it could come about that we would mistake the false, ‘coercive’ self for who we really are. It isn’t just our needs, our coercive impulses to act this way or that, our desires to obtain a particular outcome that we are talking about here either. When we think it is the very same thing – a thought comes along, coercively ‘hijacking’ our attention, and then straightaway we feel that it is us who are thinking. Straightaway I say that this is ‘my’ thought (which of course carries the implication that I am only thinking because I myself want to).
It’s very hard to meet anyone who doesn’t go around imagining that the only reason they think the thoughts that they are thinking is because they want to. We all imagine that it is ‘us who think the thoughts’, that it is us who are in ‘the driving seat’ with regard to the thinking process, and this just goes to show how solidly identified we are with ‘the counterfeit self’. How often do we doubt that this is the case, after all? How often do we doubt the super-compelling illusion of the volitional thinker who purposefully thinks the thoughts that he or she is thinking?
If we did see through the illusion this would appear to most of us as a particularly extreme form of ‘disorientation’ – it’s not that we don’t know where we are, or even that we can’t remember who we are (in the sense of remembering our phone number, national insurance number, name, address, etc) – it goes a lot deeper than this. It’s rather than that ‘this person who I know myself to be’ (or rather knew myself to be) has nothing to do with who I really am. My normal everyday life has become strange to me, not really belonging to me, not really of any interest to me. My normal everyday activities and concerns have become profoundly meaningless to me…
‘This is not my beautiful house / this is not my beautiful wife,’ as the Talking Heads song goes. Turning away from the illusion in this way – the illusion of ‘who we’re not but who we nevertheless think we are’ – is what the Eastern traditions refer to as ‘Waking up’ or ‘Liberation’ therefore – we are being liberated from the illusion of who we think we are, we are waking up from the false identification with who were not, who no one is, and who no one could ever be! The remarkable thing here is just how extraordinarily resistant we are to seeing the seeing the illusion, to waking up from the false identification! We resist this liberating insight with everything we’ve got, we resist to the bitter end.
So what are we to make of this? What on earth is going on here? On the face of it, the notion that we should be stuck fast to a fictional version of ourselves (a cheap fictional version at that) so very effectively that no tools exist that could ever unstuck us, is bound to sound rather peculiar. Why should such an odd situation be the case? Why should we be so absolutely resistant to seeing the truth of what is going on, and letting go of our desperate attachment to this fictional identity’? It’s not as if there is anything particularly great about it, or – actually – anything intrinsically worthwhile about it at all. How can there be anything ‘intrinsically worthwhile’ about a fictional identity?
The whole scenario sounds utterly absurd, utterly bizarre. If someone were to write a play on this premise, we would all laugh at it. We’d either laugh at it, or walk out in disgust halfway through the performance, unwilling to subject ourselves to such nonsense. On the whole, it’s got to be true to say that we prefer our ‘culture’ to be about issues that we can more readily relate to! In another way however, it could be said that we have moved a step closer – culturally speaking – to having a certain familiarity with the Gnostic theme that we have been discussing. The motif of the False Reality (or ‘the Simulation’) is one which most of us have heard of; following the work of writers and philosophers such as Philip K Dick and films such as The Matrix or The Truman Show it is now firmly established as part of the intellectual/cultural terrain of the early 21st-century. How well do we really understand these motifs that we are playing around with though? Are they penetrating into our understanding of our own day-to-day lives, or is it just more entertainment in a world that is based on entertainment?
A familiar PKD motif is that of the ‘fake memory’. We are all familiar with the idea of being a humanoid android who has provided with an implanted set of memories. We live quite happily on this basis only to find out one day that none of it is true and that we aren’t that person at all, that we have no connection whatsoever with that ‘person that we thought we were’. It’s not androids in the near future that we are talking about though – it’s all of us right now. That’s our situation we are looking at – we just haven’t ‘got it’ yet!
This isn’t just some philosophical ‘curiosity piece’ – on the contrary, it has immense practical implications. It has immense practical implications with regard to our well being, with regard to our mental health. Wei Wu Wei, with the brevity that is characteristic of teachers of the Cha’an tradition, brings this all down to one line –
What’s your trouble? Mistaken identity.
We can get as complicated and as ‘scientific sounding’ as we like about the causes of mental ill-health, but all we doing here is ‘muddying the water’. We’re muddying the water big time! Never in the history of the human race has the water been muddied so much! Whatever our unconscious aims might be they certainly aren’t about shedding any light on the matter..
The only thing that will ‘shed light on the matter’ is to grasp what Wei Wu Wei is saying here – we don’t stand a chance if we don’t. We don’t have a hope in hell. If we insist, out of the pure force of our numbing unconsciousness, that we are this fiction, that we are this counterfeit self, then how we ever going to get to the root of our troubles? To insist – as we do insist – that we are this hollow counterfeit self is to take absolutely zero interest in who we really are, and it’s because we are taking absolutely zero interest in anything apart from the false self or phony identity that we are suffering from all the mental health difficulties’ that we do. What happens when I neglect, on a thoroughgoing basis, my true nature? What else can we expect to happen when we very forcefully deny the ground of our being and lavish all of our attention on the shallow fiction which we are compulsively identified with, in the utterly bizarre and ludicrous manner that we are? Can we really expect things to work out well for us on this basis?
When the nature of our trouble is ‘mistaken identity’, then everything we do in order to shore up the apparent validity of the mistaken notion who we imagine ourselves to be is going to ‘count against us’. The further we go down this road the greater our suffering will be, as is always the way with this thing we call ‘denial’. The only thing that we can do to free ourselves from our suffering is to see the mistake!‘To see the illusion is to depart from it’, as it says in the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment.