When we allow ourselves to be completely defined by the thinking mind, the mind that evaluates and categorizes, then the result of this – quite simply – is the self. That’s how we get to experience life on the basis of ‘the self’ (instead of ‘in some other way’). Unless something is unambiguously defined in a black-and-white way then we are unable to identify with it, and without identification there can be no self.
‘Identification’ simply means that I see some fixed position, some fixed viewpoint as being ‘me’ – it’s the fixed nature of the position of the viewpoint that allows for the possibility of making any kind of ‘literal statement’ about the world. How can we make a literal statement if there is not a ‘literal’ (or ‘concrete’) point of reference to make it from? Literal statements actually are the fixed point of reference projected outwards onto the world. As soon we say this, we get a strong hint as to what the ‘calamity’ to which we are referring might be – identification means that everything I see and experience from the point of view of that ‘fixed position’ is already inherent in that position, and between my perception of myself as being ‘this viewpoint’ and ‘the world that I perceive around me’ (which is as we have said tautologically contained within my assumed frame of reference) what else is there? For me, that is everything – that represents the alpha and omega of my total field of possibilities.
The principle behind what we are saying here is very clear – when I identify with the fixed position then I am just not going to be able to perceive anything that does not ‘agree’ with this fixed reference point of mine. I won’t be able to see anything other than those things that make sense in relation to the fixed reference point that I have tacitly accepted as being ‘the only possible way of looking at the world’ – naturally enough! So what has happened is that I have become sealed off within a closed system. No possibility of ‘radical reorganization’ exists within a closed system – clearly there can’t be any such because what makes the closed system into a closed system is the fact that there are restrictions placed on what can be allowed to happen in that system. The ‘self consistency’ of logical systems depends upon the limits that are placed upon what is allowed to happen within that system – which is of course the very same thing as saying that logical systems ‘function as such on the basis of rules’! No one is going to argue with this…
There is no calamity involved in allowing everything that happens in a logical system to be determined by rules – that’s how logical systems work, as we keep saying. But what is good for a logical system (such as the national railway system network or a big modern hospital) is not good for us as individual human beings. The one does not imply the other, and although this may seem like a very obvious point to be making it clearly isn’t a point that we understand in any practical way because the story of mankind is very much the story of how we have allowed our own systems to enslave us and make us miserable as a result of this wretched state of enslavement. This is the one mistake we keep on making over and over again and the fact that we are repeatedly making it is very clearly because we do not understand what we’re doing! We’re not even close to understanding what’s going on – we are forever focusing on improving the systems that enslave us rather than looking at how we can become free from them.
Society is a logical system and we are all defined by it, no matter what we might like to believe. We don’t want to believe that we are defined by society, we want to believe that we are ‘unique individuals living our own unique individual lives’, but this is simply not true. How could it be true, when we are not actually putting any effort into it? Being the unique individual that one genuinely is isn’t just something that ‘falls into our lap’, like a ripe fruit when the tree is shaken – it can only come about via arduous effort. This isn’t ‘effort’ as we usually see it either – it isn’t effort that is made in a particular direction, effort that is directed towards a particular or specified end. We not ‘improving ourselves in line with some idea that we might have with regard to how we or someone else might think we ought to be improved’. That is merely ‘optimization’ and optimization is the process of adapting ourselves to some kind of logical system. Optimization is movement in the direction of losing autonomy.
The effort involved in becoming the true individual that one actually is (or rather that one could be) is of an entirely different nature to this – it involves what the alchemists of old called the Opus Contra Naturam – the ‘work against nature’. Rules or precedents exist that propel us in a certain direction – the Opus Contra Naturam means not going in this direction! The work against nature is of course what Carl Jung calls individuation. Individuation (or rather ‘the fruit of the individuation process’) isn’t something that just ‘falls into our lap’ (as the socialised identity does) – it emerges slowly as a result of our struggle to be true to ourselves (or ‘find ourselves’) in the face of a hostile environment, which is what the social system is as regards our genuine individuality. The inertial forces that are ranged against us are immense and implacable and it is as everyone knows much easier to just give into them and be like everyone else! At least then we will have company, rather than feeling very much on our own and in danger of feeling that the ‘fault’ lies within us, and not within society as a whole.
So society is one big machine that that we have to struggle against in order not to be defined by it, but the other manifestation of ‘the machine’ is the thinking mind, which is what we started off by talking about. We’re caught between the machine on the inside and the machine on the outside, and neither of them has any tolerance at all for ‘who we really are’ – the machine – any machine – understands only mechanical things, and ‘who we really are’ is not mechanical. Or as we could also say, ‘a machine only understands defined things, and who we are is not capable of being defined’. The problem is however that who we understand ourselves to be is both defined and limited, and as such the one thing that it fears more than anything else is a reality that is not defined, a reality that is not limited. There is no challenge for the conditioned self that is greater than this; the unlimited / undefined reality is not merely ‘a challenge’, it is its greatest terror!
We see ‘being defined’ as being a strength – we know who we are, we know what we think, we know what we like and what we don’t like, and this seems like a strong position to be in. Almost anyone you talk to will tell you that this is a strong position to be in – society will tell you this. It is however strong only in a very limited way – it’s like being a world-renowned expert in a very narrow field – without any doubt we are formidably strong within the parameters of our specialization and if our area of specialization were ‘the whole world’ then we would be genuinely strong! But because our area of speciality isn’t the whole world (obviously enough!) we aren’t ‘strong’ at all –we only have a kind of ‘pretence’ at being strong and inasmuch as we allow ourselves to believe in this pretence of ours (which is easily done) we get to imagine that we are strong when we are not. When we fall into the trap of believing our own pretence we make fools of ourselves, in other words, and ‘making a fool of oneself without being able to see it’ is not a genuine form of strength.
Although this might at first glance seem like a somewhat obvious and therefore trivial example to give, it only takes a moment of reflection to realise that what we are talking about here is the situation of the conditioned (or ‘mind-created’) self. The mind-created self gets to feel robust and unrealistically confident in its outlook (if not downright arrogant!) because of the way in which it believes in a strength which it doesn’t actually have. The traditional virtue of humility originally meant something like ‘the awareness of the fact that we don’t really know anything’ (as opposed to what we usually take it to be, which is ‘the theatrical effort of the arrogant self to try to show that it is not arrogant when the truth is that it simply can’t help being so’). The incentive for us to fall into the trap of ‘believing in our own pretence’ (or ‘believing that our very limited area of specialisation is the whole world when it plainly isn’t’) is that it creates a feeling of ‘ontological security’ for us – a feeling of ‘security-of-being’ that we just can’t obtain any other way.
Being defined gives us a sense of security therefore, but only when we been live in a world that is made up of nothing more than our own mental projections. If we want that feeling of being secure – the feeling of being secure that comes from being totally defined – we have to pay the price of having to live in a very small world – the very small world of our own thoughts, our own expectations. What else are our thoughts anyway, if not ‘expectations of the world’? We don’t know that we are living in this absurdly small world, but that doesn’t alter the fact that we are, and there are going to be consequences to this choice that we have made, even though we don’t know that we have made it.
It’s not a good thing to shrink down in this way – it brings suffering, and not only does it ‘bring suffering’, it brings ‘suffering-without-the-capacity-to-bear-it’. Within this ‘absurdly small world’ (which is the only world that makes sense to the defined self) we are constantly subject to ‘irritations’ of a totally trivial nature. We can say that these irritations are of ‘a totally trivial nature’ because precisely they are irritations that make sense to the defined self, and the ‘defined’ (or ‘mind-created’) self is itself completely petty, completely trivial! We all know this on some level or other – we are all deeply familiar with the pettiness of the everyday self. The only time we aren’t aware of this is when we are wholly identified with this self, which is – needless to say – all too often! This is a calamity in itself; to be infinitely petty in the scope of our concerns, without knowing that we are because we are so caught up in them – is without any doubt a terrible calamity. We only need the smallest bit of imagination to appreciate just how terrifying a fate this is.
That’s only the beginning of it however. In order to enjoy the ‘sense of security’ that comes with being narrowly defined we need to restrict ourselves to ‘living within a very small world without knowing that we are’ and in one way this seems to be a price that we are willing to pay. There are however distressing consequences to this manoeuvre that only become apparent after a while. The ‘consequences’ that we talking about can be understood in terms of counterproductivity – ‘counterproductivity’ means that we that when we exert ourselves to accomplish one aim (and thereby hopefully resolve the situation in some way) other problems – which we have not foreseen – immediately come into play. And when we try to fix these unexpected problems what happens next is of course that a whole clutch of new problems come into being which also need to be fixed, and so on and so forth. On the ‘macro-scale’ this sort of counterproductivity is fairly well-known to us – our linear/technological approach to managing our environment is always rebounding on us in various unexpected (and unwanted) ways, as Gregory Bateson pointed out back in the 1960s. Ivan Illich also speaks of what he calls ‘specific counterproductivity’ in the fields of education, communication, transport and health.
We are at least’ halfway aware’ of counterproductivity on the macro-scale, whether it is in regard to the planetary ecology or industrialized society, but we are almost entirely blind to what we might call ‘intrapersonal counter- productivity’, which is the result of us trying to control or regulate ourselves. No matter how free we try to be in ourselves the mere fact that we are defined (just as the world we live in is defined) means that we are already controlled in the most profound way possible, even before we do anything else. This is like being ‘strangled at birth’! Intrapersonal counterproductivity is where we try to obtain a benefit for ourselves but incur suffering instead (or where we try to avoid pain, and instead of avoiding it we bring it down on our heads a thousandfold). The more common term for this is of course neuroticism and the concrete or literal self is the source of all neurotic counterproductivity…