If we have to live our lives, then what we are living is not life. It’s something else, it’s a construct of thought. This is a principle that Alan Watts often comes back to his talks – ‘it doesn’t work if you have to do it’. ‘If you must play, then you can’t play’ says James Carse. A rule or compulsion can’t be substituted for life, no matter how good our intentions might be. We are trying to replace one thing with another, completely different thing – another, completely different thing that it just can’t be replaced with! If there is one ‘mistake’ that we keep making in life, over and over again, then this is surely it.
This is an odd type of mistake that we are talking about here however – there’s something peculiar about it in that it’s a mistake which we never spot and which – therefore – we carry on making all the time. It has become normal; this is a ‘mistake’ that has now become the whole world for us. It is therefore ‘a mistake that we can’t ever escape from’. As Carl Sagan says,
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
Alan Watts says something to the effect that we are banjaxed by society because of the way society makes the things we were going to do anyway compulsory, with the inevitable consequence that we now can’t do them! Orthodox religions always do this – they make ‘being good’ compulsory and this double-binds us so that we now can’t be good. When we push ourselves to be good then straightaway it’s false, straightaway it’s an act. Instead of being genuinely good we’re play-acting therefore, and – as if this were not bad enough – the fact that we are ‘pushing ourselves to be something that we are not’ automatically sets up resistance in us, and so we create the tendency to do evil. Not only have we cheated ourselves out of the possibility of being genuinely good-hearted therefore, we have brought a shadow into the world and the nature of this shadow is that the more resolutely we strive to be good the darker and more powerful it gets!
Orthodox monotheistic religion always presents morality (or obedience to God) as a necessity, as a rule, as a compulsion. The Deity is as portrayed as an autocrat, as a tyrant – albeit one with our own best interests at heart! But if God did insist, in all seriousness, that we follow the Divine Plan that he has laid down for us (for own good) then he would be neatly double binding us since it has now become impossible for us ever to be ‘good’. It is now becoming possible for us to be good and yet we are not allowed to be the way that we are either. If this isn’t a neat example of a double bind then what is? God – being God – would know this perfectly well of course and so – given the fact that we have been now set up to fail (and also given the fact that not obeying God is a sin against Him) – we would have to question what exactly He is up to. Is the autocratic Father God a malign being, as the Gnostics and Cathars have asserted?
The thing is of course that all this talk of what God requires of us and doesn’t require of us comes out of the mouths of men, who undoubtedly have their own agenda in taking this line. God is not stupid – as men are – and so he would not (of course) set us up in this way – he would not demand that we obey His law on pain of Eternal Damnation because that would straightaway ruin the point of everything. It would take the good out of everything – it would be like a relationship where one person demands of the other that they love him or her and always stay true. That would end love immediately – that would be the end of the relationship right there! Human beings do this all the time of course (they automatically take away each other’s freedom because they ‘love’ each other) but would God make this mistake?
It is always been our way both in the West and the Middle East to personify the Deity as a ruler or autocrat. In everyday life we have imposing authority figures telling us what to do and so it undoubtedly makes (some sort of) sense to think of the Deity in the same way, as some kind of ‘amplified version’ of the monarch or Emperor. In the East, the Divine Principle tends to be seen very differently of course – if we take the example of Daoism we can see this most plainly. The Dao does not lord it over the creatures it supports, the Dai De Jing explicitly states. In this way of looking at things there is no brutal dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘obedience’ and ‘disobedience’. There is no such thing as sin, that most celebrated of Christian concepts. Instead there is ‘harmony’ on the one hand and the appearance (but not the fact) of ‘broken harmony’ on the other. We can’t achieve accord with Universal Harmony on purpose because – as the Daoist teachings tell us – ‘to try to accord with the Dao is to deviate from it’. It can’t be a ‘sin’ to be out of harmony with the universe therefore because there is nothing we can do to correct the situation! Anything we do to try to correct the situation simply messes things up all the more.
We can clearly see that Daoism doesn’t throw vicious double binds at us in the way that Christian morality does, and yet neither is it ‘amoral’. It provides us with a subtle way of relating both to ourselves and the world – we can see for example that breaking harmony (a rather discovering that we have broken harmony) is not a regrettable thing. Discovering that we have broken harmony with the universe is painful it is true but that doesn’t mean that this break with harmony isn’t a part of the harmony! By discovering that we are out of kilter with reality (and are thus disconnected and alienated from it) we discover that there is an underlying harmony. We don’t miss it until it’s gone! The discovery that we have broken harmony is the awareness of that harmony; the discovery of our disconnection paradoxically is our connection. In the Western-Rational Paradigm chronic mental distress or discomfort (what used to be called ‘mental illness’) is seen quite reasonably as a departure from mental health, and that is of course bad news. Mental ill-health is ‘regrettable’ therefore – it is unfortunate, it is something to feel unhappy about. According to the Western-Rationalist Paradigm the thing to do when we discover that we have departed from the state of good mental health is to deliberately or purposefully correct this situation. For us, that’s what ‘therapy’ means – it means deliberately returning ourselves (by whatever means) to a state of good mental health.
This is the classic rational approach – departing from the state of mental well-being is ‘bad’ (or ‘wrong) and so it needs to be corrected. Straightaway therefore, we find ourselves deep in the realm of double binds – everything we do to try to help ourselves simply accentuates our suffering. By taking this crude rational approach we ‘disconnect ourselves our own disconnectedness’; we are most emphatically rejecting our disconnection as ‘an error’ and so of course we are trying to separate ourselves from it; that’s the whole point after all – we want very much to disconnect ourselves from the pain and confusion of our disconnection. This of course seems to be the right thing to do, but that is only because our approach to the situation so very unsubtle – we are actually creating more suffering for ourselves this way because not only do we still have we the original disconnection eating away at us, we now also have the ‘disconnection from the disconnection’ to contend with! Not only do we have the original ‘break in harmony’ we now also have ‘a break in harmony with our break in harmony’ and seeing as how it was the original ‘disharmonious situation’ that was itself the key to recovering harmony we aren’t exactly making matters easier for ourselves!
‘The cure for the pain is in the pain‘ Rumi says, and he might just as well have said ‘The cure for the disharmony lies in that same disharmony’. If we consciously ‘live’ our harmonious situation, with all the pain this involves, then that is how we reconnect with the greater harmony of life. It’s no good looking elsewhere for the answer; it’s no good fighting against the pain that we’re in, and trying to prevent or ameliorate it – by denying the break in harmony we are at the same time denying the underlying harmonious of our situation since – as we keep saying – the awareness of our disharmony is the harmony. We have been provoked into ‘taking matters into our own hands and this is what the alchemists of old (who were a subtler folk than us) called the via erratum, the ‘way of error’. It’s ‘the way of error’ because no matter which way we twist or turn we are only going to deviate from the harmony of our own being all the more. The (apparent) departure from the underlying harmony of our own being brings suffering, and that suffering is telling us – in very clear terms – all about this departure. Our cultural tendency is to try our best to get rid of this suffering (in whatever way we can) and yet at the same time completely ignore the way in which we have – as a culture – disconnected ourselves from the harmony of our own true nature.
The root of this disconnection lies in the way in which we have grossly overvalued the ‘rational purposeful self’ at the expense of all other aspects of our being. We are living life ‘via the thinking mind’ and the thing about this is that the thinking mind is an autocrat – it is in fact the blueprint for all other autocrats, all other tyrants. All the thinking mind can do is ‘judge’ or ‘evaluate’ and then ‘control on the basis of the judgements or evaluations it has made’. It’s a machine – it operates on the basis of its established categories, its established rules. The thinking mind is its categories, is its rules. This is been known for a long time – the alchemists used the motif of the Old King in order to draw attention to the way in which the ruling principle of our lives tends to become malign over time, and work against the good of the whole. The young king is both strong and just – his job is to protect the land over which he has dominion against all enemies. He exists to serve and his power is used therefore in the service of the kingdom over which he rules. The old king however has become rigid, obsessive and controlling in his attitude – he controls for the sake of controlling (just like any human dictator who has grown to love power for its own sake and as a result is stubbornly unwilling to relinquish power no matter what the price of his unwise clinging might be). Joseph Campbell calls this figure ‘the Tyrant Holdfast’ who – Campbell says – is ‘the keeper of the past’; the Tyrant Holdfast keeps merely for the sake of keeping, holds on merely for the sake of holding on, and never for any better reason. In a similar vein, Carlos Castaneda speaks of difference between ‘the guardian and the guard’:
A guardian is broad-minded and understanding. A guard, on the other hand, is a vigilante, narrow-minded and most of the time despotic.
What the ‘tyrant mind’ does when it gets to rule the roost, when it gets to call all the shots, is that it maps everything out in its own particular way and ‘makes rules for anything’. It ‘makes everything part of its own system’ – it subsumes everything within its own domain. It establishes a bureaucracy, it sets up innumerable policies and procedures’. In short, what it does is that it ‘tells us what to do even though we were already going to do it’! This is the curse of the rational-purposeful mind and it only takes a little bit of imagination to see just what a terrible curse this is! The finest, most wonderful things in life become meaningless (if not poisoned) when we do them on purpose, when we do them because we think we ‘have to’. There never was a better way to spoil things than to bring the thinking mind into it – it makes everything we do insincere. It automatically takes over everything itself, but it just isn’t able to do the job. It turns life itself into an onerous duty or task, into ‘something we have to do’. It perversely turns life into something that we are compelled to do, even though life itself is nothing but freedom…