The Inescapable Suffering Of The Conditioned Identity [Part 1]

Our woes originate in the fact that the generic or conditioned identity is an impoverished state of being. Living on the basis of this identity is never going to be much fun – as we can plainly see when we look at things this way. It might seem to us that we are having fun – from time to time – but this is only because we are buying into the deluded perception that we are shortly to become less impoverished and this is cause for great jubilation, naturally enough. This can never actually happen however, conditioned identity – by its very nature – can never not be impoverished and so any pleasure that we might have felt when it seemed that we were getting someone is always going to be counterbalanced by the pain and disappointment that we feel when we discover that this happy eventuality isn’t going to happen after all.

It’s far, far worse to be impoverished in ourselves (so that who we are is the impoverishment, as Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas) then it is to be living in an impoverished environment – this constitutes a very particular type of predicament however because if my identity is impoverished (which is to say, hugely restrictive in terms of the possibilities that are open to us) then we going to have no direct no way of knowing this; we can only know that if we have something else to compare our situation with and we don’t. We can think of this in terms of perspective – if I happen to have very little perspective then I also have no way of knowing that I have very little perspective. And yet at the same time there is no getting away from the suffering that is inherent in our impoverishment, invisible though it might be to us. The cause of the suffering may be unknown to us, but the suffering itself is not – we get to know it very well…

All of this is very well of course but how do we know that the generic or conditioned identity is so very impoverished? How can we justify such a sweeping statement? And what exactly do we mean by ‘the generic or conditioned identity’ anyway? There is after all no point in going on at length about the consequences of having an extremely limited or constrained identity if it hasn’t anyway been established that this is or could be the case. This turns out to be thorny subject to get to grips with and that is because our subjective perception of ourselves (or of others for that matter) is not of ‘extremely limited beings’. We don’t perceive ourselves like this because we don’t see what we ‘lack’. Moreover, it is of course true that this idea is highly objectionable to us, if not to say downright offensive. We are happier saying how great we human beings are and what wonderful things we have achieved. We are much happier talking ourselves up than we are in saying how limited we are, in other words!

It is not however disrespectful to humanity to say that our ordinary situation in life is extraordinarily restricted and – when it comes down to it – entirely unworthy of us. It is actually far more respectful to say this than it is to say that the way we currently is the only way we could be, and that this is our true, undistorted nature. In the first case we are reminded not to get to get complacent and as a result enter into some sort of sentimental love affair with ‘the idea that we have of ourselves’ (which is clearly a healthy thing) whilst in the second case we have been given a totally false sense of security which – far from benefiting us – prevents us from becoming what nature secretly intends us to become, so to speak. In his Guide to the Perplexed E.F. Schumacher makes this point by saying that we have celebrating acorns as ‘an end in themselves’, so to speak, rather than seeing them as a kind of vehicle that leads to something inconceivably greater – the tree itself:

Our ordinary mind always tried to persuade us that we are nothing but acorns and that our greatest happiness will be to become bigger, fatter, shinier acorns; but this is of interest only to pigs. Our faith gives us knowledge of something better: that we can become oak trees.

If I was informed that I was a very, very limited kind of a creature then this could of course be taken as a terrible putdown that should not be tolerated even for a moment, but this is of course plainly ridiculous – this is actually the most valuable information that I could ever receive! To learn this is to have my horizons opened wider beyond anything I could ever have imagined possible. I am however very likely to resist this ‘widening of my horizons’ and stick fast to the small (or restricted) world that I know. By celebrating (or validating) who we think we are, we effectively deny who we really are and this is exactly what ‘the collective of us’ – more known commonly as society – always does. This is not a particularly familiar idea it is true, but ‘the collective of us’ is in this way the implacable enemy of every single individual making up that collective. Society – which presents itself as our friend, our ally, our ‘life-support system’ – is actually our greatest enemy, as Carl Jung pointed out eighty years ago or so.

This gives us a very good way of talking about the generic or conditioned identity therefore – we can say that what we are looking at here is a kind of ‘social fiction’ that we are required to identify with if we are to be taken seriously (or even acknowledged at all) by all the people around us, and by the social system as a whole. In a way, this is like having a Social Security number or something like that – if we don’t have a Social Security number then the system literally has no way of recognising us, as far as it is concerned we simply don’t exist. In another way what we’re talking about here isn’t like a Social Security number because it is who we actually experience ourselves as being! We obediently experience ourselves as being ‘who we are told we are’. This is similar to identifying ourselves with our social role, which is something that Jung talks about, but there is more to it than just this because the collectively constructed template (or image) of ‘what it means to be human being’ covers everything, not just what we do or how we behave in certain specific social situations. It covers every single aspect of us, such that if we ever started to become aware of an aspect of ourselves that was not congruent with ‘the socially approved image of what it means to be human being’ then we would experience this as being weird or strange and we would be very likely to be majorly worried about what was happening to us.

It might sound rather absurd to suggest that he could be so socially conditioned to such an extreme degree but if we think this then that is because we have underestimated the power of the consensus reality! When something out of the ordinary happens to us then what we generally do is to tell our ‘friendship group’ about it, or anyone else who can be persuaded to listen to us. If however something happens to me that is so ‘out of the ordinary’ that no one I meet has had any experience with it, nor knows anyone else who has, then obviously I can’t share it – I can try to tell people about it but that just won’t work in this case. The question is therefore, if something happens to me but I can’t tell anyone about it then is what happened actually real? Our inclination is to say yes it is!’ When this sort of thing happens to us (and particularly when it happens consistently enough) we always find that we start doubting ourselves, wondering if perhaps there might be something wrong with us. We might doubt our sanity. Consensus reality isn’t just something that is ‘convenient for communication’ therefore, it defines reality for us. The real purpose of the consensus reality is to define reality. It might have started out as ‘a convenience’ but it has ended up very much more than this. It has ended up being a world. ‘We all say it so it must be true,’ says a spokesman for the Monkey People in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

It is a matter of common experience that if we go up against someone in a debate who happens to be considerably more confident in themselves than we are then we will start to feel that they are right, not because of the sense or otherwise of their arguments but purely as a result of the force of their confidence (which in turn might be said to be a function of their ability to ‘not question themselves’). If this is true in a one-to-one situation (as it obviously is) then how much more true must it be when we are going up against the consensus reality, which is constituted of millions of people all joined up together in one tremendous ‘power block’? The consensus reality never questions itself – it is actually functionally incapable of doing so – and so its power is absolutely immense. The ‘false logic of the monkey people’ rules supreme and it always has done. The coercive power of the ‘collective reality tunnel’ – to use Robert Anton Wilson’s phrase – determines what is real for us and what is not and what it ‘allows as being real’ (what we are actually allowed to talk about or think about) is very, very narrow indeed and, as we have said, ‘narrow’ is just another way saying ‘impoverished’. It isn’t just our picture of what reality (supposedly) is that is extraordinarily impoverished either; it is our conditioned understanding of who or what we are.

Grasping At Peace

The Western world has turned mindfulness into a form of grasping – we are grasping at peace, we are grasping at ‘stillness’. Grasping is grasping however – it doesn’t matter in the least bit what we are grasping for. Naturally, grasping at peace or grasping at stillness isn’t going to work – we’re going wrong straightaway. We’re off on the wrong footing: striving for peace is a perfect self-contradiction, just as making ‘stillness’ into a goal is. Striving (or strategising) is the antithesis of peace and stillness (we might say) is when we stop having goals and trying to reach them!

We spend so much time striving (or ‘conceiving and chasing goals’) – it’s a full-time activity and so we’re fed up with it, exhausted by it, drained by it. The prospect of blessed peace, of abiding serenely in stillness, invokes such yearning for us, therefore. We know on some level that it’s what we need. Who wants to be ‘struggling for results’ the whole time, after all? When it comes down to it, this translates into suffering and nothing else. Striving is always suffering. We are constantly tantalised and unsettled by the thought of ‘something better’ and this keeps us striving and straining, but really this feeling we have that ‘one day we’re going to get there’ isn’t a good thing (even if we think it is); it isn’t a good thing because this mind-created mirage is the reason we’re striving and straining all the time.

We are fed up on a very deep level of struggling and striving the whole time because struggling and striving the whole time is really just a sort of illness. It’s an itch and the more we scratch at it the worse it gets. Constant, never-ending purposeful behaviour is a burden for us and so the prospect of finding relief from it is very attractive indeed – we want a break, we want a holiday from it. What we do then however – without realising the irony of what we’re doing – is to start striving to achieve the state of ‘non-striving’, struggling desperately to reach that place where we don’t have to struggle any more.

‘Not grasping’ is an alien concept to us, in other words – we think we get it but we don’t. We think that ‘not grasping’ is the kind of a thing that we can – as a concept – utilise to benefit ourselves and this sounds reasonable enough to us. Why wouldn’t it seem reasonable? We have discovered that meditation, when regularly practiced, reduces stress and anxiety and produces feelings of well-being and peace and so why wouldn’t we utilise this discovery? It wouldn’t make sense not to do so! This is very obvious logic but because it is so obvious we miss the more subtle point, which is a point that we really need to understand.

The ‘more subtle point’ is the understanding that if we have any notion at all in our heads that we are doing something that is going to benefit us then we are grasping and if we are grasping then we can’t be meditating! As Krishnamurti says [Quote taken from] –

Every decision to control only breeds resistance, even the determination to be aware. Meditation is the understanding of the division brought about by decision. Freedom is not the act of decision but the act of perception. The seeing is the doing. It is not a determination to see and then to act. After all, will is desire with all its contradictions. When one desire assumes authority over another, that desire becomes will. In this there is inevitable division. And meditation is the understanding of desire, not the overcoming of one desire by another. Desire is the movement of sensation, which becomes pleasure and fear. This is sustained by the constant dwelling of thought upon one or the other.

‘Trust Krishnamurti to be awkward,’ we might think but it’s not Krishnamurti that is being awkward here (of course) but life itself. Life is insolubly awkward in this regard; we can’t obtain it by trying to obtain it – the ‘trying’ is precisely what messes it all up! ‘What we cling to we lose,’ as the Buddhist saying goes, and this is a formidably difficult lesson to learn. It’s no hyperbole to say that this is the most difficult lesson to learn full stop. It’s as difficult as it is because it goes totally against the grain, because it is so completely and utterly counterintuitive. It goes against our common sense big time.

‘What we cling to we lose and what we give up we gain,’ we might say, and even though this principle is very easily stated it’s not so easy to put it into practice. The understanding is not so easy to put it into practice because we automatically try to exploit it – we automatically try to exploit all of our insights. We understand that ‘if we give it away then we will gain it’ and so – being clever as we are – we change our tactics to ‘deliberately giving it away’!). This is what happens to so many religiously-minded people – they are being ‘good on purpose,’ but being good on purpose isn’t being good. It’s not the same thing at all. Being ‘good on purpose’ is grasping; all purposeful behaviour is grasping! All purposeful activity is grasping and all we know is purposeful activity. Take this away from us and what have we got left?

Coming back to mindfulness, it is of course perfectly reasonable, perfectly understandable that we would sign up for a course, or start learning by practising on our own, with the idea that this is going to be helpful for us, or that some of our problems may be addressed in this way. We can hardly be blamed for this; if it were not with this particular idea then the chances are that we would have never started practising in the first place! Pain, and the hope of being free from it, is what causes us to go looking for an answer; it also provides us with ample motivation to keep working at it and not give up. The idea that mindfulness is a strategy or tool that can help bring about the desired outcome of more peace (or less suffering) in our lives is therefore absolutely OK, but what needs to happen later on is for us to gain the understanding that meditation is not a sophisticated form of purposefulness and that it cannot be used to bring about some goal or other that we have in mind. The necessary learning is that ‘we cannot have a purpose behind our practice’, in other words.

It is only natural that this awareness will come about (all by itself) as a result of our increasing familiarity with the practice of meditation. What we are learning in meditation is precisely that grasping is counter-productive and that the more we grasp the less peace we will have. We get to see this by observing the mind and we also get to see that ‘grasping at non-grasping’ (or ‘trying to do not-doing’) isn’t going to work either. We can’t intend to have no intention and we can’t have an agenda to drop all our agendas. What are we doing in meditation is cultivating awareness and awareness is the state of non-grasping. It’s the thing that has ‘nothing to do with us’, in other words. Within the context of the particular type of culture that we are part of (which is a rational/purposeful culture) this understanding gets jinxed however. It gets jinxed because it is so very hard to separate ourselves from the society that we are part of and which duly determines our implicit understanding of life and who we are.

So because of the way in which we as a culture do over-value purposefulness (and it can hardly be doubted that we do so; all we have to do is look at all of our talk of tools and strategies and of managing this, that or the other and of beating depression and combating anxiety, and so on and so forth) those of us whose job it is to run mindfulness courses don’t appreciate how vital it is to give up our agendas and goals, and give up our desire for things to change as a result of practising meditation. As a result of this lack of insight what happens is that we end up being bizarrely split in two – we work harder and harder at ‘not grasping’ in a meditation practice but behind it all we have this big rational agenda for ‘things to change’. Mindfulness has become the tool of the rational mind in other words, and that’s getting it the wrong way around.

If we are using mindfulness as a tool then it is never going to work for us. It can’t work because we are putting thought in the driving seat when it was overvaluing rationality that created all our problems in the first place. This isn’t to say that ‘using mindfulness as a tool of the rational mind’ won’t result in any benefits because it can but rather that any benefits obtained will be paid for later on in terms of other difficulties that have not yet made themselves known to us. All systems are like this – they take us around in circles, they provide short-term benefits at the cost of long-term snags. They create new problems as they solve the old ones. This is a double-bind, as Alan Watts says. It is what Gregory Bateson refers to as ‘the cybernetic paradox’) and what Ivan Illich – speaking from a sociological viewpoint, calls specific counterproductivity. We’re trying to get somewhere and yet at the same time hang on to our ideas about the world and this isn’t ever going to work. We’re chaining ourselves to our underlying assumptions and so how is anything ever going to change?

The only way we can genuinely change is if we let go of control completely, and this happens to be the one thing we don’t want to do! We don’t want to ‘go all the way,’ even though we might like to pretend to ourselves that we do. We’re dipping our toes in the water but that’s as far as we’re ever going to go! We’re ‘playing at embracing change’ but that doesn’t mean a thing. The bottom line (which we very rarely own up to) is that we are terrified of letting go of control (this is what being ‘over-invested in purposefulness’ always means, of course) and so we put on a good show even though our heart isn’t really in it. Meditation – Krishnamurti says – is ‘a movement happens all by itself’ and just as long as we (however surreptitiously) are trying to ‘have a hand in that movement’ it is never going to happen.

Being Possessed By The Positive Self

The true nature of who we are isn’t what we say we are, it’s what we don’t say. And yet just about all we ever do is go around saying who or what we are! We weave a dense and sticky web of identity, and then get caught up in it. The more we try to say who we are (and the more we believe in what we’re saying) the more tangled up we get.

The culture that we are part of may be described in lots of different ways – it has been described as a rational culture, a technological culture, a consumer culture, a materialist culture, and so on but what it really is – most essentially – is the culture of the positive self. The ‘positive self’ is the known self, the self that can be described and communicated to others. Our culture is all about the positive self and the reason we can’t see this to be true is because we take the positive self so very much for granted that it’s just not an issue for us. It’s not an issue for us any more than the fact that the sky is blue is an issue. The only time we do get our attention drawn to the limitations of the positive self is when it starts to develop ‘aches and pains’ (so to speak) and then of course we become painfully aware of it, just as we become painfully aware of our kidneys when we have a kidney infection.

This analogy is fine up to a point but where it breaks down is in the fact that the positive self isn’t legitimately part of us. The positive self is a construct, or as we might also say, it is ‘an artificial implant’; just as Carlos Castaneda says that our mind is not our own but a ‘foreign installation’, so too is the thought-created identity that this mind has provided us with. Inasmuch as ‘who we are’ and ‘what we are about’ makes sense to our fellow human beings (or to society in general) then who we understand ourselves to be is an arbitrary mental construct or ‘foreign installation’. We have been tricked in a very fundamental way and there can be no two ways about this. If we are to understand anything in life it ought to be this. If we don’t understand it then everything we do is in vain!

What this means is that ‘the need to exist’ or rather, ‘the need to be recognised as existing’ becomes the same thing as ‘the need to identify with the societal construct of who we are and what we are about’; if we don’t do this then we just won’t be acknowledged as existing. We will be ‘unpeople’. The need to exist and have a place in the world is very strong of course; just as it is natural for a tree to grow and put out roots and branches, it is also natural for us to want to be acknowledged as existing and find our proper place in this world, to ‘belong’, as it is said. But what’s happening here is that this natural urge is being subverted so that all about energy goes in the ‘wrong direction’, so to speak. It’s the wrong direction simply because it benefits the positive self; it benefits the mask we are wearing, and not the one who is wearing the mask. What is beneficial to the image is harmful to us.

The whole of society is nothing more than a game for benefiting the positive or stated self, when it comes down to it. It’s true that our bodies benefit from improved health care, improved sanitation, having an environment to live in which is relatively free from danger and disease, but we never pause to wonder who it is that is routinely inhabiting this body of ours, and whether that inhabitant is us. We never stop to wonder whether it is us, or whether it is some cuckoo-like pretender that been implanted and has somehow taken over! This is of course such an outrageous suggestion that no one is ever going to take it seriously. It’s extremely unlikely that anyone is going to give this idea the time of day – the notion that I might have made the mistake of identifying with false persona, a false self, a false idea of who I am, is not one that is ever going to occur to me, not in the usual run of things. And yet this is precisely the danger that Carl Jung warned of over seventy years ago, the danger that the social persona will ‘grow onto our flesh’ and end up living our lives for us, ‘on behalf of us’, so to speak. After talking about how we can be ‘possessed by ideas’, as strange as this may sound, Jung, in Collected Works 9(1) p, 123, goes on to say this:

A common instance of this is identity with the persona, which is the individual’s system of adaptation to, or the manner he assumes in dealing with, the world. Every calling or profession, for example, has its own characteristic persona. It is easy to study these things nowadays, when the photographs of public personalities so frequently appear in the press. A certain kind of behaviour is forced on them by the world, and professional people endeavour to come up to these expectations. Only, the danger is that they become identical to their personas – the professor with his text-book, the tenor with his voice. Then the damage is done; henceforth he lives exclusively against the background of his own biography. For by that time it is written: “…then he went to such and such a place and said this or that,” etc. The garment of Deianeira has grown fast to his skin, and a desperate decision like that of Heracles is needed if he is to tear this Nessus shirt from his body and step into the consuming fire of the flame of immortality, in order to transform himself into what he really is. One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is. In any case, the temptation to be what one seems to be is great, because the persona is usually rewarded in cash.

The writer Colin Wilson approaches this from a different angle when he says that we hand over our responsibility for living our lives to a collection of habits and reflexes which he calls ‘the robot’. (For the sake of convenience) I don’t have to answer the front door myself – my butler will do that for me. Similarly, I don’t have to live my life for myself – the robot will take care of that! As Colin Wilson says here (in a quote taken from a conversation Jeffrey Mishlove on

Yes, well, you see, the basic point about the philosophy of Gurdjieff, and I suppose about my own basic ideas, is this recognition that we have inside us what I call the robot — a sort of robot valet or servant who does things for you. So you learn something like talking French or driving a car or skiing or whatever, painfully and consciously, step by step. Then the robot takes it over and does it far more quickly and efficiently that you could do it consciously. However, the important thing is not to interfere with the robot once he’s learned it, because you completely screw him up if you do. Now, the robot does all these valuable things like talking French and so on for us. The trouble is he also does the things we do not want him to do. We listen to a piece of music; it moves us deeply the first time. We read a poem, we go for a country walk, whatever, and it moves us. But the second or third time you do it, the robot is listening to the music or reading the poetry or doing the country walk for you. I said I’ve even caught him making love to my wife. And this is our real problem — that the robot keeps taking us over and doing the things that we would rather do.

Convenience is of course a great thing as we all know, but when things get this convenient (when convenience gets taken to the logical extreme and we don’t actually have to be there any more) then it stops being ‘convenient’ and becomes something else entirely! It stops being a good thing becomes a very bad thing indeed – after all, who wants to get to the end of their life and only then realise that it wasn’t them that lived it, but rather that the ‘captain at the helm’ was a mere collection of habits and reflexes? That is like having a ghost live your life instead of you because you couldn’t be bothered to step in yourself, because you were ‘otherwise engaged’. Or we could say that it’s like being banned by the authorities from attending your own birthday party – what’s the point of having a birthday party if you yourself are not invited, or if you yourself are a ‘persona non grata’?

This turns out to be exactly the case when cuckoo-like positive self gets to manoeuvre itself sneakily into the ‘prime position’ – the first thing it does is to get rid of any remaining traces of who we really are and thus our true individuality becomes the unwelcome guest, the one who is unceremoniously shown the door every time they put in an appearance. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead there is a line that says something to the effect that if we spend our entire lives being interested in nonsense that has nothing to do with us (and which we’re not even really interested in any way) then at the end of our life we will find that we have been our own betrayers! We’ve done the dirty on ourselves and sold ourselves up the river as a result of identifying with the ‘false or shallow sense of ourselves’, and constantly seeking benefits for this false idea of who we are at the expense of our true nature. In Christianity this is equivalent to the idea of selling us soul to the devil in return for paltry material advantages in this brief lifetime. It might seem like a good time at the time (because we’re not really thinking it through) but when we discover that we have been cheated of the only thing that is actually worth something this is going to be a very hard awareness to have to face up to.

The positive self most definitely is something that we adopt for the sake of convenience.  It is convenient because it is known to us, and thus no work is needed to investigate it (as a philosopher or mystic might do) and it is also convenient because this is how we get to be ‘optimally adapted to the social world in which we find ourselves’. This process (which is very much akin to the ‘slippery slope into addiction’ that is talked about by recovering addicts) starts at a very early age, as we all know. It starts when, as a result of the need to be accepted and loved, we try to become the sort of people that our parents want us to be rather than remaining true to really are. Then at school we are under further pressure to fit into the crowd and be the sort of person who is popular rather than unpopular (or at least, the sort of person who is inconspicuous rather than the sort who sticks out as being somewhat odd and is liable on this account to be given a hard time). This process – needless to say – doesn’t stop at school but continues throughout our adult life too – just as long as we are part of a collective then are going to be under pressure to conform to that collective and this is a process that (as Jung says) brings material short-term benefits at a terrible long-term cost. We spend all our time grasping at tacky phantoms, and missed what was really there.

This cost is – then – that we end up cheating ourselves out of our own lives and the awareness that this has happened (the awareness that this is what we have unwittingly done) is one of the most painful awarenesses is that it’s possible to have, if not the most painful. In our decidedly unphilosophical culture we tend to label this sort of terribly painful awareness ‘depression’ and we think that it is something that can be cured by pills or a dozen sessions of talking therapy, which is rather an odd idea to say the least. As in all the neurotic conditions, we don’t tend to understand our experience in this way when we ourselves happen to be suffering from depression – our social milieu doesn’t support an insight such as this, as we have already said. It is seen as a pathological manifestation, a sickness, and because our experience is so very painful we tend to see it this way too. We certainly don’t think that there is anything good about it. We think that there is something wrong with us, possibly something organically wrong but we also believe that we are suffering from some kind of very serious moral failing (or character failing) as well. We might feel like bad people – undeserving of happiness, and undeserving of life itself. We might feel deserving of punishment or death.

These feelings are real and the pain that is in them is real, but our interpretation is distorted because of our identification with the false self that has been so conveniently created for us by our thoughts, and by the insidious process of socialisation. If I feel undeserving of happiness, undeserving of life, and that there is something terribly wrong with me at my core, this is just a distorted version of the awareness that the positive or defined self is not who I am. I feel like a fake or phony or if I feel that I am not truly alive (but am only a hollow shell) then this too is a distorted echo (or inversion) of the insight regarding the false nature of the positive self, and the way that it functions by passing itself off as what it isn’t.  By association with the false self, we are guilty of the crime of taking what never belong to us, and disenfranchising the true heir (so to speak). As soon as we stop confusing who we are with the positive self these feelings of guilt and self-loathing or self-condemnation will pass, but this can only happen when we see through the superficial culture that surrounds us, which endlessly and pointlessly celebrates the tawdry ‘known image’ in place of the mystery which it obscures.