Life In The Box

So let’s suppose – just for the sake of the argument – that we have all been tricked or short-changed in the way that we have just been talking about. Let us assume that we have been pawned off with ‘a dummy reality’, a reality which a pale and tasteless imitation of the true thing. And – after all – since the way thought works is by ‘oversimplifying reality so as to make it agree with its categories’ (i.e. by steadfastly ignoring anything that doesn’t agree with them) it’s pretty much a dead certainty that this is the case! Assuming therefore that this is so, we can then ask what the psychological consequences might be of us being the victims of such a trick.

 

All we need to do – in order to arrive at some conclusions in this direction – is to think about all the ways all the things we can’t do in the fake reality. For example, we can’t be genuinely curious about anything, that capacity is lost to us. The reason why we can’t be curious any more is simply because there is nothing in the artificial world to be curious about! When reality is simplified down by only allowing that aspect of it which agrees with our assumptions (our’ evaluated criteria’, our’ categories’) then of course there’s nothing of interest in it. The only content that’s there is the content that we ourselves have put in it, so how can this possibly be said by any stretch of the imagination to be ‘interesting’?

 

When the content of my world is only what I myself have allowed or permitted to be there then my relationship with this predetermined content cannot be said to be one of ‘interest’. Curiosity cannot come into it; curiosity has no place in this world. They can be a kind of relationship to the prescribed content (obviously enough, since we do relate in some way to the artificial or oversimplified world) but it’s a relationship of a very different type. We can try to explain it by saying that it is somewhat akin to the relationship of miser has his goal, or the type of relationship an accountant has with his figures.

 

In the case of the miser (or the accountant) involved in an exercise in stock-taking there is a definite type of motivation involved – on the one hand there is the pleasure that comes with getting everything to add up properly, and on the other hand there is the annoyance and frustration, and ultimately despair, that come about when we can’t get the accounts to balance properly. This general setup is characterised by the fact that there is a’ ideal state’, which, if we meet it, will bring us great satisfaction – the target has been met, the criterion fulfilled. In short, the rule has been successfully obeyed. In the narrow or closed world, when the rule has been successfully obeyed then this is the ‘ultimate good’.

 

In the case of the miser, we may say that when he checks up on his stash and discovers that it’s all there, then this is the ideal. The discovery that’ ‘all my gold is there’ is what creates the pleasure or satisfaction. By the same token, when our miser checks his stash of gold and discovers that it’s not all there (or, even worse, he discovers that it’s all gone) then it is pain instead of pleasure that we get. What greater despair could there be than the despair of the miser who one day discovers that his stash has been stolen? All the pleasure that he has obtained as a result of ‘successful counting’ is now turned on its head and becomes its exact opposite. The more we have gloated, the more bitter is the despair when what we have been gloating over is one day taken away from us.

 

With regard to the accountant checking his figures, we can say that when the figures all balance out (when the debit column balances the credit column) then this (within the very narrow and rigid terms of reference of the accountancy game) is the ‘ultimate good’ – nothing trumps this, nothing feels better than this. And again – by the same token – when the columns don’t balance out then this is the ultimate disaster, the ultimate ‘disagreeable outcome’. This is the accountant’s nightmare. We can see from this discussion that simplifying reality (into a neat exercise in accountancy) automatically results in the situation where there is an’ absolute good outcome’ and the corresponding ‘absolute bad outcome’. If we weren’t simplifying reality down in this way and there couldn’t be any such thing as ‘an absolute bad/good outcome’ – this can only happen when we take a very narrow view of things. When we take the broad view, then all the so-called ‘absolutes get relativized (which is to say, they get turned into ‘non-absolutes’).

 

In a nutshell, what we talking about here are games, and the process of ‘turning games into reality’. When we turn reality into a game then straightaway we have the possibility of euphoria, along with the corresponding possibility of dysphoria. We all know this anyway of course – we all know that games contain the possibility of feeling euphoric and the corresponding possibility of feeling dysphoric. That’s why we play games, after all – we’re hoping to feel triumph rather than despair. This is what games are all about! There is a motivation for playing games therefore, but this motivation – as we have said – has nothing at all to do with curiosity! It can’t have anything to do with curiosity because there’s nothing to be curious about in the game. There’s nothing new in games (they can’t be anything new in games because a game is all about following the rules). The motivation in games have to do with arriving at a predetermined ‘known’ state that is nominated as being, for some reason, the ‘optimal one’. We can’t really ask ‘optimal for what’ because there is no answer to this; the only answer is ‘optimal for the game’. A game doesn’t acknowledge anything outside of it – if it were to do so then its integrity as a game would be fatally compromised.

 

This is of course exactly how thought works – it works by ‘creating a box and then not looking outside of it’. That’s the only way thought can work: there could be no such thing as ‘thinking’ if we didn’t do this! Before any logical process can happen we have to ‘limit the field’ (we have to ‘simplify the universe’, in other worlds). If we didn’t then we wouldn’t be able to create a definite model or theory of the world; we wouldn’t be able to define anything and if we can’t define things then we can’t think about them! It’s very hard thinking about something if you don’t know what that ‘something’ is it’s very hard thinking about radical uncertainty.

 

Representing our situation to ourselves in oversimplified way is of course a perfectly legitimate thing to do – if we didn’t discard all the irrelevant details then we’d never be able to get on with the job at hand. If I’m cooking a meal for example, and I allow myself to get interested in all sorts of random things that don’t have anything to do with the preparation of the meal, then this isn’t going to help me in my task. In all probability, the meal is going to turn out to be completely inedible. So when it comes to specific tasks like cooking food then it’s not just’ legitimate’ to disregard the relevant, it’s completely necessary. It’s necessary for the sake of doing whatever it is we’re doing! This isn’t to say that’ oversimplifying the universe’ is legitimate and necessary in any absolute sense therefore; only that it is necessary or legitimate in relation to this very specific goal.

 

This of course turns out to be the critically important point – this is exactly where (in one sense, anyway) it all goes wrong! Instead of being aware that our oversimplified view of the world (our ‘box’) is only necessary in relation to the pragmatic goal that is to be achieved (which means ‘keeping our awareness or some part of our awareness outside the box, so to speak) we get caught up in having the oversimplified version of the world on the table the whole time, for no pragmatic reason at all. We then get caught up living in a box without knowing that we are (without knowing that the box is a box) and we continue living our lives in this vastly oversimplified basis. Our superficial view of the world has now (for some obscure reason) become absolutely legitimate, absolutely necessary. And the other way of putting this is of course to say that it has now become absolutely illegitimate (or taboo) for us to ever depart from the oversimplified view, or admit or infer in any fashion that this might be a possibility.

 

On the face of it, we might say that this is a completely bizarre development – what on earth is there to gain from it? What could possibly be behind such a strange thing? On the face of it, from a psychologically naïve point of view, this might be a counter-intuitive, if not to say completely incomprehensible, development, but the point of view that is not psychologically naïve, it all starts to make sense rather quickly. This is a very basic human trait after all – hiding, running away, going into full retreat from openness. This is the operation of fear. When we ‘limit the field’ certain things pop into existence, as we have already mentioned. They’re not real things of course, but they are ‘things of a sort’. As we’ve already said, the possibility of definition comes into play. Definition doesn’t really exist, it is just something that’s imposed, not something that exists in itself, but when we’ limit the field’ (which again, isn’t actually a ‘real action’) then definitions (and the defined world) nevertheless comes into apparent existence.

 

When definitions come into play then – needless to say! – things get defined. All of a sudden they are all these definite things jostling around together, bouncing off each other, interacting with each other. Rule-based processes come into being, ‘logic’ comes into being, linear transformations come into being, orderly systems come into being. A whole ‘kind of’ world pops up – the world of mechanical order. This is like a company or organization coming into being, complete with all its policies and procedures. The point is therefore that – according to its own logic – the logical system has every reason for being there, every reason for existing. And yet – at the same time – the truth of the matter is that there’s no reason for it being there, no reason for it existing. Of course there is no ‘real reason’ for the logical system being there; it’s all just an artificial imposition, it’s all just a game. It’s only important from its own perspective. It’s an artificial imposition that has become ‘necessary’; it’s a game that has become real.

 

If we wanted to be more specific about what is happening here, we could say that what comes into apparent being as a result of us creating an oversimplified version of reality, as a result of ‘limiting the field’, as a result of ‘being constrained within a box that we cannot see to be a box’, we end up with the defined or conditioned self, which is the quintessential ‘game that has become real’. This is, naturally enough, a particularly hard thing for us to understand. It’s hard for us to understand because, we are almost entirely at the mercy of the framework which tells us what is real and what is not real. This framework tells us that the defined self is real (because definitions and defined things are real) and it implicitly tells us that anything outside of the framework (which is who we really are) is real. This is how frameworks (or ‘boxes’) work after all – by implicitly denying that there is anything outside of the box.

 

‘Living in the box’ means being disconnected from ‘mind at large’, to use Aldous Huxley’s term. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t any such thing as ‘mind at large’ (or ‘unconditioned consciousness’) – it just means that we are pragmatically disconnected from it. It just means that we are profoundly alienated from it. In pragmatic terms it’s exactly as if unconditioned consciousness does not exist – for us it doesn’t. The nonexistence of unconditioned consciousness (or ‘mind at large’) is however an entirely ‘subjective non-existence’ – it is a manifestation of our blindness. When we live in the world of definitions it is impossible to see beyond this world – it’s impossible to see how a ‘defined thing’ has no actual inherent thing-like nature, only the ‘apparent thing-like nature’ that we ourselves give it.

 

 

In the defined world (i.e. the ‘conceptual reality’) there is no place for curiosity as we have already said, and this ‘anomaly’ ought to tip us off that there is something artificial about it, something about it that is ‘not right’. How can we live without curiosity, after all? What degraded form of life would that be? And yet, for the most part, we don’t notice anything amiss. We take it as normal. On the whole, we don’t ‘smell a rat’ and the reason for this – as we have said – is that curiosity gets substituted for by an entirely humourless ‘concern with obtaining the positive outcome’. This ‘concern with outcomes’ which keeps us so busy, keeps us so ‘consumed’, that we simply never have the time to notice that we have no actual curiosity about life any more. This is the way the whole world has gone – we’re all ‘obsessed with outcomes’, we’re all ‘humourlessly concerned with goals and ego-competitions’, and no one seems to think that there’s anything wrong with this. It’s actually a sickness. It’s an abdication of our true nature; it’s an abdication of our true (open) nature in favour of ‘life in the box’….

 

 

 

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Mindfulness Myths

Mindfulness is packaged and sold as some kind of marvellous thing that can (in a scientifically provable way) reduce stress, increase resilience, immune response, concentration, clarity of mind and productivity, and plenty more besides. All of this hype is however selling mindfulness short in a very important way.  That mindfulness or meditation can result in all of these benefits are undoubtedly true but to focus on the benefits in this way is to miss the point. Worse than merely ‘missing the point’, we are going down the wrong road entirely. We are looking at mindfulness in terms of outcomes and this is putting the cart in front of the horse.

 

What we are doing here is promoting mindfulness as yet another tool in our arsenal of tools, and when we do this we get everything backwards. The reason we’re getting everything backwards when we do this is because we’re putting all the emphasis on the wrong place – we’re putting all the emphasis on ‘how we can work more effectively (or live less stressfully) within the given system’ and this isn’t what mindfulness is about. Mindfulness isn’t about becoming better adapted to the system that we happen to find ourselves in – it’s about being able to question that system, it’s about becoming independent from it. Mindfulness (or meditation) isn’t a tool that we can focus or direct narrowly where we want it – it’s not something we can control in that way at all. It’s more like a crate full of sweaty dynamite; we know that it’s liable to explode at some point, but we don’t know what the result of the explosion will be, and we certainly can’t direct it.

 

Another way of putting this is to say that mindfulness isn’t something that we can use to enhance the performance of ‘the self we think we are’. That’s what we are generally told – we’re told all the benefits and that – naturally enough – sounds very attractive to us, but this isn’t really the way it works at all. These ‘benefits’ come from ‘letting go of the self we think we are’, which means that the benefits we like the sound of so much can’t really be for that self. The benefits in question only come from relinquishing this shallow idea that we have of ourselves. As Ajahn Chah says,

 

If you let go a little you will have a little happiness. If you let go a lot you will have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely you will be free.

 

It’s not just that we have to let go of various things that we are attached to, the things that we either love or hate, things that we might want for ourselves or are afraid of. Simultaneously, we also have to let go of ‘the one who has these attachments’. Letting go means letting go of our idea of ourselves. This is what ‘letting go’ is really all about – it’s not a question of giving up this or that bad habit in order to benefit ourselves; it’s a question of letting go of the illusion of who we think we are (which is actually our only reason for doing anything, including ‘trying to let go’). We let go of the notion that there is someone there who has to let go! In short – we let go of everything, including our scientifically-proven ideas of benefiting ourselves.

 

‘Letting go’ isn’t a tool. It isn’t something we do in order to obtain a particular result or get a particular benefit. If it were, then it wouldn’t be ‘letting go’! Obviously enough, tools are the very opposite of ‘letting go’. This is all alien to our Western rational/purposeful way of looking at things – tools are all we know, control is all we know. If something can’t be used as a tool then we just not interested – we call such things ‘useless’ and we have no time for them. Saying that we’re only interested in tools (or that we’re only interested in ‘control’) is of course just another way of saying that we’re interested in looking outwards, at results, rather than looking inwards at the question of ‘why we should want those results’. The more the emphasis there is on results (or control) the less the emphasis there is going to be on ‘reflecting upon our basic assumptions’. When all the emphasis is on control then there is no emphasis on ‘why we want to control’; when all the emphasis is on tools then there is no emphasis on thinking about why it is that we need them!

 

We are not a philosophical culture. There’s no way that anyone can say that we are – that would be ridiculous! All of our attention is directed outwards onto outcomes. It’s all about outcomes; it’s all about purposeful doing. Quite possibly, we are the least introspective people ever to walk the face of the earth – we’re all about the image that we have of ourselves, and the banal never-ending business of protecting / promoting this image. We are not all about questioning our basic assumptions about who we are and what life is all about. Such philosophical considerations are for fools as far as we are concerned! We see ourselves as being practical and ‘hard-headed’ – the truth is rather that we are obtuse and at the same time perversely proud of it. We are working hard to benefit ourselves – even if the ‘self’ we are working to benefit doesn’t actually exist…

 

Our immensely conservative, control-based attitude is nothing to boast about, nothing to feel good about. It’s only ‘fear turned into a virtue’. As Sogyal Rinpoche says, it’s not just possible, it’s nearly 100% certain that we will spend our entire lives hypnotized by the mass-produced images and ideas and never coming close to finding out who we really are. This is what our civilization is geared towards, after all – it’s geared towards protecting us from the terrifying challenge of having to question our basic assumptions. It’s because we are running away from looking at our assumptions about life that we are so focussed on control, so focussed on ‘looking outside of ourselves’, and our culture is fully supporting us in this endeavour. The world outside of us is only a reflection of our inner attitude, after all. If society not only supports but enforces our running away from ourselves it is because – deep-down –this is what we want it to do.

 

Genuinely looking within is a game-changer of the very highest order. There is no game-changer like it, and there never could be! Krishnamurti called this ‘the only revolution’ to distinguish it from all of our superficial political or social revolutions. Awareness of what’s really going on inside us comes as a total revolution and the reason it comes as a total revolution is because we’re questioning the bedrock of all our beliefs; we calling into question the lynchpin upon which the whole world turns – the idea we have of ‘who we are’. If this idea goes then everything goes – this is the biggest ‘paradigm shift’ there ever could be. There could be no stranger and more unexpected thing for us than seeing what the world looks like when it ISN’T seen from the POV of the control-loving, tool-using rational-purposeful self. This is like ‘the universe next door’ – it’s there all the time but we’ll never see it. We’ll never see it because we’re not at all interested in seeing it, and we’re not interested in seeing it because it’s not any ‘use’ to us!

 

We’d be going against all our conditioning to take an interest in life as it is when its not lived on behalf of the narcissistic compartmentalized self. As far as we’re concerned we’d be going against ourselves, since all we know of ourselves is our conditioning. Society – we might say – requires us to be narcissistic consumers. It wouldn’t hold together otherwise – society needs us to be narrowly self-interested and not-at-all interested in ‘the bigger picture’. It relies on that. What we call ‘society’ (or perhaps ‘the system’) is the game we play to protect ourselves from seeing that this superficial self-image that we have passively identified with isn’t who really we are. The function of the game is to distract us from seeing the truth, in other words. This is of course the function of the game – what else would it be, other than ‘distraction from the truth’?

 

Living on the basis of the narcissistic compartmentalized self (or self-image) isn’t a happy situation however – there’s no actual joy in it. There’s no joy or happiness possible in the game because it’s only a game – we need hardly say this! It’s all happening on a false basis, it’s all happening on the basis of ‘let’s pretend’ and so there’s never going to be any fulfilment for us here, only anxiety, depression and alienation. To imagine, therefore, as the purveyors of corporate mindfulness do, that the chronic unhappiness that afflicts the game-playing self (the ‘self-who-we’re-not’) can be ameliorated by the judicious application of standardized meditation techniques is ridiculous – the only cure for the unsatisfactoriness of our situation is for us to wake up and see that we aren’t at all who or what we think we are. The only ‘cure’ is the radical one. No one actually wants this, however. No one wants a radical paradigm shift. Who would benefit, after all? Who’s going to make a profit?