Living The Stereotype

We live our lives in a world that is made up of other people’s thoughts, other people’s thinking. This is an idea which we can all relate to on a more-or-less superficial level, but which actually goes far deeper than we might imagine. We generally believe that thought ‘sheds light on the world’ and that each idea (once it has been scientifically approved of and added to our store of knowledge) takes us a little bit further in the direction of the truth, but that just isn’t how thinking works! We don’t – as a culture – validate thoughts or ideas for ourselves because they are true, but because they fit what we want to hear, because they provide us with ontological security. Each additional thoughts or idea about reality takes us further and further away from the truth, not closer to it. We claim – both individually and personally – to be interested in knowing the truth, but this doesn’t actually turn out to be the truth! We lie when we say we’re interested in the truth…

Living in a world that is constructed out of other people’s thoughts (which is what Robert Anton Wilson refers to as ‘our consensus reality tunnel’) turns out to be a total disaster because it takes something very important (or rather something essential) away from us and that is the chance that we have to live our lives ourselves, ‘first hand’, as it were. When this possibility is taken away from us this leaves us nothing with nothing at all – just a faded copy of life, just a poor shadow of the real thing. We are left in the position of having been cheated out of life itself and yet – despite this – we never protest. We don’t take to the streets in outrage – we don’t even see anything wrong with this way of doing things. As G.I. Gurdjieff says,

This strange trait of their general psyche, namely, of being satisfied with just what Smith or Brown says, without trying to know more, became rooted in them already long ago, and now they no longer strive at all to know anything cognizable by their own active deliberations alone.

Not only do we see nothing wrong with this setup, we see it as an opportunity for us to advance ourselves, an opportunity for us to do well in life and prove our worth. What we don’t stop to consider in our mad rush to make something of ourselves (and to avail ourselves of whatever is out there to to be availed of) is that there is something essential which we’ve quite forgotten about. We’ve forgotten to ‘check things out for ourselves’ rather than taking everything on trust and this means that we are in great danger of proceeding on a totally false (if not to say totally ludicrous) basis. And if our starting-off point is wrong then it doesn’t matter how much effort we put into what we’re doing, it’s all going to be ‘precious drinking water poured into the parched desert sands’ -we’ll never get it back and it won’t do the slightest bit of good to anybody. This is what J.G. Bennett refers to as the principle of Waste.

It’s as if we’re handed a parcel upon entering this world, and we’re told that it contains something very valuable in it (namely life) which we must be sure not to waste or throw away, but then we never bother to take a look at so as to see what it really is. Other people have told us what’s in it, what it entails, and how should go about living it, etc., and so we never bother to find out for ourselves. We take what we have been told on trust, just as those who are telling us took it on trust, and as a result of this misplaced trust we enter into the Circle of Confusion which is what ensues when ‘everyone copies everyone else’. We are provided – in effect – with The Book of Rules and all the emphasis is on correctly following these rules. No emphasis at all is placed upon investigating the rules and checking out their provenance. Quite the contrary is true – we are actively discouraged from doing so. We will be punished most severely for questioning them, for daring to think that we know better…

There are rewards for believing in the Presented Reality (in the same way that Jung says that there are rewards for pretending to be identical with our societal roles or masks) and this is what causes us to adapt to the template that is being offered to us. We’re getting on board with the story that’s being told us (because that story seems to be ‘where it’s at’, ‘where it’s all happening’) but it turns out that this is a path that takes us nowhere at all since it’s not actually our life we’re living but someone else’s second-hand idea about what that life should be. ‘Agreeing with the idea’ brings approval and acceptance and all that sort of stuff, but because the idea we’re agreeing with is what we might call ‘a hollow cliché’ or ‘blank stereotype’ this act of reckless identification it’s hardly going to pay out any dividends for us further down the line, which we’ve been told we can expect. We’ve been told that if we follow the rules then we’ll go to heaven but that just isn’t true – it’s just a device to sucker us, it’s just a trick to get us to play ball…

It’s not that anyone is deliberately deceiving us (although this can happen too, of course) there’s nothing deliberat a about what we’re describing here since everyone else is in exactly the same boat as us. Everyone else is doing exactly what we’re doing, which is ‘trusting the story of things that is being put about’. We might feel that we’re different and individual and not like every other random person on the street but inasmuch as we are buying into the same story of things that everyone else is buying into we are just another version of them. We’re another version of them because ‘the story of things’ we buy into defines us (rather than vice versa) – it tells us who we are and we can’t help believing it. ‘Heedless social adaptation’ is a mistake that we’ve been making for as long as human beings have existed; it’s a mistake that everyone makes, a hole that we all fall down, and – what’s more – it’s a mistake we don’t ever seem to learn from, a hole that we never climb out of. We just keep on repeating the same old mistake over and over again.

We’re drowning in a sea of ontological insecurity but instead of helping each other we’re pulling each other down (in our panic) into the mire of false identification; it isn’t the ‘sea of ontological insecurity’ that’s the mire but rather our attempted solution to it. Just as a drowning man might drown someone who comes to try to save him (unless they are cautious) so too we make matters worse for ourselves by trying to hold onto (and thereby ‘make real’) stuff that isn’t real. The only thing that can save us from our fate – the fate of ‘unquestioningly holding on to the official-but-untrue narrative of things’ – is the courage to go it alone, the courage not to grasp on to the framework of ideas that everyone else has grasped onto in the attempt to save themselves. Trying to save ourselves doesn’t work – trying to save ourselves is how we sink ourselves! The only thing that does work is for us not to attempt to save ourselves (which means not compulsively buying into some convenient narrative’). When we try to save ourselves we enmesh ourselves in thought all the more and thought – like a heavy iron chain – unfailingly sinks us. Thought is ‘our attempt to hold on’ and the problem with this – as we’ve just said – is that there’s nothing there to hold onto. This means that it is our ‘attempted holding on’ that is the problem, and not the lack of anything to hold onto.

There is – we might say- a ‘psychological principle’ here that we can’t afford to ignore, a principle which states that a generic, virally-propagated idea of ‘what our life should be’ isn’t a legitimate substitute for us discovering, first hand (in a totally unique fashion) the truth for ourselves. Ignoring this principle means that we will pay a very high price in the form of suffering and while it’s easy enough to say the word ‘suffering’ and talk about it as if we actually know what we’re on about, when the thing itself comes along it’s a different story. The mistake we make is to ‘go along with a cheap copy for the sake of not having to make too much effort’ which – as everyone knows – is always a false saving. If I were to have an operation to replace a valve in my heart with a prosthetic unit then you can be sure that I won’t go for a ‘knock-off copy of a reputable brand’ just for the sake of saving a bit of money, and yet – when it comes to life itselfit seems that we couldn’t care less! It looks very much as if – for us – ‘saving money’ is the only consideration that matters…

The Great Deception

We start off in life with what looks like a wide, wide road ahead of us – a road that branches off in all directions, a road that could potentially lead us anywhere at all. As we make our way down this road however it closes in on us more and more until before very long all we’re left with is the one very narrow track that has been allotted to us, a track that only takes us in the one direction, whether we happen to like it or not. This process is called ‘becoming an adult’.


In one way it is true that a huge field of possibilities lies ahead of us when we start off in life. Of course this is true – life itself lies ahead of us!  The road we’re on is as wide as life itself and there’s no telling where it will lead us. Something happens to narrow the possibilities that are available to us however, without us ever realizing that any ‘narrowing of possibilities’ is happening to us. This is what we might call ‘the imperceptible erosion of life’. We all know that this process happens, even if – naturally enough – we may not want to focus on it too much. We instinctively know that life shouldn’t be like this – that it shouldn’t be a ‘narrowing down of possibilities’ – and yet somehow it is. Entropy sets in, and makes the pattern of our life ever more predictable.


In one way this is a perfectly natural process – entropy isn’t something that human beings invented, after all. This ‘narrowing down’ occurs as a result of us getting trapped in our own habits, our own opinions, our own beliefs about ourselves and the world. We cherish these opinions and beliefs of ours, and yet at the same time they strangle us slowly but surely. The sense of security they engender blinds us to the fact that we are fashioning our own prison, brick by brick. We can call this a ‘natural process’ because it happens as a result of our own doing therefore – no one forces us to build a prison cell of belief for ourselves. We are our own very willing jailers. We get trapped in our own mental habits, which solidify around us and block out the wider view. In The Dawn of Tantra (1975) Guenther and Trungpa speak of this process as ‘going astray’ or ‘falling into error’ –

The process of transformation which we have described is one of growing narrowness and frozenness.  We are somehow tied down to our senses, to the ordinary mode of perception.  We dimly feel that something else might have been possible.  If we try to express this situation in traditional religious terms, we might say that man is a fallen being.  But here he has not fallen because he has sinned or transgressed some commandment coming from outside him, but by the very fact that he has moved in a certain direction.  This is technically know in Buddhism as bhranti in Sanskrit and ‘Khrul-pa in Tibetan, and is usually translated as “error”.

In another way however we could say that this ‘narrowing down’ (or ‘going astray’) process also has an external component – an aspect to it which is ‘artificial’ or ‘unnatural’ in the sense that it is ‘imposed on us from the outside’. This aspect of the narrowing-down process is enforced upon us by an external agency, independently of what we may want, and this ‘external agency’ is more generally known simply as society. The social world – inevitably – has some kind of an idea regarding ‘who we should be’ and ‘how we should live life’ and it pushes us in this direction. Society doesn’t just have ‘some kind of an idea’, it has a very clear and precise idea!  This is essentially what society is – it is a set of templates, a set of ideas regarding ‘who we should be’ and ‘how we should live life’.  What else would society be, after all?


Even though it is obvious enough in one way that society ‘externally determines us’, in another way it is not so obvious at all. When we start off in our adult life and we are looking at the social world and all that it offers us we have the impression of there being many diverse possibilities being dangled in front of us. The choices we are faced we are too many, if anything! We are if anything bewildered by the sheer range of possibilities and the road ahead of us seems very broad, at this stage. There is a sneaky trick being played on us here though – this is the so-called ‘salesman trick,’ described here by Douglas Flemons (1991) –

As any good hypnotist, magician, or comedian knows, the offer or availability of freely choosing between alternatives at a given contextual level brings the particularities of choice into the foreground of conscious awareness. This necessarily relegates to the background (i.e. out of awareness and out of the realm of conscious choice) the higher-level context or premise determining the range and meaning of the offered alternatives. The presence of choice (between particularities) at one level masks – and in some sense precludes – choice (between premises) at a more encompassing level.

We feel so empowered by all the apparent choices that are being offered to us that we completely fail to see that whatever option it is we end up going for, we’re always going to end up with the same old thing. The ‘same old thing’ that we’re talking about here is ‘the socialized life’, which always means going down predetermined tracks, tracks that have been ‘decided in advance’ for us. It doesn’t matter what role we take up, it’s still something that is being imposed upon us from the outside. We’re conforming to the template that’s been provided for us by society no matter what choices we make; we may think that we’re in the driving seat but really it’s the other way around, society is controlling us.


A good way to think about this is in terms of ‘playing a game’ – there can be lots of roles that can be played in the game but it is nevertheless always the same old game. On the level of ‘what roles shall I select’ there can be tremendous choice, but all of these so-called ‘choices’ come down to the same thing – we are choosing to play the game. All the apparent choices (and all the excitement that comes with that apparent freedom) boil down to just the one choice. We are again victims of ‘the salesman trick’. So what’s wrong with this, we might ask? What’s wrong with choosing to play the game, if we want to?


The answer to this question is ‘nothing at all’ – if we actually know that this is what we’re doing, that is. This is where the trick comes in though – we’re never told that there is anything else. We’re never given the option of ‘not playing the game’, in other words, and this is a very big deception. It’s not just ‘a very big deception’ either – it’s the ultimate deception. It’s the archetypal deception. This is the deception that was played upon Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, the deception that is inherent in the concept of the Matrix. In the ancient Gnostic myth, it is the deception that is the Demiurge employs to trap and imprison the soul-sparks of mankind in the False Creation.



It’s fine to choose to play a game if we know that this is what the choice is, in other words, but if we don’t know that it is only a game (if this hasn’t ever been explained to us) then what exactly does this mean for us? If we are being offered a substitute version of reality (a ‘Toontown version’ which is incomparably narrower than the genuine thing) and we don’t know that we have been tricked in this way (‘tricked out of our birthright’, so to speak) then how are we to feel about this? Is there any way that we are actually going to feel OK about being tricked like this, if we knew? Are we really going to feel OK about spending our lives in some two-dimensional sterile Toontown, and missing out thereby on the true reality itself?