The Secret World Of Suffering

The most terrible ‘mistake’ we could ever make would be to miss the point of what life is all about and spend all our time preoccupied with something else, something that isn’t life, something that has nothing whatsoever to do with life. What bigger mistake could there possibly be than this? What worse screw-up could there be than this?

 

This is of course a rhetorical question because we never could make a bigger mistake than this. You really would want to kick yourself for making a mistake like this – you’d want to kick yourself particularly hard! The point we’re making here is of course that this is exactly the mistake that we – as a culture – are making; we are making precisely this mistake and we are far too stubborn to listen to those amongst us who try to point this fact out. We absolutely won’t be told.

 

This is an astonishing statement to be able to make – it is a staggering statement to hear as well (if, that is, we were able to hear it). How could we have got things so wrong? It is however very clearly the case that very few people are ever going to take this on board, and of those who do see it, none of them have a position in the rigid hierarchy of society and this means that no one is going to listen to them even if they were to say something about it. We only listen to people in positions of authority, and positions in people in ‘positions of authority’ (those people whose opinions get listened to) are inevitably the most heavily conditioned of us all, as Noam Chomsky points out. Who cares what the misfits and eccentrics think, when by definition what they think doesn’t matter?

 

The two main ‘parts’ of life, we might say, are ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ and – as things stand in our society – neither of these two things has anything to do with life. We could just as well say that neither of these two things ‘have anything to do with who we really are’, which is another way of saying the same thing. Most work doesn’t require us to be able to ‘tap into who we really are’ – it’s hardly necessary to point this out! No one is going to pay us to ‘be ourselves’; quite the contrary is true – most of us are actually being paid to be who we aren’t! As Philip K Dick says in Do Androids Dream, ‘we are required to go against our own nature’. The other way of putting this would be to say that ‘no one is going to pay us for doing what we would do anyway’ but only for ‘doing what we don’t want to do’, and therefore wouldn’t do, and that this is why we are being paid. We’re being paid to compensate us for doing what we don’t want to do…

 

In a rather simplistic way, we could say that when we have a job we have a role to play and that role isn’t us, obviously. This in itself is harmless enough: if I am a waiter then I can step out of role when I’m not working. I know very well that I’m not this role and, what’s more, it is probably that I can even be myself, to some extent, when I am in role at work – I don’t have to act like some kind of robot, after all. If I happen to be working in a very expensive restaurant then I will be required to be ‘more in role and less myself,’ it’s true, but I still know that it’s only a role. The problem is however that in the last few hundred years in particular life has become more complicated and our roles have become ever more two-dimensional, or artificial. As the social world becomes more abstracted from nature, and the demands that the natural world place on us, our conditioned sense of who we are gets correspondingly more removed from who we really are. The ‘natural world’ is replaced by the ‘designed world’ and so thought becomes the guiding principle rather than the natural (or ‘spontaneous’) order of things. Thought itself gives us roles to perform, roles that are – moreover – extremely hard to see through. We have ‘ideas about ourselves’, in other words, and we live our lives on the basis of these ideas.

 

It’s actually extraordinarily hard to not do this – we never stop to consider that the ideas we are living our life on the basis of are only ideas. Who does that? The urgency to ‘get on with life’ is such that we never had time to stop to reflect on matters such as this. Certainly don’t feel that we have the time to do much in the way of reflecting, or philosophising The whole ‘trip’ of thought is that it never allows us to pause to consider the fact that the thoughts which we are basing our lives on are only thoughts – if we did this then we could there would be the chance of radical change in our lives. As it is however, there is no chance of radical change, and we don’t miss this possibility either! We don’t miss it because we are convinced – without ever reflecting on the fact that we are convinced – that everything we could ever possibly want or need or aspire to is to be found within the realm of trivial change (which is the only type of change we know or understand). And because the realm of trivial change is the only type of change we know, we don’t see it as being ‘trivial’, obviously!

 

When we are ‘in role without knowing that we are in role’ then it is of course the case that the only type of change that we will ever know or acknowledge is change of the trivial variety. The only way there could be radical change would be that if we were to come out of role, but because we don’t actually know that we are ‘in role’ we are profoundly incapable of conceiving of or in any way comprehending that possibility. This then gives us a very neat way of looking at the mechanism by which we can miss the whole point of ‘what life about’ without knowing that we have missed anything – a whole world becomes invisible to us when we ‘are in role without knowing that we are’, a whole world that is actually the only word there is! What other the world could there be than the world we see when we are not in role, after all? The world we see when we look through the conceptual filter of the thinking mind isn’t the world at all, and – as we have already said – this isn’t something that we ever stop to reflect on.

 

When we are in role without knowing it then we are not at all interested in any other world than the world that makes sense from the point of view of the ‘part’ that we are playing. Because nothing else is of any interest to us, the possibility of our lives changing in a radical way is not going to be a possibility that we are in any way curious about. If we ever were to have the inking that that there were such a possibility – which we will inevitably do from time to time, no matter how carefully we organise or regulate our lives – then our only response will be fear. We will be terrified without knowing why we are terrified; we will be afraid without being interested in finding out why we are afraid. When we are in role without knowing it (or conditioned by thought without knowing it) then awareness of the type radical change that we have implicitly denied is bound to manifest as ‘ontological terror’.

 

If we were in role but at the same time knew ourselves to be in role then the possibility of radical change, the possibility of ‘dropping out of role’, would of course not be terrifying to us. It would simply represent a greater degree of freedom; it would represent ‘blessed relief from the onerous set of restrictions that we are operating under’. It would be ‘good news’ not ‘bad news’, in other words. When we are unconsciously identified with the part that we are playing however then – as we have said – radical change is synonymous with ‘ontological terror’ and for this reason we are going to take very great care never to permit any awareness, however faint, of the possibility of such a thing. What this means therefore is that we are straightaway going to be constrained to ‘a false life’! We are confined to an area of experience that has nothing to do with who we really are, but only to do with who we are playing at being. This ‘area of experience’ is the world which only makes sense in relation to the identity we mistakenly think we are!

 

There is a very interesting question that comes up here and that is the question of whether it is possible for us to continue in life in this very restricted mode of being (the mode of being in which we think trivial change is the only type of change there is) and yet remain undistressed by this fundamental restriction? Can we get off ‘scott free’, in other words? In one way we might come to the conclusion that it is indeed possible for us to continue indefinitely in this mode without ever missing the wider reality from which we are cut off; we might come to such a conclusion as a result of our observations of the people around us, the people we know and have regular interactions with. On the whole, people seem to be getting on well enough, and if we take into account the media’s unduly positive representations of how we are getting on then it would seem that we are certainly not distressed or troubled by our ‘lack of Wholeness’. Life has never been better, if we are to believe the media’s super-glossy representations of modern life!

 

We could on the other hand make the sober point that there is an invisible side to society, a side that isn’t on general display, either in terms of how human life is represented to us by the media, or in terms of how we personally wish to see it. What we are talking up here could be spoken of as ‘a secret world’ – the secret world of unacknowledged suffering. We ‘filter for misery’, as psychiatrist Scott Alexander puts it – we see the world as being a happier place than it really is. To a significant extent, we also filter other people from seeing us as being miserable, of course. On the outside we might seem to be fine – or ‘halfway fine’ at least – but what’s really going on with us on the inside? How would it feel if we really tuned in to ourselves, instead of only going on the images that we are fed? This secret world is the world of the ‘walking wounded’, we might say – we are still functioning (in some kind of a fashion) and we can still keep up the front (more or less) but the passion (or ‘sense of meaning’ with regard to life) has long since fled. This is the world we don’t see represented very often, or even at all; there can be no doubt that it is a substantial world, that there are many of us in it. Statistics do not exist to tell us just exactly how big this world is however; there are no stats to draw on here since this type of profound alienation from life is the norm rather than the exception!

 

When we can’t keep up the pretence anymore (and are forced to ‘declare our hand’) then this means that we have automatically graduate into another ‘secret world’, which is the secret world of overt or acknowledged mental suffering, where there is at least now a degree of honesty about what’s going on. This too can rightly be spoken of as ‘an invisible world’ inasmuch as we are no longer part of ‘visible society’. Whilst it is true that there is a movement to bring the various types of ‘mental ill health’ into the public consciousness (in contrast to the policy adopted in Victorian times where the main purpose of the asylum, as Erving Goffman says, was to ‘segregate the mentally unwell’ so that us normal folk would never have to have the unpleasant experience of actually encountering them) our approach to the whole matter of mental suffering is still to see it as some sort of pathological process that can be cured without ever having to look at the deeper causes that might exist in society itself. We’re trying to be more inclusive, which is good, but we still don’t want to look into the real causes of mental suffering, and so we’re not actually going to get anywhere with our efforts.

 

We certainly don’t see any connection with the profound artificiality of modern society and the way in which – ultimately – it causes us to ‘miss the very point of life itself’, as we put it earlier. Who amongst those of us who are adapted (and therefore invested) game-players are ever going to admit to such a thing? We are not exactly inclined to ‘ask big questions’, we are not exactly very likely to start wondering if our whole way of doing things (or seeing things) is wrong – on an individual level it usually requires a massive crisis to bring such questioning about and on the level of the ‘collective mind’ which is society, even the biggest crisis isn’t going to trigger honest reflection of this sort. The generic/collective (or ‘adapted’) mind isn’t able to ask big questions like this – it has an unholy terror of them. Our only option in this case is to assume that the patterns of mental suffering that we are witnessing are due to individual pathology that can (hopefully) be cured without bringing into question the overall structure we are adapted to, which is the game we are committed to playing without knowing that we are.

 

 

In short, we just don’t want to see that 100% adaptation to society causes us to miss the key point of life itself. We just don’t want to see it and we won’t see it. Society causes us to ‘miss the point’ by giving us a false basis upon which to live life and – as we have argued – the way in which it does this is by compelling us to see ourselves as being who it says we are. ‘The system says who we are’, in other words – it defines everything about us and we’re perfectly happy about that! There can be absolutely no doubt that this is what society does. Just to emphasise the point that we have already made: society would not be society unless we were all socially constructed, socially conditioned. If we all came ‘out of role’ at the same time, where would society be then? What would happen to the collective way of seeing things if we did this? Society is after all nothing more than a set of agreements that we covertly make with each other and what we are ultimately agreeing to is to be ‘in role’ without acknowledging either to ourselves or anyone else that we’re actually doing anything at all!

 

In conclusion, the point that we never want to look at is that it is utterly impossible for us be mentally healthy (or ‘mentally well’) and be socally conditioned at the same time and the reason for this is that being socially conditioned or socially adapted means that we are who society says we are rather than who we actually are, and if we’re not who we ‘actually are’ then it is absolutely the case that we’re not living life. We might be doing something else alright but whatever the hell it is that we’re doing we’re definitely not living life. We’re ‘playing at living life’, which isn’t the same thing at all…

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Surrogate Challenge

Life is hitting us with a big challenge every single day of our lives, and every single minute of every day, and yet – collectively speaking – we are completely oblivious to it. As a culture we do not recognise the existence of this challenge at all and – as we might expect – this obliviousness, this lack of recognition – brings about a whole heap of unpleasant consequences. It is simply not possible to ignore life’s essential challenge and get away scot-free!

 

The ‘essential challenge of life’ – if we may continue to speak of it in these terms – is inevitably reframed by whatever culture or society it is that we happen to be part of. This has always been the way – this is how human collectives work. This is how the ‘group mind’ works – it works by reframing life’s central essential challenge!

 

So what is this challenge, and how does society reframe it (or ‘bend it to its own purposes’)? Very simply put, the challenge is to work out, by ourselves, ‘who we are’! This was the inscription above the entrance of the temple of Apollo in ancient Greece; this is the famous Delphic maxim – “Know Thyself’.

 

This is the only challenge that counts since if we fail to ‘know ourselves’ and we just charge ahead and live our lives on the basis of ‘who we are not but who we mistakenly think we are’ then this isn’t going to do anyone any good!’ What’s your problem – mistaken identity‘ says Wei Wu Wei. If we don’t sort this critical issue out then how can we possibly to sort anything else out? If we start from the standpoint of delusion, then how can any of our activities come to any good?

 

The way that society ‘reframes’ this essential challenge is very simple – it tells us who we are and gives us various games to compete in on the basis of this false identity. That is society in a nutshell. The challenge thus becomes ‘can you win at the game which we insist on you playing?’ In the past this was often put in religious terms – we were told some stuff about God and His plan for us and the world, we were told about our immortal souls and the jeopardy we will place these souls in if we fail the test that we are being presented with by God in this life. The existential challenge is not to ‘know ourselves’ therefore, but to obey the rules that the church has set for us in God’s name. The ‘reframed challenge’ is therefore ‘can I conform to the system correctly or not?’ and this isn’t really the same thing at all!

 

We may think that we have moved on in the 21st century, but we haven’t at all. The situation is exactly the same – the essential challenge in life has been reformulated to become something entirely trivial – ‘how well can I adapt to the rule-based system that I have been presented with in place of life?’ The social system is a complicated game and it is constantly hitting us with its own distorted version of the ‘existential challenge’, which is ‘can the identity we have told you you are succeed at the game we have recruited you to play without ever telling you that it is only a game?’ Again, this is not the same thing as ‘Know Thyself’ at all. Actually – of course – it’s the very antithesis of it! It’s the very antithesis of life’s challenge because playing society game means forgetting all about ‘who we really are’.

 

What could be a better way of getting us to forget all about the question of ‘who we really are’ than giving us a ready-made identity and then giving that ready-made identity all sorts of supposedly ‘important’ tasks to succeed at? And what else is ‘society’ if not exactly this? We have been kept busy the whole time achieving these things that only make sense to the identity which society says we are but which we are not. What better way could there be to get us to neglect rising to the challenge that life itself has set us than to set us all sorts of false or spurious challenges that have to be accomplished on behalf of the false self?

 

In psychotherapy this sort of thing is sometimes called ‘pseudo-solution’ – pseudo-solution  means fixing the thing that that doesn’t need fixing, in place of the one that does! This doesn’t necessarily mean that the ‘surrogate tasks’ which we so enthusiastically involve ourselves in doesn’t need to be done (they might well do) but what it does mean is that they are ‘welcome distractions’! The whole point of pseudo-solution is that we are very much on the lookout for ‘semi-legitimate distractions’, and the social game is superbly effective in helping us out in this regard! Up to this point we have been talking about society as if it were some sort of sinister agency that is responsible for aggressively ‘side-tracking’ us so that we end up missing out on the whole point of life (which is Satan’s job, if we were to speak in theological terms). In one way this is perfectly true – the collective, the ‘group mind’, does serve this ‘adversarial’ or ‘antagonistic’ function, but the bottom line is that it only does this because – deep-down – we want it to!

 

We are after all hungry for distractions, and so the ‘mass-collusion’ which both supplies us with them, and collectively validates them at the same time, is exactly what we want. Blaming society for ‘putting us wrong’ is missing the point therefore – all are doing in this case is pushing the responsibility away from us again, which is exactly what we did when we let society tell us ‘who we are’ in the first place. Society serves the illegitimate function of both ‘defining reality for us’ and ‘defining ourselves for us’, therefore saving us from the trouble of having to work this out for ourselves, and then – after we have let the system take over this unwanted job for us – we can still evade responsibility by saying ‘look what the wrong things that society has done to us’. We get to have our cake and eat it this way, therefore!

 

Blaming isn’t really isn’t a very useful response to the situation, needless to say – it compounds our problems rather than solving them. What is helpful is for us to start taking responsibility for ourselves and realise the frightening truth, which is that we are – on a very deep level – divided against ourselves. There is some part of us which does not want to take on any responsibility at all (and which certainly doesn’t want to take on responsibility for ‘responding to life’s essential challenge’) and this part of us also doesn’t want to take responsibility for owning up to its own existence, which means that it can – since we don’t even know that it is there – act with complete impunity. This secret and murky part of us – which will do absolutely anything  rather than ‘take responsibility for itself’ – corresponds to what Carl Jung calls the shadow‘.

 

When  we all refuse to ‘own our own shadow’ then, as Jung says, this shadow gets to roam freely around the world and do what it will. When we talk about society and its repressive influence on our consciousness (or on our true individuality) then what we are actually talking about is our ‘collective shadow’. Our ‘shadow side’ is what drives and sustains the deterministic/controlling system that we live out the course of our lives within, and so the power and weight of this system (Philip K Dick’s Black Iron Prison) depends upon what proportion of the population are completely unconscious and are – therefore – completely manipulated (or rather possessed) by it. Statistics don’t exist to tell us what exactly this ‘proportion’ might be, but we can make a pretty good guess that it is greater than 99.5%!

 

Life is hitting us with this big challenge every day of our lives, and every minute of each day, and we are displacing it and keeping ourselves busy solving various ‘surrogate versions’ of that great challenge. Taking part in the game which is society is the ‘collective surrogate task’ and – unlike the core existential challenge of ‘finding out who we are’ – it is compulsory. Meeting life’s challenge isn’t compulsory – we are completely free to either rise to it, or not rise to it – that’s our own business! Participation in the distractions that are provided for us by society are, on the other hand, most definitely compulsory!

 

There’s no choice here – we are not free ‘not to play’ – how could we be, when we don’t even know that what we doing is ‘playing a game’? We don’t go around thinking that we’re ‘going around constantly distracting ourselves from what life is all about’ – on the contrary, we are – for the most part – entirely convinced that what we doing is ‘living life as it should be lived’ and so we’re not looking any further than this. How could we doubt that ‘this is what life is supposed to be’ when everyone around us is doing the same things that we are doing, believing the same things that we believe in? Unconsciousness is always compulsory, whilst consciousness is always free…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shoe-Leather Of Samsara

What society tells us is important doesn’t really matter. What our minds tell us is important doesn’t really matter either – neither society nor the thinking mind knows what really matters. Neither society nor the thinking mind have any wisdom in them – all they contain are innumerable recipes from the past, formulae from the past, pre-established patterns that we are compelled to adhere to, pressurized to adhere to. As Krishnamurti says, there is no actual intelligence there.

 

So what does matter then? What does ‘wisdom’ tell us? It’s actually much easier to say what doesn’t really matter than what does. It’s easier to point out the ‘red herrings’ as being red herrings than it is to point out what it is that truly matters in life and the reason for this is that ‘pointing out things’ almost invariably brings our unexamined assumptions into play and it is our ‘unexamined assumptions’ that always put us wrong. As a general principle, we can say that the ‘False Task’ in life is the task of validating our unwarranted assumptions and thus preventing ourselves from seeing that they are only unwarranted assumptions, whilst the ‘True Task’ (so to speak) is to see through all the clutter, all the rubbish, all the hocus-pocus, all the time-wasting nonsense masquerading as ‘the truth’.

 

In short then, society is always recruiting us into the task of validating and upholding its collective assumptions. That’s what it does. That’s what society is all about and this has got nothing whatsoever to do with uncovering the truth either about ourselves or the world we live in. Human society hasn’t (and never has had) anything to do with establishing a relationship with the truth – on the contrary, it’s all about ‘worshipping false idols’. It’s hard to see how anyone, looking honestly at the world that we have created for ourselves, could fail to observe that this is what is going on. How could we not see something as obvious as this? ‘If it were a dog it would bite you’, as the saying has it. The extent to which we have been recruited into worshipping all these ‘false idols’ is the extent to which we have turned our backs on what really matters to us. The degree to which we have been enlisted in the ‘False Task’ is the degree to which we have ignored the True Task, which is – as we have suggested – uncovering the actual truth about things.

 

Society is in the business of selling illusions, as Sogyal Rinpoche says. We think it’s about something else but it isn’t. We work all our lives in order to earn the money to be able to afford these by wonderful illusions and if we are diligent enough and hard-working enough we might get to accumulate a big pile of them! It makes us feel very bad if we aren’t able to accumulate all the illusions that we are led to believe we ought to be accumulating and yet if we do ‘succeed’ and manage to do what society tells us we ought to be doing then we’re still no better off! What good are illusions going to do us anyway? They’re only ever going to distract us what really matters. The pursuit of society’s goals is only ever going to waste our time; we’re wasting our time if we ‘fail’ and we’re wasting our time just as much if we ‘succeed’. We’ve been taken as suckers either way. No matter how we do in the game we’re wasting our time – the game is nothing more than a big red herring, after all. Society is nothing more than a big red herring. All the things that the thinking mind gives us to concern ourselves with, preoccupy ourselves with, worry about, are red herrings. That’s the name of the game…

 

Understanding this straightaway points us in the direction of understanding what ‘really does matter’. The thing that ‘really does matter’ is uncovering the truth that has been hidden so well, as opposed to burying it ever deeper. Even those elements within society that ostensibly claim to be concerned with the truth (especially those elements of society that claim to be concerned with the truth, such as education, religion and spirituality) are red herrings. As we’ve just said, that’s the nature of the game that we are playing! Education and religion have nothing whatsoever to do with orientating people towards the truth – all they do is encourage ‘mass mindedness’, all they do is brainwash us all the more effectively because we actually think we ‘know’ something! So-called ‘spirituality’ is no better – for the most part it just sells us ‘candy-coated dreams’; it sells us the illusion that we are (or could be) ‘living a more spiritual life’. This is a very nice illusion to have and we are very happy to buy into it by going on this course or that course, taking part in this online seminar or that online seminar, following this teacher or that teacher. That’s not how it happens though – seeing through all the falseness in our lives is an individual endeavour, something we do ourselves, on our own, working against the entire tide of collective thinking as we do so. Surrounding ourselves with the new (supposedly ‘enlightened’) type of collective thinking isn’t going to help us any. That’s why joining groups or organisations, no matter what they claim to be about, always has the opposite effect to the one intended – we become more brainwashed, not less. All that’s happening is that we are subscribing to ‘society in a different guise’.

 

The problem with the mass-mind phenomenon that we might call ‘online spirituality’ (which is a phenomenon that is currently burgeoning) is that we imagine that by adopting a new language, a new way of looking at the world and the new way of living or behaving in the world that goes with it we imagine ourselves to have become ‘more spiritual’. We imagine that we have become more spiritual because we have ‘changed our outfit’, so to speak. We’re wearing a new set of clothes. But becoming more spiritual doesn’t mean ‘becoming more spiritual’! It doesn’t mean becoming anything. That’s not it at all. That’s an escape, an evasion. If we want to see through all the falseness then adopting a spiritual lifestyle (a new, improved way of thinking and behaving) isn’t going to help us any – that’s just going to confuse us into thinking that those ‘falsehoods’, those ‘self-deceptions’, those ‘inner contradictions’ are no longer there. We’re going to become bliss ninnies, imagining that everything is OK when it isn’t! We might have the teachings of all the masters at our fingertips but diligently ‘counting our neighbour’s gold’ isn’t going to improve the state of our bank account any…

 

 

The only thing that’s going to help us see through the falsehoods that live in us is to consciously live our life as it actually is, and be ourselves as we actually are. This isn’t very glamorous and it certainly isn’t going to make our lives any easier but it will certainly open our eyes! We wear out the shoe-leather of samsara by walking on it, as Chogyam Trungpa says somewhere…

 

 

Art: Detail from Banksy’s Injured Buddha

 

 

 

 

 

The Sham Life

The essential point is this – we allow society to nullify (or negate) ourselves in return for some kind of package which is supposed to be life, but which isn’t. That’s the basic deal. That is the basic story of what’s going on. That’s it in a nutshell. So how much more ‘to the point’ could we be? This is exactly the deal we make and there are no two ways about it. The matter is crystal clear – no one but a fool would argue otherwise!

 

The matter is crystal clear and yet we allow ourselves not to be clear about it. This is of course the only way that we can commit wholeheartedly to society – by not facing up to the cost. We are very good at not facing up to the cost of social adaptation; we spot threats and enemies everywhere but never do we number among them the threat of ‘losing custody of our very soul’, so to speak. Other things spook us, but this apparently does not…

 

This is not a new dilemma – it’s something that’s been around ever since human beings first settled down in large groups, presumably. There has always been the danger that we will end up making the unwise decision to ‘sell our birthright for a mess of pottage’. And if this was the danger thousands of years ago when this line was first written down – and the human population was so very much smaller than it is today – then what must the danger be like now? Even the word ‘danger’ is inadequate in this context – it’s more of an inevitability.

 

What takes place when we ‘adjust ourselves to the way in which everyone else thinks’ – which in one way seems to be a perfectly reasonable thing to do – this is that a type of ‘switch-over’ takes place. Beforehand, we might say, our orientation was towards ‘reality as it is in itself’, afterwards it is towards ‘reality as it is being presented to us by the Group Mind’. Another way that we could put this is to say that our natural orientation is to be ‘curious’, just as children are ‘curious’; the ubiquitous process of socialisation changes this however – instead of curiosity conformity is now the thing. Curiosity and conformity are ‘antithetical principles’; the whole point about the ‘consensus reality’ is that we reach it by agreement, not curiosity. No one ever bought into a consensus reality by being curious (which is to say, no one ever ended up believing in the CR via an actual healthy interest in the truth of things as they really are).

 

Kurt Vonnegut says something like this. Vonnegut says that we agree with people not because we think that what they are saying is right but more as a type of social nicety, because we want to establish a friendly relationship, because we want to ‘establish ties’ –

And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.

The ideas Earthlings held didn’t matter for hundreds of thousands of years, since they couldn’t do much about them anyway. Ideas might as well be badges as anything.

Establishing friendly relations with those around us is obviously important in one way – a very limited way – but we take it too far. We take it ridiculously far! When we are living within a consensus reality, a reality that we all collectively agree on, then curiosity actually becomes a thoroughly undesirable sort of the thing – no one gets on in the conditioned reality by being curious as to ‘why the rules are the rules’; we get on by accepting the rules, not by questioning them. We can of course see this happening all around us, in all corporate and institutional environments, in all organized groups – people become deliberately obtuse rather than acknowledging absurdities that are staring them right in the face. Who has not come across this type of deliberate obtuseness? If we don’t ‘play dumb’ in this time-honoured way then it is a fact that our careers are simply never going to get anywhere. More than this, our whole lives are going to be very hard indeed. We’re going to be ostracized. Who wants to swim against the tide of social convention?

 

This isn’t some fanciful theory that we are trotting out here – it’s very evidently the case in all arenas of human activity – when we are part of a group, when we are part of a consensus reality, then our fundamental allegiance is to maintaining the group, maintaining the (apparent) integrity of the collective viewpoint. There is therefore always going to be a conflict between ‘acknowledging the truth’ and’ maintaining the consensus reality,’ and when we are part of a group then ‘acknowledging the truth’ is always going to come very poor second! This might sound strange from the POV of our everyday thinking but the consensus reality is essentially a game and the only way to play games is by tacitly agreeing to ignore the fact that the game is only a game. Games work – as we all know – by substituting themselves for reality and – for obvious reasons – this substitution can never be an honest (or ‘upfront’) kind of a thing.

 

What we are essentially looking at here is the phenomenon sometimes known as ‘groupthink’. Groupthink is always a fundamentally dishonest business. If I’m engaged in groupthink then I speak the group’s truth and not my own and yet I cannot admit this to myself. I have to pretend otherwise. I have to pretend that I really do genuinely and sincerely mean what I say, even though, on another level, everyone (including myself) knows perfectly well that I don’t. This is the fundamental conflict that exists within all social groups; this is the ‘basic insincerity’ that lies behind society itself. It is of course perfectly possible to conform to what we are supposed to be saying whilst at the same time being clear that we don’t mean a word of it, but in practice this honesty is extraordinarily rare. We all know from our experience of living in this world that honesty of this sort is extraordinarily rare. It would be the height of foolishness to assert otherwise! We are not just talking about the isolated occasion every now and again when we are obliged to ‘tow the corporate line’ – adapting to the consensus reality goes far, far deeper than this. Our whole life has been constructed on the basis of the consensus reality and so to question any bit of it would be to question the whole thing. Pull on this particular bit of thread and the whole jumper comes undone, and then we’re going to get cold!

 

The example of someone who is obliged to tow the company line, or come out with the bland meaningless jargon that their organisation wants him or her to come out with is a very good one all the same however because we can all easily relate to this type of ‘internal conflict’. It feels very bad to go around being fundamentally insincere and knowing that one is and so – in practice – what we do is that we tune out of the conflict by allowing ourselves to believe our own lies. This is the oldest story there is – we end up believing in our own convenient fictions! No matter where you go in the world you will find this happening – people believing in their own convenient fictions. It’s just too uncomfortable to stay conscious in this world of ours otherwise – there are far too many lies going around for that. We might even find out that it’s all lies….

 

A simpler way of putting this is to say that we play games, but we are not conscious that our games are games. We could be conscious of our games (or ‘conscious in our games’, but that would be highly ‘inconvenient’, if we can continue to use that rather inadequate word. We exist within a system and in order to gain advancement in this system we need to take it for granted, not question it. There is no pragmatic advantage in becoming aware of the system as a system, of the game as a game. Moreover, this is a cumulative sort of a thing – lies always add up, in other words! In any one instance we might opt to do what is ‘pragmatically or politically advantageous’, so to speak, but over time the sheer weight of all these little decisions to ‘play the game’ add up to one vast inertial mass – a vast solid inertial mass that has become all but impossible to go against. Lots of little lies become one big lie; lots of little evasions become ‘one evasion’, and that ‘One Big Evasion’ is what we commonly call ‘society’.

 

We are so very averse to seeing this. Collectively speaking we are absolutely averse and we won’t see it; the generic mind will never see itself what it is (the generic group mind always assumes itself to be right and so of course it can never see itself what it is). As ‘individuals’ we are also extremely averse to seeing this truth, for the simple reason that society supplies everything for us – it supplies our identity, it supplies our way of seeing the world, it supplies our friends and our relationships, it supplies a whole life, in fact. We are dependent on the social system for so much (for far more than we would ever allow ourselves to see) and this dependency makes it impossible for us ever to look at it critically. As the character Morpheus says in the film The Matrix

 

The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

 

The only thing about this is that the life which the system supplies us with, in return for our compliance, isn’t actually worth it, as we have said right at the beginning of this discussion. Deep down we know that it isn’t worth it! How could we not know? What possible worth could there be in a ‘second hand reality’, a reality that is never more than ‘someone else’s idea’ of what is real or true? And what’s more, we can’t ever find out who that ‘someone else’ is either because every person we come across is going to a fervent believer in ‘someone else’s idea of reality’. It’s ALWAYS ‘someone else’s idea of reality’ and that someone else doesn’t actually exist. That ‘someone else’ is ‘the system’ and the system isn’t real. It’s a thing we made up, supposedly to help us…

 

What could possibly be more ludicrous than living our lives on the basis of what ‘someone else’ has told us that life should be? Could our keenness to conform to the consensus reality really outweigh our own actual interest in (or curiosity about) what life actually is, or about what reality actually is? Could this really be the case? Could we really be that shallow? And yet it clearly is. We clearly are that shallow. It very clearly is the case, and who could possibly deny it? It is abundantly obvious (more than ‘abundantly obvious’, even, if that were possible) that all of our energy is channelled into conforming to the so-called ‘reality’ that has been presented to us by society, by ‘the system’ (by thought, as Krishnamurti says), and none at all on ‘checking it out for ourselves’!

 

The question is therefore, “What kind of a life can we create for ourselves on this on the basis of ‘second-hand ideas’ (and ideas are always second-hand)?” Very, very clearly, the answer has to be that it’s going to be an inauthentic life, a sham life. It’s not going to be our life that we are living, after all – it’s ‘someone else’s idea’ of what our life should be and – as we have already said – that ‘someone else’ doesn’t even exist!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Consciousness And The Thinking Mind

The difference between consciousness and the thinking mind is that in consciousness there is no resistance to ‘what is’, whilst the thinking mind is nothing but resistance.

 

It’s worth pointing out this difference because no one ever does. There is a world of difference between consciousness and the thinking mind and yet most of us would probably say that they’re close enough, perhaps even ‘two ways of talking about the same thing’. The chances are that we haven’t looked into it too much, but nevertheless we would probably be happy enough to conflate the two.

 

The difference we talking about here isn’t academic, it’s profoundly significant (in the most practical way possible) – it is practically significant because there are two roads that we can go down in life – one is where we identify with the thinking mind and assume that ‘this is who we are’, whilst the other is where we very slowly and painfully become aware of our essential independence from thought, and realise that it and its activities have nothing whatsoever to do with who we really are!

 

The first road we could call ‘the path of becoming completely deluded’, whilst the second road – we might say – is ‘the journey of discovering our true nature’. One road is a dead end, the other isn’t! The first process that we have mentioned, the process of identifying with thought, is the ‘default’ for way for things to go – if we just go along with all our psychological biases, and fit in unquestioningly with everyone else around us (who are also going along with their biases and fitting in with society unquestioningly,) then we will end up with no way of knowing, or even suspecting, that our true nature is not what thought tells it us it is.

 

If on the other hand we do question the way things are, the way our biases operate and the way society works, then inevitably a type of dissonance will arise. Something about the set up will fail to ring true. The external appearance of things begins to look deceptive, the official narrative no longer convinces; there is in other words conflict between ‘the way things are said to be’ and ‘the way we ourselves perceive them to be’. We have learned that the appearance of things, which is what the thinking mind provides us with, actually conceals the true nature of things. A highly complex and subtle view of the world arises, in place of the simplistic black-and-white picture that thought paints for us.

 

Thought shows us the definite picture of things, it provides us with ‘the definitive story’ – the story we can’t look beyond. Thought provides us with the ‘final word’ on the matter. In some ways this can be a good thing – there are times when we want to know what the black-and-white conclusive answer. Should I run or not run? Was the snake that bit me poisonous or not? Are the traffic lights red or green? It is the nature of the world that we live in that definite answers are sometimes needed, and the proper role of the thinking mind is to help us out in these cases. Where things go wrong is when everything has to have a black-and-white answer, a definitive unquestionable resolution one way or another.

 

For thought to work as a tool which has a specific applicability in certain situations is one thing, for it to have the job of ‘resolving reality itself’, or ‘putting a final judgement on what reality is’ (or on ‘who we are’) is another thing altogether. When thought acts as a tool this is useful; when it tells us, in its literal fashion, what reality is and what life is all about then this is the very opposite of useful! When the thinking mind tells us what reality is, or who we are, then it is doing something way beyond the limits of what it is capable of doing. It’s actually not telling us anything in this case; it’s preventing us from knowing about something – it’s preventing us from knowing what’s really true. When thought goes beyond its proper role as a tool it inevitably ends up deceiving us, in other words.

 

Thought isn’t a philosophical kind of a thing – it can’t relate us to the bigger picture. It’s a ‘blunt instrument’. Only consciousness can relate us to the bigger picture; consciousness can do this because it doesn’t resist anything, because it doesn’t impose its ideas or assumptions on anything. Thought, on the other hand, can’t do anything other than ‘project’ – it projects its assumptions, it projects its assumed framework out onto the world and then it relates everything it encounters to this assumed context, producing in this way a ‘digital universe’ made up of definite yes and no facts.

 

What we ‘see’ when we see the world through the thinking mind is nothing more than our own assumptions reflected back at us therefore. We don’t recognise this world is being made up of our assumptions however – we believe ourselves to be relating to something that’s really there, something that exists independently in out there in reality. We hold up a measuring stick and wave it at the world and we end up with the world that is made up of nothing more than our own measurements, our own concepts; we end up with a world that is nothing more than a reflection of our own instrument, our own ‘device.’ This ‘reflection of the thinking mind’ is the world of facts and figures. The instrument of thought remakes the world in its own image because that’s all it knows how to do. What else could it do? Thought remakes us in its own image – it tells us who we are, just as the group-mind known as society (which as David Bohm says is simply the externalization of thought) tells us who we are.

 

This is a curious thing because we don’t know what ‘our basic assumptions’ are in the first place in producing this ‘so-called reality’ – we don’t know what our assumptions are and we also don’t know that we have even made any. We are completely naïve’ in this regard. Living in a pseudo-reality that is a reflection of our own unconscious assumptions is a very frightening thing to consider – it’s actually a totally terrifying thing! Do we have the wit to be afraid of it however? One has to be wise to fear Samsara, as the great Tibetan Sage Milarepa says, but wisdom never came out of the thinking mind. Only dry measurements, only ‘facts and figures’ ever came out of the thinking mind.

 

So here we have the difference between the thinking mind and consciousness in a nutshell. The thinking mind – as we started out by saying – operates on the basis of resistance. ‘Resistance’ means that it imposes its own special form of order upon the world. It imposes its own ‘patented form of order’ on the world without ever acknowledging that this is what it is doing! Basically, thought puts everything into boxes – boxes that don’t actually exist but which we assume to. This is how thought works and this is how thought is supposed to work; as we keep saying, there’s no other way in which it could work! Consciousness, on the other hand, – resists nothing. It has no agenda, in other words – it has no theory that it wishes to project out onto the world. It has no axe to grind. It comes with no game-plan. It has no expectations, no biases. It wouldn’t rather see one thing as ‘being true’ than another. Whatever is there, it will see it. In this consciousness is like water – as Bruce Lee says,

If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.

Water doesn’t decide what reality should be, it just honestly and faithfully accommodates whatever is there, with no distortion. It doesn’t make things be what it thinks they should be! Just as water (or consciousness) is formless in its nature, so too is the essence of reality itself, according to Laotse:

There is some­thing blurred and in­dis­tinct
An­te­dat­ing Heaven and Earth.
How In­dis­tinct! How Blurred!
Yet within it are forms.
How dim! How con­fused!
Quiet, though ever func­tion­ing.
It does noth­ing, yet through it all things are done.
To its ac­com­plish­ment it lays no credit.
It loves and nour­ishes all things, but does not lord it over them.
I do not know its name,
I call it the Tao. 

From our rationale/Western POV being able to ‘say what things are’, in a definitive way, sounds splendid. It sounds like a great achievement to be able to do this; it actually sounds like the ultimate achievement. That’s just the thinking mind imposing its own brand of order on the world however – it is aggression pure and simple! It’s only ‘control’, which is not a very subtle or interesting type of thing. Consciousness, on the other hand, doesn’t mind what is said to be or what is said not to be – it’s equally clear equally at home both ways, just as it is equally at home with nothing at all being said on the matter! As Richard Bach says, ‘reality is divinely indifferent’; reality is divinely indifferent to our games and we can say the same thing about consciousness – consciousness is divinely indifferent to our assertions. It’s unbiased, it’s not invested in the game.

 

We assume that reality has to be something positive – which is to say, something stated, something defined. This is utterly ridiculous though – it’s like saying that space has to be something defined, or that the ocean is something that has a specific shape. The whole point about space is that it isn’t defined. If water had a specific shape then it couldn’t be water. The ocean can facilitate any type of wave going, but that doesn’t mean that it is a wave! Reality isn’t a positive kind of the thing, but rather it is negative – it can facilitate any form, any shape, but it isn’t a form, it isn’t a shape. It has no features, no characteristics, as it can give rise to all features, all characteristics. It comes with no beliefs, but it gives rise to all beliefs.

 

We can see therefore that whilst the thinking mind is – or can be – a very useful tool, it has no parity with consciousness, no equivalence with consciousness. When it is granted the position of  ‘supreme arbiter of what is real and not real’ then thought ceases to be a useful tool and becomes instead a cruel, heartless tyrant. It becomes a disaster, it becomes a catastrophe. It becomes a calamity beyond compare. This is an old, old idea and there are many variations on it. We might for example think of the motif of the ‘false steward’ – who is supposed to rule justly on behalf of the true King, when the true King is for whatever reason unavailable to rule. Greedy for power and a glory that does not belong to him, the false steward abuses his role, and perverts its function. We can think of the sheriff of Nottingham, and his brutal, tyrannical behaviour whilst Richard the Lionheart, the true King, is away fighting on the Crusades. The sheriff of Nottingham claims to be working as a humble steward, on behalf of a Greater Power, but really – as we all know – he’s working for himself.

 

The overvalued rational mind is the sheriff of Nottingham! Instead of being impartial, free of all bias, he is bias personified! The thinking mind pays lip-service to the truth but cares nothing for it – it is only interested in its own ways of organizing or classifying reality. Another example of the principle of ‘the powerful servant who turns against us’ is the type of story where a Demon or Jinn is summoned by the inexperienced apprentice and cannot be banished again once. The Master Sorcerer can send the Jinn back in a trice, but the poor apprentice cannot, and all hell breaks loose. The overvalued rational mind is that Jinn, is that Demon, whilst the Master Sorcerer himself is nowhere to be found. We are all ‘the poor apprentices’!

 

As a result of our foolishness in releasing the powerful Genie out of his bottle pestilence and war have broken out throughout the land and we are powerless to do anything about it. We so intoxicated by the power of thinking that we cannot even see what the problem is! A calamity has descended upon the world and we haven’t the faintest idea what to do. And the root cause of all this trouble – we might say – is simply that we don’t understand the difference between consciousness and the thinking mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Society Is An Advert For Itself

What we have succeeded in doing (without necessarily meaning to) is creating a completely ‘dishonest’ environment for ourselves to live in. We all heard about ‘fake news’ but what this amounts to is a fake world. We can make a very obvious statement at this point and that is to say that ‘living in a fundamentally dishonest environment is without any doubt going to be psychologically harmful for us’! This might seem like too obvious a point to make but we need to make it all the same because it’s such a vitally important one – it’s a vitally important point that we never actually pay any attention to! We might spend money in a health food store or go to the gym twice a week or practice yoga or meditation but we never seem to give any thought to the fact that our actual environment is fundamentally dishonest, and therefore toxic

 

I’m not making a metaphysical point here about the illusoriness of the world or anything like that – what I’m talking about is the fundamentally deceptive nature of the communications we surround ourselves with. Just to give one example – it is abundantly obvious that we are living in a world that is completely dominated by advertisements of one sort or another. Everything is an advert for something! This is therefore just another way of saying that the reality we are presented with on all sides is dishonest – it’s not what it seems to be. Everything we see or read is propaganda for the system that is being daily foisted upon us!

 

Adverts are ‘dishonest’ because they always claim to be about something else than what they’re actually about – the day has long since passed when adverts were purely and simply about providing information about a product. We have moved on a long way since that day. The science of advertising relies on the fact that we are very easily manipulated by ‘unconscious associations’, implications which are there, but which don’t need to be spelt out. These associations work on us without us knowing that we are being worked on. This is just the same as saying that ‘adverts work by manipulation’, which is very obviously true – no one is going to be foolish enough to try to deny this!

 

We might agree that this is true but say that it’s not really a big deal either – we all know that ads are about manipulation, but so what? We have got used it to this stage and presumably we all feel that we’re immune to it. Where advertising surely does become a problem however is when the whole world becomes one giant advert, one giant ‘publicity exercise for itself,’ as John Berger implies here –

Publicity has another important social function. The fact that this function has not been planned as a purpose by those who make and use publicity in no way lessens its significance. Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world. Publicity adds up to a kind of philosophical system. It explains everything in its own terms. It interprets the world.

The entire world becomes a setting for the fulfillment of publicity’s promise of the good life. The world smiles at us. It offers itself to us. And because everywhere is imagined as offering itself to us, everywhere is more or less the same. …

Adverts aren’t just trying to promote the product that they happen to be showcasing, John Berger says elsewhere – they are, much more importantly, promoting our whole way of life, the particular way of life within which that product has a place. So how could we say that it’s not a ‘big deal’ when our whole environment is designed to manipulate or control us and there’s nothing left in it that’s at all honest? Surely we must realise that there are bound to be seriously adverse psychological consequences to living in a world that is totally biased, a world that is nothing more than ‘an advert for itself!

 

If we were unlucky enough to grow up surrounded by people who always had an ulterior motive, who were always duplicitous, who never did or said anything without a hidden agenda, then our mental health would of course suffer grievously as a result – we’d be in need of an awful lot of therapy if this were the case. The same is true therefore when we live in an environment is always comes with an ulterior motive, an environment that is designed to control us, an environment which always carries some kind of ‘disguised coercive element’. The usual way is for us to be more or less oblivious to the coercive (or controlling) aspect of our environment, and unaware of the all pervading dishonesty of the type of communications that make up the world we have to live in, and so this means that we are ‘unfree without knowing that we are’. Apparently – however – this very peculiar set-up seems to work; apparently – we can get by perfectly well this way!

 

There is a problem here though even if we can’t see it – there’s a problem especially if we can’t see it! In order to accommodate ourselves to this invisibly coercive and deceptive world we have to live on a very superficial level, and this is fundamentally unnatural and therefore unhealthy for us. It has harmful consequences. Human beings are not naturally superficial; we not naturally lacking in curiosity about the world we live in. All we need to do in order to appreciate this is to look at children – children are (of course) full of curiosity, full of questions. Adults  – on the other hand – aren’t! As adults (oddly enough) we seem to swallow whatever line in nonsense it is that is being fed to us at the time. We’ll go along with anything. The alternative seems to be just too frightening for us!

 

So the ‘problem’ that we are looking at here is the problem – we might say – of compulsory superficiality. We are given no choice in this matter – were pushed into this extraordinary limited state of being from a very early age. We don’t know that this fate has befallen us (we have no way of knowing it) but the quality of our lives has been degraded all the same. Another crucial aspect of this ‘compulsive superficiality’ that were talking about here is that we don’t have any genuine volition. If we are being swayed by superficial appearances the whole time then how can we possibly be said to have any genuine volition of our own? This is clearly an impossibility.

 

We can put all of this together – therefore – by saying that we have created the world for ourselves which, rather than being based on the Principle of Truth, is based purely upon the Principle of Deception. We so used to this that we think nothing of it – our eyes are accustomed to the systematic insincerity and so we pay it no heed. As Matthieu Ricard says,

We are very much like birds that have lived too long in a cage to which we return even when we get the chance to fly away. We have grown so accustomed to our faults that we can barely imagine what life would be like without them. The prospect of change makes us dizzy.

In this world it’s not about ‘what’s true’, it’s about what seems to be true. It’s about ‘image rather than content’. We all know this very well – who’s actually going to deny it?  The question we’re asking here is ‘What effect is it actually going to have on us to be living in such a world?’  One answer is to say that the consequences of this state of affairs is that we become completely gullible, i.e. ‘100% manipulable by external controlling factors’. We do what we told to do and we believe what we’re told to believe, and what this comes down to is a complete lack of autonomy. We have ‘lost ourselves,’ in other words. We’ve lost ourselves completely. It is one thing to have autonomy and find yourself in a world that is trying to manipulate you (or amongst people who are trying to manipulate you) and quite another to have never had that  in the first place and to live in a world whose very basis is manipulation and coercion!

 

This is such an extraordinary thing to contemplate – we have created a world that denies us, a world that is ‘against us’! It isn’t the case either – I would argue – that this world is ‘bad for most of us but is good for a small minority’, which is very much what it looks like on the surface, admittedly. What we’re looking at here is a fundamentally unfair system, it is true, but even the so-called ‘winners’ in this game aren’t winning anything worth having! By denying others we deny ourselves, after all. By controlling each other we are just as bound as our victims by our own need to control. It’s actually the business of ‘playing the game’ that denies us, not whether we win or lose, which is of course what we are brought up to believe. ‘Playing the game’ denies us because by always striving for personal advantage (which is what we have been brought up to do) we turn our backs on our true compassionate nature, and if this isn’t a recipe for misery and frustration then nothing is!

 

We can only truly be ourselves by being compassionate  – as all the great Wisdom Traditions tell us; to try to find meaning in life by being selfish and manipulative and competitive  (which is what our society demands of us, whether we see it or not) is a road to nowhere! Meaning in life doesn’t come from being good at controlling, or from being a ‘winner in the game’, but from nourishing the imagination, nourishing the creative and compassionate side of ourselves. Our true nature is incomparably greater than we have been led to believe that it is, but we are afraid to find that out, and this unacknowledged fear drives all sorts of toxicity…

 

 

 

 

 

The Thinking Epidemic

What happens when we allow ourselves to be completely defined by the thinking mind? What are the consequences of such a thing? This is turns out to be a crucially important question for two reasons – one reason being that we are all allowing ourselves to be completely defined (as if this were unquestionably a ‘good thing’) and the other being that the consequences of us allowing this are both extraordinarily far-reaching, and not at all good.

 

It’s not just ourselves we are defining – we are busy defining everything in sight! This is what thinking does, and we are all the grip of a mighty ‘thinking academic’, whether we realise it or not. Somehow we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine that letting the thinking mind take over (which inevitably means letting it define everything in sight) is what ‘progress’ (or ‘positive human advancement’) is all about. We are as a result in the throes of some kind of supposing growth spasm whereby, it seems to us, we are in the process of ‘thinking our way to greatness’. A glorious future is unfolding for us – or so we fondly imagine!

 

It’s not really ‘greatness’ that we’re thinking  our way to however – a better way of describing our destination would be to say that it involves ‘complete immersion in some kind of pointless, time-absorbing rational game which has nothing to do with life itself (although it claims – of course – that it does). We never tire of saying that what we are collectively doing is ‘celebrating life’ but nothing could be further from the truth! We not celebrating life – we are denying it. That’s what this pernicious business ‘defining everything’ (and ‘analyzing/organizing everything’) business really comes down to – the denial of life.

 

The process whereby thought insidiously categorizes and analyses and organizes everything it encounters under the pretext of ‘helping us’ can be seen as a form of ‘prototype bureaucracy’ that creeps up on us and, without us realising what is going on. The justification of the bureaucratic yoke is – as always – that it is serving us as a valuable tool which will facilitate us in living life in a better kind of a way. The end result is however always the complete opposite of this – bureaucracies choke life rather than facilitating it. Bureaucracies, we might say, ‘have no natural predators’ – there is nothing to prune them, nothing to limit them, nothing to stop them growing out of all proportion to their potential usefulness. The unspoken promise is always that once the necessary regulations have been obeyed, then we can get on with the important business of ‘living life to the full’ but the fact it is but the fact is that this just never happens – the bureaucracy just keeps on growing and growing until one day it actually substitutes itself for life, which was its ‘aim’ all along so to speak. ([It doesn’t have ‘an aim’ really of course, that’s just what it does.]

 

This is as true for actual bureaucracies as it is for the bureaucracy of thought, and if we can’t see this to be true then we really do need to shake the sawdust out of our heads! If we can’t see this to be true then this is because the insidious process of ‘bureaucratization has set in too thoroughly, has taken root too deeply, with the result that we can no longer ‘see the wood for the trees’. We started off this discussion what the consequences of us letting thought ‘run the show ‘ and organize the whole shebang for us according to its rules, its criteria, and its values, might be. We can take a stab at answering this question by saying quite simply that the consequences are that we become  as time goes on more and more alienated from all that is good (or ‘wholesome’) in life. The process is inevitably going to leave us very effectively disconnected from all that is wholesome in life and this disconnection – we may say – lies at the root of the ‘crisis in mental health’ that we are now witnessing at the start of the 21st century.

 

It might sound melodramatic to talk in terms of an ‘epidemic’ of thinking – people nowadays need to think anymore nor any less than they used to, we might argue. People think a lot – that’s fairly normal! There is a difference now though. In recent times we have, to a considerable extent, ‘externalised’ our thinking; out of our thinking we create this ‘designed world’ and then – as David Bohm says – this designed or constructed world ‘reaches back’ and thinks us! Or as we could also say, we determine our environment and then that environment turns the tables on us and determines us. We construct the designed world in time terms of our purposes, and then these very same purposes effectively trap us.

 

This is an old and familiar motif and we really ought to pay more attention to it than we do! There are a number of ways that the motif may show itself: the articer is trapped by his own artifice; the mechanical servant we create gets the better of us; the wish-fulfilling genie that we have let out of the bottle turns out to be more than we have bargained for… The lesson in all these tales is – we might say – that we should be careful what we ask for, because we might get it. Wishes are dangerous things! All machines involve a ‘simplifying down’ of the world – that’s what a machine (or a ‘model’) is – it’s an oversimplification of the world.  Stuff is (necessarily) left out. The peril here therefore is that we are very likely indeed to fall into the trap of mistaking the oversimplification of the world for the real thing. Or to put this in a slightly different way, we make a choice about ‘how to see the world’ and then some strange type of amnesia sets in and we forget that we have made a choice. We forget that there was any choice involved. This is what getting ‘lost in thought’ is all about – thought is a ‘choice we make about how to see the world’, only we never seem to remember that it is just a ‘choice’! We forget that our model is only ‘a model’.

 

What we are talking about here is remarkably simple and straightforward, and yet it turns out to be rather difficult to put into words. There’s an art in talking simply about things, and that art does not come easily. Carl Jung talks about our overvaluing of the rational faculty resulting in ‘a soul sickness’; and says that this malady manifests itself in terms of a profound lack of meaning in our lives. Of all the possible deficiencies that we might suffer from, this is without question the most insidious. For the most part, most of us would probably deny that we are suffering from any such thing. For me to admit to a ‘profound lack of meaning’ my life would be – in the current vernacular – tantamount admitting to being a ‘loser’; having no meaning in one’s life isn’t exactly what you would call ‘a success story’, after all!

 

It’s not usually the case that we deliberately pretend to have a meaningful life when we don’t; the lack of meaning that Jung is speaking about doesn’t ‘honestly manifest itself’ in the early stages of the process – that only happens right at the end. We could actually go so far as to say that it’s not the ‘lack of meaning’ itself that is the problem, but our inability to see it. There’s a very good reason why we are blind to the lack of meaning in our lives and that is – we might say – because we are so fixated on the arena of the outer life, that we entirely lose sight of the inner. It’s not just that we are ‘fixated on the outer life’ either; that’s not putting it strongly enough – we’re so entirely fixated on the outer life (i.e. the ‘show’ that is going on outside of us) that we don’t even know that there is such a thing as ‘the inner life’! For us, that simply doesn’t exist…

 

It doesn’t seem right to say this, of course. It doesn’t seem fair to say that we ‘have no awareness of the life that is going on within us’ because we all do perceive ourselves to be in touch with the internal world of feelings and emotions and cogitations. Sometimes it’s very busy in there; sometimes it’s so busy that it’s completely overwhelming, and so of course we know it’s there! The point is though that thoughts and the emotions that are brought about by thoughts, aren’t what we mean by ‘an inner life’ (or ‘a sense of interiority’); the true inner life is independent of what seems to be going on outside of us rather than being a mere reflection of (or ‘reaction to’) the outside world and the events taking place there. Similarly, our inner life isn’t a function of the thinking process, but rather it is ‘other than it’; the inner world is ‘its own thing’ so to speak, and not a mere ‘back-projection’ of the outside world, or an extension of the rational thinking process. The inner world is quintessentially ‘discontinuous’ with that rational mind – it belongs to another realm entirely.

 

The ‘external world’ (which is the world that is created by our thoughts and rule-based perceptions) has its own form of ‘meaning’. This isn’t really ‘meaning’ at all when it comes down to it but a system of motivation that is based upon’ reward and punishment’. It is of course easy to see how such a motivational system can substitute itself for ‘meaning’ – if I am yearning to achieve something that is going to bring about a very big reward if I succeed, then I’m very likely to say that ‘working towards this big reward’ is highly meaningful to me! Everything seems meaningful to me in terms of this final, all-eclipsing goal – the goal ‘gives meaning’ to what I’m doing. It ‘gives meaning to my life’, even. What we talking about is only a very superficial form of meaning however. It’s not meaning at all really since ‘steps towards the goal’ are only meaningful in terms of that goal, not in terms of themselves. Things are not ‘meaningful in themselves’ therefore. The moment is not ‘meaningful in itself’, but only in terms of a projected (i.e. ‘illusionary’) future!

 

So if we say that working towards the goal is a genuine form of meaning then we are saying something very peculiar indeed – we are claiming that seeing everything in life in terms of some projected future state (rather than appreciating it for what it is in itself) actually constitutes a genuinely wholesome and perfectly satisfactory way to live life. But it just plain isn’t – this is a very empty way to live life, it’s a way of going about things that is just not going to ‘feed our soul’ at all. What feeds the soul (so to speak) is the world as it actually is in itself, not the world as it appears when it seen as some kind of ‘stepping stone’ to a projected future state which is itself – when it comes down to it – no more than our own vacuous mental projection.

 

This brings us to the nub of the whole issue – the only type of meaning that the thinking mind produces is the type of meaning that is related to its own mental projections. There are two possible types of ‘mental projection’ – one is the type which we are attracted to, and the other is a type which we fear. There is the ‘reward’, and there is the ‘punishment’, in other words; these are the two types of projection that are created by the thinking mind. When we say that we find life ‘meaningful in terms of our goals’ then what this means is that we find life meaningful in terms of our attachments, which is to say, we find life meaningful in terms of the ‘projected world which we have mistaken or confused for the real one’. This is clearly absurd! How can we ever talk about ‘life’s meaning’ if we never see through the murky illusions of the thinking mind to life itself, which is what we are supposedly talking about?

 

The whole question of ‘meaning’ is very confusing; it is not at all as straightforward as we think it is. ‘Life itself’ is not a projection and so it doesn’t actually hold any meaning to us in the way that we understand the word! Obviously, when I talk about ‘meaning’ I mean ‘meaning in relation to me’ (i.e. ‘a subjective sense of meaning as it is determined by my own personal model of reality’); the unprojected world (i.e. the real world!) has no meaning in this sense. Because it’s not my projection it has nothing to do with me, and if it has nothing to do with me how can it be said to have meaning for me? If it’s not a function of my model or map then how can it be meaningful in relation to this model or map? The whole notion of life ‘having a meaning’ is problematic therefore; the way we use the word is referential, which is to say, it is meaningful only in terms of my own arbitrary viewpoint, only in terms of the game I am playing. The magic or mystery of life is however precisely that we are not projecting ourselves (or our ‘mental maps’) ahead of us wherever we go so although people often say that we ourselves are responsible for the meaning that life has (i.e.  that ‘we make our own meaning’) this is a type of ‘inverted truth’!

 

We don’t make meaning at all; what we make something very different – we make up games, we impose our own ‘private meaning’ on the world, but all of this is quite sterile. It is sterile because it’s only ‘us reflected right back at ourselves’ – it’s like looking in a mirror. When we define the world (or define ourselves) the result is always a perfect tautology. For us not to see that defining the world always produces a sterile self-referential reality is the most tremendous lack of insight. It is at the same time of course entirely to be expected given our proclivity for idolising rationality, but it is nevertheless a tremendous lack of insight! This state of affairs is what Professor James Carse calls ‘the silencing of the gods’ –

There is an irony in our silencing of the gods. By presuming to speak for the unspeakable, by hearing our own voice as the voice of nature, we have had to step outside the circle of nature. …

Forgetting that the way we have chosen to see the world is only a choice is what places us ‘outside the circle of nature’ – it is precisely this that traps us in ‘the tautology that we cannot see to be such’. We can’t really place ourselves outside the circle of nature of course, as James Carse goes on to say. We can’t really do anything that isn’t an expression of our own inalienable freedom. We’re only ‘outside the circle of nature’ on our own terms, the terms that we ourselves have made up. The thing is, however, that these are the only terms we believe in!