Life In The Box

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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Living In The World Of Foregone Conclusions

Living in the world of our thoughts is a drag, as Alan Watts would say. What could be more dispiriting than always staying within the remit of our tired old thoughts, which are – when it comes down to it – nothing more than a bunch of recycled, tawdry old memes? Our conventional way of looking at things tells us that everything that everything good is to be found here, within this ‘realm of the known’; it tells us – more implicitly than explicitly, of course – that all possibilities are to be found here. And yet there are no possibilities here, not really – only the endless rehashing of the same old categories, which will never get us anywhere…

 

The world of our thoughts is ‘the world of foregone conclusions’, when it comes down to it – every thought, every idea every concept, is ‘a foregone conclusion’. It’s a cliché – it has nothing new to bring to the table!  All of our mental constructs are clichés in this way; all of our mental constructs are ‘foregone conclusions’. As Krishnamurti says ‘thought is always old’. What could be more fundamentally dispiriting than always going around on the same old tracks therefore, whilst trying to make out to ourselves that actually we’re headed for some grand destination? Of all the malicious tricks we could play on ourselves, wouldn’t this be the worst? And yet this is what we do just about every day of our lives – we go around in circles and tell ourselves that we’re going somewhere.

 

We tell ourselves that we’re ‘getting somewhere when we work towards a ‘foregone conclusion’ (or ‘known outcome’) and so does society as a whole. Conventional wisdom tells us that working towards a foregone conclusion is the best way to do things (if not the only way to do things); conventional wisdom tells us that we should always be working towards a goal, towards a known or defined outcome –that’s called ‘being in control’ and being in control of our lives is what it’s all about, or so we are led to believe. Being in control is good, just as being out-of-control is bad, but what we don’t see (and don’t show any sign of seeing) is that being in control all the time means never leaving the world of foregone conclusions…

 

We’re led to believe that the right way to live life is always to be working towards a known outcome (to be ‘always in control’) but being in control of what is happening (or of where we are going) isn’t what life is about at all – that’s something else we are talking about here, not life! We’re talking about some sham version of life, some sad mockery of life, not the actual thing itself. The actual thing isn’t ‘a drag’, isn’t a dull and wearisome matter of ‘working towards a known outcome as if we were actually interested in that. Quite frankly, that’s an appalling thing to have to do; it is – if we were to be honest – a form of torture that we are subjecting ourselves to. It is however a form of torture that we are, both on the collective and the personal level, constantly validating for ourselves.

 

Psychologically speaking, working to a foregone conclusion (or ‘known outcome’) is a form of living that is not living – it is in fact not so much ‘life’ as ‘the avoidance of life disguised as life’. Working towards goals the whole time is an avoidance of life because life is not a foregone conclusion! Life is not about ‘working towards a goal’, no matter what we might have been told, and no matter how many times we might have been told it. Life has absolutely nothing to do with our goals, as we would surely realize if we were ever to reflect on the matter. My goals are my own affair, they are important only inasmuch as I say they are, and I would be foolish in the extreme to think otherwise. Goals are not life and life is not a goal.

 

Intuitively, we all know this – we all know deep down that life is a mystery and that living life is to embrace this mystery on its own terms rather than putting it into neat little boxes of our own design. ‘Life is a movement towards an unknown goal’, says Jung, and not a movement to a goal that we ourselves have made up! When we move towards a defined goal or predetermined outcome then this equals ‘running away from life’; being always orientated towards goals equals ‘running away from life’ because we are thereby avoiding all uncertainty, all ‘risk’, and life is nothing else but uncertainty, nothing else but ‘risk’. All psychotherapists know this – all psychotherapists know that if you put all the emphasis on avoiding risk (which is the ‘sensible’ thing to do) then you will avoid life too. As Jesus says in John 12:25, ‘He that loves his life shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.’ [King James Bible]

 

So – just to repeat the point – the movement towards a known outcome isn’t life but the avoidance of life, and yet this is what our collective ‘wisdom’ tells us we should be doing. The template has been laid down in front of us and all the sign-posts have been put in place and nothing is left for us but to adhere as best we can to this template. The route-directions have been etched into our minds via the process of socialization and the only job remaining for us is to follow the route that has been mapped out for us. The behavioural reinforcement involved here is immense and it would be foolish of us to try to pretend otherwise – the more slavishly we conform to the template, the closer we follow laid-out route the more ‘success’ we stand to gain. The more we diverge (or deviate) on the other hand, the more certain is our ‘failure’ (within the terms of the game that has been thrust upon us). The more successful we are the more social reinforcement we receive (needless to say!) whilst the less successful we are, the more negative reinforcement (or negative kudos) we will incur. This is how society works, as we all know.

 

Who could possibly be brave enough to stand up against this type of pressure? What would it take for us not to fall in line with everyone else, and strike our own path, in flagrant contradiction of everything we have been taught? What would it take for us to let go of this business of working our way towards the foregone conclusion which – as we all know very well on some level – is terribly, terribly uninteresting? The ‘factor’ that would inspire us to ignore the game rules (and give up all the ‘safety behaviour’ that goes with them) is itself profoundly mysterious and not therefore amenable to logical analysis, whilst the factor promoting conformity is as plain as the nose on your face! We don’t need a PhD in psychology to understand what type of a process is involved here – we see it at work in every school playground…

 

There is a strong tendency at work for human culture to become more homogenous or less diverse and to a very large extent we can attribute this to advances made in the technology of communication; we are all much more ‘hooked up’ in this information age of ours and whilst there are obviously advantages to this there are also significant disadvantages – disadvantages that are for the most part much visible. The disadvantages of being in ‘lock-step’ with millions and millions of other human beings is that the behavioural reinforcement factor that we have just been talking about has now arguably become more powerful than at any other point in our history. This ‘conformity to the mental and behavioural template’ is at this stage – without any doubt at all! – the Number One threat to mental health that we face in our lives. It is ‘the Number One Threat to mental health’ because it reinforces to an extraordinary degree the tendency we already have which is the tendency to avoid the intrinsic uncertainty of life by following pre-established patterns of living life.

 

We need only look around us to see this – we live in a world that is governed by hypnotic images, images whose purpose is to tell us that our happiness and fulfilment are to be found ‘on the outside of us’, in the collectively-generated consensual hallucination that Jean Baudrillard calls ‘the realm of the hyperreal’. Hyperreality is by its very nature immensely hypnotic, overwhelmingly hypnotic – it is a drug like no other and we are pretty much all addicts!  We’re addicted to seeking life on the outside of ourselves in the realm of the hyperreal, in what we could call the ‘Image World’. We are – we might say – all addicted to looking for happiness and fulfilment on the outside of ourselves in this collectively-validated version of life where everything is all about ‘moving successfully towards socially-sanctioned goals. These goals contain – we imagine – the possibility of our happiness, the actualization of our very personal dreams (which is to say, the expression of our true uncompromised individuality).

 

This is the most ridiculous joke of all time however, if only we could see it! It’s a ridiculous joke because these ‘dreams’ were implanted in us in the first place and have therefore nothing whatsoever to do with our ‘true individuality’; actualizing them only increases the insidious control of the system that is regulating and defining our consciousness. Seeking the goals we have been told to seek empowers the system and disembowels us; the consensus world (which is unreal) becomes all-powerful whilst we (who are real) lose every last little bit of our power or autonomy. The game we are playing is based on the denial of who we really are and yet we are led to believe that we are ‘celebrating our individuality’! ‘Go on, you’re worth it!’, says the ad on TV…

 

There’s no fulfilment, no happiness to be had in this ‘world that exists outside of us’. It should actually be necessary to say this – of course there’s no fulfilment or happiness in the world that exists outside of ourselves! Whose fulfilment or happiness would it be, anyway? Certainly not ours! It’s fulfilment / happiness that belongs to the world of images and the world of images isn’t real. The world of images isn’t real and if it isn’t real then there can’t be any happiness in it! There’s no one in this world that exists outside of us (obviously enough!) and because there’s no one in it there can’t be any fulfilment or happiness. Happiness and fulfilment have to belong to a real person – they can’t belong to an image in image world, they can’t belong to an act we’re putting on!

 

The Image World – which is the world that we have collectively agreed upon – is made up of ‘known outcomes’ or ‘foregone conclusions’. That’s all that’s in it. The consensus hyperreality world itself is a ‘foregone conclusion’ – it’s a foregone conclusion that nothing real is ever going to happen here. It’s a foregone conclusion that our search for happiness and fulfilment in the world of images is going to fail. Saying that nothing real is ever going to happen in the image world (which we do not of course see as ‘the image world’ but rather as the one and only true world) is equivalent to what Buddhist teachers such as Milarepa have said about the ‘barrenness of samsara’ (samsara being the deceptive world of appearances). Samsara or the world of appearances is the most barren of all environments, for reasons we have already gone into. No desert is as sterile as this! And yet we perceive it to be positively bubbling over with the most enticing of possibilities. We avoid seeing the terrible barrenness of the Image World and instead fixate our narrow attention on our games of loss and gain, saying that ‘such and such an outcome’ is supremely important and then feeling either good or bad depending up how skilful our controlling is!

 

But no matter how much effort we put into the task of ‘denying the barrenness of samsara’ (or denying the futility of the game we are playing’) this barrenness (or sense of futility) will always show themselves at some point and when they do they will show themselves in the form of a particularly bleak for of suffering – a form of suffering so bleak in fact that we will think of it as a curse, or – in a more medical idiom – as a pathology or sickness. But this supercharged suffering isn’t a curse, or a ‘sickness’ – it’s actually the awareness of the barrenness of the Image World (which is an awareness we have worked so hard to avoid) that we have thrown away with such force (and then forgotten about) coming back at us like a deadly boomerang of pain.

 

‘Avoidance’ doesn’t just mean running away from things, it also means running towards them! When we run full-tilt towards our goals, towards our desired outcomes (or ‘dreams’) then we are avoiding life; we are avoiding life because life – as we have said – isn’t a goal or a desired outcome or a ‘dream’. Or to put this another way, when we run full-force at this thing we call ‘winning’ we’re creating a boomerang; we don’t know that we’re creating a boomerang, for sure, but our ignorance of what we’re doing won’t stop it coming back and hitting us in the head! Both ‘running away from negative certainty’ and ‘running towards the positive variety’ equal ‘the game’ and the game equals evading every last trace of awareness of the Great Mystery that is life…

 

Art: Eduardo Martinez. Taken from creativeboom.com