Glorifying Our ‘Aims’

When we’re greedy for the desired outcome, or fearful and worried about the unwanted one, then what happens as a result of this preoccupation is that we miss out on life itself. We miss out on life itself because life has nothing to do with either the ‘wanted’ or the ‘unwanted’ outcome – it has nothing to do with my fears and nothing to do with my hopes and desires either, which would be a very strange thing to consider were we ever to do so.

We understand this the other way around, however. Our understanding is that we will lose out unless we get to be good at obtaining the outcomes we want, and avoiding all the other ones, and this is of course why we put as much effort into our purposeful activities as we do, why we take the attitude that unless there is a reason for what we’re doing then we are essentially wasting our time. ‘Activity without purpose is the drain of your life’, legendary motivational speaker Tony Robbins tells us. Or – even more to the point – from Pastor Sunday Adelaja we learn that ‘Life becomes a dilemma when you are living a purposeless and goalless life.’ This is the unashamed message of our era – the message which glorifies the simple-minded purposeful strivings for our goals. Here lies our fulfilment, we are led to believe, and nowhere else. But if our goals have nothing to do with life, and take us in the opposite direction (if such a thing were possible) then the question we are bound to ask ourselves (if we have any curiosity about ourselves at all) is “What on earth are we playing at?”

The answer turns out to be very simple – the reason for our perverse orientation in this matter is because our rational-purposeful culture is an exercise in denial, not an exercise in exploring (or celebrating) life, which is what we would like to believe. Our hopes and fears are our own private projections and if we weren’t the fully paid-up members of such a profoundly unconscious culture we would see this without the slightest bit of difficulty. How could we not see that our hopes and fears are our own projections? This is the most basic psychological insight there is and it is also the insight that is least likely to ever come our way – we’re kept far too busy on the Wheel of Purposefulness for that. We’re always too fixated on the goal (and the next goal after that) to ever get philosophical about what the hell we think we’re doing…

If all I care about are my projections then this means that I am very effectively ‘cocooning myself from reality’, just as Jung says. This is the best way of ‘cocooning ourselves from reality’ there is – it’s totally fool-proof! The other way of putting this is to say that our goals – precious as they are to us – are only thoughts, and thoughts aren’t real. The thought is not the thing and it never can be, and so to see the world purely in terms of our ideas about it is to very effectively remove ourselves from it. To be focused exclusively on our goals is to be concerned only with those things that make sense to our logical categories (since if something can’t be represented in terms of these categories then it simply doesn’t exist for us). When we are constantly enthusing about our plans and intentions we are creating the impression that we have a full-blooded relationship with the ‘wider world’ (or at the very least that we aspire to have such a relationship) but this is just a ploy – the only ‘relationship’ we have is with our own private version of reality, which is of course a complete cop out.

Controlling only ever relates us to the sterile domain of our well-worn thoughts, our jaded and flavourless preconceptions, and so no matter how successful we might be in our purposeful endeavours, that is never going to get us anywhere different from ‘where we already were’. Just to reiterate this point – because it’s a point we miss every time – when we concern ourselves only with outcomes (either of the good or bad variety) then this means that we are in Control Mode and being in Control Mode necessarily limits us to ‘the domain of what we already know’, ‘the domain of our preconceptions’, ‘the domain of what we have already decided is true’. We don’t ever see things this way but what it essentially means is that we are trapped in the Prison of Purposefulness. We’re lifers in this most doleful of institutions and there’s no hope of parole, no matter how well we behave…

The reason we don’t ever see things this way is of course because we take it as read that the Known World – the world that is made-up entirely of our thoughts and concepts – is pretty much equivalent to what’s actually out there in reality. We never stop to reflect on what a ludicrous assumption this is; we might be familiar with our own description of the world, but we certainly shouldn’t go around assuming that what we are so familiar with is actually ‘the world itself’. Thought is a purely quantitative business, whereas in reality no quantities exist, only qualities; we all know that sugar is sweet, but we wouldn’t know what sweetness is just from the word. There’s no sweetness in the word ‘sweet’ and – what’s more – there’s no way there ever could be! There is a gulf between our descriptions and ‘the world that is being described’ which can never be bridged, not by any logic that we might be capable of putting together. We’ll never bridge it, and so rather than allow ourselves to get curious about what might lie on the other side of the abyss, we resort to ignoring it and pretending that it isn’t there.  

Because the Known World has no correspondence to (or no connection with) ‘reality as it is in itself’, it is perfectly appropriate to speak of us as being prisoners of thought. It is perfectly accurate to speak of the thinking mind as a person. “You are in prison”, says Gurdjieff, “all you can wish for, if you are a sensible man, is to escape.” The thing is however that we’re not sensible in this way – we’re not in the least bit ‘sensible’! We are preoccupied with anything else but escaping – anything interests us apart from the one thing that isn’t interesting (i.e., our trivial games). As Gurdjieff also says somewhere else, “our fate is to be forever turning around in a circle of insignificant interests and insignificant aims.” We ‘carry this off’ by getting excited by our aims as if they really do have some relationship to ‘the Wider Reality’. They don’t though and so no matter how much we invest in our fantasies, they are never going to bear any fruit. We devote ourselves to our distractions as if they weren’t distractions, in other words. “Are we not wasps who spend all day in a fruitless attempt to traverse a window-pane – while the other half of the window is wide open?” asks Wei Wu Wei.

Life itself (or reality itself, if we want to put it like that) exists at right angles to all our concerns, to all our interests and preoccupations. This is what Wei Wu Wei means when he says that we operate on ‘the horizontal’ dimension and ignore ‘the vertical’; the vertical dimension – we might say – is the dimension of depth, which is the ‘mysterious dimension’- it is ‘mysterious because we’re constantly moving beyond the veil of appearances. In the horizontal dimension however we never go beyond appearances and so everything we engage in here is guaranteed to be vanishingly trivial, vanishingly superficial, vanishingly inconsequential. The only difference between one outcome and another in the Realm of the Vanishingly Inconsequential (i.e., the Realm of our Games) is ‘the difference indicated by the mental boundaries which we ourselves have invented’, and so this is the type of difference that we contrive to get excited by in our games. This is the difference between one category and another (or between one idea and another) and this is an imaginary difference, a difference that is ‘only there because we say it is’. When we ‘glorify our aims’ – as we always do – it is this ‘imaginary difference’ that we are getting feverishly excited about and when we allow ourselves to get ‘excited by the imaginary’ this always happens at the expense of anything that is actually real….

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Living In A World Of External Meaning

We worship purposefulness – motivational speaker and life coach Tony Robbins says that ‘activity without purpose is the drain of your life’. How great it would be if only we could be purposeful the whole time, without any wasteful (and pointless) purposelessness! What a splendidly meaningful life that would be, we might think.

The only drawback here – and this is something that conveniently never occurs to us – is that all of our purposes, no matter how splendid they might seem – are ‘made up things’. Because our purposes are ‘made up things’ (and how could they be otherwise, since there are no ‘purposes’ in reality itself?) they wouldn’t be there unless we said that they were, and because they aren’t there unless we say that they are we have to keep on saying that they are. We’re caught on a hook here. This means that not only do we have to keep on struggling gamely to realise the purpose in question, we also have to struggle to keep on confirming to ourselves that our purposes are real and meaningful and worth – on this account – struggling for!

This is a kind of tortuous knot therefore – the situation is not at all as straightforward as we might have thought it to be. ‘Having a purpose’, as everyone says, gives us meaning in life. That’s why we love goals so much. That’s why we love having a plan. But the fact that we ourselves have to maintain the meaningfulness of the goal or purpose takes this meaningfulness away again. If I have to assert that something is true in order for it to be so then this renders the whole exercise is meaningless. Truth that I myself have to agree upon is not truth and meaning that I myself have to ‘make up’ is not meaning. On the contrary, it’s a game…

If we want to enjoy the ‘meaningfulness’ of the purposeful life we have therefore to play a game with ourselves. What we have to do is keep the part of the exercise whereby we ‘maintain the meaningfulness of the purpose’ secret from ourselves so that we don’t know we doing it. We ‘arrange’ for the purpose to be a purpose (because it wouldn’t be one otherwise) but we keep it quiet from ourselves that we are doing this. This might on the face of it seem to be a neat trick (and on the face of it, it is a neat trick) but the long and the short of the matter is that we are deceiving ourselves, and so no matter how much effort we put into it, this isn’t really going tos get us anywhere! Progress in the game is not real progress, after all. and what’s more, we’ve ‘made an enemy of the truth’ with this manoeuvre – there’s always going to be this ‘unwelcome awareness’ waiting in the wings and that unwelcome or refused awareness is going to cast a shadow on us, even when we seem to be at our happiest. Life can’t be lived on the basis of secrets, after all…

If there is to be meaning then it cannot be created by us, it cannot be arranged in advance through the manoeuvre of having a plan or a purpose. We may choose for this, that or the other to be meaningful and society might designate this, that that or the other to have meaning, but this isn’t real meaning. It is ‘assigned meaning’. This is ‘meaning that is imposed from without’ rather than meaning that comes, all by itself, ‘from within’. What allows meaning from within (or intrinsic meaning) to arise within us is lack of pressure, lack of control, lack of intention; when we are busy being purposeful then this is like a brick wall keeping intrinsic meaning out. If we are under pressure to ‘achieve’ the whole time then this is going to starve us of any genuine sense meaningfulness in our lives therefore. We may not notice this deficiency because extrinsic meaning (which equals ‘rules’ or ‘pressure’ or ‘compulsivity’) has substituted itself for the real thing. When compulsion is in the driver’s seat then we will be oblivious to intrinsic meaning, which is a far subtler sort of thing. It is far subtler, and it does not push itself upon us. It is not a loud blaring foghorn voice – it does not bellow at us, it does not threaten or cajole us.

So far from it being the case that purposeless activity is a drain upon us, it is – because of its non-compulsive or non-coercive nature – leaving the door open for what used to be called grace. Without grace, life is graceless (needless to say!) and purposeful/mechanical activity, even though we can’t necessarily see it to be so, is graceless. Conventional ‘wisdom’ warns us that the devil finds work for idle hands and this is, we might say, ‘the dark side of the work ethic’. The dark side of the work ethic is that what underpins our so admirable industry is the fear of what might happen if ever we were to stop! Some forms of Christian evangelicalism hold that meditation is a dangerous practice for this very reason – if we cease with all of our wall-to-wall mental busyness then we are, in effect, leaving the citadel of purposeful selfhood unguarded, and when we do that then the devil can walk right in and take over. It’s not just prayer that protects us from Satan therefore – ordinary, run-of-the-mill thinking activity does too. This however constitutes a fundamental mistrust of life itself; it is reminiscent of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, which is a way of looking at things which means we even have to distrust our actual nature, which is said to be tainted with this thing called ‘Original Sin’. We have been warned of this inherited curse down through the centuries and so we stay busy out of our fear, not because of the worthwhile goals that we are to attain. To relax is tantamount to sinning!

Once we start off from this standpoint it will never occur to us that what might ‘come in’ if we lower our personality defences might actually be a beneficial sort of thing, and not satanic at all, notwithstanding the famous Protestant work ethic. Kierkegaard, himself a devout Christian, tells us that idleness, of the right sort (i.e. not mere ‘self-distraction’), is the divine life itself –

Idleness, we are accustomed to say, is the root of all evil. To prevent this evil, work is recommended…. Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is truly a divine life, if one is not bored….

Our goals and purposes are our own affair – they don’t connect us with life, no matter what we might think to the contrary. When we are busy in this goal-orientated way then we are ‘preoccupied’, we are ‘closed’ with regard to anything that isn’t relevant to the goals that we have in mind. The same is true for thinking – when we are busy thinking then we’re not paying attention to anything other than our thoughts. In order to genuinely ‘attend’ – which is how we connect with reality – we have to drop our purposeful doing and thinking and this is precisely the thing that, in our rational-purposeful culture, we find so difficult to do. Somehow, doing has become so important to us that we no longer have any time for being. Saying this is not to dismiss the importance of doing, or purposeful behaviour. By grounding our doing in being it becomes more effective; the best action arises from stillness, as it is said in the East.

As Alan Watt says, when we think of the time then we have nothing to think about but our own thoughts and this very effectively disconnects us from reality. The same is true with our purposefulness: – if we are purposeful the whole time then this is actually ‘being busy for the sake of being busy’ – wall-to-wall busyness means that we never get a chance to come up for air’ and ‘check in with ourselves’ about what we are actually doing. We never refer to actual reality, in other words. It’s not our ‘purposelessness’ that’s the big danger when it comes down to it therefore but our dreadful ‘non-stop busyness’ – this is the real ‘drain’, this is the real plague. Because of the ‘insulating’ character of the goal-orientated mode (the fact that we can’t see the bigger picture when we’re focused on the details) it all too easy happens that – as we have said – we become disconnected from both reality and from our own true nature – which is ‘spontaneous’ not ‘purposeful’. We get so caught up in the ‘how’ that we lose sight of the ‘why’.

This is a phenomenon that is very prevalent in our culture, as we keep saying. It’s a contagion that we have all been infected with, to some degree or other. Extrinsic meaning is such a ‘bully’ that it never gives us any time to listen to anything else (any quieter or less forceful voices) – it gives us this task to do, then the next, and then the next after that and it never lets up. When people talk about ‘working to live’ rather than ‘living to work’ this is what they’re talking about: the healthy way of things is when we engage in purposefulness for a specific and practical reason, and so when we’re done we can return to our natural state of stillness, or ‘purposelessness’. As we have said, who we really are is not purposeful – we don’t exist for the sake of fulfilling purposes, after all! Idleness brings us closer to the divine state of being, as Kierkegaard says. Everything has already been achieved (so to speak) and so what’s our problem? What’s got into us to be constantly seeking goals without ever a break, as if there were some sort of virtue in restlessness? Once we go down the road of overvaluing rationality and purposefulness, then this very quickly turns into the sort of thing whereby we lose track of who we really are and what life is really about. Life isn’t really about ‘anything in particular’ of course; we can however say what it’s not about though – it’s not about being purposeful for the whole time like some kind of demented machine that doesn’t know when to stop!

If we distrust ‘not being busy’ or ‘not being narrowly purposeful’ what this means is that we don’t trust our own actual nature, which is – as we just said –NOT about being busy. Who we are in our essence does NOT need to be validated by having some ‘purpose’! This is however the very nub of the matter – when we exist full-time in the Purposeful Realm then we construct an identity for ourselves that is based entirely upon ‘how well we are doing at achieving our goals’. That’s the name of the game, after all. This conditioned identity absolutely does have to be validated by purposes – without some sort of ‘purpose’ this conditioned identity very quickly finds itself in bad shape. When I see myself purely on those terms which the Purposeful Realm itself provides me with then I have to seek validation (or ‘meaning’) via my effectiveness in achieving the specified goals, arbitrary though these goals might be. The purposeful realm is a game in other words, and when you are in a game you have to play the game – there’s no choice here! There are no other options…

Not that we know we’re playing a game of course. If we knew that then we’d realise that we don’t have to play; ‘whoever plays, place freely,’ says James Carse (or something to that effect). The Purposeful Realm doesn’t let on that it’s a game; it doesn’t let on that there is any other form of existence other than this – the ‘ceaseless doing’ type of existence, the ‘mechanical activity’ type of existence, the ‘chasing goals’ type of existence. The promise of ‘being’ is always being dangled in front of our noses but that’s all it is – a promise, and an empty one at that. In this world we get to exist via our goals, via our purposes, via our roles and it’s all very competitive. We always have to point to something outside of ourselves in order to justify as being here. The reason we have to do this is because this ‘identity’ is entirely hollow – it’s not actually real and so it continually needs to be propped up or validated. If we were rest to in our true, unconditioned nature, then we would not need this pernicious self-validating activity. We wouldn’t need to look anywhere else; we wouldn’t need to look to some spurious external authority for validation. We wouldn’t need to be forever trying to ‘prove ourselves’. We are however thoroughly alienated from our true nature and so we do have to go on being purposeful. The purposeful self is the ‘substitute’ for who we really are, but it’s not a very good substitute. It’s not a very good substitute because it’s got exactly nothing going for it!