Demonic Literalism

To be certain of oneself and one’s place in the world is the greatest of all calamities and it is all the greater for being entirely invisible to us. We carry a huge weight of certainty around with us and yet never think anything of it. We never think anything of it because we never notice it.


We consider it normal and correct for us to be certain of ourselves and the world – we are brought up that way, it’s in our culture. It’s in most cultures. Being certain of ourselves and our place in the world is actually seen as a good or healthy thing – it’s seen as being the same thing as ‘being confident’. It’s seen as ‘something to aim for’, something to strive for as best we can. And yet it is the greatest of all calamities – second to none.


Being certain of ourselves and the world is a calamity because it means we will never see the truth. We will never see the truth because the truth doesn’t come in the form of mind-created certainties. What can be worse could be worse than never seeing the truth? To be certain that we are right in our views is to be certain that all other ways of looking at the world are wrong and this guarantees that we will have no relationship with reality. Our certainty about the world has ‘severed our connection’ with reality; certainty always servers our connection with reality, no matter what it is that we are certain of.


As we have said, being certain of ourselves and the world is normal; it’s how we are – that’s our modality of existence. There is a definite description of things and we just slot straight into this description. We are part of that description. It seems so natural to us that this should be the way that things are that we never think anything of it. It’s not just that we ‘never think anything of it’ but rather that we don’t in any way see it, or have the capacity to see it – conditioning can’t see itself, after all. When we operate entirely on the basis of the definite description that we have slotted ourselves into then there is none of our awareness ‘left over’ to see that we are ‘operating on the basis of the description’. This is where the certainty that we are talking about comes in – certainty arises as a result of us being unconscious of the fact that the description we believe in only is a description. Were we to see that our model of reality is ‘only a model’, our theory only a theory, then all traces of certainty would of course fly right out of the window.


We have therefore arrived at a useful way of approaching this whole notion of ‘mind-created certainty’ – certainty, we might say, is the by-product of this business of ‘confusing the description with the thing that has been described’. When we forget that our description is only is a description, and nothing more, then the result is this state of being in which we are ridiculously certain about things. Reality itself never provides us with certainty about anything – is not in the business of providing us with certainty! It’s not in that business at all…


This mental state of being ‘certain about things’ isn’t in the least bit synonymous with ‘good mental health’, even if we do tend to indirectly assume that it is. It’s actually more of a blight or affliction than anything else – it’s a dark cloud blotting out the light of the sun. In order to see this for ourselves all we have to do is observe someone we know who becomes – momentarily – more certain about things than they usually are. This happens to everyone on a regular basis; one example being when we find ourselves expressing a viewpoint or an opinion that we very much believe in. If we could see ourselves at such a time (which obviously we can’t) then what we would see would be rather shocking – to be in the grip of a strong opinion or belief as to have one’s humanity replaced by ‘something else’, something that isn’t actually human.


There is a horror in this – there is a horror in seeing another human being falling into the state of being possessed by an opinion or a belief because the nature of ‘conviction’ (in all of its forms) is without any doubt completely and implacably opposed to our essential humanity. When we are ourselves in the grip of a strong opinion or belief then, as we have said, we don’t at all see this antithetical mismatch between our own essential nature and the nature of this inhuman mechanical ‘conviction’ that has somehow possessed us – far from being appalled or horrified at what has happened to us we experience intense pleasurable identification, an identification which will express itself either in the form of huge gratification if someone agrees with us, or equally huge displeasure or rage if we come across someone who does not agree with us. A belief is a bias and biases only work in these two ways – it’s always either YES or NO, PLEASURE and PAIN…


What the belief does for us is to provide us with a very strong sense of who we are, and this ‘strong sense of identity’ is (in the initial phase, anyway) profoundly euphoric. Having a very strong or definite sense of ‘who we are’ is the source of all euphoria, without exception. What’s going on here therefore is at the belief, at the same time as engendering an intense feeling of certainty about some viewpoint that we hold regarding the outside world, also creates an equally intense feeling of certainty with regard to ‘the one who is holding the belief’. The hidden agenda of allowing oneself to be gripped in this way by some sort of ‘unreasonable conviction’ (and all convictions or beliefs are unreasonable) is that we get to create a strong (if entirely erroneous) sense of who we are.


This, then, is why we don’t notice ourselves being ‘possessed by something inhuman’ – we are too hungry for the addictive euphoria that comes with having a definite sense of identity. We’re simply not interested in anything else. We aren’t looking at the process that’s going on at all; we’re just buying into it as fast as we can. We buy into it wholesale. If you don’t happen to subscribe to the very same belief or conviction that I do, then you will spot me being possessed, even though you will probably not understand the process that’s going on in these terms. You will have an intuitive understanding of what is happening to me, without having to put a name on it, and make ‘allowances for me’. We all manifest this peculiar type of insanity from time to time, after all. What also happens however is that the conviction or belief becomes ‘contagious’, and in fact a lot of people at the same time. Whole communities can become infected, as we all know very well – ideas (or ‘memes’) spread like the plague. Jung of course spoke about this sort of thing, which he referred to as a type of ‘psychic epidemic’ that can affect whole nations.


On a less obviously ‘pathological’ level we can say that when lots of people share the same belief-structure then this forms the basis for cultures, communities, societies. The same principle remains true however – we achieve ‘community’ at the price of part of our essential humanity (hopefully not too big a part, although it can be). This isn’t the kind of thing we like to go around saying too loudly of course, but anyone with any psychological insight at all knows it to be true. There is no such thing as a healthy ‘group mentality’ any more than there is such thing as ‘healthy group-think’, and this is counterintuitive inasmuch as we generally consider being part of a group as actually being a good thing. There’s also this notion of ‘the therapeutic group’ – which is actually a contradiction in terms, when it comes right down to it! Groups demand the surrender of individuality and he only ‘healthy’ way to live life is as an individual; all groups deny our essential humanity to some degree or other – loose affiliations to a lesser extent, rigid, intolerant, high-conformity groups to a much higher extent. Again, we all know this on some level or other; we just don’t like to admit it to ourselves.


In order to be part of the group, a collective (i.e. ‘a participant in the consensus reality’) we need to carry this weight of certainty around with us because – as we have said – it is the ‘shared certainty’ that creates the collective. And yet at the same time (as we have also said) we have made blind to it by the process of adaptation (we have become incapable of knowing that we have taken on this burden) and the reason for this blindness is the nature of certainty itself. Certainty is the type of thing one can’t see beyond, obviously! We are carrying ‘the oppressive burden of certainty’ and the reason we are putting it in these terms is because to be certain is to be ‘shut down’ and to be ‘shut down’ is to suffer. We closed-off to our own true nature (which is rather like being dead!) but rather than perceiving this phenomenon for what it is – which is the pain of not-being – we see it as good thing, we see it as a source of support and security, and so on. We function on the basis of this certainty – we couldn’t carry on in the particular way that we live life for more than a few moments without the fixed basis that we operate from, even though that ‘fixed basis’ isn’t actually any sort of real thing at all.  Our basis (the conventions that we have agreed upon) may not be real, but we need to believe that it is – the challenge of having to live without the framework or matrix we work within would be so great as to be utterly unthinkable to us. What we talking about here is ‘ontological insecurity’ (or ‘fear of the unknown’) and it is this Great Fear that our manufactured certainty acts as a remedy for…


There are two aspects to this ‘manufactured uncertainty’ – one aspect, we might say, is the world that we have adapted ourselves to – which is a literal kind of thing (i.e. it doesn’t represent itself to us in terms of poetical, allegorical, or metaphorical meanings, but in terms of unambiguous black-and-white rules) and the other aspect is the fixed or definite idea that we have about ourselves, which presents itself to us in a similarly ‘literal or non-poetical’ way. The very suggestion that ‘who we understand ourselves to be’ would not be a ‘literal’ kind of thing will inevitably sound bizarre and somewhat crazy to us. Poetry, myth or metaphor is fine in its place, we might say, but there can be no time for such arty-farty fripperies when dealing with the real world; similarly, allegorical  language is no good when dealing important stuff such as the question of ‘who we actually are’. Poetry is okay in its place, we say, but the world we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis is not a poetical type of thing – it’s concrete and unforgiving, and it demands concrete responses on our part. If a lion is coming down the road at you and it wants to eat you for breakfast, then you have to do something. You can’t treat the lion as a metaphor for something else. It isn’t ‘a metaphor’ for god’s sake – it’s a lion, end of story!


This argument sounds convincing but it doesn’t cut the mustard. It’s just well-rehearsed window-dressing. Of course there are times when we have to take things at face-value and respond accordingly – but that doesn’t mean that we have to go around like idiots taking absolutely everything we come across at face value (which is generally what we do do). Even when we are running for our lives, trying to get away from some concrete danger, that still doesn’t mean that we have to understand life in a concrete or literal way! Man-eating predators are comparatively rare these days but there is a much more dangerous creature out there – a veritable monster, in fact – getting ready to dine on us and we don’t even know that it’s there. We’ve actually made friends with it, and foolishly imagine that it’s going to help us! The ‘monster’ that we’re talking about here is of course the monster of certainty, which is the same thing as ‘the monster of taking things for granted’. When I fall into the trap of understanding myself literally – which is always how the thinking mind presents the situation – then as we have said I have actually disconnected myself from reality. I’m making do with a simulation of myself instead of the real thing, and I’m going to live a life on the basis of this simulation as this simulation on a full-time basis. As Paul Levy says in Are We Possessed,

We then live a simulation of ourselves, miming ourselves, becoming a master copy, a duplicate of our original selves.

All concrete or literal realities are copies, simulations, duplicates. A literal truth, as James Carse says, can be understood as a ‘special case’ of metaphor – it’s a metaphor that wants to ‘rule the roost’, it’s a metaphor that wants to get rid of all other metaphors! Joseph Campbell also argues that concrete explanations (or stories that present themselves as being ‘literally true’) are a ‘special case’ of metaphor in that they claim to be ‘the definitive account’ and out-rule all other possible explanations or metaphors for reality on this account. They are ‘competitive’ and ‘aggressive’ metaphors; they are concrete explanations that wish to eliminate all the opposition.


Dogmatic religions are an excellent example of this type of thing, as Joseph Campbell says here in the following passage, (taken from Living Myths: A Conversation With Joseph Campbell)

There’s a mystery dimension in myth—there always is, and you can’t put a ring around it. It’s the difference between drawing a circle on the ground and dropping a pebble into a pond from which circles go out. The myth drops a pebble into a pond, it tells you of a certain center, it puts you on a certain center—what the Navajo call the pollen path of beauty—but it doesn’t give you a definition.

What happens in dogmatic religions, however, is that definitions are contrived to circumscribe the myth and the ritual. I think that what is going on in the Catholic church now is something of a disaster. There you have the inheritance of one of the greatest ritual structures ever, anywhere, and what are they doing to it? It’s really incredible. Instead of simply presenting the mythic ritual beautifully, that rich mythologically-based heritage of beautiful, powerful ritual, for the individual to experience in his own way, they are destroying the clean lines of the rites and insisting, instead, on the dogmas, which are to tell us how we have to interpret our experience. Dogma simply cuts the individual off from his own potential of response.

The essential motif in Christianity – of the God who is killed and is then reborn as a well-known one – it’s a kind of a theme. The stories of Osirus and Odin are two obvious examples – Odin was actually crucified upside-down on the World Tree! This is a deep archetypal pattern whereby light apparently gives way to darkness and yet triumphs nonetheless (although not as an act of cunning but total surrender). Christianity however – as Joseph Campbell says – denies all other examples of the myth and says that its version alone is true. This turns the original myth into an aggressive ‘literal virus’ that infects everything and goes on the rampage. Although at root the story of the death and resurrection of Christ is still a metaphor (i.e. it has a bigger meaning than just the literal one) it has lost the fruitfulness (or ‘potential’) that used to be in it and has now turned into a blank, lifeless form of oppression – ‘the triumph of the letter over the spirit’, so to speak.


So as soon as a myth (or metaphor) becomes exclusive, aggressive, competitive, et cetera (i.e. as soon as it ‘goes viral’) then it loses the life that was in it and becomes ‘demonic’ in nature; instead of being ‘life-affirming’ (so to speak), it becomes life-denying. This gives us a very clear way of understanding what it is about concrete certainty that is so ‘monstrous’ – if we may use that word. Even though it might seem ridiculous to speak of ‘the self’ as a metaphor (rather than the ‘final reality’ or ‘concrete thing’) it is only through understanding the self as such that we are able to prevent ourselves from falling into the trap of’ demonic literalism. This is more than just ‘a trap’, this is the ultimate trap – this is the trap of traps. Once in it there appears to be no way out; once in it we don’t even want to find a’ way out’ – the thought never occurs to us! The thought actually couldn’t occur to us, it wouldn’t make any sense to us if it did. Once we see the world from the point of view of the literal self – which is the viewpoint that aggressively tries to out-compete or out-duplicate all other viewpoints (i.e. it is a viral viewpoint) then we aren’t actually interested in seeing the world in any other way. This is an obvious enough point to make once we see it – it simply isn’t possible to be ‘exclusive, aggressive, competitive, et cetera’ and yet at the same time be genuinely interested in other viewpoints, to be genuinely interested ‘what it feels like to be the other person’. This just isn’t going to happen.


If we do start to be genuinely interested (i.e. not as a ploy or strategy) in what it feels like to be the other person (or be genuinely interested in what the world looks like to the other person) then what this means is that we have somehow escaped from ‘the trap of being the viral self’. The literal self is a castle with the thickest possible walls and all the doors and windows are locked down. It is ‘a fortification’ – a ‘secure place’. Whilst we can give good appearance of being interested in the world or other people in a non-agenda-based way (or as Antony De Mello says in Awareness, we can give a good impression of being unselfish!) but the literal or concrete self has no such capacity. It can never go beyond itself and this is the price we pay for the security of concreteness. To be concrete is to be separate! To be concrete is always to be separate and that’s the price we pay for being ‘safe’. When we understand the self as a metaphor however (i.e. when we understand that it doesn’t really mean what it says it means) then this understanding connects us. There is no final reality in ‘the self’ – there’s no final reality in ‘the self’ because the state of separation that we bring down on ourselves (through our fear of openness or uncertainty) doesn’t really exist…