The Inescapable Suffering Of The Conditioned Identity [Part 1]

Our woes originate in the fact that the generic or conditioned identity is an impoverished state of being. Living on the basis of this identity is never going to be much fun – as we can plainly see when we look at things this way. It might seem to us that we are having fun – from time to time – but this is only because we are buying into the deluded perception that we are shortly to become less impoverished and this is cause for great jubilation, naturally enough. This can never actually happen however, conditioned identity – by its very nature – can never not be impoverished and so any pleasure that we might have felt when it seemed that we were getting someone is always going to be counterbalanced by the pain and disappointment that we feel when we discover that this happy eventuality isn’t going to happen after all.

It’s far, far worse to be impoverished in ourselves (so that who we are is the impoverishment, as Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas) then it is to be living in an impoverished environment – this constitutes a very particular type of predicament however because if my identity is impoverished (which is to say, hugely restrictive in terms of the possibilities that are open to us) then we going to have no direct no way of knowing this; we can only know that if we have something else to compare our situation with and we don’t. We can think of this in terms of perspective – if I happen to have very little perspective then I also have no way of knowing that I have very little perspective. And yet at the same time there is no getting away from the suffering that is inherent in our impoverishment, invisible though it might be to us. The cause of the suffering may be unknown to us, but the suffering itself is not – we get to know it very well…

All of this is very well of course but how do we know that the generic or conditioned identity is so very impoverished? How can we justify such a sweeping statement? And what exactly do we mean by ‘the generic or conditioned identity’ anyway? There is after all no point in going on at length about the consequences of having an extremely limited or constrained identity if it hasn’t anyway been established that this is or could be the case. This turns out to be thorny subject to get to grips with and that is because our subjective perception of ourselves (or of others for that matter) is not of ‘extremely limited beings’. We don’t perceive ourselves like this because we don’t see what we ‘lack’. Moreover, it is of course true that this idea is highly objectionable to us, if not to say downright offensive. We are happier saying how great we human beings are and what wonderful things we have achieved. We are much happier talking ourselves up than we are in saying how limited we are, in other words!

It is not however disrespectful to humanity to say that our ordinary situation in life is extraordinarily restricted and – when it comes down to it – entirely unworthy of us. It is actually far more respectful to say this than it is to say that the way we currently is the only way we could be, and that this is our true, undistorted nature. In the first case we are reminded not to get to get complacent and as a result enter into some sort of sentimental love affair with ‘the idea that we have of ourselves’ (which is clearly a healthy thing) whilst in the second case we have been given a totally false sense of security which – far from benefiting us – prevents us from becoming what nature secretly intends us to become, so to speak. In his Guide to the Perplexed E.F. Schumacher makes this point by saying that we have celebrating acorns as ‘an end in themselves’, so to speak, rather than seeing them as a kind of vehicle that leads to something inconceivably greater – the tree itself:

Our ordinary mind always tried to persuade us that we are nothing but acorns and that our greatest happiness will be to become bigger, fatter, shinier acorns; but this is of interest only to pigs. Our faith gives us knowledge of something better: that we can become oak trees.

If I was informed that I was a very, very limited kind of a creature then this could of course be taken as a terrible putdown that should not be tolerated even for a moment, but this is of course plainly ridiculous – this is actually the most valuable information that I could ever receive! To learn this is to have my horizons opened wider beyond anything I could ever have imagined possible. I am however very likely to resist this ‘widening of my horizons’ and stick fast to the small (or restricted) world that I know. By celebrating (or validating) who we think we are, we effectively deny who we really are and this is exactly what ‘the collective of us’ – more known commonly as society – always does. This is not a particularly familiar idea it is true, but ‘the collective of us’ is in this way the implacable enemy of every single individual making up that collective. Society – which presents itself as our friend, our ally, our ‘life-support system’ – is actually our greatest enemy, as Carl Jung pointed out eighty years ago or so.

This gives us a very good way of talking about the generic or conditioned identity therefore – we can say that what we are looking at here is a kind of ‘social fiction’ that we are required to identify with if we are to be taken seriously (or even acknowledged at all) by all the people around us, and by the social system as a whole. In a way, this is like having a Social Security number or something like that – if we don’t have a Social Security number then the system literally has no way of recognising us, as far as it is concerned we simply don’t exist. In another way what we’re talking about here isn’t like a Social Security number because it is who we actually experience ourselves as being! We obediently experience ourselves as being ‘who we are told we are’. This is similar to identifying ourselves with our social role, which is something that Jung talks about, but there is more to it than just this because the collectively constructed template (or image) of ‘what it means to be human being’ covers everything, not just what we do or how we behave in certain specific social situations. It covers every single aspect of us, such that if we ever started to become aware of an aspect of ourselves that was not congruent with ‘the socially approved image of what it means to be human being’ then we would experience this as being weird or strange and we would be very likely to be majorly worried about what was happening to us.

It might sound rather absurd to suggest that he could be so socially conditioned to such an extreme degree but if we think this then that is because we have underestimated the power of the consensus reality! When something out of the ordinary happens to us then what we generally do is to tell our ‘friendship group’ about it, or anyone else who can be persuaded to listen to us. If however something happens to me that is so ‘out of the ordinary’ that no one I meet has had any experience with it, nor knows anyone else who has, then obviously I can’t share it – I can try to tell people about it but that just won’t work in this case. The question is therefore, if something happens to me but I can’t tell anyone about it then is what happened actually real? Our inclination is to say yes it is!’ When this sort of thing happens to us (and particularly when it happens consistently enough) we always find that we start doubting ourselves, wondering if perhaps there might be something wrong with us. We might doubt our sanity. Consensus reality isn’t just something that is ‘convenient for communication’ therefore, it defines reality for us. The real purpose of the consensus reality is to define reality. It might have started out as ‘a convenience’ but it has ended up very much more than this. It has ended up being a world. ‘We all say it so it must be true,’ says a spokesman for the Monkey People in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

It is a matter of common experience that if we go up against someone in a debate who happens to be considerably more confident in themselves than we are then we will start to feel that they are right, not because of the sense or otherwise of their arguments but purely as a result of the force of their confidence (which in turn might be said to be a function of their ability to ‘not question themselves’). If this is true in a one-to-one situation (as it obviously is) then how much more true must it be when we are going up against the consensus reality, which is constituted of millions of people all joined up together in one tremendous ‘power block’? The consensus reality never questions itself – it is actually functionally incapable of doing so – and so its power is absolutely immense. The ‘false logic of the monkey people’ rules supreme and it always has done. The coercive power of the ‘collective reality tunnel’ – to use Robert Anton Wilson’s phrase – determines what is real for us and what is not and what it ‘allows as being real’ (what we are actually allowed to talk about or think about) is very, very narrow indeed and, as we have said, ‘narrow’ is just another way saying ‘impoverished’. It isn’t just our picture of what reality (supposedly) is that is extraordinarily impoverished either; it is our conditioned understanding of who or what we are.