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

 

 

 

 

 

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Society Will Format You

Society will format you. People will format you. Your friends and relations will format you. Nature herself will format you. This being so, shouldn’t we just let ourselves be formatted? Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen, after all? On purely practical terms, we could ask how we could possibly get on in a formatted environment if we ourselves are going around being unformatted. We wouldn’t ‘fit in’, after all…

 

It’s not as simple as that, however. If we just ‘succumb to the pressure’ or ‘succumb to the inevitable’ then that doesn’t work either. Short-term practicality isn’t everything – that brings its own problems! The thing is – as the lyrics of the song by Black Uhuru say – ‘life is a test’. Life itself is testing us, we might say, so simply going along with the overwhelming pressure could be what the system says we should be is not a satisfactory answer to this test. It’s not a ‘satisfactory answer’ by a long chalk!

 

To passively allow ourselves to be formatted, without even passing any heed to what is going on here is the ‘ultimate irresponsibility’. To be who we are told to be the ‘ultimate irresponsibility’! When we succumb to the pressure to be who or what we are told to be then something rather important is left out of the equation – what we could have been, if we hadn’t allowed ourselves to be formatted. This is something we shall never find out in this case; ‘what we could have been’ will haunt us to the grave, in this case. ‘Allowing yourself to be formatted’ is the same thing as ‘being unconscious’ and being unconscious is ‘the easy option’ – it’s the easy option because everything is decided for us and all we have to do is just go along with it! This is the easiest thing we could ever do – it is a total ‘abdication’ of our own responsibility of finding out ‘what it’s all about’. We take the easy option and we run with it. We become a clone of everyone else.

 

‘Responsibility’ is a funny word. The way that it’s usually used is to mean that we have to act in line with what is expected of us. To be ‘responsible’ to do what we are led to believe we have to do, what we ought to do. To be ‘responsible’ is allow ourselves to be controlled, in other words! To be responsible is to allow oneself to be ‘passively formatted’. Even the word itself has become a way of bullying or browbeating people. True responsibility, we might say, means not allowing ourselves to be formatted, just for the sake of convenience, just for the sake of fitting in. This is ‘the test’ – the test is to see whether we can be true to ourselves in the face of overwhelming pressure to be false, and as a consequence sell ourselves short just for the sake of having ‘an easy life’. In biblical terms this equals ‘selling our birthright for a mess of pottage’ – this is exactly what is meant by that phrase.

 

There is no moral pressure in this test however, and that’s the hard thing for us to understand. There is no ‘external authority figure’ waving the finger at us, poised between condemning us on the one hand, and approving of us on the other. How ridiculous is this – it makes absolutely nothing of us. Everything depends on what others say, everything depends on what other people have already decided for us – what we ourselves feel we want to do or be doesn’t matter at all. The notion that that ‘reality’ (or ‘the universe’) is putting pressure on us ‘to be one way rather than another’ is utterly absurd! Life’s test isn’t the type of ‘test’ that we automatically tend to think it is therefore – it’s us working out what’s right for us, without anyone else influencing us in this. It’s up to us and no one else; to put this in the simplest terms ‘true responsibility’ is nothing other than freedom itself, therefore.

 

We inhabit a heavily-formatted environment. ‘Not succumbing to the formatting’ is a societal crime – this is a transgression, an aberration that won’t be tolerated. We like to talk about an ‘open society’, a ‘tolerant society’, an ‘inclusive society’, but this is just another level of gloss, designed to distract us from what’s really going on. It’s window-dressing, in other words; it’s like a corporation which has a highly publicised ‘anti-bullying policy’ that is nevertheless predicated upon the practice of bullying and exploiting its employees. What better camouflage could such a company have? The minute there is any talk of bullying fingers will point at that prominent anti-bullying signs – “that sort of thing doesn’t happen here, you will be told. It’s a well-known fact that we are an anti-bullying organisation!”

 

Society is a mechanical thing and there’s no way that it can be directed to be non-mechanical. It is coercive and there’s no way that legislation can be passed to make it non-coercive. There’s no way anyone can be directed to be non-coercive or non-mechanical! There is no training that we can go on to teach us this; training can teach us to be mechanical in a different way perhaps, but this is no help. Mechanical is mechanical, and that’s all there is to it. The only thing that could really help us would be to be non-mechanical and only we can do that. That’s our responsibility – as we have already said – society has no role to play here. The moment we stop looking for answers from the Group Mind is the moment we stop being a machine. The moment we stop looking for answers from the Generic Mind is also the moment we stop looking for the generic mind to define us, to tell us ‘who we are’. Freedom means ‘freedom from being told who we are’, in other words.

 

This is what ‘being responsible’ and ‘being irresponsible’ really comes down to, therefore – if it means anything being ‘responsible’ means that we don’t allow someone else (or something else) to tell us who we are. Being ‘irresponsible’, on the other hand, is where we do allow this. This is our ‘essential malaise’, this is the malaise which we all suffer from – we allow ourselves to be told who we are by external factors. The absolutely preposterous claim that is being made here is that – somehow – other factors are ‘more important’, and we should let ourselves be defined (or formatted) for the sake of ‘the greater good’. No one ever puts it quite like this of course; instead, we are beaten about the head with endless talk about our so-called ‘responsibilities’ and pressurised to do what’s expected of us. Instead of being reprehensibly ‘wilful’ or ‘defiant’ or ‘resistant’ or ‘selfish’ we are told that we should join in with what everyone else is doing; without these words being used, we are told that we should ‘play the game’. The more people play this game (which is of course not seen as a game) the more powerful the argument becomes.

 

At any one point in time two very different roads lie ahead of us therefore. One is the road of adaptation where everything is all about according better and better with the template that has been provided for us. The motivation here is entirely external in nature – we are rewarded if we get it right and punished if we don’t. Reality ‘already exists’, in other words – reality is a known fact, a closed book, and so all that’s left for us to do is get on in this pre-defined reality in the way that we have been told to. This is – needless to say – life as most of us know it – our lives are always subservient to the mechanical reality that has been imposed upon us; we are slaves of the reality that our formatting determines we shall perceive and believe in. To allow ourselves to be formatted is the same thing as ‘accepting the reality that someone else has designed for us’.

 

The other road therefore, is the road of non-adaptation (so to speak), which doesn’t really sound like a very positive thing to us! The need to function optimally within the system that has been provided for us is no longer the ‘be all and end all’. This isn’t to say that it is no longer a consideration, but rather that it is no longer ‘the most important thing’ (or ‘the only thing’). Something else other than adaptation has now become more interesting!  We are now interested in something other than ‘the mere mundane practicalities’ of our situation. When it comes down to it of course, the mere practicalities are never actually ‘interesting’ at all – that’s the wrong word to use. Practicalities – by definition – aren’t interesting of themselves; they are only of value inasmuch as they serve some greater end. That’s the only reason we bothering with them in the first place, after all! We are either trying to obtain the outcome that we want or avoid the outcome that we don’t want, but neither of these forms of motivation have anything to do with ‘interest’. We have already made up our mind with regard to what we want or don’t want and so we’re not interested in anything other than that outcome that we have already decided on, and this therefore means that we’re not really ‘interested’ (‘open’) at all…

 

Wanting very much to see a particular outcome take place or wanting very much to avoid a particular outcome has nothing to do with ‘being interested’ in anything. We are not interested in the thing that we are trying to avoid – obviously – and we are also not interested in the thing that we are trying to obtain, which is perhaps not quite so obvious! We are interested in obtaining the goal to be sure, but we are not in any way genuinely curious about what that thing is. The ‘desired outcome’ is only ever a token and we don’t really want to look any closer than this. We don’t want to go any deeper than this superficial ‘tokenistic’ level. If we did look any closer then we would of course have to start asking what the token is a token for, and that would open a whole big can of worms! For one thing, we would see that our motivation is not at all what we took it to be, and that would take the wind out of our sails for a start. For another thing, we would then find out that the token represents something that isn’t actually real and that would take the last tiny bit wind out of our sails….

 

Extrinsic or external motivation is a trick, in other words, and we don’t want to find this out. That’s the thing we have to avoid finding out about at any cost. This isn’t such a hard idea to understand – we all know what that ‘playing a game’ involves chasing outcomes that don’t really matter outside of the game – this understanding isn’t going to be beyond anyone’s grasp! We all know what is involved in playing games. In the formatted world that is created by thought we are motivated by what the formatting says is important; the formatting says ‘this matters to you’ or ‘that matters to you’ and we duly go along with that it. We duly go along with it (when we are formatted then we have no choice but to go along with it!) But this doesn’t mean that it really matters to us. What really matters to us has been lost, covered up, and we are forever being pointed in the ‘wrong direction’ by our formatting, by our thoughts. We are forever ‘chasing red herrings’ and whether we catch these red herrings or whether we don’t catch them makes not the slightest bit of difference! We’ve ‘forgotten ourselves’ either way and this is what ‘being formatted by society’ is all about. It’s ‘the taboo against knowing who you really are’ as Alan Watts puts it. Our allegiance is to the façade not to the truth; our allegiance is to the system that represents (or rather misrepresents!) reality, rather than that which is supposedly being represented.

 

The irony is that the system of formal (or literal) representations which we have such absolute allegiance to doesn’t care for us one bit – it never did care about us and it never will. It is in fact completely ‘malign’. The system of formal representations only ‘cares’ about itself (inasmuch as a mechanical thing can be said to ‘care’ at all); it will ‘look after us’ (after a fashion) only if we serve its ends. The price of this however is that we understand ourselves only in the way that the system wants us to understand ourselves. The price is that we let ourselves ‘be defined by the system’ in other words, and this means that even if there is some ‘benefit’ to be gained as a result of the whole exercise (which in the ultimate analysis there isn’t because the system isn’t actually real), then it certainly isn’t going to be us that gains it…

 

 

Image – 9 (2009 animated film)

 

 

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Great Deception

We start off in life with what looks like a wide, wide road ahead of us – a road that branches off in all directions, a road that could potentially lead us anywhere at all. As we make our way down this road however it closes in on us more and more until before very long all we’re left with is the one very narrow track that has been allotted to us, a track that only takes us in the one direction, whether we happen to like it or not. This process is called ‘becoming an adult’.

 

In one way it is true that a huge field of possibilities lies ahead of us when we start off in life. Of course this is true – life itself lies ahead of us!  The road we’re on is as wide as life itself and there’s no telling where it will lead us. Something happens to narrow the possibilities that are available to us however, without us ever realizing that any ‘narrowing of possibilities’ is happening to us. This is what we might call ‘the imperceptible erosion of life’. We all know that this process happens, even if – naturally enough – we may not want to focus on it too much. We instinctively know that life shouldn’t be like this – that it shouldn’t be a ‘narrowing down of possibilities’ – and yet somehow it is. Entropy sets in, and makes the pattern of our life ever more predictable.

 

In one way this is a perfectly natural process – entropy isn’t something that human beings invented, after all. This ‘narrowing down’ occurs as a result of us getting trapped in our own habits, our own opinions, our own beliefs about ourselves and the world. We cherish these opinions and beliefs of ours, and yet at the same time they strangle us slowly but surely. The sense of security they engender blinds us to the fact that we are fashioning our own prison, brick by brick. We can call this a ‘natural process’ because it happens as a result of our own doing therefore – no one forces us to build a prison cell of belief for ourselves. We are our own very willing jailers. We get trapped in our own mental habits, which solidify around us and block out the wider view. In The Dawn of Tantra (1975) Guenther and Trungpa speak of this process as ‘going astray’ or ‘falling into error’ –

The process of transformation which we have described is one of growing narrowness and frozenness.  We are somehow tied down to our senses, to the ordinary mode of perception.  We dimly feel that something else might have been possible.  If we try to express this situation in traditional religious terms, we might say that man is a fallen being.  But here he has not fallen because he has sinned or transgressed some commandment coming from outside him, but by the very fact that he has moved in a certain direction.  This is technically know in Buddhism as bhranti in Sanskrit and ‘Khrul-pa in Tibetan, and is usually translated as “error”.

In another way however we could say that this ‘narrowing down’ (or ‘going astray’) process also has an external component – an aspect to it which is ‘artificial’ or ‘unnatural’ in the sense that it is ‘imposed on us from the outside’. This aspect of the narrowing-down process is enforced upon us by an external agency, independently of what we may want, and this ‘external agency’ is more generally known simply as society. The social world – inevitably – has some kind of an idea regarding ‘who we should be’ and ‘how we should live life’ and it pushes us in this direction. Society doesn’t just have ‘some kind of an idea’, it has a very clear and precise idea!  This is essentially what society is – it is a set of templates, a set of ideas regarding ‘who we should be’ and ‘how we should live life’.  What else would society be, after all?

 

Even though it is obvious enough in one way that society ‘externally determines us’, in another way it is not so obvious at all. When we start off in our adult life and we are looking at the social world and all that it offers us we have the impression of there being many diverse possibilities being dangled in front of us. The choices we are faced we are too many, if anything! We are if anything bewildered by the sheer range of possibilities and the road ahead of us seems very broad, at this stage. There is a sneaky trick being played on us here though – this is the so-called ‘salesman trick,’ described here by Douglas Flemons (1991) –

As any good hypnotist, magician, or comedian knows, the offer or availability of freely choosing between alternatives at a given contextual level brings the particularities of choice into the foreground of conscious awareness. This necessarily relegates to the background (i.e. out of awareness and out of the realm of conscious choice) the higher-level context or premise determining the range and meaning of the offered alternatives. The presence of choice (between particularities) at one level masks – and in some sense precludes – choice (between premises) at a more encompassing level.

We feel so empowered by all the apparent choices that are being offered to us that we completely fail to see that whatever option it is we end up going for, we’re always going to end up with the same old thing. The ‘same old thing’ that we’re talking about here is ‘the socialized life’, which always means going down predetermined tracks, tracks that have been ‘decided in advance’ for us. It doesn’t matter what role we take up, it’s still something that is being imposed upon us from the outside. We’re conforming to the template that’s been provided for us by society no matter what choices we make; we may think that we’re in the driving seat but really it’s the other way around, society is controlling us.

 

A good way to think about this is in terms of ‘playing a game’ – there can be lots of roles that can be played in the game but it is nevertheless always the same old game. On the level of ‘what roles shall I select’ there can be tremendous choice, but all of these so-called ‘choices’ come down to the same thing – we are choosing to play the game. All the apparent choices (and all the excitement that comes with that apparent freedom) boil down to just the one choice. We are again victims of ‘the salesman trick’. So what’s wrong with this, we might ask? What’s wrong with choosing to play the game, if we want to?

 

The answer to this question is ‘nothing at all’ – if we actually know that this is what we’re doing, that is. This is where the trick comes in though – we’re never told that there is anything else. We’re never given the option of ‘not playing the game’, in other words, and this is a very big deception. It’s not just ‘a very big deception’ either – it’s the ultimate deception. It’s the archetypal deception. This is the deception that was played upon Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, the deception that is inherent in the concept of the Matrix. In the ancient Gnostic myth, it is the deception that is the Demiurge employs to trap and imprison the soul-sparks of mankind in the False Creation.

 

 

It’s fine to choose to play a game if we know that this is what the choice is, in other words, but if we don’t know that it is only a game (if this hasn’t ever been explained to us) then what exactly does this mean for us? If we are being offered a substitute version of reality (a ‘Toontown version’ which is incomparably narrower than the genuine thing) and we don’t know that we have been tricked in this way (‘tricked out of our birthright’, so to speak) then how are we to feel about this? Is there any way that we are actually going to feel OK about being tricked like this, if we knew? Are we really going to feel OK about spending our lives in some two-dimensional sterile Toontown, and missing out thereby on the true reality itself?