Playing The Game

One thing we never properly understand is the true function of the power differential in society. We can of course observe, as did Alfred Adler, that there is this drive to obtain and exert power (which Adler derived from Nietzsche’s subtler concept of the ‘will to power’) which effectively incentivizes us to climb as high as we can up the social hierarchy. There are obvious benefits to this – from the biological point of view, having a high social status means (for males, at any rate) that we will have a better chance of passing our genetic material on to future generations, which is of course what the basic biological game is all about. In societies all across the world there are male hierarchies of power but the incentive to compete for a place in them is clearly not about having the precious opportunity to father more babies than lower status males can! That old-fashioned biological imperative obviously doesn’t apply to us – it might be true for baboons but it isn’t particularly the case for humans anymore. There is however another benefit to being ‘high status’ and that is the psychological one of feeling better about yourself, of having a ‘positive image’ of yourself. This is of course the ‘lobster effect’ spoken of by Jordan Peterson.

 

But we can go deeper than this and (following Nietzsche) argue that the greatest benefit of being high up in the power hierarchy is that we get to be the one who says what is true and what is not true. We get to be ‘the one who defines reality’ in other words and this can (obviously enough!) bring many benefits. The cliché is that ‘power corrupts’ but it would be more accurate, and more telling, to rephrase this as ‘the ability to define reality corrupts’! If I have the power to define reality than I am pretty much untouchable; if I have the power to say what reality is and what it isn’t then I can get away with just about anything. How can I get caught out when ‘everything I do is right’ (or when ‘everything I do is eminently justifiable’) and you can be sure that everything I do will be excused in this way if I’m the one in charge of the ‘official validation procedure’!

 

We all know that totalitarian regimes stay in power or consolidate their power by ‘saying what is true and what is not true’, so as to always paint themselves in a good light (no matter what atrocities they may have committed). This is familiar territory – we need only to think of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is a low-down dirty trick to redefine reality so that you can’t be seen as the scoundrel you are, and is also a trick that no dictator, no ruling elite, has ever shied away from! When you are in charge of what is true or not true it’s very hard not to abuse this power. What makes this so tempting is that when we distort reality to favour ourselves we believe in the distortion just as much as everyone else does. We never have to see that there is any ‘distorting of the truth’ taking place. ‘Telling a lie’ and ‘believing in the lie’ become one and the same thing.

 

This power of being able to distort the truth and straightaway believe our own distortion isn’t reserved for those at the very top of the social hierarchy of course – we all have this power, and we all use it. We are all ‘corrupt dictators’ when it comes to our own private reality bubble and if we think otherwise then that’s simply because we’re naïve. The difference is however that whilst we might be able to fool ourselves readily enough in any given situation, we are unlikely to be able to fool very many other people. Things change when we get up to the top of the hierarchy however; it all becomes remarkably effortless then – we are automatically on the right side of history, so to speak. We are automatically validated just by our very position, and this allows us to get away with a great deal – if we want to that is, and we almost certainly do!

 

We might argue with this by saying that, whilst it probably true that those right at the very top of the pecking order can get away with more, if they want to, this hardly explains the existence of power hierarchies in society and everyone’s need or desire to compete for the best possible position in them. We obviously can’t all ‘make it to the very top’ and most of us have no such ambition, but there is another dimension that comes into this and that is a dimension that we are – for one reason or another – particularly blind to. It’s not just that our self-esteem and confidence ‘go up when our social status is high’, that’s just a small part of it; there is another factor here that we are most unlikely to spot and that has to do with our ability to ‘pass on’ our own acknowledged existential pain and insecurity. The idea that this should be a significant (or maybe even an essential) factor in everyday human psychology is rather foreign to us – it’s not really part of our understanding with regards to the question of ‘how people interact’. Naturally it isn’t – if it was then this would compromise the mechanism by which we ‘pass on’ (or ‘displace’) our angst onto the people around us.

 

This is not something we focus on, and – as we have just said – this isn’t an aberration or an accident. There is a self-serving mechanism right at the core of ‘the everyday self’ that we never read about in any psychology textbook and that is the mechanism for getting rid of our inner pain without us knowing about it. It doesn’t make sense to us that we should have to have such a mechanism because – unsurprisingly enough – we see the situation of ‘being self’ as a perfectly legitimate state of affairs. It isn’t, though – it is on the contrary an artificial situation that has to be constantly propped up. Another way of putting this would be to say that the everyday self is an inherently insecure kind of ‘virtual entity’! When I have identified with ‘the idea that I have of myself’ (and the idea everyone else has of me too) – which is almost always – then I inevitably have to be doing something to ‘keep myself propped up’. I need to be continually validating myself in other words, and this is a job that I simply can’t get away from. I may not see what I’m doing (in fact it won’t work if I see what I’m doing) but this doesn’t mean that I’m not doing it.

 

Our assumption is that the self doesn’t need continually propping up, that it doesn’t need to be validating itself time and time again, and the reason we think this is because – as we have just said – we think that the idea which we have of ourselves isn’t a construct (just like all the other ideas that we have). To see this would constitute a total revolution in the way we perceive the world and our resistance to encounter such a radically new way of seeing things is of course always going to be maximal. Straightaway, therefore, we can see that there is some kind of ‘secret strain’ or ‘secret tension’ going on and that this tension itself is pain that needs to be promptly displaced if the integrity of the game is to be preserved. This might be said to constitute the type of ‘core existential pain’ that is contingent upon our conditioned mode of being in the world, but this is only the beginning. Just to cover up the awareness of how the self is being artificially presented to us not as a construct, but as an independently existing entity in its own right, isn’t good enough – the self-concept just can’t exist as some kind of ‘neutral player’, so to speak, it needs to be ‘head and shoulders above all the other players’, if possible. Or, alternatively, it needs to be head and shoulders above the environment that it finds itself in, which is to say, it has to be calling the shots and not the environment. The self-concept has to be ‘winning at its game’, in other words, whatever that game might be.

 

As Alan Watt says, the ego constantly has to be playing the game of ‘one-upmanship’. It has to do this in order to offset its ‘central weakness’ which is that it needs to be special in order to exist, whilst actually it isn’t special at all! The mind-created sense of self can never get away from this need to compete – even when it tries to be ‘humble’ and ‘unassuming’ it tries to be better at this task than anyone else! Essentially, it is the case that the mind-created image of ourselves is always aggressive (or rather we are always aggressive when we think that we are the self-image or self-concept). The self-image can’t not be aggressive because that is how it sustains its very existence, and this necessity is what no one seems to understand. We imagine that it must be possible for us to cooperate and be essentially peaceful and non-judgemental beings, when this is actually incompatible with our ‘identified’ nature, our nature as ‘conditioned beings’! On the surface of things, it appears that we do cooperate in society, for the most part, anyway; we not all out on the street fighting each other, at any rate (although that can easily happen if we have too much to drink). We may easily imagine – therefore – that humankind’s basic aggression has been sublimated and long last been turned into something more ‘productive’.

 

As we keep saying however, the type of aggression that we looking at here isn’t biological in nature – it’s psychological. Is the invisible aggression of projecting the thinking minds outwards onto the world and trying to make the world ‘be what we think it ought to be’ and ‘mean what we think it should mean’. This is the fundamental invisible and unacknowledged aggression of rationality. There’s still plenty of old-fashioned aggression around of course, but it is not so much ‘out in the open’ for the most part; when we look around us therefore, it does seem perhaps that the basic biological aggression has been sublimated into socially accepted channels. If we think that the aggression is gone however we’re very much mistaken; it’s merely been turned into the ‘manipulation of meaning’! We can’t see anything particularly forceful or coercive going on in the public arena perhaps, but that’s simply because everyone is perfectly happy to buy into the officially-manipulated version of reality – we are all quite docile in that respect. The tremendous homogenisation that’s taken place in the Western world with respect to culture is evidence of very great aggression; via the systematic manipulation of meaning, life has been turned into purely generic affair and the life of the autonomous individual doesn’t count for anything. Nothing ever happens that has not been programmed to happen, no one ever thinks what they are not supposed to be thinking.

 

Psychological aggression (as we have said) is where we control reality without admitting that we are doing so, which is something that’s going on a scale ‘hitherto undreamt of’. The question is therefore – who is manipulating reality, who is calling the shots with regard to all this control? This is – needless to say – a question that gets asked an awful lot; it’s a ‘classic conspiracy-type’ question, and anyone in this world who is even a little bit alert can smell a conspiracy going on somewhere. This isn’t an unfortunate mental aberration either – it’s just basic intelligence. Someone, somewhere, is cooking the books! Whole sections of potential reality been closed off to us on a permanent basis and no one is admitting to this. Something fishy is going on with the reality supply and anyone talks about it gets treated as if there’s something wrong with them; anyone talks about it is treated as if they’re mentally unwell. The official line is always that there is no funny business going; the official line is always that realty isn’t being tampered with. The official line, by definition, is always that ‘what we see in front of us the only reality that is’…

 

We could – if we wanted to – focus on the vexed question of who is at the very top of the power hierarchy. Who are the elite, who are the sinister manipulators? This is always a fascinating matter to think about for sure, but it’s much more fruitful to consider the uncomfortable question of ‘what’s in it for us‘. The point is that as far as most of us ‘invested players’ are concerned it doesn’t – in any practical way – matter who is at the top of the pyramid of power just so long as someone is. As long as someone is in charge then there will be such a thing as a tightly-organised hierarchy, and as long as there is such a thing as a tightly-organised hierarchy then we will be able to jockey for an advantageous position within it. This line from the film Sin City is rather pertinent here, where Senator Roark states that power comes from-

….lying big, and gettin’ the whole damn world to play along with you. Once you got everybody agreeing with what they know in their hearts ain’t true, you’ve got ‘em by the balls.

As long as we have a good position in the power hierarchy then we will be ensured of being able to invisibly displace our acknowledged existential pain on those who are either below us in the pecking order, or on the same level. We will do this of course at the same time as ‘sucking up’ to those above us – we fawn on those with more power and demean those with less. The times when we actually see this sort of thing going on however only makes up the very tip of the iceberg – we can see when a bully is doing their bullying (if the matter is brought to out in the open) but what is far harder to spot is the way in which this very same thing goes on in all ‘mechanical or role-based interactions’ between people. To exist within the hierarchy is always to displace pain (and also to have pain displaced onto us, if we not at the apex of the food chain).

 

This doesn’t mean that people never genuinely ‘kind’ to each other – we can meet with kindness wherever we are (although it’s more commonly encountered on the lower strata of society, where people are less concerned with status and have less to lose therefore by ‘dropping out of the game’) but when this happens it’s always because the people concerned have dropped out of the game and are responding autonomously, not as they have been told to respond by their social conditioning. Unless we disregard the rules of the game and become our true spontaneous selves, there is no way that we can be kind; unless we are being our true spontaneous selves then we are inevitably ‘passing on pain’. If we remain ‘plugged into the system’ (and continue to believe in the basic structure that is provided by society) then we are always going to be imposing that structure on everyone we meet, everyone we interact with, and this is an act of aggression. I aggress you and you aggress me – we both keep ourselves in our respective boxes, and the only real ‘winner’ therefore is the system itself. By seeking personal advantage all that happens is that we strengthen the machine (or the game) even more.

 

So much of what passes for ‘communication’ isn’t anything of the sort – it’s just control, it’s just ‘the use of power’. Communication can only take place between those on an equal footing. Anything we say that places any kind of constraint (or expectation) and the person we are talking to (when they are unacknowledged assumptions that are being imposed) is aggression, this control, and control is in itself paint displacement. The imposition of structure is paint displacement – this is obviously the case since there’s always an immediate penalty’ once we fail to accord with the structure that’s being presented to us. If we get it ‘wrong’ we are blamed’, in other words. If we disobey we get punished, and this is paint-displacement pure and simple. Those at the top of the pyramid are always right, whilst those at the very bottom are always wrong!

 

Even though we’ll never admit it to ourselves, being part of a determinate structure always creates pain (which is equivalent to saying, as we did earlier, that ‘being conditioned creates pain’, or that ‘being identified involves pain’). We have surrendered our actual autonomy after all, and the loss of autonomy is pure pain. We might as well say that ‘the loss of who we really are’ is pure pain; obviously it is – what could be a greatest source of suffering than this? The result is therefore that there is all this ‘free-floating’ pain in society and that is why we have to be so competitive, that is why we always have to be playing games. That’s why we have a top and a bottom to society; that’s why there has to be a hierarchy. This way we get to have ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and the losers get to carry the pain for all the rest of us! The hierarchy (or game) is a pain-displacement mechanism, therefore! The ‘losers’ don’t really deserve the pain that is being put on them of course but if the pain-displacement mechanism is to work someone has to be nominated as being worthy of blame, someone has to be seen worthy of ‘negative judgement’! Our ‘social hierarchy’ is all about pain displacement therefore, is just that we not accustomed to seeing things this way.

 

 

The significance of there being a hierarchy of power in society is therefore to a large extent a psychological one therefore in that it allows us to define ourselves, and ‘defining ourselves’ is how we keep the insecurity of our basic undefined situation at bay. If I am fully-defined then so too is the world around me fully-defined since I define my world and my world defines me, and so this leaves no ‘uncharted corners’ anywhere to worry about. Everything is neatly taken care of – too neatly in fact, because a completely defined situation is a highly uncomfortable one. It is a profoundly inhospitable one – there is irreducible suffering in it, as we keep saying. This sets up another problem therefore – we started off with the problem of ontological insecurity and then when we solve this we found that we had another problem in its place which is the existential pain of conditioned existence (the existential pain of ‘pretending to be who we aren’t’) and so – with great ingenuity – we solved this by creating a structure that has a top and a bottom! This way we can play the game of one-upmanship that Alan Watts talks about and those who do well in the game will obtain game. Opting for the safety of conditioned or defined existence inevitably brings about pain but we have found a way of using that pain (or the need to avoid it) as currency in a game, a game that has no end, a game that has no ‘happy resolution’…

 

 

 

 

Image: nzfilmfreak.com

 

 

 

 

 

Loyalty To The Lie

The social life is one in which we perpetrate a kind of hoax without ever focusing on the fact that we are doing so. We could also say that the social life is a life which revolves around maintaining a fiction that we do not ever admit to being such. We think that society, or the social life, is all about something else, something more honest, but – primarily – it is this (i.e. ‘perpetration of the hoax or fiction’) that is the function that is being served.

 

One way to talk about this hoax is to say that we are being sold the idea that it is possible (and not just possible, but highly desirable) to have a type of life that in reality it is just not possible to have. This is rather a big hoax therefore since if we fall for it (as we generally do) then instead of living the life that it IS possible for us to live, we will be forever trying to live a life which it is simply not possible to live, no matter how hard we try.

 

This is very far from being an ‘obvious’ point however. It is so far from being an obvious point that most people would not get it no matter how much time and effort you might put into trying to explain it. Of all the difficult things to understand, this is right there at the very top, and not only is it challenging for us to understand (even if we did want to) the plain truth it is that – deep down – we absolutely don’t want to! We really, really, really do not want to ‘get it’.

 

One way that we could look at the hoax is to say that it revolves around the idea that ‘it is good to be a narcissist’! It is not ever expressed like this of course but that’s what it comes down to – we are presented with the idea or image of this type of life (this narcissistic type of life) and along with this idea and the images that go with it come all sorts of subtle (and not so subtle) incentivizations. We are ‘sold the package’, in other words. We are sold the package and, as Sogyal Rinpoche says, we are sold it with superlative skill.

 

We are skilfully manoeuvred not only into believing that the narcissistic life is potentially a rewarding and satisfying one, but also into believing that it is the only sort of life there ever could be. We are manoeuvred into believing that it is the only possibility. Add into the equation the fact that everyone around us is also falling for this hoax hook line and sinker, then the chances that we will ever smell a rat are practically zero. The chances that we won’t fall headlong into this trap – i.e. the trap of ‘narcissistic withdrawal from reality’ – (along with everyone else) is astronomically tiny.

 

There is a rat however and it is very big one. It is a very big rat indeed! This is King Rat were talking about here – the Great Grand-Daddy of all rats, and there should be no doubt about this. This is ‘the hoax of all hoaxes’ and no one seems to know anything about it. The problem is that we don’t know anything else; we don’t have anything else to go on. It’s like being in the dysfunctional family or in an abusive relationship – we think that what we are going through is just normal, we don’t realise that we have been taken for a ride. We have mistaken our prison for reality.

 

The nature of our prison (which, as we have said, is the prison of narcissism) is that it is entirely hollow, without any genuine substance or ‘goodness’ to it at all. Our activity involves therefore striving perpetually to bring in some actual substance into our lives, and/or fooling ourselves into believing that there is substance there when there isn’t. An example of how we cultivate this particular illusion is given by John Berger – the trick that we use (according to Berger) is that we go to a lot of effort to create an impression (or image) of ourselves that makes it look as if we having a good time (even though we’re not) so that we can make other people envious of us. This he calls glamour; The happiness of being envied is glamour’, Berger says. When we can see that other people are envious of what we’ve got, then we can logically infer that we must have something there for other people to be envious of! Other people think we’ve ‘got it’ and so we think that too.

 

This then is John Berger’s explanation of what ‘the hoax’ is. We might naïvely think that – in this consumer society – we invest all of our energy in buying products so that the products will ‘make us happy’, but this isn’t it – we’re buying all the consumer-type stuff in order that other people might think we are happy, which will then allow us to feed off the illusion that they have about us! Deep down we know that we can’t buy happiness but what we can do is to construct a believable illusion of us having a good time, having a good life, being happy, etc, so that both ourselves and others can believe in it. The purest example of this is of course social media – why else would we spend all our time posting images of ourselves having a good time if we weren’t trying to construct a believable illusion?

 

Nothing we have so far said comes across as being too formidably difficult to understand, even though this is what we started out by saying. Where the ‘difficulty’ shows itself however is in understanding the actual reason for the narcissistic life being so hollow, being so devoid of substance. Why is ‘the narcissistic life’ ‘impossible to live’? One way of looking at this is in terms of the basic Buddhist idea of ‘the good mind versus the bad mind’ – the ‘good mind‘ being the mind of compassion, whilst the ‘bad mind’ is the mind of self-interest or self-cherishing. [The mind of self-cherishing is ‘bad’ not for any moral reason but simply because it always leads to suffering]. If we live on the basis of ‘the mind of compassion’ then there is meaning in our lives and we grow as people as a result; if on the other hand we live on the basis of self-interest and self-cherishing then our lives become sterile and joyless and there can be no growth. All that can grow is greed, and the need for power or control.

 

All religions have the function of teaching morality (or at least they started out this way!), but the point is that this is not merely a matter of ‘social utility’ – it’s not mere ‘convention’ we’re talking about here but something much deeper. If we actually sat down and thought about it we would see this truth very clearly – there can be no meaning in the life of a narcissist. We don’t of course ever see ourselves as such; we have made Narcissistic Personality Disorder into a designated condition in DSM-5 but this makes it even easier not to recognise that narcissism (to some extent or other) is pretty much the norm in our society. It also distracts us from seeing that our consumer society actually relies on us operating as narcissists. We both pathologize narcissism and promote it at one and the same time therefore, which is rather conflicted of us, to say the least!

 

The ‘hoax’ that is being perpetrated in our society (and very effectively, too) is that it is possible to live in Narcissist Mode and lead a meaningful and fulfilling life at the same time and because of the way societal pressures work we feel obliged – without ever reflecting on the matter very much – to maintain the fiction that we are happy, that we are having a good time, and so on and so forth. This is what ‘living the life of the image’ is all about. This is where all the emphasis goes – it goes into fooling both ourselves and others that we are having a great life inside of our narcissistic cocoon. This however is (and always will be) quite impossible, as we keep on saying. That’s a non-starter. That’s just not going to happen…

 

The hoax – therefore – is to get us to try (and keep on trying) to live a type of life that is impossible to live, and we collude in this hoax by maintaining the fiction as best we can, without realizing that this is what we are doing. Sometimes of course we just can’t maintain the fiction any more, and when we can’t we feel very bad about that – we feel very bad about it because we’re ‘loyal to the lie’. We don’t realize that we’re ‘loyal to a lie’ but we are – that’s why we are at such pains to maintain and protect the self-image’, that’s why we always see having the self-image tarnished or shown up in a bad light as being such an unmitigated disaster…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Finger-Trap

The world we see all around us has been put together by economic forces: just about everything we see in the socially-created world is because of economic forces. If it isn’t there to make money then what’s the point of it? We could of course agree with the above statement happily enough and yet at the same time not consider it a matter of any great importance. We may not see any problem with this at all; we are after all so very used to this way of life that we can’t see the world existing in any other way. Economics has been ‘God’ for a very long time now. Money has made the world go round for a very long time now…

 

And yet what is meant by this thing we call ‘economics’? When we look into it we can see straightaway that it is nothing more than ‘a system that is based on the manipulation of resources for personal gain’. No one can argue with this – that’s what capitalism is all about, after all! At the very root of economic theory is the tried-and-trusted idea that the motivation to personally benefit ourselves is the strongest and most reliable motivational force there is, which – goes the argument – makes it the ideal psychological drive to tie everything to. Whether this is really true or not is highly dubious however – if our motivation isn’t particularly wholesome, then neither will the outcome be! This goes beyond ethics and morality – it is starting to be accepted in the mainstream scientific world that what fulfils us the most – i.e. what is ‘healthiest’  for us – is not to live on the basis of narrow self-interest but on the basis of compassion and empathy, which doesn’t serve the interest of our way of life. Again, this isn’t anything to do with morality or ethics, it just seems to be the way that we are built. Now it isn’t of course exactly ‘breaking news’ as far as the great religions of the world are concerned, but it’s only very recently that a study of the anatomy of the brain shows that when the area of the brain known colloquially as in the centre – otherwise referred to as the medial prefrontal cortex.

 

According to Rebecca Gladding in This is your brain on meditation, it is also called ‘the self-referencing centre’ because it is the part of the brain are used to process information related to us. When the ‘me-centre’ is linked to strongly with other centres, such as the reactivity-producing amygdala, then this is bad news, according to Rebecca Gladding; it’s bad news because we’re always going to be taking things personally and ‘over-reacting’ accordingly. In general, it is clear that when relate to the world (and other people) in a ‘me-centred way’ (i.e. a way that is ‘all about us’) then we won’t have a very good time. We aren’t going to get on particularly well with other people either, obviously enough! This is a modality of functioning (or a ‘modality of being in the world’) that shouldn’t be overly encouraged or promoted, therefore! It certainly shouldn’t be made ‘top dog’…

 

Very obviously, if we are always operating on the basis of self-interest then we aren’t going to feel very fulfilled in themselves; if it were true that self-interest were a ‘healthy motivation’ then the richest people in the world would also be the happiest people and this just isn’t so! We don’t actually need to be experts on neuro-anatomy to see this – it’s as obvious as a nose on your face! How could we not see it? This is the most basic lesson in life there is; we learn it in pre-school and kindergarten – it’s the lesson called ‘learning to share our toys with the other kids’. If we never do learn to share our toys (or, even worse, if we learn to do the opposite and steal all the other kids’ toys so that we have all the toys ourselves) then this is not a very good prediction for us having a happy life! No one is going to be stupid enough to argue with this – how can I be incorrigibly self-centred and yet also be a happy person? There isn’t a person in the world who would go along with this, if they were to actually sit down and think about it!

 

This – as we keep saying – is just common sense – if we think that the world revolves around us then we are in for a rude awakening. If we think that life is all about ‘us securing our narrow advantage’ then we going to have a thoroughly miserable existence. And yet the message we receive every single day from this commercially-orientated world of ours is that the world ought to revolve around us and our wins; the message is that life absolutely is all about securing our own personal advantage. No one can deny this that this is the case – that’s how the consumerist paradigm works, after all – it works by having consumers being highly motivated to play the game that they’re supposed to be playing, and consume! Money is what makes the world go round, after all, as the song says.

 

 

Again, this is most emphatically not a contentious issue – we all know very well that consumerism works by getting people to operate on the basis of personal gain, and putting this uninspiring motivation on a pedestal. Such words as ‘successful’ and ‘winner’ say it all – we can only think well of ourselves when we are visibly better than those around us at obtaining personal gain. This is the measure of us as human beings, this is what determines our worth or lack of it. It sounds like we’re going over old ground here but the simple point that we’re making is this – the inbuilt structure of the world (or system) that we live in guides very strongly in the direction of operating on the basis of personal advantage in everything we do, whilst our actual mental health and well-being lie in exactly the opposite direction.

 

The way that the current set-up works is for each and every one of us to be acting and thinking as entirely ‘self-interested beings’. This is beyond any doubt, this is a ‘given’. We can very easily understand why it is that we are being constantly ‘tilted’ in this direction; why it is that we are being ‘formatted by society to be narcissists’. That’s what is required by ‘the current set-up’. There’s nothing else our particular society can do; that’s the world we have elected – however unwittingly – to go down. That’s the nature of the game that we are playing. Pragmatically speaking, all we can do is ‘go along with it’ – the argument is ‘irresistible’, so to speak. And yet at the same time, when we do ‘go along with it’ this is to the very great detriment of our mental health!

 

Our response to this dilemma (and ‘dilemma’ is putting it mildly) is to ignore it, is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. We never really talk about it, either on the grass-roots level or – unsurprisingly – on the level of public policy. We do hear regular items about how immersion in social media is destroying our ‘resilience’ and turning us all into ‘snowflakes’, etc. etc. , or how sad it is that no one talks to strangers on the bus anymore because we are all too busy looking at our mobile phones. These are all well-known and deeply comfortable topics – they’re comfortable because they are of a manageable size, they are ‘discrete’ and therefore non-threatening issues, but it’s not mobile phones or social media that’s the real problem here but our whole way of life. The set-up that we are caught up in creates mental suffering for us and prevents us from ever expressing (or knowing) our true potential. The system we are part of is, by its very nature, hostile to our mental health, inimical to our true well-being. We just don’t like to see this.

 

No one can say that this is something that we sometimes discuss, either in private or in public. It isn’t. We daily hear leaders of state pontificating about this and that, discussing this weighty matter or that weighty matter, and it all sounds very serious, but at no time does anyone ever point out the fact that the commercially-orientated way of life which we have opted for (the way of life which in which our primary role is that of a consumer) is fundamentally inimical to our true well-being, that it stunts and distort us and prevents us from ‘being what we could be’. No one ever points out that it is impossible to be in this system and yet at the same time grow as the individuals we truly are. And if we refuse to acknowledge this biggest issue of all, the real elephant in the living room, then how can we possibly make out that we are being ‘serious’ or ‘responsible’ about anything? We might as well dress up as clowns and go to work in the circus – that at least would be an honest profession,, that course of action would at least would have some integrity.

 

This is an extraordinary challenge – we live in a world that is fundamentally hostile to ‘who we really are’ and yet always almost always refuse to see it. This certainly isn’t a situation that we can afford to get too complacent about. The world we live in is a world that conditions us to look outside of ourselves for everything that is good, everything that is worthwhile. This has two linked consequences – [1] is that we automatically identify with a contained or isolated sense of self, a tightly-wrapped sense of identity, and [2] is that we are very strongly motivated to act so as to obtain and secure all these ‘good things’, and this misguided motivation is what powers the commercially-orientated way of life and keeps it going. This system we are part of has one agenda and only one agenda and that is to maintain itself or perpetuate itself, and the only way it can do this is to keep us locked firmly into the position of the need-driven and tightly-defined self that always has to be looking out for its own interests.

 

We all know this well enough on one level, it’s just that we can’t afford to focus on it. It’s not pragmatically useful (on the short-term) to focus on it. All the pressure is on us to succeed within the terms of the gain that we have been inducted into from an early age. We have invested so very much in this game that it no longer seems like a game – it’s not a game to us, it’s everything. It’s all we know). We have waded through blood so much that going back is as painful as going forward, as Shakespeare says in Macbeth. We are locked into the contradictory position of ‘looking for our freedom on the outside’ and the more we do this the more unfree we become in real terms. This is a classic example of a ‘Chinese finger trap,’ as Alan Watts points out somewhere – the more we try to free ourselves the more trapped we become! Society happily provides us with limitless ways and means of trying to free ourselves, all of which embroil us all the more in the mess, but no way of actually recognizing our the true nature of our predicament. Freedom is there, but it’s not to be found on the outside…

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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…