Being Possessed By The Positive Self

The true nature of who we are isn’t what we say we are, it’s what we don’t say. And yet just about all we ever do is go around saying who or what we are! We weave a dense and sticky web of identity, and then get caught up in it. The more we try to say who we are (and the more we believe in what we’re saying) the more tangled up we get.

The culture that we are part of may be described in lots of different ways – it has been described as a rational culture, a technological culture, a consumer culture, a materialist culture, and so on but what it really is – most essentially – is the culture of the positive self. The ‘positive self’ is the known self, the self that can be described and communicated to others. Our culture is all about the positive self and the reason we can’t see this to be true is because we take the positive self so very much for granted that it’s just not an issue for us. It’s not an issue for us any more than the fact that the sky is blue is an issue. The only time we do get our attention drawn to the limitations of the positive self is when it starts to develop ‘aches and pains’ (so to speak) and then of course we become painfully aware of it, just as we become painfully aware of our kidneys when we have a kidney infection.

This analogy is fine up to a point but where it breaks down is in the fact that the positive self isn’t legitimately part of us. The positive self is a construct, or as we might also say, it is ‘an artificial implant’; just as Carlos Castaneda says that our mind is not our own but a ‘foreign installation’, so too is the thought-created identity that this mind has provided us with. Inasmuch as ‘who we are’ and ‘what we are about’ makes sense to our fellow human beings (or to society in general) then who we understand ourselves to be is an arbitrary mental construct or ‘foreign installation’. We have been tricked in a very fundamental way and there can be no two ways about this. If we are to understand anything in life it ought to be this. If we don’t understand it then everything we do is in vain!

What this means is that ‘the need to exist’ or rather, ‘the need to be recognised as existing’ becomes the same thing as ‘the need to identify with the societal construct of who we are and what we are about’; if we don’t do this then we just won’t be acknowledged as existing. We will be ‘unpeople’. The need to exist and have a place in the world is very strong of course; just as it is natural for a tree to grow and put out roots and branches, it is also natural for us to want to be acknowledged as existing and find our proper place in this world, to ‘belong’, as it is said. But what’s happening here is that this natural urge is being subverted so that all about energy goes in the ‘wrong direction’, so to speak. It’s the wrong direction simply because it benefits the positive self; it benefits the mask we are wearing, and not the one who is wearing the mask. What is beneficial to the image is harmful to us.

The whole of society is nothing more than a game for benefiting the positive or stated self, when it comes down to it. It’s true that our bodies benefit from improved health care, improved sanitation, having an environment to live in which is relatively free from danger and disease, but we never pause to wonder who it is that is routinely inhabiting this body of ours, and whether that inhabitant is us. We never stop to wonder whether it is us, or whether it is some cuckoo-like pretender that been implanted and has somehow taken over! This is of course such an outrageous suggestion that no one is ever going to take it seriously. It’s extremely unlikely that anyone is going to give this idea the time of day – the notion that I might have made the mistake of identifying with false persona, a false self, a false idea of who I am, is not one that is ever going to occur to me, not in the usual run of things. And yet this is precisely the danger that Carl Jung warned of over seventy years ago, the danger that the social persona will ‘grow onto our flesh’ and end up living our lives for us, ‘on behalf of us’, so to speak. After talking about how we can be ‘possessed by ideas’, as strange as this may sound, Jung, in Collected Works 9(1) p, 123, goes on to say this:

A common instance of this is identity with the persona, which is the individual’s system of adaptation to, or the manner he assumes in dealing with, the world. Every calling or profession, for example, has its own characteristic persona. It is easy to study these things nowadays, when the photographs of public personalities so frequently appear in the press. A certain kind of behaviour is forced on them by the world, and professional people endeavour to come up to these expectations. Only, the danger is that they become identical to their personas – the professor with his text-book, the tenor with his voice. Then the damage is done; henceforth he lives exclusively against the background of his own biography. For by that time it is written: “…then he went to such and such a place and said this or that,” etc. The garment of Deianeira has grown fast to his skin, and a desperate decision like that of Heracles is needed if he is to tear this Nessus shirt from his body and step into the consuming fire of the flame of immortality, in order to transform himself into what he really is. One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is. In any case, the temptation to be what one seems to be is great, because the persona is usually rewarded in cash.

The writer Colin Wilson approaches this from a different angle when he says that we hand over our responsibility for living our lives to a collection of habits and reflexes which he calls ‘the robot’. (For the sake of convenience) I don’t have to answer the front door myself – my butler will do that for me. Similarly, I don’t have to live my life for myself – the robot will take care of that! As Colin Wilson says here (in a quote taken from a conversation Jeffrey Mishlove on intuitionnetwork.org):

Yes, well, you see, the basic point about the philosophy of Gurdjieff, and I suppose about my own basic ideas, is this recognition that we have inside us what I call the robot — a sort of robot valet or servant who does things for you. So you learn something like talking French or driving a car or skiing or whatever, painfully and consciously, step by step. Then the robot takes it over and does it far more quickly and efficiently that you could do it consciously. However, the important thing is not to interfere with the robot once he’s learned it, because you completely screw him up if you do. Now, the robot does all these valuable things like talking French and so on for us. The trouble is he also does the things we do not want him to do. We listen to a piece of music; it moves us deeply the first time. We read a poem, we go for a country walk, whatever, and it moves us. But the second or third time you do it, the robot is listening to the music or reading the poetry or doing the country walk for you. I said I’ve even caught him making love to my wife. And this is our real problem — that the robot keeps taking us over and doing the things that we would rather do.

Convenience is of course a great thing as we all know, but when things get this convenient (when convenience gets taken to the logical extreme and we don’t actually have to be there any more) then it stops being ‘convenient’ and becomes something else entirely! It stops being a good thing becomes a very bad thing indeed – after all, who wants to get to the end of their life and only then realise that it wasn’t them that lived it, but rather that the ‘captain at the helm’ was a mere collection of habits and reflexes? That is like having a ghost live your life instead of you because you couldn’t be bothered to step in yourself, because you were ‘otherwise engaged’. Or we could say that it’s like being banned by the authorities from attending your own birthday party – what’s the point of having a birthday party if you yourself are not invited, or if you yourself are a ‘persona non grata’?

This turns out to be exactly the case when cuckoo-like positive self gets to manoeuvre itself sneakily into the ‘prime position’ – the first thing it does is to get rid of any remaining traces of who we really are and thus our true individuality becomes the unwelcome guest, the one who is unceremoniously shown the door every time they put in an appearance. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead there is a line that says something to the effect that if we spend our entire lives being interested in nonsense that has nothing to do with us (and which we’re not even really interested in any way) then at the end of our life we will find that we have been our own betrayers! We’ve done the dirty on ourselves and sold ourselves up the river as a result of identifying with the ‘false or shallow sense of ourselves’, and constantly seeking benefits for this false idea of who we are at the expense of our true nature. In Christianity this is equivalent to the idea of selling us soul to the devil in return for paltry material advantages in this brief lifetime. It might seem like a good time at the time (because we’re not really thinking it through) but when we discover that we have been cheated of the only thing that is actually worth something this is going to be a very hard awareness to have to face up to.

The positive self most definitely is something that we adopt for the sake of convenience.  It is convenient because it is known to us, and thus no work is needed to investigate it (as a philosopher or mystic might do) and it is also convenient because this is how we get to be ‘optimally adapted to the social world in which we find ourselves’. This process (which is very much akin to the ‘slippery slope into addiction’ that is talked about by recovering addicts) starts at a very early age, as we all know. It starts when, as a result of the need to be accepted and loved, we try to become the sort of people that our parents want us to be rather than remaining true to really are. Then at school we are under further pressure to fit into the crowd and be the sort of person who is popular rather than unpopular (or at least, the sort of person who is inconspicuous rather than the sort who sticks out as being somewhat odd and is liable on this account to be given a hard time). This process – needless to say – doesn’t stop at school but continues throughout our adult life too – just as long as we are part of a collective then are going to be under pressure to conform to that collective and this is a process that (as Jung says) brings material short-term benefits at a terrible long-term cost. We spend all our time grasping at tacky phantoms, and missed what was really there.

This cost is – then – that we end up cheating ourselves out of our own lives and the awareness that this has happened (the awareness that this is what we have unwittingly done) is one of the most painful awarenesses is that it’s possible to have, if not the most painful. In our decidedly unphilosophical culture we tend to label this sort of terribly painful awareness ‘depression’ and we think that it is something that can be cured by pills or a dozen sessions of talking therapy, which is rather an odd idea to say the least. As in all the neurotic conditions, we don’t tend to understand our experience in this way when we ourselves happen to be suffering from depression – our social milieu doesn’t support an insight such as this, as we have already said. It is seen as a pathological manifestation, a sickness, and because our experience is so very painful we tend to see it this way too. We certainly don’t think that there is anything good about it. We think that there is something wrong with us, possibly something organically wrong but we also believe that we are suffering from some kind of very serious moral failing (or character failing) as well. We might feel like bad people – undeserving of happiness, and undeserving of life itself. We might feel deserving of punishment or death.

These feelings are real and the pain that is in them is real, but our interpretation is distorted because of our identification with the false self that has been so conveniently created for us by our thoughts, and by the insidious process of socialisation. If I feel undeserving of happiness, undeserving of life, and that there is something terribly wrong with me at my core, this is just a distorted version of the awareness that the positive or defined self is not who I am. I feel like a fake or phony or if I feel that I am not truly alive (but am only a hollow shell) then this too is a distorted echo (or inversion) of the insight regarding the false nature of the positive self, and the way that it functions by passing itself off as what it isn’t.  By association with the false self, we are guilty of the crime of taking what never belong to us, and disenfranchising the true heir (so to speak). As soon as we stop confusing who we are with the positive self these feelings of guilt and self-loathing or self-condemnation will pass, but this can only happen when we see through the superficial culture that surrounds us, which endlessly and pointlessly celebrates the tawdry ‘known image’ in place of the mystery which it obscures.







Unconscious Living

The positive or asserted self is hard work, and not in a good way either. It’s a futile type of work, like the type of work where we keep having to push a boulder up a hill only to see it roll right back down again every time. The work involved in maintaining the positive self is Sisyphean, therefore – it is the task of Sisyphus, which none of us will envy him for. Who would be foolish enough to envy Sisyphus, as he labours away fruitlessly at his hopeless task?

 

The positive thinking brigade would have us believe that this task, the task of getting the positive self over the brow of the hill, can be achieved. ‘Never say never!’ is the battle cry. Success is only just round the corner. Success – that magical word! This word can mean lots of different things but the ultimate type of success, the type we’re all looking for, is successfully getting the positive self ‘over the brow of the hill’. That’s the big payoff, that’s the payoff we are all gunning for. Unconscious living is all about chasing this particular payoff. We try and we try and we try, and when we fall flat on our faces – as we often do – then (when we feel able) we dust ourselves off and continue on with our quest. And all the while the positive thinking brigade is cheering us on…

 

Unconscious living is fuelled by the staunch refusal to see that the task upon which we daily labour was doomed to failure right from the start. Seeing this is despair, and ‘despair’ is a dirty word, just as ‘depression’ is. The whole point of unconscious living is to keep on believing that success is just around the corner, and keeping ourselves upbeat on this account – we have to be positive because anything else is a disgrace, because anything else is ‘letting the side down’. We are required to be remain upbeat and be of a generally optimistic disposition, but – in order that we might maintain this bright and shiny attitude – we also have to make sure that we stay stupid. Being wilfully stupid is the key to the whole endeavour. The world of unconscious living corresponds to Chogyam Trungpa’s ‘Realm of Intelligent Stupidity’ (or ‘Animal Realm‘) therefore. We’re not really that stupid, but dumbing ourselves down is the first requirement of this particular game, which is ‘the game of the positive self’. How could we play it otherwise?

 

Maintaining the positive self was always going to prove to be the ultimate in futile tasks – it is the archetypal futile task. Our belief is that if we put enough energy into it (and if we get a bit of luck coming our way as well, perhaps) then our labours will one day come to an end – we will have reached the top of the hill and it will all be downhill from then on. Everything will be just ‘plain sailing’ from then on. We will have reached ‘Success City’ and there be no looking back. It’ll be time to party. This is why Gurdjieff says that we are like men rowing feverishly around a lake, hoping to reach that point where we never have to row any more, hoping to reach the point where we don’t have to strive and strain anymore. This is the ego’s idea of heaven or paradise – the place where its existence will be eternally validated (or vindicated), thus relieving it from the wearisome task of having to validate and vindicate itself the whole time. Nothing is sweeter for the ego than this vision. The very thought of it is maddeningly sweet, and that’s all it is – a thought…

 

In order for this ‘dream of escape’ to remain as maddeningly attractive to us as it is we need to make sure to stay dumb, as we have already said. If we were actually examine our thinking in this regard then we would see though it straightaway. The positive or asserted self only gets to exist because we are continually asserting (or validating) it – it is the result of us straining towards some kind of artificial ideal – the sort of ideal that can never come to anything in reality. It’s like a face that pull, or a role in a play that we step into – the face that we are pulling can’t continue to exist unless we keep on contorting our face muscles, the role which have taken up will vanish in a puff of smoke the moment we stop acting. Neither ‘the face that has been pulled’ or ‘the role that is being acted’ has any existence of its own, obviously! The problem is however that we can’t see the positive or purposeful self (the self we say we are) as being an artificial construct, as being the result of sustained effort or intention on our part. It’s a ‘deliberate act’, but we got so caught up in it that we can’t see that it isn’t real. We have been making the effort so long that we no longer register the fact that we are making an effort. The effort (which is us taking ourselves as seriously as we do) has become our baseline – it’s all we know.

 

Alan Watts says that the rational sense of identity (or ego) is like a chronic knot a tension in our muscles – we are tense the whole time, although we don’t usually know it. We have identified with the knot of tension – we think that the painful knot of tension is ‘who we are’ so we don’t want to let go of it. We would be deadly afraid of letting go of it – what else have we got, after all? What else is there? We have been in the purposeful realm so long that we think purposefulness is all there is. If something isn’t done purposefully, we say, then how can it happen? If we don’t deliberately make it happen, then nothing will happen. We have got so immersed in the purposeful world that we think it’s the only world there is; we are so identified with the purposeful or positive self that we think ‘this is all that we are’. We have forgotten entirely about the spontaneous side of our nature, which is so much faster in its remit. If we say that the purposeful self is like a small rock rocky island that is constantly being battered by the surf, then the spontaneous aspect of who we are is like the ocean itself, which knows no boundaries.

 

When we live the life of the positive self then we aren’t living life at all but only our idea of it. The positive self is our idea of who we are and our ‘idea of who we are’ can’t live life! Only we can do that, as we really are. Whatever else we are doing when we live on the basis of the positive or asserted self, it’s not living. What we are actually doing – when it comes down to it – is spending all of our time (or most of it) validating the arbitrary ideas that the PS is based on. The ideas won’t stand up by themselves of course – ideas never do! Needless to say, we aren’t aware that we are constantly engaged in validating (or seeking to validate) our ideas about the world. If we saw ourselves doing this and the game will be up straightaway! Instead, we see ourselves as defending or promoting ‘what is right and true’ and fighting against ‘what is wrong and false’. Every belief there ever was sees itself as being ‘the right one’; every belief there ever was sees all other beliefs as being false. We play this game tirelessly, refusing to see the obvious, refusing to see that no belief is ‘the right one’. Beliefs are only there to prop up the false idea we have of ourselves, after all. They are there to back up our cover story…

 

Deep down we don’t care a jot about what is true or not true. Deep down, we haven’t the remotest interest in the truth; we are actually deadly afraid of it. Truth is the enemy of the positive self; the truth (like the mighty ocean) is very broad, whilst the PS (which is the rocky island) is very narrow. In order to survive, the PS has to live in a very narrow world; it has to live in the very narrow world of its own ideas, which it has to defend all the time. It has to police the borders constantly, it has to maintain the artificial limits that it has itself created, and which wouldn’t exist otherwise. The ocean has to be denied at every step of the way therefore. The truth has to be denied every step of the way – the truth is far too rich for our blood! The truth is too generous and we survive as the ‘mind-created self’ by being mean, by being narrow in our outlook.

 

We might sometimes ask ourselves why it is that we human beings love so much to create such narrow, restrictive beliefs about the world and this is the reason – because we wish to protect the integrity of the false, thought-created view of ourselves, which is the rational self or ego. This self, as we have said, doesn’t get to live life – hasn’t got time for that (and it’s too afraid, anyway). All the purposeful self has time for is validating and vindicating itself and this is a ‘full-time job’, as we keep saying. We put up for what is essentially ‘a miserable parody of life’ (what else would we call a life that is made up of constant futile self-validation?) because we have the belief (unconscious as it might be) that one day this cherished inauthentic self won’t need validating any more – that one day we will have achieved some a lasting state of glory. That’s the dream – no matter how absurd it might be – that keeps us going. That’s the magic battery that never runs down. If we could only see what we were doing then we’d drop it in a flash but we can’t see it. We don’t want to see it…