Certainty Addicts


We’re all ‘certainty addicts’ in one way or another. We’re all ‘hooked on certainty’ – without it, we go ‘cold turkey’! Without it, we go into withdrawal. Certainty is like an addictive euphoriant drug (like heroin or morphine) in that it provides us with a particular type of good feeling that we keep coming back for, until we find that we can’t do without it. Certainty provides us with a very special type of good feeling. It provides us – we might say – with the ‘good feeling’ that comes from having a sense of ontological security, which is to say, it provides us with a sense that all the various elements of our experience can be put into regular categories of thought, a sense that things are either ‘this way or that way’, such that there is no possibility of things being some way that we can’t understand in relation to our ‘taken-for-granted framework’.


We could also say that the sense of ontological security comes about as a result of feeling that we are ‘this but not that’, i.e. feeling that we have some sort of definite identity. If I am ‘this but not that’ then I am defined, I am bounded. I have a particular type of existence which is special to me, a type of existence that no one else has. Whether we talk about having a perception that all the various aspects of the world can always be fitted neatly into categories of thought, or whether we talk about feeling that we ourselves belong to a special category called ‘me’, it all comes down to the same thing. It all comes down to certainty, and the good feeling that comes out of security. There is a basic framework to my experience which is always the same, which can always be relied upon to always be ‘what I understand it to be’, and nothing else. If I compare everything to ‘the known’ (i.e. ‘the standard’) then everything becomes ‘the known’. ‘Ontological security’ derives therefore from the sense that I have that there is always going to be a basic logical consistency to my experience, a logical consistency that means that I am never going to be ‘radically surprised’…


So far so good! But there is a bit of a proviso with all this, however. When we say that certainty provides us with a ‘good feeling’ this isn’t entirely true. This isn’t the whole story! Certainty provides us with a good feeling (which is why we get addicted to it) but it also provides us with a corresponding bad feeling! Certainty doesn’t provide us with a good and a bad feeling at the same time of course; if it did this then the net result would be nothing at all! So what happens is that the two types of feeling alternate – first we get to feel good, then we get to feel correspondingly bad. First we go ‘up’, and then we go ‘down’!! The good feeling that we’re talking about may be more technically referred to as euphoria and euphoria can be defined by saying that ‘it is an affirmation or validation of whatever position it is that I have taken with regard to the world’. I have a particular stance, a particular position, and the euphoria is telling me that this is the right stance, the right position…


Instead of saying that euphoria gives us the message that our stance in life is ‘the right one’, we could also say that it flatters us – it tells us what we secretly want to hear. It gives us the answer that we want to hear, even though we don’t ourselves know that we want to hear it, even though we don’t ourselves know that we are biased’ in this particular way. Now as soon as we say this it becomes clear that we obviously don’t know for sure that our stance, our position, is ‘the right one’. If we DID know that then we wouldn’t be looking for external validation! If we DID know that then we wouldn’t be so very gratified to receive the external confirmation that the position we have taken is in fact the right one. It is therefore the combination of [1] our deep-down uncertainty regarding the position we have taken and [2] the external validation that allows us to believe that we are right that gives rise to this highly rewarding mental state that we are calling ‘euphoria’.


The corresponding bad feeling of dysphoria is therefore the exact opposite of this. Instead of getting the message that our position is the right one, we receive the very unwelcome message that it is the wrong one! Instead of validation, we receive de-validation. Instead of feeling good about ourselves, we feel bad. Instead of being flattered, we are insulted! The same basic principle applies – to start off with we not sure of ourselves, albeit on an unconscious or unacknowledged level. We don’t really know (if we were to be honest about it) if our position is the right one or not but we nevertheless want very much for it to be. Then comes the external rebuttal, the slap in the face of being told that it isn’t true at all, that it’s false, that it’s wrong. This then produces ‘negative euphoria’ instead of the negative variety. It produces dysphoria. The dysphoria of being de-validated (or ‘insulted’) is every bit as painful as the euphoria is pleasurable – it’s the exact same thing going on here, only it’s happening the other way around.


There is a basic principle here which we can explain as follows: where there is a situation where I very seriously want to believe that X is true, but am also unsure on a deeper level as to whether it really is or not, then this creates two possibilities for me in terms of what some external authority might have to say on the subject. The external authority determines whether I feel good or bad. In other words, there is the possibility of me being ‘pleasantly validated’ or ‘unpleasantly de-validated’. We can also explain this principle in terms of me ‘making a statement’. The whole thing about ‘making a statement’ is that it is definite, that it is for sure. Why else would I ‘make a statement’? There is a satisfaction in making a definite statement – “This is the way things are!” I say and I bang my fist on the table for emphasis. There are no two ways about it. There is in fact only the one way about it and that’s the way I am telling you! This kind of thing is all very well of course and we hear people making definite statements all the time, on a regular basis, but it raises the question “How do I know?” How do I get to be so sure of myself? On what basis am in making this statement?


With regard to ontology, we can be quite clear on this point – there is no basis. I can say “I exist” but clearly I have nothing to base this statement on other than my own thoughts (which are in turn based upon what I would like to be the case, i.e. my own preferences in the matter). My own thoughts, my own preferences prove nothing, obviously (no matter what Rene Descartes might have to say on the matter). When I say “I exist” this is an act of self-validation – it is ‘me tautologically verifying my own existence’. The inherent fatuity of self-validating statements (statements which attest to their own veracity) is something which hardly needs to be pointed out! For the statement “What I am saying is true” to carry any weight clearly we need to know that this statement itself is true, and there is no way that we can know this. Similarly, if I baldy assert that “I exist” then this statement by itself is quite worthless since there is absolutely no way that we can know if it is true or not. The very fact that I am asserting such a thing throws doubt on the whole business since if it really was true that I exist then why would I need to go to the trouble of asserting it? Far from assuaging my secret doubt therefore, the very energy I am putting into making the rock-solid assertion points to the inherent shakiness of where I am coming from with it.


Logically, a statement can’t testify to its own correctness. I can’t ‘validate myself’ – that straightaway rings hollow. If I say “I am not a liar” what does this prove? If I was a liar then this is of course exactly what I would say! I can’t escape this central ontological ‘problem’ no matter what I do, no matter how I twist and turn. The basic ‘action’ of the conditioned self or ego is to say “I exist” by whatever means it can do. That’s what the self does – it promotes itself, it validates itself, it testifies to its own correctness. Underlying this positive assertion however (as an ‘unavoidable counterpoint’, so to speak) lies the unspoken suggestion (or implication) that I don’t exist. The more I try to offset the unacknowledged implication of my assertion that I definitely do exist (by asserting it all the more) the more I exacerbate it, therefore. I inflame the sore spot even more than it is already inflamed by picking away at it…


Or as we could also say, the more desperate for praise or validation I am the more painfully vulnerable I make myself to insults, criticism and generally denigratory comments! Once we understand the bind that making any kind of ‘ontological assertion’ about ourselves puts us in (and to define ourselves in any way at all constitutes ontological assertion) then it is easy to see just how prone we are to becoming ‘certainty addicts’. Ontological assurance – which is the one thing we can never have – becomes the ultimate commodity, the thing we are all fighting for, the thing we are all competing for. We are in the market for certainty in a big way; in terms of the game we are all playing ontological certainty (or ‘ontological assurance’) is the big prize, the ultimate jackpot! It’s what we’re all after. It’s ‘the Holy Grail’.


Describing our basic everyday situation in terms of ‘a game’ sheds a huge amount of light on the matter. What we’re playing for in this game, as we have already indicated, is ‘being,’ or ‘existence’. If we were to win at the game, then this is what winning would mean – it would mean that we get to exist! The only ‘problem’ here (and it’s not a problem that we’re very good at understanding) is that the prize we’re playing for doesn’t really exist. ‘Existing’ doesn’t exist, ‘being’ doesn’t exist – not in the way we mean it anyway, which is ‘being or existence for the conditioned or mind-created self. ‘Being’ in this conditioned sense of the word exists within the terms of the game, but not outside of it. Winning in any game only ever means something within the (strictly provisional) context of the game that is being played, obviously. Whoever heard of anyone ‘winning’ (or ‘losing’) if they aren’t playing a game! The need to win (and the equal and opposite need not to lose) are what motivate us in the game (this is the only motivation in any game) but – again, very obviously – neither the state of being a winner nor the state of being a loser has any meaning at all outside of the context of the game.


As an alternative way of approaching the matter, we could say that the prize of ‘being’ does exist, but only as the necessary counterpoint to ‘non-being’! Winning is the necessary counterpoint to losing and losing is the necessary counterpoint to winning, but neither exist separately outside the game. Within the terms of the game these are two very different (and entirely separate) things and this is what makes the game playable. The perception that winning in the game is not the same as losing in the game is clearly a necessary requirement of the game! In reality however winning and losing are one and the same thing (just as the lure of ‘being’ and the threat of ‘not-being are one and the same thing). Both winning and losing only equal ‘the game’ just as both ‘conditioned being’ and ‘conditioned non-being’ only equal ‘the game’, and the game is not real.


This is of course no different to the point we made a bit earlier on. It’s the very same principle: once we are in the market for euphoria then we’re equally in the market for dysphoria. The prize in the game is ‘being’ and when we win ‘being’ (or rather conditioned being, which is ‘being-within-the-game) we experience euphoria. Euphoria is the jackpot. The necessary counterpoint to euphoria is, as we have said, dysphoria, and dysphoria is what we experience when we fail to win the jackpot, when we fail to win ‘being’. Dysphoria is what we unhappily reap when we win the anti-prize of ‘non-being’ and the whole point of the game is to make sure we get the euphoria of winning rather than the dysphoria of losing. The thing about this however is of course that we can never get one without the other. We feel good to the extent that we feel bad. We’re addicted to the type of certainty that causes us to feel good (validating certainty) but at the same time – without us actually seeing it – we’re also addicted to the type of (devalidating) certainty that causes us to feel bad. Perversely therefore, we’re addicted to the very thing that is causing us to feel bad!


This might sound like a rather bleak account of everyday life but this is only ‘how things are in the game’ and the game, as we have already said, is not real. Outside of the game there is no gaining and no losing. Outside of the (unreal) game there are no winners and no losers. Outside of the game there is no ‘conditioned being’ and no ‘conditioned non-being’; no euphoria and no dysphoria. There can’t be either any gaining or any losing because ‘the one who gains’ and ‘the one who loses’ don’t actually exist in the first place! There is no one who is either validated or devalidated, flattered or insulted; there is no one who either gets to ‘have being’ or doesn’t get to ‘have being’. This assertion can be confusing – we’re not saying that the self <doesn’t exist> as opposed to <does exist> because that’s a polarity (or duality) and there is no such thing as polarity/duality in unconditioned reality. It’s not that type of ‘not-existing’ that we’re talking about here – it’s not that we’re saying that the everyday self ‘doesn’t exist’ (which would validate the notion that the everyday self has the possibility of existing) but rather that the very question, the very dichotomy of existing versus not existing never arises in the first place, and never could arise.


To say that the one who seeks being and fears non-being never actually existed in the first place is itself liable to be taken as an insult; this sort of statement is itself liable to be taken as an insult, as a particularly stinging ‘slap in the face’. It hurts us to hear this. It ‘disappoints’ us in a very deep way. But this is of course rather a funny thing. It’s actually a very funny thing – it’s a very funny thing because this stinging insult, this deep-down disappointment only exists in relation to a self which itself doesn’t exist! This being the case, what sort of ‘insult’ is this that we’re talking about here? What sort of ‘disappointment’ is this? Who is it that is being insulted? Who is disappointed? What is an insult without someone to direct it at? What is disappointment if there is no one there to be disappointed? Clearly, this is all a joke. No matter how bad an insult is, there is no sting to it if there is no one to be insulted! No matter how deep the disappointment, it is still no blow at all if there is no one to be saddled with it! The only reason the insult (or the disappointment) was so very painful, so very hard to bear, is because of the self-which-thought-that-it-existed when all along the truth was that it didn’t…


Outside of the game there is no pleasure and no pain, no reward and no punishment. To our normal way of understanding things this sounds very much like saying that ‘there is nothing outside of the game’ (or at least that ‘there is nothing of any interest outside the game’). The game itself – which is all we know, all we care about – isn’t real and outside of this ‘unreal game’ there are no good outcomes and no bad outcomes, no advantages to be either had or lost. There’s no possibility of winning, and also no possibility of losing. This doesn’t sound particularly great to us! There’s nothing there to get our teeth into – it seems grey and uninteresting. It seems to have nothing to offer us. But the thing here is that we’re seeing everything backwards. We’ve got the wrong end of the stick. We’re understanding everything from an inverted point of view, from a point of view in which ‘the real has become the unreal and the unreal has become the real’. Given the inverted nature of our perspective on things, how can we see anything straight?


What we fear is the situation in which the conditioned self or ego doesn’t exist. We fear the loss of something that doesn’t exist, in other words. It could be said that we’re not so much ‘certainty addicts’ as illusion addicts – actually both are the same thing! And it is not just that we ‘fear the loss of something that doesn’t exist’, we fear the loss of a something that doesn’t exist when this ‘something that doesn’t exist’ (or rather our belief in this ‘something that doesn’t exist’) has been causing us unending suffering and frustration, and has been causing us to miss out on the ‘unconditional being’ (or ‘non-dual being’) that really is there…


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