Very obviously, self equals bias, and the converse is of course equally true: wherever there is a bias (i.e. a systematic prejudice in the way information is processed) then there is a self. Thinking, like logic, is always biased (otherwise we couldn’t start off the business of thinking in the first place since we wouldn’t have any solid ground from which to do so) and so wherever there is thinking there is a sense of self (which is to say, a sense of there being a centre that isn’t really there). We have assumed a self, we have ‘assumed a centre’, and we did this by thinking! The system of thought is synonymous with the self, therefore. The ‘system of thought’, can be defined as a logically consistent way of looking at things. Alternatively, and more thoroughly, it can be defined as:
A particular way of seeing the world which provides us with the possibility of obtaining some type advantage or benefit, which only seems to be an advantage or benefit from its own arbitrary standpoint.
What this means is that whenever I fall under the influence of a particularly biased viewpoint that I subscribe to in order to obtain some the possibility of benefit, then my previous sense of self is lost, and I identify with a narrower and therefore more ‘misrepresentative’ sense of self. In the case of anger, for example, this new and less free self might be called the ‘self-of-anger’. Now the pertinent fact about this ‘self’ is that it is itself the anger, which is to say, it is the angry way of looking at things.
ASSERTION IS ‘NON-REFLECTIVE’
It is inevitable that the notion of many selves will cause a fair amount of mental indigestion along the way for anyone who is prepared to toy with it, but a good way to get to grips with it is by thinking in terms of ‘tautological defending’, with which we are already alluded to. Thus, when we refer to a ‘self’, what we are basically saying is that there is a tautological operation of some kind going on, i.e. there is a loop of logic involved which makes it seem as if there is a real entity there whereas the truth of the matter is that there is no such thing. An example may make this clearer. Suppose that I pick a particular location on my garden lawn to ‘defend’. To start off with I am strolling around happily, without any attachments to any particular parts of the lawn, and then I arbitrarily pick a spot and stand proudly on it. What I am saying (by implication) is something like “This spot is special, this spot means something to me, this spot reflects me and my tastes in some way…” If you come along and try to push me off my special spot, and try to take it for yourself, then naturally I will resist you. I will defend my chosen location.
‘Defending’ could of course include anything – it could be that you are simply content to sneer at my spot and tell me that it is a pathetic bit of the lawn, full of dock-weeds and clumps of crab-grass. You might disagree with me regarding the validity of my choice, and suggest to me that my choice is wrong or misguided. In this case, my defending will be verbal rather than physical. Either way, there is a ‘principle of irreversibility’ that comes into play the instant I start defending this particular part of the lawn. The irreversibility comes in because as soon as I get involved in defending, I automatically lose the ability to question why I ought to be defending, which is to say, why the area of grass under my feet is so damn important to me in the first place. I cannot reflect and assert at the same time, it has to be one or the other – the more I get sucked into the compulsion to assert (or defend), the less able I am to see that I don’t really have to assert or defend. Basically, until I start defending the location is only that – ‘a location’; as soon as I do start however, it is my location and so the ‘me’ is born. The self is always like this, beforehand it is just one possibility out of infinitely many (which means of course that there is no self); afterwards, it is the one and only truth and I am compelled to defend it to the last. As we have said, ‘self’ is synonymous with compulsion, with loss of freedom, with a constitutional inability to see things as they really are.
A SELF IS A SULK THAT DOESN’T WANT TO GO AWAY
Once we think about it, it becomes clear that tautology is the very essence of the self. What is the self concerned with, other than ‘itself’? Whose interests does it serve, other than those of ‘itself’? What is the point of its existence, other than to endlessly promote and maintain itself? In exactly the same way, we can see (with a bit of reflection on the matter) that the only real point of a bad mood is to justify its own existence – certainly, no other end is served. A sulk is an excellent example of this principle: when I am in a sulk I see the world in an unconsciously-deliberately distorted way so that I can get to feel vindicated / validated in my position even though there are no real grounds for this validation; I only take notice of information that supports this point of view, and so by slanting the way I see the world I am constantly providing this point of view with justification, which means that it continues to exist. Throughout this whole business, only one thing is really important and that is the business of propping up (or maintaining) the integrity of the lie that I had originally told. Ostensibly, the sulk was summoned into being in order to help me, in order to get me out of some sort of fix, but within a very short space of time it becomes apparent that the sulk isn’t really there to help me, it is just there to stubbornly perpetuate itself. Actually, I feel miserable and isolated and foolish, and I would dearly like to get rid of the sulk that is doing this to me, but what I find is that the damn thing now has a life of its own and it simply has no intention of ‘just going away’. I am swept along helplessly by the logic of the thing. It started off as a free choice, but ended up as a prison.
There is an idea, which is for example mentioned in the literature of the Psychosynthesis school of psychotherapy, that neurotic disturbance is generally caused by old ways of coping which although they may have served a purpose at the time, now persist despite the fact that the circumstances in which they arose have totally changed and there is simply no need for them anymore. The ‘coping devices’ do not want to die, they do not want to go away. We can extend this idea and say that any way of looking at the world that allows us to feel better (in a short-term sort of way) is just the same as a coping device that does not want to relinquish itself, no matter what. As time passes, therefore, it is only to be expected that we find ourselves increasingly populated by these ghosts, these dysfunctional habitual ways of thinking and behaving. Each one of these is a system of logic in its own right, a pattern that doesn’t want to die, an error that is determined to perpetuate itself. Each one is a ‘self’ that wants to rule the roost.
What we have been talking about can be formulated succinctly in terms of ‘the tool taking over the role of the master’. As a general example of what is meant by this, we can think about some type of administrative body that ostensibly exists to help the ‘general public’ (i.e., anybody who is not a member of that administrative body). Initially, that is indeed the idea, but what happens in practice is that some process sets in whereby the actual survival of the body in question becomes (implicitly) more important than any other considerations, including that particular consideration which is the nominal function of the body. This is not to say that anyone within the administration would ever come out and admit it, or even acknowledge it to themselves in private, but all the same the so-called ‘man in the street’ has his suspicions that this is indeed the case.
DOING IT FOR ‘THE CAUSE’
One of the most blatant examples of this principle would be the old-style Marxist political parties which in theory are only there to stand up for the rights of the common person against capitalist or imperialist exploitation. There is no doubt that in those countries in which Marxism took root there was widespread exploitation going on, and the average person had every reason to feel hard done by, but what inevitably happens when the revolutionary movement takes power is that the value or importance of the individual takes a very poor second place to the importance of ‘the party’. Actually, as everyone knows, the party exists purely for itself and it is more than willing to perpetrate the most appalling acts of violence in defence of this prime directive. It is of course possible to argue that what is being defended here are the political beliefs which the party stands for, rather than the party itself, but in practice the two are one and the same thing. The idea is the system.
We can see the same thing happening in paramilitary groups which arise out of a particular political stance. Initially, the paramilitaries are there to defend the oppressed and the enslaved, and strike a blow on their behalf against the brutality of the ruling establishment. However, we can see how it would not be the easiest thing in the world for a successful paramilitary group to relinquish power even if the circumstances were to change so that the people they are supposed to be representing no longer necessarily support their activities. After all, at this stage the paramilitary body has become a highly efficient and potent organism, capable of thriving even under the most adverse conditions. The mechanisms of control are in place, and once in place the ‘logic of control’ does not want to go away; power does not ever willingly do away with itself, even if its nominal ideals were to be met.
Further examples of what we are talking about would be those shadowy agencies that are set up in secrecy by the government in order to combat real or imagined threats to the integrity of the nation. In order to do their job such agencies have to be to a large extent autonomous (and therefore unaccountable), they have to have teeth otherwise they cannot bite the enemies that we are so worried by. The trouble is, as history shows, these agencies then go on to become potent threats to everyone in their own right. They work by a peculiar logic of their own, and often this ‘logic’ is so slanted (or so twisted) as to become downright pathological. Such agencies need enemies in order to justify their existence, and the more terrible the enemies, the better, as far as the unconscious logic goes. If there were no legitimate targets for their characteristic activities, then targets would have to be invented because the agency in question has to continue ‘doing its thing’.
Entities such as these become sinister because they do not genuinely exist for the society that spawns them, but rather they exist purely for themselves, like computer viruses that know only the logic of self-replication. What is more, they lie incessantly and prolifically – this is of course their business, their bread-and-butter, their stock-in-trade. On the one hand this is because their mode of operation is necessarily based on deception since this is the only way they can be effective: officially, the agency does not even exist and its activities are always cloaked by cover stories and red-herrings. This is, we might say, the ‘legitimate’ level of deception since we all know and accept that secret agencies have to be secret. However, there is a deeper level of deception too since in order for us to support the principle that they should continue to be supported, the shadowy agencies have to perpetuate the myth that they exist for our benefit, and that we would be in terrible danger without them. Therefore, everything about them is a lie, which has got to be a worrying thought!
MASKING THE TAUTOLOGY
We have said that ‘tautology is the essence of self’ and this is demonstrably true for the shadowy agencies mentioned above; they exist only to serve themselves – they exist to fulfil their own goals, and these goals only benefit themselves. This is after all what we commonly understand by the word ‘selfish’. It is not just the case for entities such as the ones we have discussed however, such selfishness is also the defining characteristic for all autonomous or semi-autonomous ‘bodies’, whether we are talking about local government, police departments, supermarket chains or pharmaceutical companies. Take a political party for example: even if the organization itself were to be (just for the sake of argument) totally ‘above-board’, there still exists this basic self-interestedness. Of course, the naked tautology of the selfishness is disguised by the premise that the party is only ‘a means to an end’, the ‘servant of a greater cause’, and everybody concerned goes along with this story. But political parties have to change drastically in order to maintain their viability in a changing world, and this fact alone prompts us to consider the possibility that the continued existence of the party is more important than what the party supposedly stands for. In the end, a politician is a person who has to strike a popular note in order to have any chance at all of coming to power, and so there must be this basic conflict between the desire to hang on to one’s integrity (such as it is) and the desire to have power. The tendency is naturally towards the latter rather than the former: if I want to be a successful politician my ‘ideals’ tend to be no more than a suit of clothes that I change as and when its suits me. Whether I can actually this to myself is of course another matter entirely. It can be seen, therefore, that there must be a ‘masking’ of this fickleness both for the sake of the actor, and the audience; if everyone could plainly see what was going on, then – quite simply – we would all be far too sickened to carry on with it.
THE CORPORATE MONSTER
Exactly the same is true for commercial corporate bodies, only perhaps it is a bit easier to see here. A company (no matter what it may say) exists purely for the sake of its profits. Now we all want to turn a profit, but for most of us this is not the only consideration – there are (one would hope) things we simply will not do for money. The reason for this is of course because we are people and not just profit-hungry machines devoid of feelings and devoid of conscience. A corporation, however, is different from a person for precisely these reasons – it doesn’t have feelings and it doesn’t have a conscience; in fact, once we scrape of the saccharine coating most commercial organizations put up to disguise themselves, we find that they are completely inhuman entities, as Fritjof Capra (1982, P 133) explains:
The nature of large corporations is profoundly inhuman. Competition, coercion, and exploitation are essential aspects of the their activities, all motivated by the desire for indefinite expansion. Continuing growth is built into the corporate structure. For example, corporate executives who knowingly bypass an opportunity for increasing the corporation’ profits, for whatever reason, are liable to lawsuit. Thus the maximizing of profits becomes the ultimate goal, to the exclusion of all other considerations. Corporate executives have to leave their humaneness behind when they attend their board meetings. They are not expected to show any feelings, nor to express any regrets; they can never say ‘I am sorry’ or ‘We made a mistake.’ What they talk about instead is coercion, control and manipulation.
On some level or other, we all know this, but it doesn’t usually disturb us too much because we never really think about it too much. Besides, we believe that big business benefits all of us, ultimately, despite the unpleasantness of those boardroom meetings. After all, don’t the commercial entities that compete for our money have to give us value for money, in order to survive? All the same, it is a fact that no company is going to come right out and say that the only reason they produce goods or services to a certain standard is because this is the only way they can make a profit. There is something distinctly ugly about that idea, something inhuman and calculating, and it is for this reason that commercial organizations portray themselves as being genuinely interested in the well-being of their customers. Now, on an individual level this can of course be true but on the level of the actual organization, there is no way that this can be true. Big companies do not care about anything other than themselves.
Organizations are basically machines, they follow rules – they can in theory even follow ‘fair’ or ‘ethical’ rules – but they cannot have genuine concern for people, or any sort of genuine feeling for the ethical principles or values behind the rules. The thing about commercial organizations is however that they are not just machines, they are machines with a human face – they are uncaring and calculating entities that put on a warm and friendly appearance, they are quintessentially selfish, and therefore ruthless, organisms that calculatedly act in an unselfish way.
THE SPOOKS ARE INSIDE ME
Now the fact of the matter is that we are not really concerned here with denouncing the inhumanly ruthless and pernicious nature of multinational corporations, any more than we are interested in alerting the man or woman in the street to the sinister nature of secret or quasi-secret government agencies. This is not to say that they are not a threat, which of course they are, but rather that they are not the real threat. The real threat are the spooks who are inside us, the various ‘selves’ which make it their business to monopolize our heads. We are coming back here to the assertion that we made earlier when we said that each and every ‘slant’ (i.e. information-processing bias) that exists within us has associated with it a specific and separate self – a self which is basically only interested in endlessly maintaining and defending itself, no matter what lip service it might pay to the nominal reason for its existence, which is to say, its ‘cover story’.
This is a bit of a peculiar idea when one first comes across it – we tend to find it a lot easier to entertain the notion of a single ruling system of thought, rather than a motley collection of systems, which may or may not have anything in common. A good way to try to make the idea understandable is to think in terms of ‘a perceived necessity to deal with a serious threat’, which is analogous to what we were talking about in connection with the secret (and therefore by implication unaccountable) agencies that are set up by a central government. Suppose there is something that seriously scares me, a really nasty thought that threatens to topple the whole set-up. Now this thought cannot be dealt with directly because that would mean consciously acknowledging it, which is of course the only thing that I do not want to do. If I could acknowledge it, then I wouldn’t need to avoid it. Instead of directly tackling it, therefore, I split-off a portion of my consciousness to create a secret (internal) agency whose job it is to suppress awareness of the unmentionable fear. Problem solved! Needless to say, however, the problem is not really solved because all I have done is to bury my head in the sand. What is more, I have created a highly virulent virtual self which has, like all virtual selves, no allegiance to anything other than itself. This virtual entity is running around in my head, with a cart blanche (in effect) to do whatever it thinks necessary.
There is another type of split-off self that we can envisage. If the first type was the type that is based on fear, then the second type must be the type that is based on greed (or positive desire). Suppose I really want something, but I cannot admit to myself that I actually want this thing without causing myself to feel bad about what I am doing, which would totally spoil the whole point of the exercise since I want to feel good not bad! What we are talking about here clearly belongs to the domain of behaviour commonly designated as ‘the vices’. I split off an agency to take care of this, and from this point on I can engineer situations which allow me to indulge my desire for whatever the vice is, without having to directly face up to what I am doing. For example, I may find myself taking a route that leads right past the bookies, despite the fact that I am trying to give up gambling. In essence, I am handing over responsibility to a mental reflex, which does things without me actually having to deliberately intend it. This is like having a servant who you get to do the dirty work for you, so that you can absolve yourself of all complicity.
SMUDGING THE ISSUE
As before, we can use the example of extreme aversion and extreme attraction in order to show more clearly what we are on about, but there are many shades and variations in-between the two extremes. In general, we can say that wherever there is some sort instance of ‘not-quite-being-honest-with-ourselves’, some kind of spin-doctoring (or ‘smudging’), then there is the creation of a virtual self – an ‘I’ that is associated with this particular systematic distortion of the truth. Contrariwise, we can also say that if there is no shirking of the truth at all – if the medicine is taken absolutely as it comes – then there is no virtual self involved in the process. In fact, this is how we know that there cannot be a virtual self there, since because the virtual or ‘false’ self is constitutionally unable to do anything that is genuinely unselfish (anything that does not make sense from the point of view of the prime directive which is to maintain the integrity of the theatre which is itself) this necessarily means that it cannot bear to hear the truth about itself, or experience the pain that comes with this awareness. The ‘integrity’ of the extrinsic self depends upon its ability not to see the truth about itself – what we are talking about here is my capacity to deceive myself, in other words.
The false self’s fundamental resistance to experiencing discomfort (or pain) derives from the fact that it cannot do anything against itself, which is simply another way of talking about its tautological self-defending nature. This is, after all, the only way that it can get to be ‘a self’, as we saw in our foray into set theory. Just as a positive set only gets to be positive (i.e. exclusively real or correct) by virtue of the fact that it ignores anything that disagrees with the basic assumption inherent in the ‘rule’ that created it, so too can a self only get to perceive itself as real if it ignores the way in which it has been created only by taking a limited and completely arbitrary view of things. Therefore, if I do receive this sort of information, then the one thing that we can be sure of is that the ‘I’ who is receiving it is not the ‘I’ of the system, which is to say, the false self has quitted the scene.
Another (slightly different) way to approach the idea of the virtual self is by saying that it is a sort of a role that we slip into, just as an actor takes upon himself the role of the character he is playing. Beforehand the role does not exist in its own right, which is to say, there is no compulsion to identify with it and act as it would act, given the defining characteristics of its nature. Once we are in role, then we are subject to a set of rules, we are subject to external motivation or ‘compulsion’. Furthermore, this external compulsion only works when we cannot see it to be external – in order to be properly in role, I have to belief in the role. Another way of putting this is to say that I have to take the rules behind the compulsions absolutely for granted; the process of becoming subject to an external compulsion is synonymous with the process whereby the rules become internalised (i.e. invisible).
This feeling of being compelled to do this or do that, so that we have to figure out how to do this or do that, is the essential character of what James Carse calls a finite game. The following excerpts from Carse’s (1986) Finite and Infinite Games give a good introduction to this idea:
[P 12] To account for the large gap between the actual freedom of finite players to step off the field of play at any time and the experienced necessity to stay at the struggle, we can say that as finite players we somehow veil this freedom from ourselves.
Some self-veiling is present in all finite games. Players must intentionally forget the inherently voluntary nature of their play, else all competitive effort will desert them.
From the outset of finite play each part or position must be taken up with a certain seriousness; players must see themselves as teacher, as light heavyweight, as mother. In the proper exercise of such roles we positively believe we are the persons those roles portray. Even more: we make those roles believable to others. It is in the nature of acting, Shaw said, that we are not to see this woman as Ophelia, but Ophelia as this woman.
[P 13-14] The issue here is not whether self-veiling can be avoided, or even should be avoided. Indeed, no finite play is possible without it. The issue is whether we are ever willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to face the world through a mask. Consider the woman whose skill at making Ophelia appear as this woman demonstrates the clarity with which she can distinguish the role from herself. Is it not possible that when she leaves the stage she does not give up acting; but simply leaves off one role for another, say the role of “actress,” an abstracted personage whose public behaviour is carefully scripted and produced? At which point do we confront the fact that we live one life and perform another, attempting to make our momentary forgetting true and lasting forgetting?
What makes this an issue is not the morality of masking ourselves. It is rather that self-veiling is a contradictory act – a free suspension of our freedom. I cannot forget that I have forgotten. I may well have used the veil so successfully that I have made my performance believable to myself. I may have convinced myself that I am Ophelia. But credibility will never suffice to undo the contradictoriness of self-veiling. “To believe is to know you believe, and to know you believe is not to believe” (Sartre).
If no amount of veiling can conceal the veiling itself, the issue is how far we will go in our seriousness at self-veiling, and haw far we will go to have others act in complicity with us.
Finite games are situations where we are compelled – we are compelled to obey the rules of the game, and if we obey successfully then we get to feel ‘good’ because we have won. We carry on playing because we want to get this good (euphoric) feeling, and because we do not want to be subject to the other feeling, which is the ‘bad’ feeling that comes with losing. The need to win (and the fear of losing) lies behind all finite games, and this basic motivating force corresponds to the need of the virtual self to defend itself, i.e. its over-riding need to maintain the integrity of the viewpoint which says that it does exist.
WHEN THE MASK TAKES OVER THE MAN
As Carse implies, we face the world through a mask, and not just one mask, but many. Each mask ‘takes us over’, and causes us to forget who we really are. What is more, the various masks need not necessarily agree with each other, and as Ouspensky says, one group of selves can undo the work of another group, so that the overall effect is nothing at all. Ouspensky was of course one of G. I. Gurdjieff’s main students, and a particularly notable aspect of Gurdjieff’s teachings was his idea of the ‘plural ego’. The strange doctrine of ‘many selves’ is vividly described for us by James Moore in his biography Gurdjieff (1999, p 52-4):
…Turning now to Gurdjieff’s ‘Everyman’; his model of the individual human being, we encounter the same poignant ambivalence, the same sense of potentiality betrayed.
The infant is born in hope and in ‘essence’. Essence is what is essential. It is the self: not the little body in the cradle, but what the being innately and really is; his true, inexpungeable, and fate-attracting particularity. It is mysteriously predetermined, perhaps by the stars and planets while he is in embryo or at his birth; thenceforth it is meant to grow and mature, fed by real experiences.
Alas! Essence is quickly overtaken and arrested by personality; it is enveloped and suffocated as Laocoon was by writhing serpents. ‘Personality’ is what we pick up; it is a mask (Latin persona) or societal veneer. It is the crystallization in us of those ‘A’ and ‘B’ influences which happen to prevail wherever and whenever we were ‘educated’. We unconsciously copy ‘our’ personality from our parents and from various little tin gods – and later randomly reimpose it on our children. Personality is indispensable, and at its best incorporates a valuable portion of man’s linguistic and cultural heritage. At its worst it is a hodge-podge of prejudices, dreams, tones of voice, body-usage, manipulative stratagems and pitiable neuroses, quite arbitrarily aligned to essence. Personality is other people’s stuff made flesh in us.
Worse is to come. For although essence is single, personality is legion. The idea of hysterical multiple personality was popularised only recently in Thipgen and Cleckly’s well-attested case history, The Three Faces of Eve. Gurdjieff’s version, put forward in 1916, entails marginally less disassociation among personalities, but escalates the condition from a clinical oddity to universal malaise. All men and women, he warns, play host to scores if not hundreds of different parasitic identities, each with its blinkered repertoire of behaviour. A snub, a flattering letter, a no-smoking sign, a slow queue, a come-hither look – and we are strangely altered. We have one personality with subordinates, another with superiors, one with our mother, another with the tax man – each is Caliph for an hour. One scatters promissory notes which others must redeem: ‘certainly. See you in the morning. Only too delighted.’ One despairing humourless personality may even take an overdose or jump off a cliff – crazily destroying the habitat of all the others. To sum up, our professed citadel of individuality is common as a barber’s chair. Very few men are strong enough to confront this impression emotionally and to work within the compass of its appalling implications.
Confounding confusion, all these personalities share behavioural ‘norms’ which Gurdjieff (in an indictment that ranks with Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’) reveals as tragically abnormal. He speaks more in sorrow than in anger; one may almost feel the weight of his suffering as he concludes that his bleak picture is ‘a photographically exact snapshot from life’.
Chiefly to blame, in Gurdjieff’s eyes, is man’s irresponsibility towards his godlike faculty of attention: he dopes not reverence it, he does not mobilize it, he does not govern it; and what little he finds access to, he casts to the dogs. Unsurprisingly man’s enfeebled attention has no autonomy but is always attached, glued, surrendered to this or that ‘identification’: here for example it hardens into sharp configurations of self-pity, irritability, anxiety, resentment, envy, vanity, hatred, and every sort of ‘negative emotion’; there it softens into treacherous interior fantasies, ‘imagination’, daydreams and delusional systems; here it supports a complacent judgement on other poor devils, and here, paradoxically, a squirming fear of their verdict on us; here it embellishes ignorance to seem like knowledge…and invariably it provides voltage for the despotic associations which flit ceaselessly through our weary brain.
IDENTIFYING WITH A ‘COMPLEX’
The suggestion that our consciousness is fickle in this way so that it may chop and change at any moment and ‘go with the highest bidder’, so to speak, is not one that most people are prepared to take seriously. The reason for this, as Moore says, is undoubtedly that it is too disturbing – it threatens our too-easily acquired sense of autonomy, our convenient assumption that we are the kings of our own castles. The idea itself however is not exactly unknown within the annals of psychology – whilst it is true that contemporary mainstream psychology has practically zero interest in such matters, being exclusively reductionist and rationalist in its outlook, the empirical approach to psychology taken by Carl Jung in the last century dealt very thoroughly with such phenomena. Jung’s word for the information-processing bias which can go on to produce a false type of self as a result of dissociative psychic processes is a complex, which is a term which has passed over (rather haphazardly) into popular usage. The following two paragraphs, taken from Vol. 9 (1) in the Collected Works (p 122-3) leave us in doubt that Jung was very familiar with the type of dissociative process that we have been discussing:
We now come to changes of personality which imply neither enlargement nor diminution but a structural alteration. One of the most important forms is the phenomenon of possession: some content, an idea or part of the personality, obtains mastery of the individual for one reason or another. The contents which thus take possession appear as peculiar convictions, idiosyncrasies, stubborn plans, and so forth. As a rule, they are not open to correction. One has to be an especially good friend of the possessed person and willing to put up with almost anything if one is to attempt to deal with such a condition. I am not prepared to lay down any hard and fast line of demarcation between possession and paranoia. Possession can be formulated as identity of the ego-personality with a complex.
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.
Jung is even more explicit about the idea that the psyche contains more than one center in this quotation taken from his last major work Mysterium Coniunctionis (C.W. 14, P 357-8):
This far from simple situation derives partly from the fact that the ego has the paradoxical quality of being both the subject and object of its own knowledge, and partly from the fact that the psyche is not a unity but a “constellation” consisting of other luminaries beside the sun. The ego-complex is not the only complex in the psyche. The possibility that unconscious complexes possess a certain luminosity, a kind of consciousness, cannot be dismissed out of hand, for they can easily give rise to something in the nature of secondary personalities, as psychopathological experience shows. But if this is possible, then an observation of the ego-complex from another standpoint somewhere in the same psyche is equally possible. As I have said, the critical portrayal of the ego-complex in dreams and in abnormal psychic states seems to be due to this.
WHAT IS A ‘SELF’?
It can be seen that Jung does not go quite so far as to say that any sense of self which is locally-derived (i.e. based on a known, fixed centre) sense of self is going to be equally arbitrary, and therefore equally spurious, although he very nearly does, as we can see from the passage reproduced immediately above. After all, if the ego-complex is not the only standpoint which it is possible for consciousness to look out from, then it follows that the ego must be ‘just another viewpoint’, and where does this leave us? The implication here is that any standpoint will seem like ‘me’ when I am standing there, which in turn means that there is no right or true (local) seat of consciousness. Jung also stops just short of entertaining the Eastern idea of non-ego (i.e. the ineffable state of non-attachment) but aside from these reservations it is plain that his observations led him to conclude that psychic dissociation, far from being a rare clinical occurrence, is actually a run-of-the-mill state of affairs. We are all dissociated, we are all identified with bit and pieces of personality that in the ultimate analysis are not us at all.
This means that all ‘selves’ are fictions, fragments of thought that have congealed around them a spurious sense of ‘me’. Any way of thinking about the world crystallizes an arbitrary sense of centralization or ‘self’. In order to help this idea along, we can outline a general sort of a process whereby this identity-coagulation occurs. What we can say is that consciousness – in its usual ‘identified’ (or ‘gullible’) mode – automatically orientates itself around whatever bias or prejudice that happens to be there, it identifies with these nuggets of certainty and uses them to construct a definite identity. In fact, to say a ‘definite identity’ is over-stating the point since an identity has got to be definite – I can’t have the satisfaction of ‘being somebody’ if I can’t define to myself and others who or what that somebody is. Just like a hermit-crab that feels a compulsion to find a hard shell for itself, consciousness when in its passive mode takes up whatever ‘hard stuff’ it finds lying around and co-opts this material into its support-system. Another metaphor might be to say that it is like person lacking any confidence who takes up with whatever people he comes across, and allies himself with their ideas and motivations. I have a lack of confidence in my own true nature, and so I take up a convenient false nature.
Similarly, we could say that passive consciousness is like a person who, because they feel empty and lacking in any direction in life, enlists at the drop of a hat in any ‘cause’ that might be floating around in the immediate vicinity, so as to give themselves a (spurious) sense of direction. Needless to say, my interest is not really in the cause as such but in the camouflage it affords me, in the ready-made sense of purpose that I can now orientate themselves around. The immediate effect of this act of identification is of course positive – there is a flush of pleasure in being ‘this person’; I am now real, I really am somebody and what I do is meaningful and important. I can hardy wait to get started on my new life – I want to do it all now, and the profusion of goals that I hatch in my head is the logical expression of my euphoric impatience to ‘have it all’.
The thing is, though, it is not life that I am excited about but what life has to offer me. I am now looking at things in a particular narrow and one-sided way, so that life is seen purely as a means to enhance and enrich me. I am exploiting everything purely for my own benefit – it is all a deeply self-centred, self-loving operation. This is strictly a short-term benefit however since the direction of consolidating the ‘me’ doesn’t actually take me anywhere – it is a dead-end, a cul-de-sac. I have fallen in a hole from which I lack the integrity (or strength of character) to escape, and from now on I am committed to the sterile round of euphoria and despair: the positive phase of the cycle is when I am able to successfully distract myself from the true nature of my predicament by believing that I really am getting somewhere, and the negative phase is when the positive glow of pleasurable expectation switches around and becomes anxiety and depression as the snag inherent in my narrow viewpoint becomes all too manifest. This alternating round of pleasure and pain is the life of the extrinsic self in a nutshell.
‘GRASPING FOR A SELF’
What, we may ask, is the motivation behind this short-sighted ‘grasping for a self’, as Sogyal Rinpoche calls it? Well, on the one hand we could say that it is greed for the warm euphoric tide of ‘forgetfulness’ that will wash over us when we pass the point of no return into the inverted world of the false self. On the other hand it could be said that the motivation is the terror of ‘not having a self’, the abysmal fear of groundlessness which gives rise to the desperate clutching for something (anything) to hold onto. This two alternatives are clearly not in disagreement with each other since it is the exactly the terror of ungroundedness that I am so keen to forget about when I greedily immerse myself in the state of passive identification (or ‘unconsciousness’). This type of explanation is fine as far as it goes, but in practical terms we might as well just say that the motivation for creating, maintaining, and promoting a self is basic cause-and-effect – “I have started, and so I will carry on”, so to speak. Once the ball has started rolling, it will carry on rolling all by itself until an intelligence (or awareness) arises that can overcome the determinism of the prevailing mechanical tendency. It is said that the Buddha discouraged his followers from wasting time asking why the ball started rolling in the first place, since stopping it is the only thing that really matters – because this is such a tremendously arduous and demanding task we hardly have the time to spare in which to luxuriate in idle speculation.
THE HABIT WHICH IS ME
It can readily be seen that this way of looking at identity leads us into a pretty strange place. If we stick with the idea that the motivation behind the extrinsic self is basically force of habit, then it takes no great conceptual leap to assert that the pattern of perception, thought and behaviour which is the extrinsic self is a habit just like the habit of always having a cup of tea in the morning, or the habit of adding “…do you know what I mean?” to the end of every sentence. Only in this case, I have a habit of being ‘me’. The implication behind this assertion is of course that I could equally well have identified with any other bundle of learned reflexes, any other conglomerate of mental associations, and felt exactly the same way about that ‘self’ as well. This is just like belonging to a particular country. If I happen to be born and raised in England then I will feel ‘English’ (I will have identified with this unique collection of characteristics), but if, on the other hand, I had been taken away at birth and brought up in Argentina, or Poland, or Greece, or Germany, then my sense of identity will be Argentinean, Polish, Greek or German. Nationality is just a pattern that I conform to, a set of cultural rules that I internalize – my feeling of being this nationality or being that nationality is totally fickle, so to speak, because I will bend with whichever wind is blowing.
We can continue our analysis by saying that the function of a habit is to drive out (or exclude) any possibility of doing things a different way. The habit has a magnetizing effect on me, it owns me so that I feel that there is no other way to do things; this is the only way that feels right to me, and if I try to do it a different way it will feel strange and uncomfortable and ‘against the grain’. As a result of this normalization process, there is no feeling that the particular pattern to which I am habituated is in any way arbitrary, although this is exactly what it is. Coming back specifically to the idea of the ‘self-as-a-habit’ now, it is clear that if I were to fully appreciate the arbitrary nature of what I attach my sense of identity to, this awareness would be so strange, so uncomfortable and vertiginous, that I would in fact be free from the fiction that I ‘am’ this or that reified self. I would no longer be trapped in an exclusive definition of myself. The sense of banal familiarity associated with being ‘myself’ would explode into unfathomable strangeness as I realize that everything is completely and utterly ‘unaccountable’.
This type of experience is admittedly not one that most of us would be familiar with – it corresponds to the mental state known technically as ecstasy, which is a joyful release from all determining and constraining modes of being. For most of us, this unprecedented increase in freedom would not be so much joyful as terrifying, because it constitutes the sudden removal of all ontological security. We would go ‘cold turkey’ for the comfort blanket which is our normal limited (or finite) mode of existence. Thus, as it is said, the other aspect of ecstasy is a profound form of terror in which we grasp desperately for a sense of ‘self’ that we simply no longer have. When our agenda is to be secure, then the more attractive option is not ecstasy but euphoria, which is as we have said the immensely reassuring and comforting pleasure that comes when we wed ourselves to a particular mode of being. Euphoria works by rewarding our choice of how we wish to be restricted, it validates the defining structure to which we have become committed. Instead of the strange and unsettling feeling that “No way is the right way” (which is the message of ecstasy), euphoria tells us “This is good…. This is good…. This is the ‘right way’…”
To put this another way, euphoria conditions (or ‘brain-washes’) to accept a particular, limiting definition of ourselves. We feel good about what we are, just like a person might feel (spuriously) good about being English, or Argentinean, etc. We become narrowly partisan, and convinced as a result that our way of doing things is the best way, the only way. The key characteristic of the conditioned or extrinsic self is therefore that it perceives itself to be special, so that it always puts itself first. It only really cares about itself and (on a secondary basis), it cares about anything within its environment which ‘flatters’ it, i.e. which confirms to itself its place as being specially significant.
I AM MY GOALS
When asked to define what or who I ‘am’, it is likely that I will waffle on about this, that or the other. The truth of the matter is a lot more prosaic – I am in fact my goals, and no more. What could be simpler, and at the same time more tedious? Naturally enough, statements like this tend to rub us up the wrong way, we can’t help feeling that we are more than the sum of our thoughts – but to the extent that we are in the state of passive identification (which is a very big extent), we are our goals, and these goals in turn are the artefacts of the logic-system to which we have handed over ourselves.
We can approach this from a slightly different angle to try to make the point easier to grasp. Suppose we start off by making the following statement:
A ‘self’ equals a ‘secret intention’, which equals ‘a commitment that we are not acknowledging’.
Now, a secret intention is a special sort of goal because it is hidden, but from what we have already been saying it ought to be clear that all goals are secret goals really because for the goal in question to make sense a secret decision has to be made to look at the world in such a way that the goal shall make sense. So when I say, “Let’s go to the Omniplex and catch the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger film” it certainly doesn’t sound (on the basis of this) as if I have a hidden agenda, but what I am in fact doing is enfolding us all within a cultural carpet-of-meaning without acknowledging that this is what is going on. Of course, I could make exactly the same suggestion but with a sense of irony, and that would then be totally different – in this case there would be no act of subterfuge. Irony means that I am consciously doing it, that I am in fact drawing attention to the sneaky business that is entailed within such an apparently harmless suggestion as “lets go and see a film”.
So where is the ‘self’ in this? And, come to think of it, why do we keep using that word at all in such a context? Well, firstly we can make the point that a commitment (or a goal) that is openly made is not a self because it can be changed at will. There is no ‘closure’ here, there is no unconscious commitment: I can go to the movies or at the last moment I can change my mind and stay at home and have a cup of tea instead – I can let go of my agenda if needs be. But if I can’t let go of the agenda in question then we can say that there is a ‘self’ there, i.e. there is an ‘absolute agenda’. An absolute agenda is an absolute attachment – there is a very important ‘thing’ there that I can never ever consider letting go of. Quite simply, this unquestionable agenda (or attachment) is what a self is – a self equals attachment. This is of course the reason why the self can never love, because attachment is the exact opposite of love. Absolute attachment always precludes love – if my ultimate commitment is to the lie which underlies my perception of myself as a genuinely existent self (i.e. if my ultimate commitment is to the security system which is the system of thought) then everything else takes a very shoddy second place. There can never be any question of me going against my basic self-concern, and so ‘concern for others’ is merely a game that I play to in order to make my virtual life more palatable to me.
We can make a small jump here from considering a single goal to talking about a whole set of logically-related goals and procedures, which is a system. This system, if I am unconsciously committed to it, also equals ‘a self’. The only thing we might not understand here is why we should be unconsciously committed to our goals and skills, but this becomes clearer with the next stage in the argument. Since all goals are concepts, and any concept can be a goal, we can see that the set of all my goals and all the procedures that I know about which can help me reach those goals is the same thing as the self-consistent set of concepts which we have been calling the ‘positive knowledge system’ or ‘the system of thought’. Now, at this point things fall into place because we know from our foray into set theory that the set of logically consistent and positive concepts which makes up our known world only gets to be positive because we make the secret decision to see that world in such-and-such a way, and so straightaway we can see why there has to be a ‘secret addiction’. This secret addiction means that there must be a self (or rather, there must be a virtual self). To conclude our argument, then, we can say that the self equals ‘a secret commitment to a particular viewpoint’, which equals an ‘invisible bias’. An invisible bias is an arbitrary bias that does not acknowledge itself to be a bias at all, but which sees itself as ‘the one and only right way’. We are going around in circles a bit here, but as we shall see, this is the sort of thing that tends to happen when the subject of analysis is the self.
Because our commitment to a particular viewpoint is secret, we cannot drop it, we cannot let it go. Because it is secret we cannot question it, and because it is unquestionable it has absolute authority. Therefore, the basis (the heart) of all the activity that arises as a result of this bias cannot be questioned or changed, it can only be ‘acted out’. If there is any obstruction to this activity (any different viewpoint) there can be no compromise, no acknowledgement of the other viewpoint’s ‘right to exist’, only an implacable and unreflecting resistance. The logic of the system is very clear on this point – there is only RIGHT and WRONG, and if you are not RIGHT then you must be WRONG. What we have here then is an untouchable and unquestionable set of rules that raises itself above all other rules. It is only able to do this (as we will recall) because it presents one sort of face to the world, and another sort of face to itself; the self questions (or judges) the world according to the dictates of its own assumptions, but it never questions itself and it never questions its right to impose its prejudicial ideas.
The net result of all this is that we are left with an impression that there is a real self there, a ‘me’ that is on its own and totally separate from everything else. This conditioned perception is an illusion because nothing is really so 100% hermetically separate and ‘private’ as the ‘me’ experiences itself to be; such compartmentalization (or dissymmetry) doesn’t really exist – we experience it, but only because we have rigged the show so that we do experience it. When I take part in the theatre of the self I experience the dissymmetry of concern, or ‘uneven caring’: I care about stuff that has to do with me and I don’t care about stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with me, but the incongruous thing about this is that what I choose to be ‘me’ is entirely arbitrary. This is the central ‘trick’ behind the whole business, the sneakiness that we never allow ourselves to see. From this original secret decision to see the world as a disconnected self comes all other, subsidiary choices, and these choices (or goals) lead me further and further down the road of self-deception. Here lies the essential irreversibility inherent in all purposeful behaviour: just as chasing and running away from ‘things’ makes those ‘things’ more real to me, so too does it make the ‘me’ that does the chasing or running more real. If my objects are reified, then so too am I. Irreversibility means that once the ball starts rolling, it has no (logical) option other than to keep on rolling. Because I think that I am an actual entity (i.e. an end in myself) my fundamental agenda is naturally to act in my own interests. This is where we start to see the tautological nature of all of this business because acting in my own interests has the effect of reifying the entity that I think I am.
The defining characteristic of the virtual self is (as we keep saying) its absolute concern with itself. It is all-important to itself and it must continue to try to maintain and protect itself no matter what. The virtual self will insist on absolute fidelity to the pattern that is it, and do its level best to prevent qualitative change to the regime that it has established. It doesn’t really know why it does it, but what it does know is how important it is that it should do it. This commitment (which is not reflected on, but only acted out) takes the form of the active manipulation (or exploitation) of the external environment for its own ends, and its own end is, as we have said, itself. The virtual self is just like a mathematical set, only this type of ‘set’ purposefully interacts with its environment in order to obtain results that agree with its prime directive of self-maintenance; it interacts on the basis of the bias that is ‘itself’ – it interacts selfishly, in other words, which just means ‘one-sidedly’. Rules are always selfish because a rule is only a rule when it doesn’t question its own right to be a rule; it asserts but it cannot reflect.
Just to reiterate the key point yet again – what the bias actually is doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what the unquestionable rules are, it only matters that there should be unquestionable rules there for us to obey. The virtual self could be any old thing, anything at all will do. In actual fact, the exalted and unquestionable ‘way of doing things’ that is the identity which endlessly strives to repeat itself is nothing very much at all when it comes down to it, it is just a dead bit of information – a bunch of recipes, a motley collection of methods or procedures, a lump of information-programming code spinning around pointlessly in space. Such a ‘self’ is not spontaneous in the true sense of the word, it just appears to be spontaneous. In reality, all that the virtual self can do is react in accordance with its inbuilt set of rules, all it is able to do is to enact these rules, over and over again. When the set of rules is sophisticated enough, this produces the impression of genuine spontaneity, but if we were to look long enough and hard enough we would see that the virtual self never ever does anything unpredictable – it has a banal little reason for absolutely everything that it does.
The illusion that the virtual self is not a ghost, or a robot, or a mechanical reflex, is pretty convincing! It’s very purposefulness (which is the hallmark of the false self) gives the impression that there is something important behind all that goal-orientated activity. The purposeful way in which it protects its own interests and furthers its own end naturally leads us to assume that there is someone there whose interests it is that are being protected, someone whose ends it is that are being furthered. It looks as if there is a real entity that wants to survive, but this is an illusion – there is no one there, there is no real deal behind the talk, no essence. There is no heart, only a husk, only a shell. The virtual self can be said, therefore, to be an inferior analogue of the true transpersonal ‘I’ of consciousness; it is a mere semblance, a bad copy, a reflex – a senseless self-repeating pattern that is founded upon a systematic act of self-deception.
LOOP LOGIC AND SELF-REFERENTIALITY
In the one-sidedness of a set there is a bit of deception or dishonesty going on, the dishonesty in question having to do with the fact that one-sidedness can never see itself as one-sidedness. This is 100% axiomatic – if one-sidedness did acknowledge that it is one-sided then it would be seeing the other side of the picture and so it wouldn’t be one-sided! Similarly, the self is not open about the fact that it is closed. If the self could see that it is looking at the world in a biased or distorted way then it wouldn’t be looking in the world in a biased or distorted way after all. To see the bias is to see from an unbiased place; if I can honestly acknowledge dishonesty then I must be coming from an honest place! Therefore, we can define ‘the self’ with pin-point accuracy by saying that it is a dishonest bias, it is an inaccuracy that looks accurate from its own inaccurate point of view.
The self is special by definition, but it only got to be special by choosing to be special, but of course if it knew that it only got to be special by choosing to be special then it would know that it isn’t really special at all. In this case, the self can see that it isn’t really a self at all because all its defining boundaries are just lines that it arbitrarily chose to draw in the sand; if I know that I am not special then I know that I am just playing at being a self, which is perfectly fine just as long as I am not committed to this illusion. However, the state of being a self is ‘all or nothing’: either I go for the illusion (which means that I must totally hide from my own basic act of self-deception) or I puncture the illusion. Once we go for the first option we are left with no choice but to bury the awareness of the basic deception a deeply as we possibly can. From this point on the truth is our enemy, and because we cannot admit this to ourselves without giving the game away, we have to buy into a false or slanted version of the truth, which is not the truth at all. From here on in, everything is turned on its head. The self is a way of hiding from the truth; it is our sanctuary and our prison cell.
In a weird way, then, we can say that the self is the product of its own selective attention, of its own one-sidedness. By choosing not to see that it isn’t actually real it gets to exist! The circular logic which is ‘self-referentiality’ is tortuous to think about, but in the end this is what we always come back to. We find ourselves contemplating the idea that the self creates itself by stubbornly refusing to see the Big Picture, which is the idea that the self only gets to be a self by tricking itself. This paradox, like all paradoxes, is not a perplexing and confusing dead-end, but rather it is a springboard to clear and unfettered understanding. This is the way in which rational thought sees through itself: I ask myself how the self tricks itself into believing in itself, I ask how this weird loop of logic happened the first place, and then the answer comes back to me with deadly inevitability – it never did happen…
SUMMARY: THE GAME EQUALS THE PLAYER
Programs, procedures, recipes, methods, tricks, and skills – all of these are different words meaning the same thing, and that thing is the ‘apparatus of control’. We automatically assume that the apparatus of control exists in order to serve some sort of ‘greater good’, something that lies beyond the instrumentation and the logic of the instrumentation. But the whole point about the virtual self is that it is disconnected from any greater good, and as a consequence can have no interest whatsoever in anything beyond its own logic. It is, as we have been saying, a personality-husk that floats around space, pointlessly going through its routines whenever some environmental stimulus comes along that ‘pushes the right buttons’. When we explain the virtual self in this way it becomes clear that what we are talking about is essentially a habit, a fixed way of doing things. Therefore, every habit is a ‘self’.
Just as we said that every goal is has a secret intention tied up in it, so too does every habit come with a secret agenda. This is because a habit cannot survive without some sort of self-validation, which is to say, it has to make sense. Now, it is obvious enough that there are many habits that serve no real purpose at all, and so we might object to this statement. But the idea here is that if I observe within myself that a habit is utterly pointless, then this means that I am in the process of disidentifying with the habit, which is necessarily painful to me. When a habit becomes visible to me in this way it feels bad but the actual process itself is healthy, because the habit can only persist when I am passively identified with it, which is to say, when I have been seduced into accepting its self-validating ‘context-of-meaning’. Within all of us there are many invisible habits, habits whose integrity is unchallenged, and which as a consequence keep tied up within them a portion of our ‘essence’.
We said that for a goal to make sense, a secret decision has to take place to see the world in such a way that the goal in question makes sense. The ‘double-action’ of unconsciousness comes into play here: we agree to see the world in a certain way, and then agree not to pay attention to the fact that we have agreed to do this. At the same time that we become unconscious, the virtual or game-playing self is created, just as a lap is formed when we sit down (to use Alan Watts’ analogy). From this we can see that the game (i.e. the virtual meaning system) and the virtual self are one and the same thing, seen from two different angles.
When a game is set up the game-player is implicit in this set up – a game is no good without a player to play it. We can see that nothing ‘extra’ has to be brought into the situation, this is obvious once we reflect on the indisputable fact that the game totally defines the player. The player arises out of the game and the game is generated by the actions of the player, and so (again) what we have here is ‘tautological self-creation’. It is not strictly correct, therefore, to define the virtual self as the actor or player which acts or plays out its life within a specific context of meaning; rather, we would have to say that the true identity of the virtual self is the game, which is an idea that we shall come back to shortly.
“HONEY, IT’S ‘ME’…”
We can clarify the basic point about the curious self-contradictory nature of the self by looking at the word me. ‘Me’ means of course that there is an assumed uniqueness or exclusivity: when I get back home from work at 6.00 PM and open the front door and call out “Honey, it’s me – I’m back…” the message is very clear on this score. But at the same time the ‘me’ is not unique at all but blandly ubiquitous because at this exact moment all over the same housing estate (and all over endless suburbs and towns everywhere) other men and women are coming home from work, opening the front door and calling out “It’s me…” ‘Me’ means special – it differentiates the person who is saying ‘me’ from all other possible people who are not ‘me’, but actually they are all ‘me’ too, and so where does this get us?
What we are trying to get at is that the me that informs us of its return is the same old me in each case, there is nothing at all between them – all me’s are the same, there is nothing special or unique about them at all. This is because the reflex action of identifying with a ‘me’ in order to say “Its me…” is just that, an automatic reflex – it provides no information whatsoever. If everyone is a ‘me’, then what makes one me any different from any other ‘me’, and if there is no difference then what exactly am I informing you about when I say that it’s me? When I think about it a bit this (of course) looks like a stupid argument because we all know that different people are crucially different from each other, and if my colleague Peter Jenkins comes home to my house after work instead of me and I go back home to his house then its not going to be the same at all; everyone concerned will think it very strange and awkward and embarrassing. But this is missing the point, what we are talking about is the actual subjective experience of identifying oneself as ‘me’ – when you turn around and ask me “Who is it?” and I reply, “It’s me” we may say that there is, on my part, a very brief moment of puzzlement or searching as I check up to see ‘who it is’. Then I come up with an answer and there is a feeling of relief or satisfaction as I definitely identify myself as ‘me’. But in all this there is no real experience of real individuality – I most certainty do not go deep into my soul and speak from my essential being when I say “It’s me”; on the contrary, the whole business is quite automatic, quite unconscious, quite superficial and the only ‘self’ I am contacting (or speaking from) is the false self, the ‘reflex self’, the social persona, or whatever we may wish to call it.
The ‘me’, as it becomes aware of itself as being ‘me’, is really a manifestation of spurious information. Nothing new comes into the picture, all that happens is that a routine is enacted, a routine that was stored in a file somewhere. ‘I’, on the other hand, (as pure subjective awareness) is always new, always outside of ‘the picture’, ‘the picture’ in question being the rational-conceptual virtual reality simulation that we normally inhabit. The ‘I’ is outside of thought, outside of the known, outside of what we can know. The ‘me’, however, is very much the known; it is defined by the rational-conceptual matrix, it is a product or construct of the reality simulation, and so it possesses no ‘new information’ at all. If the game-player is the same thing as the game, then it cannot be any more real than the game.
The only reason I don’t see this is because there is a kind of a trick going on which causes me to mistake the ‘me’ for who I really am. When I identify with this false sense of self I feel that I am specially this person, that there is some essential and non-superficial character to the feeling of being ‘me’ that I am experiencing, but in fact that feeling is utterly ubiquitous – it is the exact same feeling that everyone has when they identify with the false self, and there is absolutely nothing unique (or ‘deep’) in it at all. There cannot be anything real in the feeling that we get when we enter the state of passive identification because that state is based on self-deception and so there is simply no capacity there for anything real. There is depth in ‘I’, but no depth whatsoever to ‘me’.
What we are talking about when we talk about the type of experience that we have when we are in the state of passive identification is something that might be called false information. Because (as we pointed out earlier) when I am playing a game, I am defined by the game just as much as the game is defined by the game, this means that when I receive information regarding the details of my virtual environment then I am not really receiving anything new.
What is happening is that the game is becoming aware of itself from the spuriously unique vantage point of the game-player (the reason this vantage point is ‘spuriously unique’ is of course because there could be any number of game-players within the game and the experience in each case would always be completely identical). The so-called information that I am receiving when I am playing the game is actually a trick, a hallucination caused by the fact that I am totally adapted to (or totally identified with) the given, defined, or ‘static’ reality. In other words, when there is no discontinuity within the system (i.e. when everything is the system) then whatever I see and believe in and react to is no more than an illusion caused by the complete lack of perspective which is the salient feature of the state of passive identification.
SUMMARY: THE EXTRINSIC VERSUS THE INTRINSIC SELF
We can summarize the above by making a few distinctions between the extrinsic self, and what we have been vaguely calling ‘the True (or intrinsic’) Self’. The extrinsic self, we can say, is a kind of reflexive action where I check up on myself to see that I am indeed who I took myself to be. Therefore, there is a pattern of some kind with which I am of course deeply familiar, and so when I automatically give myself the ‘once over’ I see that I am me, and I say “It’s me…” Needless to say, if there wasn’t a match I would feel very peculiar and I might in this case say (if I was going to say anything) “I’m really not feeling myself today…” The word ‘self’ here clearly stands for an identity that I experience with a fixed and knowable pattern of information – there is a template, a standard, and if there is a match then ‘what matches’ must be the ‘self’. This is the me of the extrinsic self.
The intrinsic self, on the other hand, cannot check up on itself because it has no ‘self’ – it has no ‘abode’, it has no fixed standard which it has to match up to, no defining characteristics. I cannot check up on my self to see that I am myself, therefore, but nevertheless this does not mean that I am not the ‘I’ that I intuitively know myself to be. This I is the I of the intrinsic self, which has no location, no coordinates in space and time. This I truly is unique, for there is nothing else that it can be compared with…
THE ‘DARK INHABITANTS’
Going back now to Gurdjieff’s idea of the plural ego, we can see that the basic message is that we are ‘inhabited’ or ‘possessed’. This alien occupation can be compared to the way in which viral software takes over memory space in a computer’s hard drive. The older we get (generally speaking) the greater the infestation, and the more buried is our true nature. The spooky thing is, it requires very careful attention to actually notice the fact that a person has become 65% or 75% or 85% ‘substituted for’ by inferior copies of his or her real self. The switch happens to very nearly all of us, but does anyone notice? If my partner gets substituted for by a host of inferior analogues of his or herself, do I actually realize this fact – or am I perhaps too busy being ‘substituted for’ myself? If anyone claims not to be disturbed by this suggestion then it is a pretty safe bet that they are lying through heir teeth! We must also insist on this idea being taken more or less literally – this is not an artful metaphor or allegory, but as near to the truth as it is possible to get within the limitations of conceptually-based communication.
What can we say about these ‘inhabitants’ then? Well, the most basic thing to point out is that are not ‘nice’! They are in fact wholly detrimental, even though they might at times seem to sparkle with charm and act on the very highest motives. The very best that can be said about these entities is that they are ‘pseudo-symbiotic parasites’, which is to say, they are freeloaders that give a passable appearance of being useful (that is, if we were to be aware of them at all). At worse, they manifest themselves as ravening demons, demons that possess us and senselessly drive us to our destruction. When seen in their true colours, these furtive inhabitants of our minds appear quite shockingly cold and alien, like some strange sea-serpent that momentarily surfaces amongst the waves with a dull flash of steely scales and the quick sinuous movement of a coil or two, startling any observers that might be there to see them, and leaving them wondering is they really saw what they thought they saw. It is rare to see one of these creatures in its naked state however, since they normally function under the cover of familiar personality traits, more or less indistinguishable from the person who is involuntarily hosting them. There are certain situations (always involving extremes of aversion or attraction) in which the presence of an autonomous personality-program can be detected quite clearly, and we shall take a look at these situations a bit later on.
When I myself am ‘possessed’ – no matter how blatantly obvious it might be to others – I am generally the last person to suspect that something funny is going on; this is because at such times there is some sort of stress (or ‘incitement’) involved which provokes me to identify with the false self in question, and when I have been hoodwinked in this way (so that I totally believe in whatever issue it is that has come up) I am too caught up in it to look at myself and question why the issue is so damn important to me. I hand over the reins to the compulsive state of mind, and the only thing I am aware of is the fear or the greed that the compulsion is hitting me with. At other times, when there is no stress or provocation, then the virtual selves are quiescent and so I have no reason to suspect their existence. In fact, nothing is easier than to dismiss the whole idea of the ‘plural ego’ as being absurdly over-dramatic, if not total nonsense. Notwithstanding this difficulty however, we will proceed with our train of argument a bit longer, and see what else we can say about these ‘virtual selves’.
Everything that we said earlier about the self-interested and self-protecting governmental and commercial entities that exist within society applies equally well to the various executive entities (or personalities) that exist within us. A key feature is their tendency to mask their true nature behind a ‘user-friendly’ façade. Each self maintains (or usually maintains) an image of itself as a useful servant of the whole – this image may be at times transparently nonsense but it at least serves to convince itself, since for its own comfort any given virtual self must see itself as being ‘one of the good guys’. The integrity of the game holds together even under the most outrageous evidence to the contrary; as everyone knows, it is perfectly possible for a person to demonstrate himself to be a complete and utter jerk, and still hang onto the comforting illusion that he is an ‘alright guy’. In short, it is always easy to justify ourselves to ourselves, and the virtual self walks around in a state of near-permanent self-justification. This is its principle ability after all, to only see what it wants to see, and to be robotically unable to understand anything that contradicts this. If it didn’t have the ‘freedom’ to do this, then the virtual self would not have the grimly obstinate persistence that makes it a ‘self’ in the first place. In this it is like a sort of pernicious habit that has no intention at all of quitting on its own account. This gives us another way to look at the virtual self – we can say that it is totally and utterly rational, totally and utterly predictable. It either likes, or it dislikes: if it likes then it cannot bear not to get what it likes, and if it dislikes then it cannot bear to be with what it dislikes, and for this reason it is a complete slave to its own inbuilt biases. It is selfish in a technical sense, which is to say, it is selfish like a virus that only knows the logic of self-replication and self-perpetuation. We could also say that the virtual self is like computer program which has on the one hand a nominal function that relates it to the wider world in some way, but on the other hand is driven by a hidden but all-important directive which is to safeguard its own existence.
It is because of this hidden self-interest that these programs can be said to be ‘dark’ in nature. According to the esoteric doctrine of the plural ego, these selves, if unchecked, cannot do otherwise than multiply at the expense of their host, like viral programs infesting the hard-drive of a computer and leaving no room for anything else. Another image would be a number of caterpillars munching away methodically on a leaf – eventually nothing is left but the skeletal outline of the leaf and a number of fat caterpillars sitting on it. In this way, as James Moore says, ‘personality’ thrives and proliferates at the expense of ‘essence’, ultimately strangling all genuine life in the organism.
THE PROCESS OF ‘RATIONAL INCRUSTATION’
In a way, it would be true to say that personality has the ability to simulate essence, to substitute itself for it. We can illustrate this by thinking about the life of any given human being. In the first stages of life the rational (i.e. goal-orientated and method-using) function develops in order to better serve the person, to facilitate their adaptation to the world they live in. Rationality is usually thought of a single, cohesive adjunct of consciousness, but in practice it is more accurate to say that it exists, as we have been suggesting, in the form of autonomous executive functions. Each of these personality elements has its own job to attend to, just as each program in a computer system has its own specific task or tasks. These ‘jobs’ can be anything at all from little attention-seeking strategies that we learned or picked up as kids (i.e. social games) to the ability to read music, speak a language, touch-type, or drive a car.
‘FUNCTIONAL’ AND ‘DYSFUNCTIONAL’ SKILLS
In general, what we are talking about are skills that we can master and use in order to obtain some sort of ‘pay-off’ from the environment. If I live in the woods, then knowing how to trap squirrels or locate edible tubers would be skills that provide a pay-off. The pay-off is (obviously enough) that I get to have a meal. If I am a block-layer, then my skill is to build a wall so that it doesn’t fall over, or look crooked, or otherwise fail to meet the architect’s specifications. The pay-off for this skill is that I get paid – the pay-off is, quite literally, my pay. They are other types of advantage that I can angle for as well – by showing a good sense of style (both in dress and behaviour) and a keen eye for what is ‘in’ and what is ‘not in’ I can maximize my ability to ‘make it’ within a particular circle of people and as a result I can secure contacts, relationships, friends and maybe a partner. This might sound absurdly superficial, but this sort of thing (i.e. being cool) is the mainstay of social interaction. More generally, we can say that if I become good at social game-playing and learn in addition one or more socially-valued skills or abilities, then I can become ‘upwardly socially mobile’ and as a result I will get to reap the prizes that exist for successful social game-players – enhanced spending power, a big house in the right area, status, high-quality health-care, etc.
As we have been saying, there are many, more obviously ‘dysfunctional’ (or ‘counterproductive’), tricks that we learn as well, such as the ability to lie to ourselves and say we didn’t do something when we did, or the ability to hide from our own true feelings. Such abilities do not really benefit us in the long run, but they do give us a pay-off in the short term, the advantage in question being a relief from psychological discomfort. Needless to say, this is a highly attractive prize, and it is no wonder that we all resort to such means. This type of skill is however illegitimate in the sense that the ‘advantage’ obtained as a result of practicing it is no advantage at all really, but an out-and-out disaster. This whole class of illegitimate but still apparently viable learned behaviour is what is normally termed neurosis, and as such there can be no doubt as to the prevalence of this particular brand of goal-orientated operation, and the virtual selves which are created at the same time that we engage in it.
The point we are trying to make here is not that there is a huge division between so-called ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ goal-orientated routines; what we really want to do is quite the opposite, i.e. we want to show that there isn’t any hard-and-fast difference between the two classes when you come right down to it. In practice, there is a sort of a difference which can be explained in terms of counterproductivity: when we do stuff to obtain the goal of ‘relief from psychological discomfort’ (like telling a lie to avoid having to face up to the consequences of our actions) we gain nothing but trouble no matter how diligent our efforts, but when we carry out logical operations in order to gain a pay-off from the external environment (such as shaking a plum tree to get some fruit without having to expend effort climbing the tree) there is no such immediate backlash. It will be noted however that we have qualified this statement by inserting the word ‘immediate’: the point here is that even legitimate executive functions tend to become counterproductive (which is to say, the opposite to useful) eventually – if left to themselves. What is good at one time, is not good all the time; or to put it another way – just because a bit of something is useful, that doesn’t mean that ten or a hundred or a thousand times as much of it will be proportionately advantageous.
THE ‘GOLDEN THREAD’
One way to explain why it is that ‘useful’ learned behaviour can become a curse is to use the idea of the tool (or instrument) switching places with the user of the tool, as John G. Bennett does. Initially, the instrument is useful, and it is useful precisely because it is an instrument, i.e. it is serving something that is beyond itself. The turnaround is when the instrument ceases to serve anything outside itself (although it will of course continue to pay lip-service to some great ‘purpose’). In this case, what we have is the situation of the instrument only really existing for the sake of itself, which is like a mechanical digger that digs because it is a mechanical digger and that is what it does. On the face of it, nothing has changed, because the digger is digging just the same as it always does, but if we were to look a little deeper we would start to notice something rather spooky about what is going on – it is as we see a car driving around with no driver, or a delightfully located family house that has everything in it apart from a family.
A big city is another example of this – when we are walking the streets of a big city we are gulled by the hubbub of what it is going on all around us, the hustle and the bustle, the huge sense of purposefulness of it all, the feeling of ‘progress’. What we fail to see is that there is absolutely nothing going on, just the same tired old bullshit being recycled over and over again. There is a story of how the Emperor of China a thousand years ago or so tried to impress the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma by taking him out onto the balcony of the imperial palace and showing him the traffic on the yellow river. When asked if he had ever seen so many ships before, Bodhidharma replied that he only saw two – the ship of ‘name’ and the ship of ‘gain’. The Great Machine that is the city absorbs all our life energy for no purpose at all, and then spits us out as mere human garbage when we are of no further use to it, but because we are so hypnotized by the promise of ‘fame and fortune’ (name and gain), we never notice. It may of course seem to us (quite justifiably) that we are not particularly hypnotized by fame and fortune, but all the same, to the extent that we are trying to progress within a context of meaning that has been given to us, we are ‘playing the game’, and the real reason for playing the game is not to win, but to perpetuate the framework of meaning within which the game makes sense. Therefore, the only reason for the city’s ceaseless activity is to maintain the illusion that it is important to us, that we need it, that it actually helps us in some way. In reality, it only helps itself, and it is itself nothing but a virtual entity, a phantom which we have given strength, and set above us as a dark master.
What is going on in all these cases is that there has occurred a loss of connection with the very thing that was making the instrument meaningful in the first place. The sinister thing about this ‘disconnection’ process is that it is so very easy not to notice the difference – we are hypnotized by the visible manifestation of purposeful activity, and more than happy to swear allegiance to soul-less mechanical existence. At this point we have crossed over into the realm of denial because any talk of some uncertain ‘something’ that it outside of our rational understanding, something that we have left out in our calculations, is bound to bring about a cynical reaction, if not something worse. No one wants to see the mechanical status-quo disrupted, after all, it is such a shame to destroy such a beautiful example of static, self-referential (hollow) perfection. Once we are invested in false meaning (which is to say, the meaning that the instrument gives to its own operations, in order to distract itself from seeing that – in itself – it has no meaning) then any nihilistic heresies that detract from the (false) dignity of the disconnected machine have to be ruthlessly crushed as a matter of course. The idea that rationality – on its own – is at all times a sterile exercise in meaninglessness is too appalling for us to contemplate, and so we make very sure that we never think that deeply about it.
If we use the idea of the virtual self instead of the disconnected instrument, then we can see that the point is not that the virtual self is necessarily ‘dark’ or ‘sinister’, but rather that it is dark only when the golden thread of its connection to the essence is lost. This, as we have noted in the introduction, occurs when uncertainty is banished from the picture, when we start believing that we actually know what its all about. At this point, sensitivity towards the unknown is replaced with its opposite – insensitivity or deliberate ignorance. The ‘radically different’ is no longer a friend, no longer a source of inspiration, but a deadly threat to be blocked out on all sides by the iron curtain of dogmatic understanding.
RUSHING TO JOIN (OR BE ABSORBED BY) THE NULLITY
Another way to explain what we are talking about is to say that “HOW?” has driven out “WHY?” – by allowing ourselves to be seduced by the good sense which rational adaptation makes, we rush onwards in a heedless hurry to reap as much of the bonanza as we can. There is a nearly inexorable process occurring here whereby our cleverness overtakes our wisdom, and we end up being frighteningly efficient at carrying out sophisticated rational routines, for no real reason at all. Everything becomes subsumes into what Bennett calls the Nullity – an intricate but meaningless mechanical dance, an endlessly repeating pattern of activity that exists for no reason other than to deny the possibility of anything else. The Nullity exists, therefore, at the heart of the disconnected virtual self, since the virtual self’s only reason for existing is to endlessly validate itself to itself (which comes down to ignoring any information that shows that there are other ways of seeing the world, other ways of doing things). In other words, by remorselessly and humourlessly insisting on its own point of view the whole time, the virtual self successfully manages to perpetuate the lie that there is nothing else.
The end point of rational adaptation is therefore where we surrender to the closed logic of the mechanical dance, which is a sort of highly involved and mesmerizing merry-go-round, containing a vast amount of trivially-different possibilities; this merry-go-round (the Nullity) is style with no substance, appearance without content, but because the show it puts on is so dazzling (in the initial, euphoric phase at least) that we generally fail to notice the scam that is being perpetrated on us. We have achieved success in one sense, because we have managed to make sense of everything (and hence control everything), but this is a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one. The substitution occurs at the very moment when I triumphantly close my fist on the prize, and so, instead of the genuine article, I end up with a hollow replica. This process is a sort of ‘descent into theatricality’ – I end up taking part in a theatrical performance which I take seriously, I cannot see that it is mere theatre because the ‘me’ that is taking part is itself a theatre, a theatrical self. The world I live is only a crude simulation of the real thing, but then so too is the self that I take myself to be, and so I don’t see the difference. Rational adaptation is a Pyrrhic victory therefore because at the precise point at which maximal adaptation is occurred everything becomes unreal – the concrete world that I am now believing in so very unquestioningly doesn’t exist anymore than the concrete ‘me’ which believes in that unreal concrete world does…