The Extrinsic Self


The extrinsic self does not show itself in the ordinary run of things. It lies beneath the surface, camouflaged and unobtrusive. The only time that we can see it naked, so to speak, is when it is urgently motivated by some inducement (either of the positive or negative variety) to come to the fore; in other words, when it is provoked by circumstances into ‘taking charge’. Classic examples of this sort of thing would be when I am in the grip of great rage, or when I am overcome by a sudden rush of greed for some prize, or when I am panicked into ‘losing my head’ over some anticipated disaster. What is common to all of these cases is that there is a sudden ‘handing over’ of the proceedings to some reflex, to some crude habit of behaviour. The automatic reflex behaviour pattern is my comfort zone, my ‘theatrical escape’, and whether it actually works or helps the situation at all is entirely unimportant to me. I want my psychological security and I want it now!


The security in question derives from the fact that the behaviour pattern is a reflex, which basically means that it is old, and I don’t have to come with anything new. There is no need at all for me to think about what I am doing because the ‘logic of the situation’ is so stark and unambiguous that no thought is needed – I suddenly see the world in such a black-and-white way that nothing else is required apart from immediate and decisive action. In fact, as we have already noted, it could be said that the intensely unambiguous rendition of the situation constitutes in itself a compulsion (which is to say, a map, a theory or an idea all equal compulsions by virtue of the fact that they are over-simplified approximations to reality). It follows therefore that it is the compulsion itself which constitutes the psychological security, precisely because it allows me no freedom.


Another time when the extrinsic self becomes starkly visible is when your friend suddenly becomes serious about some topic that has come up in the conversation. A topic has been touched upon that he feels strongly about, a topic about which he has clearly defined views. When this happens, his easy-going, unattached demeanour flies out of the window and his face becomes a taut mask – intent and insistent. All equanimity has gone and in its place is naked bias: this isn’t a manifestation of consciousness (which is essentially free or ‘unattached’), it is pure reflex, pure automatism. If you happen to be paying proper attention at the time, you would have to admit that the person you know and care about has replaced by some crude simulacrum, an over-simplified version of your friend which actually possesses none of the finer qualities he would have had – qualities such as warmth, humour, kindness, playfulness, curiosity and creativity. These are in fact all prime examples of the type of attributes that the extrinsic self lacks. What the extrinsic self has in place of these qualities is a deadly serious purposefulness, coupled with insensitivity, lack of flexibility, and a total intolerance for anything that opposes its will. It can be generous (after a fashion) if it gets its own way, and it can spread over you the stifling cloak of its sentimentality (which is the lower analogue of genuine love), but the only reason the extrinsic self ever seems happy and benevolent is because what is going on suits its own purposes – cross this ‘pseudo-friend’, or thwart its will, and you will soon see on which side your toast is buttered…


To put it bluntly, what has happened here is that your friend has been taken over by a belief or idea. This belief or idea is no more than a virulent bit of free-floating software; it is as Richard Dawkins has observed, a virus of the mind which has momentarily taken control of your unfortunate friend and is as a result directing things according to its own narrow aims. The person involves knows nothing of this, in all probability what they will be experiencing is a sudden surge of euphoria (or ‘satisfaction’) as they articulate the belief for your benefit, followed ultimately by a sense of deadness, concreteness and depression which is the flip-side of the initial ‘rapture stage’. That initial burst of euphoria is the pay-off which we receive for handing over responsibility to a reflex-of-thinking; this is the reward we obtain when we ‘make the idea our own’ – when we identify with it, when we choose to see the world through this particular pair of distorting glasses.


When we hand over to the mental reflex which is a belief or opinion there is a perspective-crash, a cataclysmic collapse of consciousness; the information-content of our world plummets, our feeling of certainty about things increases and we feel good as a result. Later on, when the rush has taken its course, we are left in this informationally-depleted world with nothing more to show for what we have so eagerly subscribed to other than a mental blind-spot of which we are entirely ignorant, and the jaded sense of world-weariness which we are left with after we have exhausted the finite store of ‘juice’ that the idea held for us. Subscribing to a belief is just like falling down a hole because although there seems at first to be some kind of ‘rapid progress’ as we go over the edge, the fact of the matter is that once we hit the bottom we discover that there is nowhere else to go. We just have to climb painfully out again and start all over again. The same is of course true for the ‘mega-belief’ which is our collective reality; the system of thought is a giant hole, it is a veritable pit, and not even an honest one at that. It is a hole that we have made a virtue of, a prison that we refuse to recognize as such.


This is the signature pattern for all mental reflexes – they initially seem to be offering us something juicy, but when we buy the product we inevitably find out that the content is less impressive than the packaging. We think we are buying a ticket to some marvellous exotic destination, but after a bit of fancy perambulation the bus ends up dropping us off right back at our own front door. This is true for any idea or belief or theory: they only have so much (apparent) mileage in them and when the mileage runs out we are left nowhere; at this point we just have to mark time until the painful negative phase of the cycle passes, and we can start our ‘trip to nowhere’ all over again. This, in a nutshell, is the life of the rational mind and if it doesn’t sound particularly wonderful that is because it isn’t.


Normally, of course, we don’t see things like this at all. I am convinced that I am getting somewhere, and even when I can plainly see that I am not getting anywhere, this does not dampen my enthusiasm – I keep catching the same old bus, time after time. Furthermore, I remain thoroughly deluded as to who the actual ‘master’ is in all this: I am convinced that I think my thoughts, rather than it being the other way around. It sounds much better that way after all, who would not rather say “I have just had an idea” than “An idea has just taken over my brain”? In the same way, we tend to say things like “I am having angry thoughts” rather than “Angry thoughts are possessing me”. Of course, there is a reason for our inverted perception of the situation and that is because I have identified with the thought (or compulsion) in question, and once I have identified with it, I am it. Therefore, when I am swallowed up by opinions, or negative emotions, or any type of neurotic concern at all, I am guaranteed to be oblivious to what is really happening to me. In general, when we are in the state of passive identification, it goes without saying that we are wide open to being possessed (or occupied) by whatever stuff comes along. Life is no more than one occupying force after another, with me fondly imagining the whole time that I am calling the shots. The biggest illusion of all is – as James Moore says – the assumption that there is in fact a consistent ‘me’ there at all.


We don’t tend to like this way of looking at ourselves. It isn’t acceptable to us to entertain the image of ourselves as helpless and hapless victims of alien software, pathetically deluded the whole time about our own true status. Contemporary mainstream psychology has nothing to say on the subject at all, being overwhelmingly interested in other (supposedly significant) topics that have nothing to do with the brute fact that we are not our own masters. Yet all that is needed to make the point is a little honest self-observation, as professional biochemist and ‘amateur’ psychologist Robert De Ropp (1969, p 101-2) here makes clear:

For an enlightened study of the selves, two attitudes are necessary: acceptance of their multiplicity, and acceptance of their mechanicalness. The selves are like a box of clockwork dolls, some dressed one way, some another, some pleasant, some unpleasant, some clever, some stupid. The dolls have no free will. They are wound up and activated by circumstances. Under a given set of conditions, one of the dolls will leave the box, go through its performance, lapse back into quiescence. In the third state of consciousness all these dolls call themselves ‘I,’ but to the Observer, who takes over from the Magnetic Centre when the inner work has begun, they are merely puppets. In calling themselves ‘I,’ they attribute to themselves a quality they do not really possess.


It is the task of the Observer, that element of man’s being which carries within it the seed of higher consciousness, to watch the puppets, learn how they behave, gradually accumulate material concerning their roles. To do this he must learn to be impartial. He will never obtain an understanding of the contents of his box of dolls if he refuses to look at all of them, the ugly, misshapen, villainous ones as well as those which seem pretty. This calls for effort and honesty as well as accurate observation.


Impartial self-observation is not easy. How can a man learn to regard his own manifestations with the detachment of a naturalist observing the behaviour of an insect? There are tiresome, degrading, foolish, destructive manifestations of the self that can hardly be accepted without comment. And what of those embarrassing memories which, suddenly coming into the conscious mind, hit the ego with such force that one literally squirms with anguish? How can one learn to accept impartially this material which is so unflattering to one’s perception of oneself as a rational and more or less civilized being?


In De Ropp’s answer to his own question he mentions the necessity to be ‘muscularly relaxed’ and the necessity to have a ‘steadiness of the awareness’. We could also say that in order for us to be steady about what we are seeing we would need to have a willingness to experience whatever pain we have coming to us. Once we are willing to experience the pain of honest self-observation we are able to see without any difficulty that plain fact that each one of us is a willing host to whatever comes along – opinions on this, that or the other, political convictions, religious beliefs, fashions trends and heaven knows what else. And what is more, whatever pernicious bit of self-replicating software it is that I am infested with, I will do my damnedest to pass on to you too! On the face of it, I am doing this in order to benefit you, but in reality the only thing that is being benefited is the narrow way of looking at the world which manifests itself in the form of this, that or the other idea. The bottom line is that the belief in question – no matter how stupid or downright detrimental it might be – simply does not want to die, and it will do whatever it can to avoid its own extinction. This is, after all, the defining characteristic of what we have been calling the ‘virtual self’.


The picture we are looking at, then, is rather strange. The story is that we are all unconsciously adrift in a sea of self-interested software, the helpless prey of an endless number of voracious virtual selves which are continually competing with each other to occupy our brains. There is no ‘sense’ to this madness, it is just what happens, by default, in the absence of awareness. The ghastly senselessness of it all can be seen when we consider the fact that the victory of any particular virtual self is no one’s victory, because there is actually no one there to benefit. The victory of the virtual self is only a virtual victory. What this means is that we lose the chance of genuine awareness, genuine individuality, genuine fulfilment, for no good reason at all. We are led astray by a never-ending host of ‘false purposes’. Essentially, we waste our lives chasing illusions, and the illusions which drive us ever onward are themselves forever unsatisfied – they can never partake in reality no matter voraciously they try to muscle in on the act. The system of thought is forever hungry for life; in fact the system of thought can never be satiated because it is the hunger itself.


There are other cases in which the presence of the extrinsic self is even more apparent, cases in which the true nature of the virtual self is even more naked and exposed, if only we had the ‘psychological eye’ with which to see it. What we are talking about here are the various manifestations of ‘neurotic mental illness’. A good example of this is anorexia. If I know a person who is suffering from this condition well enough to be familiar with their ‘game’, I am bound to find myself asking certain questions such as “What is the point of all this effort, all this ‘cleverness’, all this incredible tenacity and perseverance?” I cannot help wondering who the ultimate beneficiary of this behaviour is, since it is – very clearly – not the person in question who is run into the ground by the whole business. The unfortunate sufferer strives in good faith to placate whatever inner demon it is that is calling the shots, and at the end of it all they receive nothing apart from the dim (or sometimes not so dim) knowledge that it was all quite in vain. As is the case in all addictions, the ultimate prize is nothing other than the awareness that they have destroyed themselves for no good reason at all.


If I spend enough time in contact with the person, I will notice something else as well – I will notice that the person themselves can be seen occasionally as an innocent and perplexed bystander to all this anorexic-type business, a bystander who from time to time ‘comes to’ and can look on at what is happening in their life, whilst remaining more-or-less powerless to do anything about it. This observer has no personal interest at all in the proceedings, and can see quite clearly that it is all a highly pernicious brand of nonsense. If I happened to be a person ignorant of the marvellous advances of modern psychiatry, I would be very much inclined to say that there is some sort of ‘occupying force’, the psychic equivalent of a ‘delinquent joy-rider’ which has seized control of my friend and – with no concern at all for their best interests – is busy leading them to ruin. Some alien force is at the helm, and it is a thoroughly malign force. Of course, ‘possession’ is not a word that can be used nowadays, and so speculation along these lines is simply not an option among ‘educated’ folk.


But where exactly does this modern, sanitized viewpoint leave us? There is such an unholy intensity of goal-orientated motivation in a neurotic condition such as anorexia, and how are we to explain or understand the motivation behind this lethal and indefatigable purposefulness. What is the ‘pay-off’ for it all? Who benefits? All current theories on the subject are rather limp, and – in terms of therapeutic application – totally fail to deliver the goods. But suppose we do choose to entertain the heretical idea that there is such a thing as demonic possession, where does this take us? It can be seen straight away that the notion of the extrinsic self, as we have set it out in the preceding pages, gives us an uncannily acute insight into the motivation behind the deadly predictable and utterly inflexible behaviour patterns that show themselves as neurosis. Everything that we have said about the psychology of the extrinsic self turns out to be exactly true for the self-of-anorexia, which is basically a logical system, i.e. an invisible set of rules which manifests itself in time as a visible pattern of behaviour. This system behaves like all extrinsic (or virtual) selves; which is to say, it engages in duplicity. As always, the system pays lip service to some cause which conveniently provides an ‘excuse for being there’ and this overt aim allows it to pursue its covert aim (which is to endlessly carry on ‘being there’).


The overt aim of all the tricks and procedures that constitute anorexia is to bring the person’s weight under control so as to approach the ideal; to an outsider it is more than apparent that this ideal is a phantom (and absurd) idea that the anorexic person chases after forever, just like a drinker chases the ‘ideally intoxicated state’. To the person concerned however it is undeniable that the idea seems both attainable, realistic, and totally desirable. The over-all goal of anorexia gets to be so very believable to the sufferer (believable enough to die for) because of the massive degree of self-justifying cognitive distortion that the system produces; as we have said, this sort of thing is the ‘forte’ of the system of thought – it can make reality into anything it chooses, whilst effectively hiding from itself the whole time its own participatory role in this process. The covert aim of the anorexic way of thinking is (as we keep saying) to consolidate and perpetuate itself in the utterly logical but totally pointless fashion that is characteristic of the extrinsic self.


But what of the actual person, who is the unknowing host of this virtual self? One way to answer this is to say that the ‘essence’ of the person is held captive within a steel ring of a ravening personality. Most of the time this essence is convinced by the sense of necessity involved in the game – by the plausibility of it all – and when this is the case then identification is total and so there is no sense of coercion at all. As Jung says, when there is no awareness of ‘conflict’, then there is no consciousness. But at other times the essence becomes momentarily disidentified from the anorexic viewpoint, and instead of unconsciously acting out the compulsion to follow the logic of this system, the person experiences the genuine urgency of their situation, i.e. they get a glimpse of what is actually going on. When this happens the integrity of the true self is regained, but the force of the habitual self tends to be so great that little can be done against it; the situation of the person is that of a feather being blown along helplessly in a storm, to use an apt analogy from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. We are deterministically driven by the tornado that we ourselves have set in motion.


The motivation of the self-of-anorexia remains at all times to maintain itself, which in turn means maintaining the integrity of the lie, the plausibility of its cover story. Another way of putting this is to say that the system has to generate an extremely powerful distorting ‘illusion field’ in order for it to survive, for if the true state of affairs was to be glimpsed by its victim, then there is no way in which they would allow things to continue. So strong is this false conviction that even up to the point of becoming seriously ill from malnutrition, I will find it more than easy to believe that I simply ‘do not have a problem’. “Problem – what problem?” I say. When I perceive (or allow myself to perceive) that there is in fact a problem this means that I am aware that there is a ‘conflict of interests’ and this is another way of saying that there is a dawning of consciousness. A new viewpoint is now available, a point of view that is independent of the prevailing ‘system of thought’.


Anorexia is sometimes explained in terms of a dysfunctional coping strategy, associated perhaps with fear of one’s sexual identity where the need is to control a body that is going out of control; alternatively, it is sometimes suggested that the sense of control that is gained by strictly regulating calorie intake helps offset the sense of being in a world that is ‘out of control’. Whatever the original cause, however, the point that we are making is that once the coping strategy is in place, once the pattern is established, then that pattern does not want to die. Because it does not want to die, the pattern acts through us, subverting our own volition to this end. It is this subversion of genuine individuality and genuine will by a pseudo-‘I’ that constitutes the condition that we call anorexia. The basic principle behind this subversion business is easy to state but much harder to fully grasp: the self-promoting pattern which is the system-of-anorexia is essentially an oversimplified (i.e. a defined) version of the true self which automatically strives to replace the true (i.e. undefined) self. When I do not see that a switch has been made, then I may be said to be in a state of passive identification with that analogous but grossly oversimplified self-hood. The genuine article has been replaced by a lower analogue.


The viciously repetitive behaviour pattern known as obsessive-compulsive disorder is another prime example of the operation of this ‘Principle of Substitution’. As an OCD sufferer, I am the unwilling host to a super-predictable pattern of thinking and behaviour, a pattern that is sheer violence to my true, free nature. What makes OCD a particularly clear example of what we are talking about is the fact that the actual pattern can often be explicitly defined in terms of what ‘procedure’ must be enacted, how often it must be enacted, and under what circumstances it must be enacted. The pattern can in other words be completely defined in terms of specific behavioural rules. It is easy for an outside observer to see that there isn’t any actual utility to the OCD-type procedures, but it is also obvious that for the sufferer there is an extraordinarily powerful ‘logic’ which remorselessly compels me to follow it, even when the behaviour involved is driving me into a state of total exhaustion and frustration, and bringing the rest of my life to a complete standstill. Sometimes the rationale behind the behaviour is more-or-less believable to me, and at other times I can clearly see that there is no real sense to what I am doing at all, but there is always an underlying ‘tendency to believe’ (a susceptibility) which manifests itself in the form of the established pattern.

Often, there is an additional incentive to act out the pattern – typically, this might be the conviction that someone close to me might have a terrible accident if I do not do what the compulsion wants me to do; there is no logical connection at all between the behaviour pattern in question and the projected accident, but the thought of the threatened accident is so terrible that I feel that I just cannot take the risk. This is the ‘trump card’ of the compulsion, and I would have to be a very brave person to call its bluff on this matter. In fact, I would be inclined to see this as being not so much brave as irresponsible because I feel that I am putting someone’s life in jeopardy. Thus, the logic of the compulsion becomes pretty near impossible to challenge.


We can say that in OCD the ‘self’ in question equals the set of rules that defines the behaviour pattern. It is the pattern. This self, like all selves, does whatever it has to in order to survive – it threatens whatever it has to threaten and it promises whatever it has to promise, and in OCD the main card that gets played is the ‘threat’. My life becomes a desperately enacted ritual to placate the fear. What fuels the whole process is the way in which I identify with the pattern; this identification happens when I am provoked by the fear to act in a certain way, and the result of the process is that I perversely end up protecting and promoting the very thing that I am suffering from. A thing lives in me, and it co-opts my consciousness to further itself; just as the surrogate mother of a young cuckoo believes its over-large protégée to be its very own, so too do I fondly nurture the alien thing that has taken over my life. This is of course not only true in the case of OCD, it is true for all addictive/enslaving patterns, for all habits of thought and behaviour. In all these cases, the pattern does not serve anything that is outside of itself, but rather it is an end in itself – it is a tool that has usurped the role of the ‘user of the tool’. The pattern is ‘closed’, which is to say, it is hermetically sealed off from reality. This fact necessarily makes the pattern ‘meaningless’ (or ‘unreal’).


The examples we have given are perfectly good ones, but they suffer from the fact that most of us do not have personal, first-hand experience of them. An example that everyone can relate to is that of a panic attack since we have all experienced a highly unpleasant moments of panic, even if we haven’t suffered from clinically defined panic attacks. We are all intimately familiar with anxiety and panic, but that is not to say that we have much insight into what goes on at such times. The currently popular psychiatric approach to anxiety, with its emphasis on control (i.e. ‘correcting’ changes in brain chemistry, and ‘correcting’ the way we think about things) also does nothing to add to our understanding. If, however, we approach anxiety by saying that it is in fact a classic example of ‘tautological self-defending’, then we find that we have a marvellously elegant way of looking at the matter. What we see then is that no sophisticated means of controlling the ‘problem’ of anxiety is needed, because controlling is the source of the problem in the first place.


What happens in a panic attack is that I suddenly become aware of the need to save myself from some imminent catastrophe, a catastrophe that I suspect to be beyond my power to avert. As soon as this ‘perception of risk’ strikes home I react by trying to defend myself, but because the eventuality I am afraid of is outside of my control, what actually happens is that I end up defending myself against the fear that the awareness of the possibility of ‘losing control’ engenders in me. Now, the thing about panic attacks is that the ‘defending’ consists entirely of futile procedures, since I am basically trying to defend myself against fear, and there is nothing that I can really do about ‘the enemy that is fear’ apart from ‘freaking out’. To ‘freak out’ means to engage myself in a frantic but futile attempt to escape from the frightening experience that I am having. This sort of behavioural reaction may be futile, but it serves a purpose all the same because it allows me to distract myself, to a degree, from seeing what it is that I am afraid of. In other words, the futile attempt to run away from the fear offers me a sort of a comfort zone because whilst I am desperately trying to escape I am able to live in hope that I will actually be able to attain my goal.

Hope (or fear) is after all the whole point of procedures – each procedure or routine comes complete with a ‘belief-package’, the belief in question being the belief that the procedure can actually work, or at least that it has the possibility of working if I put enough effort into it. Whilst I am engaged in my routine I am obtaining some sort of relief, I comfortably grounded and comfortably insulated from any awareness of ‘radical risk’. What we are talking about here, therefore, is theatrical escaping; there is a ‘methodology of escaping’ which offers us the opportunity of believing in the possibility of escaping. The procedure in question does not necessarily have to be complicated or involved – any goal-orientated action will do, for example something as crude as ‘grabbing for the good thing’ or ‘running away from the scary thing’ will do the job perfectly well. The point is that any extreme Goal Orientated action has a powerful distracting quality to it; because it is pointing so forcefully to the goal that we are aiming at, our attention is directed out of the present moment and towards whatever mental projection it is that we have such a powerful attachment towards. We are momentarily distracted from the reality of our situation, and in the relief afforded us by this momentary distraction lies the root of our addiction to ‘not being in reality’. This is the intoxicatingly sweet honey that I am devoted to licking…


Although engaging ourselves in the procedure allows us to entertain hope that it will work, the ‘rot’ which is anxiety is not so easily cured. Anxiety is a failure in our ability to successfully distract ourselves, it is a decay or degeneration in our ‘perceived self-efficacy’, a failure of our belief in ourselves regarding our ability to effectively attain our goals, and so when we start using procedures to solve it we find ourselves in an infinite regress. As Alan Watts 1940, p 9) says:

That pain should arouse fear is as natural as that fire should arouse warmth. But let it stay there, for if we run from our fear it becomes panic, and this is the entrance to a bottomless abyss of self-deception and misery. Man does not like to admit to himself that he is afraid, for that weakens his self-esteem and shakes his faith in the security of his ego. To accept fear would be like accepting death, so he runs from it, and this is the great unhappiness. Sometimes it is expressed in sheer unbridled terror, but more often it is a half-concealed, gnawing anxiety, moving in vicious circles to an ever greater intensity. It would have been better to say in the first place, “I am afraid, but not ashamed.”

The way that the infinite regress works is very simple: firstly, I am provoked to use some procedure in order to avoid the original fear, which means that I have escalated from ‘simple fear’ to ‘fear of fear’. What I really want to do is to distract myself from the fear, but in anxiety what happens is that the procedure, instead of effectively anaesthetizing me in the way that it ought ideally to, actually reminds me of the fear. Somehow, my level of insight is higher than normally, which means that my attempt to avoid the thing dimly reminds me of the thing that I am trying avoid. The next thing that happens, then, is that I start to doubt the efficacy of my fear-avoidance procedures, which means that I now have to distract myself from the fear that my avoidance of fear will fail, which means that I have to instigate another level of avoidance, which in turn will also become contaminated with the worm of anxiety. Therefore, I don’t just ‘freak out’, I freak out about freaking out about freaking out…


A schematic representation of the ‘anxiety regression’ (the escalating process of running away from fear, and then running away from seeing that you are running away) would be something like this:

[1] There is an awareness of ‘risk’ and the fear which this awareness engenders provokes me to use certain procedures in order to safeguard myself from this perceived risk.
[2] I start to doubt the efficacy of these procedures, which causes secondary fear.
[3] I instigate self-distracting procedures to safeguard myself from the risk of seeing that my original procedures are no longer effective.
[4] I start to doubt the efficacy of this ‘second tier’ of defensive procedures, which engenders a tertiary level of fear.
[5] I instigate self-distracting procedures to safeguard myself against the risk of seeing that my secondary tier of self-distracting procedures is no longer effective. And so it continues, ad infinitum.


Denial being the sort of a thing that it is, ‘a failure in the integrity of the system of denial’ is naturally a very terrifying thing, and this means that when it happens we try to deny to ourselves that it is happening. Once we have started off down the ‘path of denial’ then this is the way it tends to go. However (as we have been saying), the ‘failure bug’ cannot be contained and it spreads to the new system-of-denial, which sparks up a new level of anxiety, and the necessity for an new denial system, and so on. The key point about this escalating process is that we are getting farther and farther away from the original fear the whole time, which means that the force of the compulsion to escape (which is what fear is) is increasing exponentially as time goes on, since the power of a compulsion is proportional to the degree of removal from reality (in other words, the less insight we have into what we are actually afraid of, the more frightening that thing becomes). Put simply, the bogey man gets bigger and bigger as a result of us being too scared to look at him – in the neglected shadows of our minds, the nightmares grow and grow. As we have said before, this is the way all compulsions work because a compulsion only gets to be a compulsion because of the distorted (or prejudicial) way that we are looking at the world; the principle, as always, is that maximum perspective equals ‘zero compulsiveness’.


When ‘we run from fear’ what we are doing is fleeing from the absolute freedom of maximum perspective; we are trying to escape from what the Tibetan Book of the Dead calls ‘the pure white light of unmitigated reality’. If we were able to see this Reality for what it is, then there would be no fear, but because the way that the conditioned self sees things is through its conditioning (i.e. through the distorting lens of its prejudices) fear is ‘built into the situation’, so to speak. Wherever the extrinsic self is there is fear, and as long as the extrinsic self holds onto itself, it will be subject to anxiety concerning what might happen if it lets go. The extrinsic self is a ‘system of denial’, as we have been saying, and the assumption inherent in any system of denial is the assumption of fear on the one hand, and a fearer on the other. To put this another way, the ‘pay-off’ that the system of thought provides me with is the belief that there is a ‘me’, and the ‘cost’ is the secret fear that I have about finding out that I don’t exist after all.


What Alan Watts was saying in the passage quoted above is that when we run from what he calls ‘original fear’ is consequence is limitless misery. To experience the intensity of fear that is inherent in a panic attack is rare enough for most of us; generally we make do with a watered down and drawn-out version of this terror. In other words, the mechanism that we have in place to repress our fear seems to work more or less adequately for most of the time. “Original fear – what original fear?” we ask innocently.


When someone suffers from a clinically defined anxiety disorder, or from panic attacks, we can sympathize with them in their suffering, but we do not usually have much insight into what it feels like to be going through it. The way which we conceptualise anxiety disorder doesn’t help much either because rather than seeing that much fear as being part and parcel of conditioned existence, we say that it has to do with an abnormality in the way that the person’s brain works. Anything like this and we always cry (in the ‘scientific’ way that we have) “Abnormal brain! Abnormal brain! Abnormal brain!” It definitely makes us feel better to do this, although whether it actually helps the person suffering from anxiety very much is another thing entirely. It is true that the intensity of fear that we experience as a result of some sort of anxiety disorder is right off the scale, and as such abnormal with regard to the experience of the majority of people. In anxiety, it is as if the ‘lid’ that holds the fear down for me is defective, and so the fear that I experience is (as we say) ‘out of control’ – it is not within the normal acceptable parameters.


It is not correct to say that the anxiety sufferer’s brain is abnormal or defective or ‘out of control’, however. It would be much more honest to say that it is their ‘fear-repression-mechanism’ that is abnormal, or defective, in that it is unable to shield the person concerned from the feelings that we all have locked up inside us, in latent form. After all, inasmuch as we are in the mode of psychological unconsciousness (and therefore identified with the false self) then we are the lawful prey of ontological terror. Ontological terror is the terror that strikes us when our psychological security system fails us, and we are forced to contend with the awareness of all-pervading radical uncertainty that we have been so cosily ignoring up to this point.

When we fall victim to a full-blown panic attack we shocked to discover that there is a whole world of terror out there, a world whose existence we never even came close to suspecting. Nothing ever led me to believe that a ‘bottomless abyss of fear’ like this could exist, and if I came to the conclusion that there is in fact a conspiracy not to mention this awful thing then I would not be too far from the truth. Original fear (or ‘ontological panic’) is the reality which we spend our whole lives trying to forget about. A good way to approach ‘original fear’ is to say that it is like a uniquely frightening thought that we had one day, a thought so devastating that we intuitively know that – if we followed it through – it unfailingly unravel the very fabric of our existence, leaving behind who knows what? What would you do if you did have a thought like this one day? The chances are that you would do what most people in that situation would, i.e. try very hard to forget about it.


The cruel irony here of course is that the more we invest in denying that such a Fear exists, the more our lives are ruled by it. It is our investment in the ‘denial world’ that created the bogeyman in the first place, and once created, the bogeyman has a way of growing bigger and bigger. The fact is that denial creates fear, or to put it another way:

Just as long as I am ‘holding on for dear life’, then I am always going to be carrying with me the fear of what might happen if I fail to hold on successfully.

My first line of defence against this fear is to ignore the fact that I am actually grimly holding on the whole time; in other words, the game that I am playing is that I am attached to certain things being a certain way, whilst managing to get away with the comforting illusion that I have no such attachments. This – as we said in chapter 1 – is why our ‘addiction to the certainty of a positive reality’ has to be a secret addiction. One inkling of the fact that the original fear belongs to us all, and is not merely a function of a defective brain, is the eerie feeling of recognition that we get when we are suddenly plunged into ‘the world of limitless fear.’ When this happens it happens by way of a terrible revelation – what I experience is at the same time both utterly unexpected and horribly (and archetypically) familiar. It is unexpected because the level of terror involved is incompatible with my usual way of understanding the world, just as oil is incompatible with water (after all, it is the undeclared function of the everyday world to exclude such terror). It is familiar because along with the terror comes a feeling of recognition, the unmistakeable feeling of “Here I am again…” This might be said to be the terrible doom that we struggle against in anxiety.


In this moment the futility of all my attempts to escape is laid bare to me, and the reassuring solidity that my existence usually has for me is instantly and terribly annihilated. For the extrinsic self, this is the final destination of its circular journey. This is my ‘base-level reality’ – it is the place I started out from as well as being the place that I never left. No time has actually passed, nothing has happened. My virtual journey was a journey of self-distraction; everything I did was purely for the purpose of avoiding this fear, and so everything that I did was of no account – it was all null, it was all meaningless. This can be seen as a question of motivation: because ‘my’ motivation was for ‘me’ to escape from the fear (i.e. because everything that happens is on this basis) this means that the whole journey is virtual. It has to be virtual because the self for whose benefit everything was carried out is a virtual entity – it is an arbitrary construct of a particular way of thinking and nothing more. Therefore, this whole exercise came about because of an error in the way that I am looking at reality – the ‘error’ is simply that I mistook an arbitrary construct of my thinking as being literally true. I mistook my thought for reality…


This is a handy way of approaching the matter because it provides us with a useful way of understanding fear. Fear, we may say, is the inevitable consequence of looking out at the world from the (false) basis of the extrinsic self. It is therefore the result of an ‘error of perception’, or, more accurately, of self-deception. We can get even closer to the point by saying that fear is a function of unconsciousness. Our best definition would therefore be to say something to the effect that fear is the flip side of the ‘double action’ of ignoring our own ignorance. Security creates fear! What this comes down to is the understanding that the hermetically sealed ignorance of ‘organizational closure’ is not so hermetically sealed after all. Actually, we can’t get away with playing ostrich in this way because when we deny consciousness, it comes back to us in the form of fear. We can’t successfully exclude consciousness from the equation because ‘consciousness is all there is’, but we can opt to exist in the inverted state of psychological unconsciousness, and when we do this we unfailingly create the reality of fear for ourselves.


This implies of course that if we were not looking out at the world from the passively identified state of unconsciousness, then there would be no such thing as fear, since fear exists purely a function of that state. In Vol. II of The Dramatic Universe, John Bennett (1961, p 199-200) makes exactly the same point in his discussion of Negative Identity, where he says that fear arises as a consequence of our being ‘divided against ourselves’ in the unconscious state:

Positive identity is to exist according to one’s own essential pattern. Pure essence identity is the hold of the self upon the ultimate reality of Being.


Negative identity is ‘essential non-existence’. It is to be what one is not as the imaginary component of a null-triad, of which the other part is being what one is. Being what one is not, confronted with being what one is, is to be threatened with annihilation. This state of the Will is called Fear. The horror of self-destruction is at the root of all fear. The Material Self under the sway of the law of negative identity is constantly reminded of its own nonentity. It half realizes that to face Reality means to face its own nothingness. This state of half-realization is the essence of fear. It is the negative aspect of the Cosmic Identity that faces its own finitude before limitless Being. This latter is the state of Awe into which all existing selves – great or small – enter when they contemplate the Ultimate Being. The Material Self is incapable of approaching such a state and can experience only the divided state of fear of the unknown.


The point that we keep coming to is that the system-of-denial (i.e. the systemic endeavour to obtain the goal of hiding from the truth) creates the ‘me’. In other words, the extrinsic self is denial. Unreflective rational thinking is denial; a belief that doesn’t know that it is only a belief is denial; an opinion that doesn’t know it is only an opinion is denial; a map that doesn’t know it is a map is denial; an instrument that doesn’t know it is an instrument is denial. The system of thought is denial. Because there is no such thing as a 100% effective and reliable system of denial, we can confidently assert that denial always goes hand-in-hand with anxiety. As we said before, the better the ‘place of safety’ that we create for ourselves, the more terrible is the fear associated with that ‘place of safety’, and anxiety comes into the picture as a result of our attempt to defend ourselves from the awareness of the omnipresent fear.


Anxiety occurs as the result of the extrinsic self’s desperate attempt to carry on believing in itself, to carry on maintaining its fragile integrity against the hostile force which is ‘the truth’. The one thing that we know for sure is that this has to be a losing battle, but because of the extrinsic self’s overwhelming propensity to protect itself no matter what, there is no way in which it can allow itself to see that it is fighting a losing battle. Thus, self equals anxiety: anxiety is (part of) the price that the extrinsic self pays in order to experience being ‘a self’. This is such a terrible price however, that it is a wonder we undertake to pay it (although the fact that we are sublimely unaware of the necessity to make this payment undoubtedly helps in the decision). Were we to see the full picture, it would be hard to see how we could accept the deal, but of course the whole point about the extrinsic self is that it only gets to be a self because it can’t see the whole picture. In short, the extrinsic self may be seen as a triumphant outcome only in short-term; in the long-term there is no gain whatsoever because the price paid is so extreme that it negates the value of what was achieved.


We can summarize everything that has been said above by saying that anxiety is a ‘tautological sort of a problem’. It is a tautological problem because it is created by the attempt to get rid of it. The self (our system of denial) is a bastion against anxiety, yet it is itself the very source of anxiety. When the high water mark of the anxiety rises, we respond by trying to establish an even more secure self, which in turn brings about a new wave of anxiety. In other words, the virtual self whose integrity is being threatened, was itself created by the intensely purposeful activity which we have called defending. The virtual self is created tautologically by its own attempts to defend itself: defending creates the self that needs defending. The stronger and more unreflective the agenda, the more concrete is the virtual self that is created, and the more concrete the self (the more the self doesn’t know itself to be a construct) the greater the terror that this denial engenders. When I am panicking my agenda is overpoweringly strong, and intensely unreflective, and so the sense of a self which is vulnerable is exacerbated to the nth power; its need to defend itself becomes proportionately greater, and therefore so too does the intensity in which the goal of ‘safety’ is pursued. This, in a nutshell, is the vicious circle of the panic attack.


There is a tremendous irony in this – when I am having a panic attack my one concern is to save myself from what is happening, but if I didn’t try to save myself, then there would be no self that needed to be saved. So, the question I need to ask myself if I am to stand a chance of becoming a bit freer from my anxiety is this: in the midst of a panic attack, who is the panic-stricken ‘me’ that is desperately fighting against the fear? Is this over-simplified, rudimentary identity really who I am? What does this identity stand for after all? Does it care for the arts? Is it committed to fine humanitarian works? Is it a student of philosophy or the natural sciences? Is it devoted to the cause of freedom and world peace? The answer to all such questions is a resounding “No” – this self has very narrow horizons indeed because it only cares about one thing and that one thing is of course itself. And the final irony is that this one thing, the thing that so preoccupies the self-of-anxiety doesn’t actually exist in the first place.


The problem is therefore that in anxiety we are putting ourselves out to a tremendous degree defending a false or virtual self, a self which isn’t real, but which appears to itself to be real. In its own terms, it is real and it matters a great deal (in fact it matters infinitely), but outside of the virtual self’s own narrow self-deceiving viewpoint it can be seen that there is no issue, that there is no ‘self-which-must-be-protected-at-any-cost’ because this self is just an arbitrary construct that exists for no reason other than to validate itself, and endlessly perpetuate to itself the illusion of its own existence. Yet again, I am suffering needlessly because I am suffering on behalf of a phantom identity, a ‘cuckoo-self’ which is using me to protect itself. Basically, I am protecting a position as if the well-being the whole universe depends on my success in this endeavour, and yet the position I am so grimly holding onto only matters so much because I am holding on to it so tightly.


One last example that we can mention is that of addiction. Anorexia, OCD and anxiety are all based on addiction too of course, the addiction here being to some elusive and unreliable sense of safety. We are constantly chasing a phantom security that constantly threatens to evaporate on us, leaving us at the mercy of some terrible but ill-defined fate. All three conditions are marked by a hugely debilitating investment in control, which manifests itself in terms of very single-minded purposeful behaviour. Investment in control occurs as a result of fear, but it can also occur because of overwhelming desire. In the case of an addiction that is positively goal-orientated in the way it is very easy to see that there will be a definite feeling of fondness arising in relation to the source of the pleasure, which we would clearly not have in relation to the source of the pain (or fear) in the case of a negative addiction (i.e. an addiction to running away). From personal experience, it can readily be seen that in a positive addiction I am lovingly nurturing some ‘entity’ – it feels as if there is something there which I am taking care of, something that is a bit like a precious hobby on which I am constantly lavishing my love and attention on.


This is just like watering a plant – everything that I do with regard to the addiction (and with a proper addiction this means most of my activity) furthers that addiction, it promotes it so that it becomes more and more entrenched in my life. With every purposeful act I am feeding the ‘entity-of-addiction’ so that it can get bigger and fatter and stronger and meaner. The curious (and downright horrible) thing about all this is that I am lovingly nurturing something which is the deadliest and most implacable enemy I could ever have. Mostly I do not have the insight to see this, but when I do it becomes abundantly obvious that, by nurturing the force which is destroying me, I am in fact acting as my own enemy.


We have suggested that in positive addictions it is easier to see that I am ‘protecting the pattern’, that I am working for the pattern – that I am a servant of the addiction and nothing more. It is however wrong to say that when I feel fond of my addiction and want to nurture it that this is the whole of the story. The truth is that this only accounts for half of the story, the other half being when I experience total repugnance for the unholy carry-on that I am engaged in. Anyone who has been a slave to addiction long enough to get wise to what is going on with it will know what it is like to hate the pattern that they are in, and hate themselves for so weak as to be trapped by the very thing they hate.


If we model an addiction by saying that the addicted person is the ‘unconscious host’ to a predatory (or parasitic) virtual self, it is probably true that the host is more aware of his or her situation than is the case in the negatively goal-orientated neurotic conditions we have been discussing. But this does not mean that the person necessarily finds it any easier to break free from the power of the compulsion because fighting an addiction does not lessen its hold on us. One way to understand why this is should be so is by considering the idea that a NO response is just as a part of the pattern of addiction as the YES response. The point is that what I am really trying to escape from is the context of understanding that is part and parcel of the addiction, and yet I am necessarily constructing (and enacting) my ‘plan of escaping’ within this same context. When I conceive the goal of freedom from the pattern which is haunting me, I am conceiving this goal within the terms of reference which are provided for me by that very pattern – which is to say, since the YES-type goal and the NO-type goal both make perfectly good sense with the frame of reference of the game, YES and NO both agree with the game, and so both support the game. ‘NO’ and ‘YES’ represent the motivation behind my activity, and so we can see that denying activity maintains the integrity of the game just as much as affirming activity does.


We can sum this up by saying that if quitting the game is a legitimate move in the game, my periodic attempts to turn over a new leaf constitute nothing more than another level of self-deception within the game; rather than face the pain of my situation (which is that I cannot quit the game on purpose), I distract myself (and any other interested parties) with theatre of escaping. Whether I hate my addiction or love my addiction it makes no difference because negative attachment traps me just as much as positive attachment does; both types of attachment, when acted on, inevitably cause me to be get ever more entrenched in the self-of-addiction. The long and the short of it is that either by persuading me to go along with the addiction, or by persuading me to fight the addiction this virtual self manages to successfully perpetuate itself.


In this section we have looked at some of the situations in which the extrinsic self has been provoked to show its true colours, and we started off by looking at common everyday instances of this phenomenon such as is provided by the negative emotions, and instances in which we suddenly in the course of conversation identify with such and such an idea or opinion, and as a result become ‘humourless’ (or serious). We then said that the seriousness, single-mindedness and general lack of perspective associated with such lapses in our normal, more ‘free and easy’ demeanour give us an insight into the basic nature of the extrinsic self, which exemplifies all such ‘inferior’ traits. In fact, we could go so far as to say that all those unpleasant, unattractive, petty-minded and otherwise ‘unworthy traits’ that each one of us is prone to manifesting from time to time are evidence of the presence within us of one or other extrinsic self which has had its toes trodden on in some way.


We then moved on to focus on neurotic mental illness, which we said was a particularly good way of learning about the false self. The way we looked at neurotic mental illness was to say that the narrow-minded purposeful behaviour (i.e. the controlling) associated with the condition in question can be analysed in terms of an overt and a covert aim. The overt aim has to do with a goal or goals that make sense to the host, and which offer either [1] quick relief from some form of pain or fear, or [2] some immediate positive satisfaction. These incentives are presented in the most overwhelmingly convincing way possible and will play on whatever our secret fears or weaknesses happen to be. Because of the force of the compulsion involved, the probability of anyone not playing reacting in a predictable and predetermined way is extremely small. The overt aim which is presented to me by the system of logic which lies behind the neurotic state is therefore both attractive and plausible to me, even though an independent onlooker can plainly see the ‘error’ in that logic. I, however, have no interest in seeing this error because I desperately want to have what this systematically distorted way of looking at things promises me, and I can only get to believe in the possibility of obtaining that desired outcome if I go along with the lie, so to speak.


Because I am acting on the basis of a highly distorted viewpoint it is inevitable that I am going to incur all sorts of undesirable side-effects from my behaviour, which I am going to have to ‘ignore’, in a sense, if I want to go on with the lie which I subscribing to. I can’t generally get away with ignoring the undesirable side-effects of my behaviour in the sense of pretending that they are not there, but what I can do is to ignore the connection that they have with my behaviour. I can fail to add one and one together so that they make two. The undesirable consequences of my carefully cultivated mental-blind spot are, however, what eventually force me to concede that ‘things are not right’. Ideally, the insight thus obtained would allow me to become free from the neurotic disturbance that I am suffering from, but what is more likely to happen is that the ‘denial’ will taken up a notch when I present myself to my local mental health service, and I am diagnosed as suffering from some ‘illness’. In this case, I am encouraged to see what I am going through as the result of some pathological alteration to my brain chemistry, which can be corrected with the appropriate medication and – if I am especially lucky – half a dozen sessions of some sort of ‘rational therapy’ which will give the tools (i.e. the procedures) which I need in order to correct my faulty thought processes.


What we are saying here is that the neurotic disturbance is a manifestation of my unacknowledged willingness to play in the hands of a particular system of logic in order to gain an outcome that I am particularly eager to gain. Furthermore, it is inevitably true that when I am laid low by the frustration and exhaustion of the neurosis, I am going to conceive a longing for another outcome, which is relief from the suffering that I am afflicted with. This goal too the system of logic offers to obtain for me, just so long as I continue to out my trust in it. At this stage, my unreflective desire to escape the pain over-rules anything else, and I am easy prey for any con man that comes along offering me a ‘system’. The problem with our modern approach to ‘mental illness’ is that it ends up playing the role of just such a conman. The very best that can happen is that I transfer allegiance from the conman which was my original neurosis, to the conman who is my rational therapist. This isn’t very fair though, it would be better to say the conman is our collective common sense which the therapist is only an agent for. The point is that the logic of the therapeutic system is simply a more rigorous and more clearly articulated version of the logic of common sense, it not a different animal. Whilst it is true that the logic of the therapeutic system does not contain the same sort of glaring errors that the neurotic system of thinking does, the therapeutic regime still operates in the same way as the neurotic regime – it offers the person a ‘way out’ from their pain just as long as certain procedures are rigorously followed.


Now, it might be objected that not all therapeutic approaches are so glib in their operation as to assume neurosis can be remedied purely by learning to ‘think in the right way’ and this objection would be a perfectly valid one. Any psychotherapist worth his or her salt knows that no genuine progress can be made until the person concerned ceases to think in terms of ‘avoiding the pain’. However, it is a fact that if you or I were to present ourselves at the nearest department of psychiatry suffering from a neurotic condition it is highly unlikely that we will be given an opportunity to engage in any genuinely helpful form of psychotherapy. [Incidentally, the existence of such a thing as ‘genuinely helpful psychotherapy’ would necessarily involve a psychotherapist who is not possessed of a dogmatic belief in type of therapy that he or she is selling!] The ‘quick fix’ is the order of the day, and what this therapeutic repair patch consists of is a drug regime and some exposure to cognitive behavioural therapy.


The only truly effective ‘cure’ to be patient enough and honest enough (i.e. brave enough) to actually see the virtual self that is causing all the trouble. The virtual self can never be destroyed on purpose for the simple reason that all our purposefulness is contaminated with self-deception – we are always protecting something without admitting that we are protecting it. We never do anything for the reason we give for doing it; there is always a secret agenda there somewhere and where there is a secret agenda there is always a virtual self ensconced behind the scenes, directing the proceedings to its own unsavoury ends…


We cannot get rid of the false self on purpose because this is using self-deception to cure self-deception, but one thing that we know for sure is that the false self will inevitably shrivel up and die if it is exposed to the truth for long enough, and so, as we have said, the only thing to do is to resort to honesty. Honesty hurts, but it does away with the need for the system of thought and all its trickery, since the system of thought’s only excuse for being there is that it can obtain something for us as a result of its deviousness. When I no longer ‘want anything’ (i.e. when I am truly free from all secret agendas), then there is simply no place for the false self.


We have been talking about the overt aim of the ‘self-of-the-system’ which is to facilitate us in escaping pain or obtaining pleasure. The covert aim is tautological, as we have saying all along – the virtual self exists for itself. Once we understand this business of there being a overt aim and a covert aim, this gives us a new and interesting way of looking at compulsivity, which is of course how all neurosis operates. Usually I think of a compulsion as coming from me, as being a need or urge that is an expression of my intrinsic nature, but once I see a compulsion as being alien (or extrinsic) to my nature, then this changes everything. We feel compelled to act, but if we look closely at what is going on we can see that the overt reason for this action is merely a decoy for the real reason which is to preserve the integrity of the game. ‘Protecting the integrity of the game’ means preventing us from ‘seeing the game’ and the game in question is the system protecting itself for no other reason than this is what the system does.


The decoy or red-herring concern that we are always hit with serves to distract us from seeing the closed, self-serving logic that the system is based on; if we did see this ‘selfish logic’ then we would know straight away that the system does not exist to help us, but only for itself, and then we would most certainly not feel inclined to ally ourselves to it any more. We would no longer feel comfortable with what is going on, but appalled, and so the integrity of the game would be well and truly blown.


The whole thing, therefore, is a shoddy trick, a trick that we never tire of falling for. The system uses ‘carrot/stick’ motivation to get us to do what it wants – if we do what it wants it offers us a reward, and if we do not, then it threatens us with disaster. The desire and the fear really belong to the system of thought and they only seem to belong to us because we have identified with that system, which is the false self. It is not the ‘I’ that I am trying to benefit, and I am not stricken with fear on behalf of the ‘I’, but on behalf of the false self. This virtual self does not exist, but acts as if it does, and the whole tissue of deception is allowed to continue because I am too confused in my motives to see what’s really going on, too invested in what I mistakenly think I have, and too frightened of taking the risk of losing it.



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