THE IMPOSSIBLE STRUGGLE

 

 

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Rotterdam)_-_Google_Art_Project

The basic idea that we have are looking at in these articles is the idea that ‘restriction-we-cannot-see-as-such’ (i.e. the system of thought) contains within it the seeds of anxiety and depression, as well as many other shades and variations of neurotic torment in-between. In fact saying this is not really making the point strongly enough – what we ought to say, in order that there will be minimum chance of misunderstanding, is that the system of thought (when we’re immersed in it) equals anxiety and depression. To be even more precise:

The system of thought equals 50% successful repression of anxiety and depression, and 50% unsuccessful repression of anxiety and depression

 

Restriction-which-we cannot-see-as-such is a game, it is a game because whilst we are most definitely contained within a logically consistent mini-version of reality, we manage to be unable to see this fact. There are lots of ways of defining what ‘a game’ is but the most basic one is to say that a game is a ‘move within a move’ – I make an obvious movement that is designed to capture the attention, and whilst all eyes are on my overt manoeuvre, I sneakily make my covert move. The covert move is where I grab whatever it is that I really want, but which I could not obtain ‘directly’ or ‘honestly’. So, to give a classic example, we are playing chess and I suddenly shout “Oh – look behind you!” and whilst you turn around to look, I switch the position of one of my pieces on the board. If we apply this idea to the game which is the system of thought, we can say that the ‘overt move’ has to do with what we find meaningful or important (what we find to be a valid datum) and the ‘covert’ move has to do with the way in which we actually choose for it to be meaningful or important or valid…

 
The only thing that really matters for the continuation of the game is that there should be this motivation of ‘attraction & aversion’ because just as soon as either of these two motivations is engaged, then we immediately become ‘busy’, we immediately become locked onto our abstract goals, which are the goals that the system of thought kindly provides for us in our moment of need. Another way to look at the essential mechanism of the game has to do with the conditioned need to safeguard the interests of ‘who we think we are in the game’, which come down to either availing ourselves of some sort of promise in the environment, or protecting ourselves from some sort of threat. For the game to work however I have to play it – I have to take its rules seriously and these rules mean that I have to believe that I really do have the needs that the game makes me think I have. Another way of putting this is to say that in order for the game to work I have to react to the threats and promises as if they really are as unquestionable as the system of thought says that they are. I have to fall for the essential ‘gimmick’ of the game and the gimmick is that the issues the game says are important really are important. The key point here however

Is that the issues are only issues when I make them so by reacting to them.

 

If I take the promises (or threats) that are made by the game seriously then there is an issue but if I don’t take them seriously then there is no issue. If I don’t buy into the game then the game isn’t real, in other words. This is not the same as denial of the game however because I am not saying that ‘the game is unreal’ – if I said that then this would of course be proof that it is real, that it is an issue. Therefore, if I say that the game is real then it is real, and if I say that it is not real then it’s still real, since both PLUS and MINUS are logical reactions, and logical reactions indicate an attachment. When it comes down to it, to say as we did that a non-issue is ‘unreal’ is not strictly correct because it is still labelling, and why would we bother labelling something if it were not at least a bit real?

 

This is the same thing as ‘the paradox of trying to specify a random number’ and when we run into a paradox this is simply reality’s way of telling us that we ought to stop trying to do whatever it is that we are trying to do because what we’re trying to do is flatly impossible. So, for example, trying deliberately to extricate ourselves from unreality is paradoxical because if I am deliberately trying to extricate myself from unreality, this assumes from the onset that unreality is real enough to bother trying to disentangle myself from, and so the whole endeavour becomes meaningless. Psychologically speaking (rather than mathematically speaking) we can say that following:

Whatever I react to is by definition ‘an issue’ and because it is an issue what I am dealing with is a projection of my evaluative mind rather than being an intrinsic feature of reality itself. (In other words, when I react in any way to my own thinking, then I am trapped in the game of thought.)

 

A non-purposeful way of extricating ourselves from the unreality of the evaluative mind is simply to realize that the essence of things is not to be found in any of our mental categories – as the great Mahayana metaphysician Nagarjuna put it, suchness is ‘neither real nor unreal’, nor is it ‘both real and unreal’, and nor is it ‘neither real nor unreal but something else again’…

 

THE PARADOX OF THE SELF

 

The paradox that we find ourselves in when we try to extricate ourselves from the unreality of issues can be also located in the paradoxicality of the self. The self constructs everything in relation to itself, but ‘itself’ is the hidden flaw in all of its arguments, given that there is no such thing as itself in the first place! Thus, whilst we have just said that stuff becomes real to me only when I react to it, we could equally well have looked at matters the other way around and said that I myself as a ‘centre-of-reacting’ only become real when I react to some provocation or other.

 

Therefore, both me as a centre and the external objects to which I experience attraction or aversion come into pragmatic existence simultaneously with any sort of reacting on my part. And to make the symmetry complete, we would also have to take pains to point out that

The actual ‘reacting’ doesn’t actually come from me (even though I think it does) because the reacting is simply a logical extension of the system of attraction/aversion itself, which is to say, it is not something that I myself create but rather it is the inevitable unfolding of the logical necessities of the situation, which I have bought into.

 

In other words, both the ‘me’ and the ‘reacting’ are functions of the system of thought – both are fixtures of the ‘issue’ which my thinking constructs for itself. Whilst the issue in question – as we have been saying – is essentially ‘empty’, my problems (i.e. the ‘gimmicks’ that provoke me to worry) arise precisely because I take them to be ‘not empty’. This means that any rationally-orientated action that I engage in, because it is based on formal notions of ‘self’ and ‘other’, automatically embroils me ever deeper in the mess of it all – despite the fact that ‘the mess’ never really existed in the first place! The classic question “What should I do?” is therefore (as Krishnamurti says) the very embodiment of all the ‘wrong thinking’ that gave rise to all the frustration, confusion and misery that I wish to do something about.

 

ILLEGITIMATE GAINS

 

We have defined a game as ‘a move within a move’. Another, closely related definition is to say that a game is a way of obtaining an illegitimate gain. Clearly, if I could obtain whatever it is that I want to obtain without subterfuge then I would. If I could win the game of chess that we talked about earlier without cheating then I would not feel the need to cheat – I am resorting to trickery because this is the only way that I can get what I want. With regard to the trickery of the system of thought, therefore, we can say that the illegitimate gain is the gain of positive knowledge, or ‘ontological security’, or simply ‘certainty’. Another definition that follows on from this is the definition of a game as ‘a way of pretending that we can ‘get something for nothing’.

 

The usual way in which we understand this sort of thing to work is in terms of money, i.e. rather than doing a nine-to-five job to earn enough to live on I get clever about it and trick someone to give me their money, without me having to work for it. ‘Honest hard work’ is substituted for by ‘cleverness, or ‘trickiness’, and there is of course an immediate pay-off in this because I seem to have got ‘something for nothing’. The psychological equivalent to money is euphoria. Euphoria tends be defined as ‘a feeling of well-being’, but a better definition would be to say that it is a feeling of well-being that is not actually based on anything real. So, when I kid myself that things are going well when they aren’t, the pleasant feeling that I enjoy is euphoria, and when I am happy because I have obtained some possession (or some station) in life that is actually quite meaningless although we have all collectively agreed that it is ‘meaning-full’, then this so-called ‘happiness’ is also euphoria. What we have called ‘psychological games’ revolve without exception around this mental currency of euphoria – that is what we play for; it all comes down to this.

 

The good feeling that I am constantly striving to obtain is as we have stressed perfectly and utterly empty, as is the ‘myself’ that wishes to obtain it, and so what we have here is a very peculiar situation indeed! Nevertheless, peculiar or not, this is the name of the game. This is what is ‘going down’. It is apparent from what we have said that ‘the game’ must be based on a central act of self-deception, and that act of self-deception basically involves the denial of the emptiness. One way to explain how this denial works is by saying that it involves being totally superficial at all times, i.e. making very sure that I only ever look at the visible ‘surface-level’ of reality. Another way to explain the mechanism of denial (which is the mechanism of unconsciousness) is to say that it involves always thinking about the short-term gain, and never thinking about the long-term cost associated with that gain. In short:

The game works by us dwelling one-sidedly upon the positive gain that we stand to make and steadfastly ignoring the corresponding loss that always comes with it. The state of psychological unconsciousness is therefore perpetuated by our assiduous refusal to see the fact that ‘the net gain is always zero’. The root cause of unconsciousness may thus be said to be a form of ‘impossibility blindness’ (i.e. our inability to see that we can’t ‘get something for nothing’).

 

 

SOCIETY AS A GAME

 

In terms of the social game, we can say that the system gets to be perpetuated (in the way that it is perpetuated!) because we collectively focus on the euphoric side of the show, and turn a blind eye to the dysphoric side. Thus, it seems to us that the social world within which we live is a creative and ‘life-nurturing’ sort of a thing, rather than being a bleakly sterile and fundamentally ‘life-denying’ affair. If we think about this in terms of ‘the illusion and the carrier of the illusion’ then we can see that this one-sided attention can also be understood in terms of ‘being careful never to look behind the scenes of the carnival, lest we see the grubby business that goes on in order to sustain the show’. Similarly, the game can be seen in terms of the quaintly old-fashioned conspiracy between a married couple, so that the situation where the husband catches sight of his wife before she puts her make-up on, does not arise. Needless to say, the show that is enjoyed as a result of the successful ‘concealment of what goes on behind the scenes) is entirely theatrical in nature. It is staged from beginning to end, and, what is more, it ‘works’ because we do not allow ourselves to see that it is staged.

 

This idea of ‘turning a blind eye’ to what goes on behind the scenes is essentially the same thing as ‘ignoring the dysphoric phase’ – in order to have a nice and shiny exterior (which is the glossy and glittering appearance that we are supposed to see) it is necessary to have an interior that is the opposite. I have to pay for my public euphoria in private, in other words, since that nice and shiny exterior has to be painfully maintained from behind the scenes. This is like booking into a sumptuous hotel where everything is done for you – all that luxury and ease has to come from somewhere, and it is of course supplied by all of the more-or-less invisible ranks of service staff who do all the work that you pay not to do. But in our socially ordered life, we are both the hotel guests, who swan around having the life of Riley, and we are also the chambermaids and kitchen staff and porters who work away in the background for a minimum wage. The curious thing is however that ‘the left hand cannot be allowed to see what the right hand is doing’ in this regard, or there would be no motivation to carry on. I cannot properly enjoy the coin of euphoria, if I know that it is me that is footing the bill, a bit further down the line! This focus on ‘the external appearance of well-being is’ can be clearly seen when we are suffering from anxiety or depression – it is very common to hear people say how much effort they put into appearing okay in front of others, even though the effort is costing them dearly. It is in fact no exaggeration to say that by implicitly valuing ‘how I seem’ more than ‘how I am’, I sacrifice the chance that I have to deal with my anxious, embarrassed or depressed feelings, and so I get stuck in them permanently. In the same way, by valuing our ‘theatrical happiness’ more than our true state of being, we effectively block our own psychological growth.

 

THE APPARATUS RUNS US

 

The overall point that we are making here about ‘illegitimate gains’ is simply that whatever happiness we experience when we are in the state of unconsciousness is of the theatrical variety, being ‘merely for show’. It’s not real, its only there to perpetuate the ongoing illusion. Equivalently, we could say that whatever happiness we experience within the context of the social meaning system (which is the same thing as the system of thought) is happiness of a strictly virtual nature, having nothing real or substantial to it at all. It’s a gimmick, and nothing more. This is a simple enough idea, but it is also – of course – too ‘controversial’ for anyone to (publicly, at least) take seriously. To say that this assertion is ‘controversial’ is of course not the right way to put it at all. It is not allowed for us to see this truth. We are not saying here that there is ‘no such thing’ as genuine happiness (and we aren’t saying that when you look around you none of the happiness you see is ‘true’) but what we are saying is that when we are socially adapted game-players who do not know that they are playing a game then inasmuch as everything about us is defined by ‘the invisible machine’ of our conceptual-rational apparatus we can never be happy since ‘happiness’ cannot arise out of an unreal game.

 

This apparatus runs us on a routine basis – it operates us and maintains us, and allows us as it does so the slender illusion of individuality and freedom. This illusion looks okay just as long as nothing drastic happens to put us under pressure. This is in fact a good way ‘test the illusion’ – by noticing how we behave when we are put on the spot’ by the provocation of extreme attraction or extreme aversion. Nobody really knows what they are made of (so to speak) until testing circumstances arise, and the plain fact of the matter is that when they do arise, we almost inevitably ‘revert to type’, which means manifesting good old-fashioned reactivity of a pure and unadulterated nature. This shows that ‘fear or greed’ is the master (albeit the hidden master) and this in turn shows that no true happiness can be found in what we are doing, since true happiness never ever arises as a consequence of a mechanical life. We all think that we are not mechanical, we all think that our life is not based on predetermined reactions, but when things get tough enough it is impossible to sustain this illusion. Under pressure we reveal ourselves to be mere ‘reaction machines’.

 

What this means is that situations characterized by difficulty are actually invaluable to us in terms of [1] teaching us something important about ourselves, and [2] giving us the opportunity to learn that . Within the world of pure ‘theatricality’ however, no such difficulties exist, since whenever there is a difficulty we instantly comfort ourselves with some kind of a theatrical triumph, which is to say, ‘solutions that are gained without us having to do any genuine work’. The downside of theatricality (or self-deception) is therefore that there exists within it no chance to grow or become the real individuals that we are. In a nutshell, this isn’t a healthy situation!

 

FAKE HEALTH

 

Far from being healthy, we could actually say that the state of unconsciousness is a sort of morbidity that passes itself of as health – it is ‘fake health’, so to speak. However, despite the fact that we have just said that the downside of the ‘comfort zone’ which is the unconscious life is that there is no opportunity within it for growth or meaningful change (since the whole point of a comfort zone is that it protects us from the pain that brings about growth and change), we can also say – at one and the same time – that the unconscious life unfailingly presents us with exactly the sort of difficulties that we need in order to grow and become more ‘whole’. The reason we can make these two opposing statements is because:

[1] The actual function of unconsciousness is to obvert the need for change

 

[2] The ‘scam’ doesn’t actually work as well as we would want it to (in fact it is fatally flawed)

 

UNCONSCIOUS SUFFERING

 

We can use the idea outlined above, the idea of ‘unconsciousness as the realm of self-deception’ to generate a way of looking at neurotic mental illness which is remarkably different from the orthodox medical ‘illness paradigm’. The basic idea is that neurosis is a function of mental health, inasmuch as it is the way in which mental pain which we have previously denied, finally becomes acknowledged. This ‘healthy’ theory of neurosis can be derived from two statements:

[1] The state of unconsciousness has the function of allowing us to escape from pain that is legitimately ours

 

[2] The capacity of the unconscious modality to allow us to escape from pain is finite, which is to say, it reaches a limit at some point, and then we find that we are worse off than ever…

 

The precise point at which we reach this limit is the end of our ability to self-deceive (or self-distract), and it corresponds to what we call anxiety. In anxiety I become very unquestioning and very unreflective in an unconscious attempt to maximize the power of self-deception (or ‘self-distraction). This is in the nature of a desperate or last ditch attempt to maintain the status quo, and because of the manifest desperation, the attempt is inherently distressing and obviously ‘dysfunctional’ (in terms of normal behaviour, at any rate). Anxiety corresponds to ‘viable limit’ of what Gurdjieff called unconscious suffering: we are in pain, and as usual our reaction to this is to exert ourselves mightily to distract ourselves from the pain, to refuse it. However, the mechanism by which we are habitually able to do this is – much to our horror – now faulty and it starts to let us down. As Jung says in his commentary to The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation,

The cooperation of the unconscious, which is something that we never think of and always take for granted is, when it fails, a very serious matter indeed.

The situation that we are talking about is a most unwelcome one, as may well be imagined, since although we are as committed as ever to avoiding pain, this is no longer a viable option for us. Furthermore, as Jung indicates, the whole point about an unconscious mechanism is that we do not acknowledge that it is there, and so when it starts to fail, we are completely shocked by what we perceive to be happening. This is a bit like a person who was for the whole of their life been allowed to get his or her own way in every little thing, and who is one day suddenly cast out into the real world where no one has the slightest interest or inclination in catering to their whims any more. This rude awakening has two aspects –

[1] The shock of having my will thwarted, and

 

[2] The shock of the realization that up to now I have been living in a fool’s paradise.

 

PAIN-DISPLACEMENT

 

We avoid pain by automatically reacting as soon as it happens, and we can react – as Chogyam Trungpa says – in one of two ways, either by acting out or by repressing. In the first case we displace the pain outwards, and in the second case we displace the pain inwards (i.e. we bury it). Either way, the pain gets translated instantly into activity of one sort of another – if I am acting out then the activity is obvious, and if I am repressing than it is not so obvious, although we know that it has to be there all the same since repression is control and control does not happen by itself. On the face of it, if I receive some sort of pain stimulus (i.e. the news that I have failed all my final exams), and if I react to this by crying, or by punching the wall, or by getting drunk, or whatever, then everyone will say that I am experiencing the pain.

 

Actually, however, I am acting out the pain, which is my way of not feeling it. I feel it, but at the same time as I feel it, I also engage myself in some activity, and that activity affords me some sort of release. Of course, it is true that I am not exactly having a great time, but it is also true that I am doing my level best to displace as much of the pain as I can. Alternatively, when I receive the bad news I may not seem to be affected at all, I may just shrug my shoulders and carry on as usual. But in this case I have displaced the pain inwards by exerting some sort of control over the meaning that the pain has for me. I might on the one hand play down the whole thing and say that I don’t care, and in this case my attitude of ‘not caring’ is the way that my internal controlling manifests itself. On the other hand, I may simply ‘blank out’ the news and refuse to focus on it, which is basically the same thing as ‘pretending that it didn’t happen’. This sort of thing is of course known to us all, and we call it denial.

 

In a less dramatic way, denial (or acting out) goes on the whole time since we automatically control the meaning of everything that happens to us in the course of everyday life. We do this on the most basic level simply by evaluating what is happening to us, since evaluation is our way of controlling the meaning of our perceptions. Reality may do as it pleases but I retain the privilege of giving its outcomes my stamp of approval or not. Agreeing or disagreeing with reality is my hidden power. Another way of putting this is to say that we control the meaning of our perceptions by ‘thinking about what goes on’, since no matter what happens, we can always obtain some modicum of satisfaction by thinking to ourselves that it shouldn’t have happened, or it oughtn’t to have happened (if so-and-so had been doing their job correctly), or it wouldn’t have happened, if only I had arrived two minutes earlier, etc, which basically comes down to ‘complaining’. All these little mental manoeuvres are designed to smudge or blur the actual fact that it did happen, to create for ourselves the sense that maybe there is some leeway – when in fact the whole point is that there is no such leeway. To see that there is absolutely no leeway at all (to see the immaculate impossibility of escape) would constitute ‘unconditionally accepting the pain’ and this is the last thing that we ever want to do. What we are looking at here is therefore a fundamentally important principle:

The perception of ‘zero leeway’ (which is to say, impossibility) is something that we experience the utmost resistance towards to – this fact is ironic in the extreme because the perception of impossibility is – if only we could see it – the very same thing as freedom.

 

SPIN DOCTORING

 

In general terms we can say that we avoid pain by means of an elaborate, fully-automated ‘reality-bending’ mechanism, otherwise known as our thinking. This mechanism works with beautiful smoothness most of the time, and we can characterize its action by saying that it is exactly the same as when I get an itch on my nose – the itch occurs and simultaneously I scratch it, and the net result of this operation is that I don’t really notice anything untoward happening. The instant follow-on from ‘stimulus’ to ‘automatic reaction’ is what we have been calling unconscious suffering, and just as long as I am able to scratch the itch when and where it occurs, then the actual pain (or frustration) of the itch is successfully avoided. Naturally enough, we do not see that our thinking has this all-important reality-bending function (which corresponds to repression, or ‘inwardly directed control’), but rather we focus on the function which our thinking has to outwardly control things – which is to say, we are much more inclined to acknowledge the fact that we bend reality by exerting our control on the outside world.

 

By ‘outwardly directed control’ we simply mean the skilful manipulation of the external environment (which includes our own bodies) and this sort of thing is what we might call the ‘legitimate’ function of thinking. Inwardly directed control comes down to the skilful and surreptitious manipulation of our own perceptions, for the sake of avoiding pain, and this corresponds to what we have been calling psychological games. Psychological games are ‘illegitimate’ in the sense that they are played for the sake of an illegitimate gain, but on the other hand we tacitly accept them ourselves as being legitimate just as long as we don’t have to be aware of ourselves carrying them out. It’s okay just so long as we don’t get caught! In other words, inwardly directed controlling goes on all the time, everywhere, but this is not something that we focus on since – as we have said – if we did so the ‘virtual gain’ that we obtain from this surreptitious controlling would be compromised.

 

What we can see from all this is the connection between our ability to be successful in the outside world, and our ability to be ‘successful’ in the inside world. Both ‘come from the same place’, as it were. Both depend on the unquestioning belief that I have in my own evaluations, and this ‘unquestioning belief’ is a direct function of me being passively identified with the System of Thought. To put it another way, my ability to perceive myself as a ‘successful self-contained controller’ (needing no saving grace from outside of my own ego) depends upon how unconscious I am – it depends upon the efficacy of the pain-avoidance system (or fear-avoidance system) that is the unconscious mind. The over-all point that we are making in this discussion is that what we call neurotic mental illness is actually a sign of health, in that it represents the way in which the 100% efficient operation of the unconscious (or ‘closed’) mind is compromised, and when I start to feel disempowered as a ‘successful self-contained controller’, then the anxiety that follows marks (potentially, at least) the beginning of the end of my ability to successfully self-distract.

 

ANXIETY

 

When we think about anxiety we tend to see it in terms of a loss in confidence in the efficacy of our ability to play the game. In other words, when we suffer from anxiety we are experiencing an insidious erosion in the belief that we have concerning our power to successfully avoid risk. In the plainest of terms, what this means is that I am perennially (and most distressingly) plagued with the feeling that ‘things are going to go wrong’. However, what we are saying is that the ability to play the game that we don’t know to be a game (which we rely upon for our peace of mind works) in two ways, outwardly and inwardly, and so the loss of confidence in this faculty that lies behind anxiety also works both ways. This double-betrayal (so to speak) leaves us ‘without a leg to stand on’, so to speak. When things go wrong (or threaten to go wrong) in the outside world my natural reaction is to put a comforting slant on reality. This is my ‘safe harbour’ when reality starts to get rough. So when I am anxious about things going wrong my fall-back ploy (so to speak) is my ability to put a hopeful slant on whatever is going on. A basic example would be were I keep telling myself over and over that “Everything is going to be okay…” This sort of thing is of course far from being uncommon, but what is uncommon is the recognition of the fact that what I am doing when I tell myself that ‘it’s going to be okay’ is actually lying to myself in order to obtain temporary comfort.

 

We don’t see it like this at all, and in fact we tend to look upon so-called ‘positive self-talk’ as a kind of a healthy thing to do – we see it as a way of counteracting the irrational negative outlook (i.e. the anxiety) that has taken control of us. However, when it comes down to brass tacks what I am basically doing is inventing an interpretation or evaluation of my situation that is more convivial to myself, and then endeavouring as hard as I can to believe the story that I have just told myself! The idea of actually observing the situation without putting any kind of a spin, either positive or negative, is never even mentioned – it is as if such a thing is utterly and absurdly ‘out of the question’. Yet the alternative to seeing what actually happens is for me to make a guess about the eventual outcome before it happens, and then immediately proceed to confuse this guess with reality, and become either hopeful or despairing (depending upon whether it is a positively or negatively biased guess). As usual, we are not saying that we should never make guesses or interpretations or evaluations about ‘what is going on’ – that would be ridiculous. However, what we are saying is this:

If we make a guess, an interpretation, an evaluation and then automatically take this to be more or less the same thing as ‘a perception of the true state of affairs then we have crossed over straightaway into the realm of unwitting self-deception, which is the ubiquitous mental modality of unconsciousness.

 

THE ‘REBOUND EFFECT’

 

We might at this point in the discussion make the valid objection that when we are afflicted with anxiety we’re just as likely (or perhaps even more likely) to come out with a constant stream of negative self-talk. Thoughts such as “It’s all going to go wrong” or “Something terrible is going to happen” or “I’m going to make an utter fool of myself” predominate. These too are evaluations that I have seized hold of as if they were the currency of absolute truth, but in this case how can I be said to be ‘lying to myself in order to obtain comfort’? This apparently incomprehensible ‘perversity of human nature’ (i.e. out-of-control negativity) comes down to the principle of compensation and what compensation means in this context is that

When I positively distort my perceptions of the world so as to avoid the sort of news that would cause me discomfort, then the period of time for which I can obtain the said ‘illegitimate gain’ is strictly finite, and when this period of time is all used up, then the law of compensation dictates that there must be a corresponding period of ‘negative’ distortion.

 

This idea is not hard to grasp, probably the simplest way is to envisage the positive distortion as a positive deformation of an elastic surface. For example, suppose I am in a rubber room and I push hard enough at one of the walls so as to make an indentation. When I get tired and cease applying positive pressure, then the wall springs back, but rather than simply springing back to the ‘unmodified position’, the position of zero displacement, it behaves as an oscillator (or pendulum) and swings out to a maximal point of negative displacement that is exactly equivalent to the maximal point of positive displacement. Thus, any change that I might think that I have effected on the ‘rubber room’ is in time rendered null by the principle of compensation.

 

It is harder to see why this elasticity is also going to be present in the abstract case of information input that has been displaced from a position of zero-bias (which is where no effort is being put in to interfere with anything) but we can argue the matter as follows. Given that it takes continuous active intervention (or energy-input) to change the emphasis so that one meaning is produced rather than any other, we can say that the result of ‘positive thinking’ has to be a ‘non-equilibrium state’. This has to be so by definition since a ‘non-equilibrium state’ is where a system ends up when it gets displaced by an input of energy into a position that is not otherwise stable. When I create a favourable view of my situation as a result of positive spin-doctoring then this picture of things is ‘out of equilibrium’ – it is unstable on its own, requiring constant maintenance in order to persist. When the active maintenance ceases, therefore, what will happen is that the system will move back towards the equilibrium position. However, in the absence of some damping mechanism the result of this is not simply a return to where the system was before, but rather an oscillation is set up which means that the favourable picture of my situation is replaced by the correspondingly unfavourable picture. In other words, there is going to be a backlash to my efforts in positive spin-doctoring.

 

This argument takes at least two things for granted. One is that it is impossible to keep the ‘system-of-managed-perceptions’ in a position of positive displacement the whole time, and the other – as we have said – is that there is no damping mechanism to prevent an oscillation setting in. If the first assumption were untrue, then this would mean that it is theoretically possible for me to lie to myself the whole time without there ever being any compensatory intervention from my psyche. Luckily, this does not seem to be the case. If the second assumption were untrue, then we would not expect to see cycles of euphoria and dysphoria, which we most definitely do see in the psychology of the everyday mind. It is possible to try an experiment to show this cyclic tendency simply by going around for an hour or two doing trying very hard to look at things in the best possible light – I might, for example, going around telling everyone how great I am and how wonderful my life is going to be, and generally trying to convince myself that everything is ‘wonderful’. The question is, when I give up the positive hype, will I return harmlessly to ‘normal’ (so to speak), or will I dip momentarily into ‘negative territory’?

 

CLOSING THE DOOR ON REALITY

 

There is another, subtler version of this experiment which involves deliberately trying to feel affection for someone. What we are talking about here is simply a form of sentimentality, which is where we engineer our own positive emotional response. It is possible to feel closer to someone on purpose, but it requires a certain amount of straining, and after I stop straining to obtain the desired result, what happens – so experience would seem to show – is that I feel colder and more removed from the person afterwards. There is an ‘elastic effect’: by straining to feel close, I end up feeling distant. This ‘elastic’ or ‘rebound’ effect can be more generally seen in the relationship between sentimentality and cruelty. The pretence of care inevitably masks a lack of care – after all, if I need to pretend to myself, then that takes it for granted that the genuine article is not there! It might have been there of course (at some point in the past) but once I assume that it isn’t, and decide moreover that I have to make up for the lack of affection with some effort of my own manufacture, then this effectively shuts the door on any authentic resolution of the situation.

 

This is the exact same thing that happens in anxiety – I jump to the conclusion, based on my limited rational understanding of my situation, that if I do not save myself, then nothing else is going to save me, and for this reason I take matters into my own inadequate hands and inevitably end resorting to self-deception as a way of sorting out (or trying to sort out) my problems. I try to pull myself up by my shoe-laces. The salvation that might have been there – if I had been prepared to risk it – is no longer a contender when I resort to self-deception since from this point onwards I am cut off from reality, and so nothing can help me. In my despair and ‘lack of faith’ I turn to illusion for help, and thereby shut the door on the possibility of an authentic resolution of my suffering. In effect, rather than give up the feeling of security that comes from ‘being in control’, I prefer to plunge into the hell of anxiety.

 

Of course, I don’t see it like this because once I am identified with the system of thought (which I am even more than usual in anxiety) then risk is seen as being synonymous with the greatest of all evils. Actually, from the very limited point of view of the system of thought, it is the ultimate evil, because risk equals the end of what the system of thought stands for – risk is uncertainty, it is ‘that which I know not’ and ‘that which I know not’ is a frightening thing when seen in a coldly logical way. Risk isn’t seen as frightening to consciousness, but it is by the thinking mind, which has to have everything in the right box. The irony here is that I am going though sheer torment on behalf of the system of thought, which struggles through me to perpetuate itself, despite the fact that its continued existence serves no useful end at all (except tautologically, except to itself, on its own terms. I cling to the known and seek to hold onto it whatever the price, whilst grimly ignoring that fact that it is only ‘known’ because I cling to it. This is the trap of anxiety in a nutshell – by clinging on I lose perceptive, and so it seems to me that I have no choice but to cling on and it is the clinging itself that causes the pain. The whole thing is a self-perpetuating delusion that comes about because of lack of insight – I cannot see that the illusion of self which I strive to protect only comes into being because of my striving, my protecting. The insight that is so hard to obtain may be formulated as follows:

The self that I suffer for is an artifact of my struggling – it only exists as function of my purposeful activity which ‘throws it up’, so to speak, as the all-too-powerful embodiment of my most basic and unquestionable assumption, which is that I am this (which I know) and not that (which I do not know). By fighting against uncertainty I fight against myself.

 

THE UNTENABLE POSITION

 

By identifying with ‘the known’ (which is only an illusion created by my attached way of thinking and perceiving) I identify with an untenable position, and from then on I am locked into the doomed struggle of anxiety. It seems to me that I am struggling to protect ‘myself’, but the truth is that I am struggling to protect an illusion, I am trying to protect an illusion from seeing that it is an illusion. The central problem is, as Wei Wu Wei says, is one of mistaken identity – I think I am ‘the known’, whereas in reality I am that which is both unknown and unknowable. The known has arbitrary boundaries and such boundaries always need defending, but the unknown, being without boundaries, needs no defending.

 

When I am identified with the limits which demark the boundaries of false self, then anxiety is ALWAYS going to be my lot, inasmuch as I am ALWAYS going to fear being drawn over these limits. But if I am not identified with any particular collection of arbitrary limits, then I won’t of course experience any anxiety when the time comes to go beyond them. When I experience myself as being ‘that which my mind tells me I am’, then I am a limited thing, a creature of boundaries, and in this case the boundaries which I believe so much in will cause me pain. On the one hand they will cause me pain because they restrict, contain me and thus cut me off from who I really am, and on the other hand they will cause me pain because I will believe it impossible for me to pass beyond them, which is at the same time not just a possibility but an inevitability. How can I not pass beyond the artificial boundaries of ‘what I am not, and yet at the same time take myself to be’?

 

The first type of pain translates into what we call ‘depression’ and the second ‘anxiety’. With regard to anxiety, my fear comes about because of my unexamined belief that I am this which is so demarked, which automatically means that when I pass the demarcations, then that is also the ‘end’ of me. Where it not for the fact that I have subscribed to this arbitrary belief, then passing into the unknown would not spell terror to me, but high adventure – even death would become an invitation that we would embrace, rather than shrink from. However, the whole point is that I am profoundly attached to my wretched limitations; I cherish them because of the (apparent) security they provide me with, and so I am forced to endure the anxiety that is attendant upon them.

 

THE GREAT ILLUSION

 

If we slightly alter the definition of ‘unconsciousness’ from ‘the capacity to successfully self-distract’ or ‘the capacity to successfully displace legitimate pain’ then we can see more clearly the necessary relationship between it, and the condition of anxiety. We simply need to consider that

Psychological unconsciousness is the state within which I am able to convincingly sustain the illusion that ‘I am in control’

 

‘Controlling’, in other words, is my comfort zone and whether I control with apparent effectiveness or with manifest ineffectiveness it doesn’t matter since as long as I can believe in the possibility of successful control I can live in hope. As long as I can believe in my ability to control I can live in my ‘positive projections’ of security (which basically equals ‘myself’) and thus I do not need to face reality. The extreme of unconscious suffering – where we exert ourselves mightily despite not really getting anywhere by it – is anxiety. Anxiety may be said to be the ‘self-limiting end-point’ of neuroticism because it is on the edge of being conscious – it is unconscious suffering that is on the very verge of becoming conscious because of its manifest ineffectiveness.

 

Deep down, I know that my struggle is hopeless but I carry on all the same, and so what we have here is ‘the refusal to accept what I know’. Anxiety can be said to contain two contrasting elements –

[1] being the unreflective (‘reactive’ or ‘automatic’) nature of the activity which I am compulsively engaging in, and [2] being the repressed insight regarding the manifest ineffectiveness of this activity.

 

Anxiety is all about the conflict between what I know deep down to be true, and what I desperately want to be true. The overt element in anxiety is the trait of mechanical cognition and behaviour, taken to the extreme -since my aim to is seek refuge in the comfort zone of automatic reacting – and the hidden element is the germ of involuntary awareness, which is what I am fighting against. Anxiety is therefore all about blind unreflective doing, with little regard to whether this ‘doing’ actually achieves anything at all. In short:

Anxiety represents the self-limiting end-point of what is viable within the broad domain of ‘unconscious suffering’.

 

WHEN THE MECHANISM FAILS

 

In anxiety the mechanical (or ‘reactive’) activity which is the hallmark of unconsciousness is pushed to the extreme; anxiety is our last ditch (and blatantly ludicrous) attempt to control our beliefs about what is happening, our last ditch attempt to deceive ourselves, in fact. Purposeful behaviour is maximized, but at the same time this barrage of purposeful behaviour is strangely hollow, which is to say – I don’t really believe in it. It is almost as if I am merely ‘going through the motions’ – I am protesting just for the sake of protesting. I am not really expecting anyone (or the universe in general) to pay the slightest heed to my protests, and yet it is all the same supremely important to me that my protests should be heeded.

 

There is in other words an absolute conflict going on here: on the one hand I am no longer able to believe wholeheartedly that I can escape, and on the other hand it matters to me more than anything else in the world that I should be able to escape. This absolute conflict between ‘the way things are’ and the ‘way I want thing to be’ constitutes my greatest fear. My response in anxiety is to avoid the pain of the conflict at all costs, and it is this unexamined refusal to accept the legitimate pain of the situation which drives me to do my utmost to avail of mechanism of unconsciousness (which is to say, self-distraction) in order to save myself from it, despite the fact that I am evidently no longer able to successfully use this mechanism anymore! There is therefore a cruel ‘twist’ right in the heart of anxiety, and the twist is this:

The thing that has me panicked in the first place is the dawning insight that the power which I used to have to distract myself is now flawed or unreliable, and yet the only way I have of dealing with this frightening insight is that same flawed or unreliable ‘power of self-distraction’.

 

TRYING TO PRETEND YOU ARE OKAY WHEN YOU KNOW YOU’RE NOT…

 

 

Anxiety and the state of unconsciousness go hand in hand. Of course, if there were such a thing as a 100% effective means of faking mental health (which is to say, if the scam of unconsciousness wasn’t fatally flawed) then there simply wouldn’t be any such thing as anxiety. How could there be – whenever a difficulty came along, I would simply delude myself about it, and then rest content in my ‘unreal victory’ over the problem! However, the fact that any peace of mind or contentment that I experience when in the state of unconsciousness is dependent upon me being successful in controlling the way I see things, and being simultaneously successful in avoiding seeing my own hand in this, means that there is always going to be a chance of things going wrong. If my happiness is dependent upon me seeing things in a certain way, then there is anxiety. As long as there is dependence upon successful controlling, and successful avoidance of seeing this controlling, then I can never truly relax – the best I can do is to kid myself that I am relaxed (whilst being secretly ‘uptight’ the whole time). Put very simply:

If my sense of well-being is dependent upon my own skilful manipulation (rather than any independent or ‘intrinsic’ factor), then I am always going to be secretly or overtly anxious.

 

Anxiety is inseparable from the system of thought since we are constructing (or understanding) both ourselves and the world we live in on the basis of a restriction-that-we-cannot-see-as-such, which is the same thing as saying that we construct our whole world on the basis of a lie. Psychologically speaking, this sort of an idea is of course highly familiar, and it is what we all call ‘denial’. Denial is fundamentally and quintessentially anxiogenic – the endeavour we are investing absolutely everything in is by definition a doomed one, and so a repressed or unacknowledged sense of doom pervades all of our affairs like a bad smell that no amount of ventilation or air-freshener can get rid of it. Anxiety can therefore be defined an indirect perception of the impossibility of what we are trying to do. Alternatively, and more long-windedly, we can put it like this:

 

Anxiety is the apparently inexplicable sense of incipient failure and nameless foreboding that I am faced with as a result of an unsuccessfully repressed awareness that I am somehow leaving something vitally important out of the equation. I cannot help knowing – on some level – that if this is the case, then there is no way at all in which anything I do can ever help. The doom that I sense is not an illusion, therefore, but an accurate (if unwanted) insight. What I cannot see when I am in the throes of anxiety is that the thing which I have ‘left out of the equation’ is nothing other than reality itself. The struggle in anxiety is therefore ‘back-to-front’ in nature because I am struggling to ‘get by’ without reality, when this is of course an absolute impossibility!

 

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