Handing Over Freedom to the Rule-Based Mind

anxious robot

Anxiety – we might say – is an unavoidable consequence of the psychological ‘switch-over’ that takes place when conscious intention gets replaced by sense of duty. Anxiety comes about as an inevitable consequence of me freely agreeing to hand over my freedom to a collection of rules, in other words. The difference between ‘conscious intention’ and ‘a sense of duty’ is that a conscious intention is essentially free, which means that I do what I do because I sincerely want to do it, whilst a sense of duty is an unfree motivation since I do whatever it is that I do because I know I will feel bad if I don’t! Maybe in my heart I don’t want to carry out the task at all but I do it all the same because I feel that I ‘ought’ to do it. Basically, I am being pressurized by some a motivational force that comes from outside of me, and this obviously makes ‘a sense of duty’ a completely different kettle of fish from free choice. With ‘free choice’ there are no rules.


The second type of motivation is not ‘conscious’ – I am not conscious of where my motivation is coming from. I might perhaps know that I’m under pressure (under certain conditions) but I never look into where this pressure is coming from. I’m too busy trying to alleviate the pressure by doing what it wants me to do to get curious about it; my job is ‘obeying the rule’, not looking into it! I don’t question the need that I am experiencing to do X, Y or Z in other words but rather I put all my energy into trying to figure out how best to obey the need. A ‘rule’ is what we might call an ‘external source of authority’ – it isn’t my choice but a choice that has already been made for me. This is the whole point about rules after all – if there is a rule saying that I should always do my homework before settling down to watch TV then this isn’t free choice on my part, it is quite the opposite of that. A rule tells us what to do in no uncertain terms and means that there is no need whatsoever for me to reflect on the matter. All I need to do is to follow the rule. “Rules is rules!” we say, with undisguised satisfaction, and that’s the end of the matter. There’s no flexibility to be had, and lack of flexibility is precisely where the satisfaction come from…


Now we are not saying that rules aren’t sometimes useful or that we shouldn’t have any rules (which would be a rule in itself). What we are saying is that the state of mind in which I follow rules that have been laid down for me (either by myself or by others) is a state of mind in which I have ‘handed over responsibility for what I am doing’. Psychologically speaking, this is a dodge (i.e. an easy way out) precisely because I don’t have to think about things. I don’t have to meet the situation ‘as if for the first time’, and so instead of being a unique situation that doesn’t come with a ready-made answer it becomes generic. “It is not up to me, it’s the rules…” we say, positively oozing with smug satisfaction as we metaphorically wash our hands of any responsibility. There’s no choice – things just have to be this way. There is a ready-made answer.




This is also why we like ‘making up our minds’ about things – we can’t bear the feeling of not knowing what to think and not knowing what to do, and so we just pick something and stick to it no matter what. This is exactly the same thing as ‘handing over responsibility to a rule’ because once we have made the rule (once we have formulated an opinion, or decided on a course of action) then we are absolved of the need to think about it any more. “That’s it.” I say, “I’ve made up my mind and there will be no more talk about it…” The same thing applies to judgements that we might make about people that we meet – what I usually tend to do is to jump to some conclusion about what sort of person you are and from this point on it is quite hard to change my mind. The way I think is governed by rules that I myself choose – I freely agree to follow the rule but then the rule traps me. What’s more, it actually suits me to be ‘trapped’ in this way.


Another important example of ‘making up my mind’ is despair, or any other example of what we call ‘negative thinking’. What happens here is that I say to myself that the worst possible outcome (whatever that is) is the one that is going to happen and once I decide on this then I’m trapped in the belief. It’s an irreversible process, so to speak. I have dug a hole for myself and jumped in – which was perfectly easy – but once in the hole I find that I cannot so easily jump out! I have made a determinate reality for myself where before there was no such thing. Once again I am doing this strange thing of ‘freely choosing to be unfree’, and once again the reason I do this is because – in some way – it secretly suits me to be trapped like this. In some way, there’s security in it.


This sort of thing happens when we are in mental or emotional pain, or when we are afraid, and it represents a way in which we can ‘escape’ (in a funny sort of way) from our predicament. Of course, we don’t really escape the situation but what we do escape from is the need to actually learn from the difficult time that we are going through. Instead of directly experiencing the feeling, and seeing where it gets me, I ‘make up my mind about it’ – I have some sort of a definite thought about it, I evaluate what is going on and from then on it is a closed book. “That’s it.” I say, “We’ll have no more talk about it…!” The beauty of this is that because I have thought about it once (and made up my mind) I don’t have to think about it again – ever. What we are saying here is that when I make a negative evaluation of my situation there is a perverse sort of a satisfaction that I get from this, in fact I am just like one of those ‘prophets of doom’ who sometimes walk up and down the streets announcing that the world is due to end on next Tuesday.




There are other ways we could talk about habits perhaps but what we are going to say here is simply that habits are ‘psychological rules’. The first time I figure out how to do something it is hard because I have to go through the painful and often confusing process of learning. Once I get the hang of a particular method I tend to stick to it and then the method in question becomes a habit. A habit is a rule-based behaviour and the great thing about a habit is of course that I don’t have to think about it. I don’t have to break into a sweat wondering what is the right way and what is the wrong way – I just do it the same old way I always did it. The old way becomes the ‘right way’ merely because it is the only way I know and am comfortable with. In this it is just like tradition – we do it this way because we have always done it this way. I am trapped in my habit, but at the same time I obtain comfort out of this.


The ‘advantage’ of a habit is (as we have said) that we don’t have to think about it, and the disadvantage is that it is inflexible (i.e. we don’t have any choice in it). This in turn means that when we aren’t able to continue with our habitual behaviour pattern, we are going to experience great distress and anxiety. Basically, we have become addicted to the security of our habits and so we are convinced that we cannot cope without them. In general, we only feel secure when we are able to get the world to work out in accordance with our rules, and so life becomes one long uphill struggle to get things to happen the way we want them to. This really is a serious disadvantage because at best it makes life into a joyless chore, and at worse it creates bucket-loads of anxiety as we constantly worry and fret about things ‘not happening the right way’.




All of these examples show just how many different ways there are to look at this idea of ‘handing over responsibility to the rule’. There are two basic types of rule that we can identify: [1] is a ‘social rule’, which is a rule that I have learned from my upbringing and [2] is a ‘personal rule’, which is a rule that I have made up for myself. In a way we can say that these are two different very types of rule, but in another way they aren’t so different after all because they both come down to the same thing in the end –

In both cases I have unknowingly ‘switched-over’ from the open (or ‘learning’ mode) to the closed (or rule-based) mode of mental functioning


Because the second mode is by definition the ‘easy way out’, what tends to happen is that we spend almost all of our time in the rule-based mode of mental functioning. This is easy and what is more, it might well appear that rule-based thinking ‘does the job’ well enough. I seem to get by, and what’s more there is generally bucket-loads of social validation for ‘doing things by the book’. Society is a collection of people who have tacitly agreed to operate according to a certain set of rules regarding how we see the world and how we behave in the world and so this necessarily means that our minds are already ‘made up’. There’s no uncertainty or ambiguity when it comes to following the rules and ‘following the rules’ is what we’re doing. As we have been saying however, there is always a price to pay for taking the easy way out. To put it very simply, spending all the time in ‘closed mode’ is not good for our mental health.




We can use a simple example to explain this should be. Suppose that I once got knocked over by a car when crossing the road and that as I result I have developed a kind of a phobia about crossing busy streets. I get indecisive and hover about on the curb, making lots of stops and starts. Now let us also say that I develop a sort of coping strategy which involves always crossing the road when there are other people crossing at the same time. Instead of looking at the road to see if there are any cars approaching, what I do is to follow the lead of the person next to me so when they cross the road, I cross the road.


This seems to work fine because I don’t have to take the responsibility of deciding when it is safe to cross, and so I can successfully avoid that difficulty. I have avoided my problem by using ‘an external authority’ or ‘rule’ – the rule in question being that when the person next to me crosses, then I too can cross. Although this works well enough in practice (unless the other person is drunk, accident-prone or actively suicidal) we can easily see that it is not a really a very healthy state of affairs. The fact that I can get by reasonably well using this method of handing over responsibility isn’t a good thing because it means that I am able to get away with not facing my problem. My method ‘empowers’ me to not grow as a person; it empowers me to not face reality.




The ‘switch over’ in this example is the switch over from ‘making the choice myself’ to ‘letting someone else (or a system of inflexible rules) make the choice for me’ and once we put it like this it is easy to see that this is a very common sort of a thing in everyday life. We do it all the time, in a hundred-and-one different ways. When I am in the rule-based mode, I am never bothering to look at my situation afresh each time but instead I am lazily following my rules for ‘what I should do in such-and-such a situation’. This usually seems to work okay and so it becomes second nature to me. Funnily enough, I don’t even realize what I am doing and if you were to come up to me and try to point out what is going on I would indignantly deny it. I’m doing it without seeing that I’m doing it. I’m handing over responsibility but I’m not seeing that I’m doing so – I’m not taking responsibility for not taking responsibility! The rule-based mode is the same thing as ‘the state of psychological unconsciousness’ therefore and the key thing about psychological unconsciousness is that I am ‘unfree without realizing that I am unfree’. In other words, I am following rules without realizing that I am following rules.




The reason I do not realize that I am following rules is because I get so used to obeying the external authority of my conditioning that I very quickly end up internalizing it. What this means is that rather than seeing it as something that comes from ‘outside’ of me, I relate to the rule as if it comes from ‘inside’. It’s not someone else’s opinion, it is my own. This is exactly the same sort of thing as ‘brainwashing’. The typical idea we have of brainwashing is for example when I join a group of people (a cult) who all share the same strongly defined belief, and through a process of conforming (or adaptation), I end up having the exact same belief as everyone else in the group. The point about this is that the ‘brainwashed’ person doesn’t feel as if he or she is being forced to follow someone else’s belief, they actually relate to the belief as if it were their own. I feel like this externally-originated belief is ‘what really I think’.


What we do not tend to realize is that society as a whole is just a very big cult, and as fully paid-up cult members we are just as brainwashed as the unfortunate hypothetical person we were talking about a minute ago! This is a point that sociologists have made back in the nineteen seventies: during the process of socialization when we are young we pick up values and ideas from our family and from society as a whole, and we internalize them so that we think they are our own values and ideas. So when I come out with such-and-such an opinion I think that it is my opinion that I am voicing, whilst actually it is a value from outside of me that I have internalized. These internalized rules are often called our ‘conditioning’. Conditioning is the way we have been trained to think about ourselves and the world we live in. When we are ruled by our conditioning we are ‘psychologically unconscious’ – i.e.

We have successfully handed over the responsibility that we have for ‘thinking for ourselves’ to some convenient external authority without actually realizing that we have done so




Another way of explaining this is to say that our conditioning provides us with psychological security – having a very definite and unquestionable belief (or system of beliefs) gives us a sort of ‘mental comfort’. Basically, we obtain a false sense of well-being out of our beliefs and the reason we can say that it is ‘false’ is because beliefs are never identical to reality. Beliefs are certain and unchangeable which means that once we understand what the belief says, then ‘that is it forever’. Reality however is not like this at all because reality is all about learning – reality is a journey rather than a terminal destination. We have a problem with this however because there is no security in it for us, and so we substitute our static beliefs for dynamic reality; as a result of looking for security in this way we end up living in the unchanging world of our own ideas. We live in the prepackaged (generic) world that our conditioning shows us, which is not at all the same thing as ‘the world as it is in itself’, which is never generic.


The point here is that it isn’t quite right to say that conditioning is something that is done to us against our will. In a way it is because no one asks our permission to fill our heads with ideas when we are kids, but in another way it isn’t because we are only too keen to avail ourselves of the psychological security that the conditioning brings us. The bottom line is that having reality defined for us in this way suits us very well indeed. We want the external authority to do our thinking for us and that’s why it’s there. We may get ‘up tight’ or ‘stressed out’ when the world doesn’t function as we think it ought to, but we are strangely comfortable in our rigid outlook and this comfort is very important to us. It is so important that we would rather go through hell rather than simply give it up (even though we don’t know that this is the choice that we are making).




The idea here is that we have done a sort of a deal. We hand over our freedom to deal with reality directly and autonomously (without of course acknowledging that this is what we have done) and in return we obtain psychological security. Anxiety can be seen as an inevitable consequence of ‘handing over freedom’ simply because when we hand over our freedom we are at the mercy of compulsions. Talking about compulsions or compulsivity in general is just another way of talking about rules really because a compulsion (i.e. a feeling that we have to do something or other) is simply the tangible expression of a rule. A compulsion is how a rule influences us. We obtain a sense of psychological security from having unquestionable rules, from being able to shrug our shoulders (so to speak) and say “What can I do – that’s just the way things are…” but the flip-side of this deal is that I am now at the mercy of my fears.


Handing over freedom means that I no longer have the ability to see that I chose to see the world in a certain way – I am now unable to see that I freely chose to believe in ‘the rule’ to start off with and that means that I have to take it all seriously. I have made my bed, and now I must lie on it. To put it another way – I chose to believe in a certain fixed reality and now I can’t help believing in it. I am stuck in my belief, which means that I don’t see it as a belief but as the real and unchangeable truth. The unintended but inevitable consequence of handing over freedom is therefore that I am now totally at the mercy of my fears – I am at the mercy of my fears because I can’t help believing in the rules and if I am no longer able to follow the rules then I can’t help seeing this outcome as being totally unacceptable. There’s no leeway, in other words – I simply have to obey the rules.


I cannot question the rules and so my only option is to try to obey them to the best of my ability and so if I start to feel that I can’t the rule turns against me and instead of providing me with security it supplies me with fear. As long as I am able to successfully obey the rules everything is fine and I don’t have a care in the world. This is the comfortable side of unconsciousness – the side that we like. The other side of the deal however is revealed when we can no longer do what the rules want us to do and we then discover ourselves in an impossible position – the rules aren’t cutting us any slack at all and yet there’s no possibility of obeying them. Our own rigidity (which seemed to be benefitting us at first because of the way it made everything easy for us) is working against us. It is our rule-based rigidity that is the problem because this rigidity is precisely what is making our lives so hard. The ‘deal’ – which seemed such a good one at the time – is now revealed as not so good at all. Whatever I gained in terms of easy security I am now paying for in the currency of anxiety and fear.




It can be seen from this discussion that the only way I can become free from the curse of anxiety is to regain the freedom to question my rules, which means taking back responsibility for them. I cannot take back my freedom by any sort of deliberate action however. If I try to obtain freedom on purpose, by deliberate action, then this implies that I am not free, but I can somehow become free if I try hard enough. This is classic counterproductive thinking – thinking that works against me. If I make an assumption that I am not free, then anything I do on the basis of this assumption carries that assumption with it – everything I do will be an expression of my ‘assumed lack of freedom’. I cannot escape my situation by fighting against it. Everything I do will be ‘me fighting against my lack of freedom’ and this struggle is itself unfree!


Clearly, me fighting in an unfree (or compulsive way) against my own lack of freedom is not ever going to me anywhere. What is needed is not action but insight – insight means I see that I am already free. When I clearly see that I am freely giving away my freedom (which is to say, when I see that am I freely agreeing that the rule shall be a rule) then I can’t help seeing that I was actually free all along. I was only tricking myself that I wasn’t free and the expression of my freedom is not to fight against my conditioning (and make a rule that I mustn’t obey the rule) , but to realize that I don’t have to fight at all. If I’m free not to fight against my own lack of freedom then this means I must be free after all….


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