Seeing the Trick


The notion of ‘a convention which implicitly represents itself as not being a convention’ isn’t as foreign to our thinking as it may first appear. A very familiar example of this sort of thing would be the Wizard in The Wizard of Ozz who as we all know was unmasked in one of the final scenes of the movie as a totally reprehensible fraud. The illusion carrier is the Wizard as he actually is (i.e. an incongruously ineffectual, unimposing and rather pathetic figure), and the illusion is the thunderously portentous and overwhelmingly impressive image that he generates with his various gizmos.


Another example would the sea-front of a typical English seaside town. Seaside towns, as is well known, present two totally different faces depending upon the season. In the height of the holiday season the illusion-projecting machinery is working to the very limit of its capacity and if you are prepared to enter gaily into the spirit of things (as you might possibly be under such circumstances, particularly if you happen to be a child) then the seafront is truly a vibrant and magical place, full to the brim with all sorts of exciting possibilities. In the depths of the off-season of course, it is a very different story: all the paraphernalia, all the trappings, are still there but now they are revealed in all their tawdry shoddiness. Instead of the purposeful hustle and bustle of a teeming seaside town, there are boarded-up arcades, abandoned funfairs and closed-down fast food joints. Garishly-painted signs creak as they swing to and fro in the driving rain that sweeps in more or less constantly from pitiless grey skies. Basically, there is a strong air of humbug about the place, and if you happened to be poetically inclined, you might find yourself strangely moved by the general pathos. There is no doubt or confusion at all regarding which is the ‘illusion’ and which the ‘illusion carrier’.


The ‘illusion’ is basically the intended aspect – the aspect we are meant to see. But every intended aspect covers up (or distracts from) the unintended aspect and of the two the unintentional face is clearly the true one. A seaside town, in the summer season, puts on its attractive and enticing face – this is how we are ‘meant to see it’. In the winter months there are of course no punters there to attract and entice and so the place is left ‘as it actually is’, which is what tends to strike us with a certain indefinable poignancy. This is just like catching your neighbour (if she is of that disposition, that is) early one morning without her make-up on, when you have only ever seen her ‘made-up and ready to face the world’, which is to say, as she wishes to be seen. Of course (going back now to our ‘seaside town’ analogy) even in high summer, if we are not wholeheartedly prepared to avail of the pleasures that are on offer, then we will be able to see quite clearly just how dreadfully tacky it all is. Seeing the tackiness equals ‘seeing through the illusion’; when I have such an awareness it means that I have left behind a certain type of naivety – I have penetrated beneath the ‘freshly minted exterior’ (the intentional aspect) to see the tired old show that is going on underneath it (the unintentional aspect) – I am able to recognize the cliché for what it is.




Our discussion of a seaside town leads us to an even more precise analogy of the idea that we are trying to get at, and that is the analogy of the ‘penny arcade’. Suppose that I am a typical punter and I am there with my change in my pocket, lured by the exciting possibility of ‘winning on the machines’. Everything in the environment of the arcade contributes to this air of excitement – the bright pictures, the exotic images, the background music, the various sounds of all the machines and games in action. When I am in this frame of mind (the frame of mind in which I am hungry to obtain what is being so enticing offered to me) I am finely tuned into the environment around me – I am reading it, and the messages encoded in it are 100% meaningful to me. All this is simply another way of saying that the ‘lures’ which are being dangled in front of my nose are unrestrictedly potent in terms of their power to motivate me. My attention is completely absorbed – the environment has me completely pinned-down, it has me exactly where it wants me.


Now what we are saying is that when I am adapted to the external authority of the designed environment, then the threats and promises held out by that environment have maximum meaning to me. The ‘power of illusion’ is at a premium, it holds absolute sway over me. The activity that I am engaged in is therefore also meaningful to me at this point, and so we can say that I am ‘motivated to the maximum’ (although the truth of the matter is that the motivation in question originates from the system and is not ‘mine’ at all). But let us say that you walk into this arcade and you are not so naïve as me. One way of understanding this lack of naivety would be to say that you understand perfectly well that there is actually zero possibility of you (on any long term basis) beating the system and coming out on top. You understand that in games of pure chance the laws of statistics rule absolutely in the long term, and so whatever gains you may make one minute will unfailingly be lost a bit later on. Because of this clear understanding, your motivation to ‘try to win’ will not be so strong, and instead of appearing to offer all sorts of possibilities, the arcade environment will actually look grubbier and unappealing and basically a lot more ‘sterile’.


Another, more profound, way of looking at this question of ‘not being naïve with regard to gambling on the slot machines’ would be to look at what would happen if you were not simply ‘uninterested because you understand that the odds are against you’, but ‘uninterested because any sense of meaningfulness with regard to what you stand to gain (i.e. the money) has completely abandoned you’. This sounds like a highly unlikely state of affairs to say the least – under what possible conditions could money be a meaningless proposition to us? Naturally there are some such conditions, although they are rare enough. One would be when I am in the grip of pure terror and another would be when I am profoundly depressed. Another would be when I am in love or in a state of Non-Dual Consciousness! In all these situations money quite frankly means nothing to me.


The point that we are trying to make here is of course that money is a ‘convention’, which is to say, there isn’t any ultimate meaning to it at all, it only possesses meaning in relation to the game that we play with it. Just for the sake of the argument then, let us say that money is – at this moment in time at least – a profoundly meaningless concept to you and that the acquisition of it does not motivation you in the least. Because of your lack of interest in the ‘lure’, the whole arcade set-up is revealed as it actually is – you see it in its unintended aspect. You see it as you are not supposed to see it! Instead seeing it as a place in which you might potentially obtain something worthwhile, you perceive as a place which offers nothing at all, a place of zero possibilities. The ‘perception of sterility’ which occurs when we are not adapted to the external authority (when we are not ‘playing the game’) is in total contrast to how we see things when we are adapted, when we are seeing the game.




We can therefore say that ‘the perception of fertile possibilities when there are none’ is the illusion, and when we see that where we are is in fact a sterile environment, this is concomitant with ‘seeing the carrier of the illusion’. More generally speaking, when we are adapted to the system of thought, then the illusions which it produces become real to us, and when we are in the state of ‘non-adaptation’ to the system (i.e. when we have an independent viewpoint) then we are able to see through the illusions, and they no longer have the power to compel us. We started off by looking at how we can differentiate between ‘the illusion’ and ‘the carrier of the illusions’, linking this with previously established notions of ‘a convention that does not declare itself as such’, and ‘a convention which happily acknowledges that it is indeed a convention’. The implication of this, then, is that not only is the illusion and illusion, but so too is the illusion-carrier (when it comes right down to it). Therefore, a word that implicitly presents itself as being objectively meaningful (i.e. a word that portrays itself as having a ‘literal rather than metaphorical’ relationship to some independently existing facet of reality) is ‘the illusion’, whereas the same word, when it hangs flatulently in the air like the tired, redundant cliché it is, is ignominiously revealed as ‘the illusion carrier’.


The musician Steve Hillage speaks of –

…the harmful, consciousness-distorting effects of the artificial elemental spirits (zypes) formed around each word of everyday language.


The zypes are built up by the identification process by which we manufacture ‘reality’. Occultists refer to them as ‘astral glamour’, yogis as ‘the web of Maya’…


When the illusion carrier is seen as the illusion carrier then the zype is exposed as being a zype, and nothing else. The zype itself is itself merely an empty phantom but when we are intoxicated by the ‘astral glamour’ that attaches to it then we don’t at all see it for what it is. We couldn’t be further from seeing it! The zype is veiled by its glamour and we don’t see beneath the veil to the distinctly unappealing reality that lies concealed beneath. We could also say that the glamour (the illusion) is a tautology that carries itself off as real information, and ‘the convention when it is seen as a convention’ is the ‘unveiled tautology’, but the point here is that a tautology is an exercise in saying nothing whilst appearing to say something, and so – ultimately speaking – the tautology cannot be said to ‘exist’. It can’t exist because the whole point of saying that the tautology is a tautology is that there is nothing there to exist. There’s nothing there to not exist either.




The Vedantic and Buddhist convention is to say that the world which we pragmatically inhabit has the nature of a trick or ‘magic show’ – it is samsara, the realm of misleading appearances in which we endlessly lose ourselves. We live out our lives in samsara because of our attachments, because we are driven helplessly by negative attachment towards our attractive mental projections, and negative attachment towards our attractive mental projections. Greed and fear (attraction and aversion) is what it is all about. Another way of explaining this state of affairs is to say that it is as if we were perennially wondering around a limitless circus or funfair, alternatively being pleasantly and unpleasantly distracted by all the garish diversions and entertainments.


A typical Western response might be to ask why it is so bad to be diverted or entertained. There must be a place for the funfair, or its equivalent, surely? Work isn’t everything, after all. Somehow we almost always manage to miss the horrific implications of this idea. But suppose that the power-of-illusion inherent in samsara is so effective, so completely efficient at capturing and holding our attention, that we never actually leave ‘the arena of our waking dreams’? Shantideva, writing in eighth century India, was notably insistent on this point (from Conze. 1959. p 107. Buddhist Scriptures. Penguin.):

It is no easier to deny the urges of a man who has not seen the real truth, and who finds himself standing in the fairground of the sensory world, fascinated by its brightness, than it is to deny those of a bull who is eating corn in the middle of a cornfield.


Let us further suppose that not only do we never manage to leave, but that in fact we do not have even the remotest understanding that it is possible to leave. It is at this point in the argument that the nature of our situation starts to become clear – we are imprisoned in the most thorough way possible because we are imprisoned whilst thinking the whole time that we are free. We are imprisoned because we automatically assume that there is ‘nothing else’ than what we know and are tediously familiar with. Since our unexamined – and therefore unchallengeable – belief is that ‘the explicit or positive world is the beginning and the end’ this necessarily condemns us to a life in which all we can do is to try our best to repress (or act out) the sense of angst that permanently afflicts us. The game thus becomes progressively grimmer and grimmer as we do our best to ignore the darkness that lies under the surface of our superficially-meaningful lives…

‘Angst’, in this context, can be explained as ‘the unexamined awareness of the fact that we exist in some sort of sterile mental prison’ and the only escape that we can see (not that we usually think it out so explicitly) is to throw ourselves into the superficial diversionary activities that are provided for us as hard as ever we can, in the hope that we don’t have to see the horrendous truth. Put like this, the idea of the universal ‘samsaric funfair’ begins to appear rather less innocuous than it might initially have done. For from being ‘a harmless distraction’ it is distinctly sinister. This is the other side of the funfair.


Samsara (or ‘unconscious living’) is a ‘fun’ fair – in a superficial kind of a way – but it’s also a ‘misery’ fair! It’s The Fairground but it’s also ‘The Unfairground’, to use Kevin Ayer’s term. It’s both at the same time. It is ‘superficial fun masking underlying pain’, and so what we’re calling ‘fun’ here (i.e. ‘the fun of unconscious life’) is actually denied suffering. What we’re calling ‘fun’ isn’t therefore that much fun at all when we actually look into it!


This is the very same as saying that pleasure (which we spend all our time chasing) is denied pain. It is. There’s no doubt about it! This being the case (as it is) then why are we always chasing it?


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