Thesis and Antithesis

White Rabbit

According to the Model of Pragmatic Information there are two types of information – ‘novelty’ and ‘confirmation’. Novelty is information that makes no sense to us as it, in fact not only does it maintain a mockingly (and frighteningly) sphinx-like inscrutability at all times, it actually threatens the thing that most precious of all to us – the unexamined basis of our positive knowledge system! Novelty is a type of universal acid that has the capacity to dissolve everything that it comes across.


Confirmation on the other hand is information that does make sense to us – one could say that it is information that ‘humours us’ since it is in fact no more than our own unconscious prejudices reflected back at us. Confirmation is therefore ‘invisibly biased information’ (skewed information without us being able to see the skew); we can’t see the skew or bias because we take it for granted, because we have adapted to it, and so for us the bias is not a bias. When I am allowing myself to be humoured in this way, the two poles of subject (which is the ‘bias-that-is-me’) and object (which is necessarily constructed on the basis of the biased information that I am receiving about the world) constitute an organizationally closed system. In addition to this, we can also say the following:


Confirmation is made up of a pair of complementary opposites, where only one opposite is emphasized (or visible) at any one time.


Since all opposites (without exception) exist in pairs, it goes without saying that we cannot simply ‘do away’ with the complementary opposite to the one that we are emphasizing, but what we can do it to exclude its existence from our awareness. Rationality is in fact founded upon this possibility – the whole ‘positive universe’, in all its glory, comes into being because (and only because) of our ability to do this trick. Although we can experience each opposite individually (or separately), this does not mean that we get to experience one opposite without experiencing the other opposite a bit later on. The only leeway that we have gained is the leeway to introduce a bit of a ‘time lag’ into the equation so that it seems at the time as if we have the power to separate the opposites. We certainly do not have the ability to genuinely separate YES and NO – we simply have the theatrical ability to do so, which is obviously another thing altogether. To put this another way, ‘the only power we have is the power to self-deceive’.


Confirmation is therefore theatrical information, which simply means that it is apparent (or virtual) information; it seems to be genuine information at the time, and in a strictly conditional sort of a way it is – it is genuine honest-to-goodness information until the time comes for the antithesis to come into play. Once we understand that thesis and antithesis are the two sides of the same coin, then we can’t go wrong. We can’t (legitimately) treat the thesis as information unless we look at the antithesis at the same time, and then obviously the sum of the two is exactly the same as if we had never made any statement in the first place. When we see thesis and antithesis simultaneously, without any time lag, then this is novelty rather than confirmation.




To sum up, what we are saying the freedom that I have in the realm of theatricality (i.e. rationality) is the freedom to momentarily separate [+] and [-]. I can obtain a positive gain and there is a time lag before I incur the reversal of this gain. The essential ‘gain’ here is the capacity to make a positive statement in the form of “such-and-such is definitely true” – I have gained in terms of my ability to describe the universe and so what I have won is positive knowledge. The brief period in which I am able to act as if this positive knowledge is absolutely true (rather than just conditionally true) is the period of my theatrical triumph. During this period I am, as we have said before, unassailable, and no power may stand against me. The more entrenched I get however, the more painful it is when I am ultimately overthrown, and this is why the price of theatrical freedom (samsaric existence) is said to be suffering.


In this context, Wei Wu Wei (in his book Open Secret) uses the metaphor of a coin spinning in space, where one face is pain and the other pleasure. Our normal everyday life is made up of a succession of one after the other with no gap in-between, and this must remain the case just as long as we are identified with an ‘object’ (i.e. as long as we say that I am this). But this circular movement between the two poles of euphoria and dysphoria does not have to be our lot:


Only an object can suffer, but phenomenally subject and object, being one whole, spin like a coin so that the intervals between pile et face (heads and tails) are imperceptible. Consequently pain, or pleasure, appear to be continual.


Noumenally, on the contrary, there is no object to suffer pain or pleasure. Noumenon is invulnerable, and cannot be otherwise. Noumenon is the unmanifested aspect of what we, sentient beings, are: Phenomenon is our manifestation.


Therefore, manifested, we must suffer pain and pleasure; unmanifested, we cannot suffer either. Both aspects are permanent and coeval, the one subject to time (which accompanies all manifestation, rendering the extension of events perceptible), the other – timeless.




Wei Wu Wei’s metaphor of phenomenal existence as a coin that has been flipped up into the air is particularly helpful because it allows us to see the nullity in action (so to speak). When the coin is spinning it presents to us only one face at a time, and so we cannot see that the coin is self-cancelling – when cannot see that ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ are the two reversed aspects of the same thing. The reason I can only see one face at a time is that the coin is the definite object to my definite subject; because I am passively identified with a fixed (or certain) position, all that I am able to see is the complement of this fixed viewpoint (which is the particular ‘fixed view’ that goes with it). What we are saying, in other words, is this:


Because I am unconsciously identified with the cognitive-perceptual prejudice that is my viewpoint, the only type of information that I am capable of registering is the type of information that supports this prejudice, i.e. confirmation.


‘Heads’ and ‘tails’ correspond to the two terms of Aristotelian Logic, which are <YES> and <NO> (the affirming term and the denying term). Our rational minds can only operate on the basis of Aristotelian logic, which is to say (using the famous example of Schrodinger’s cat) I can only entertain two possibilities: either [1] the cat is dead, or [2] the cat is alive. Alternatively, we can explain Aristotelian logic by saying that it insists that the answer to any specific question must be either YES or NO – either the cat is in the box, or it is not in the box, either I have the price of a pint or I don’t. Once we have enumerated these two options then we have simply exhausted the possibilities. But if I think that these two options have exhausted the possibilities, then this only goes to show the incredible, stupendous ‘blindness’ of Aristotelian logic – by thinking in this way I am blindly assuming that my basic theory of what is going on (my model) is in fact 100% congruent with reality; this is a terribly big assumption to make, and so to forget that it is in fact an assumption that I have made is absolutely inexcusable. If my basic understanding of the universe is correct in all important respects, then I can indeed say that the answer to my question must be either YES or NO, but if my model is incongruent (if it has left out something important) then there is a third possible answer, a answer which does not confirm the validity of my question (and the viewpoint from which it stems). This third possibility is the < ? > term, which is the equivalent of the universe quizzically raising its eyebrows in reply to the bizarre stupidity of our question. If the question is meaningless, then the only possible answer is < ? >; but as long as we remain passively identified with our viewpoint (of which our model is a logical expression), then we will not be in a position to appreciate the answer that we have been given, since the true meaning of novelty can only be understood when one is not attached to a particular way of understanding things.




To come back now to the metaphor of the spinning coin, we can say that the two faces represent the two terms of Aristotelian logic (i.e. confirmation of our position), whilst the vanishingly brief moment when the coin is seen edge-on represents novelty, which is telling us about the complete redundancy (or irrelevancy) of the position that we have taken on the matter. To put it another way, ‘Heads’ and ‘Tails’ represent (conditioned) certainty, whilst the interval between the two represents radical uncertainty. We can therefore say that the only time the true (unconditioned) situation is revealed is when we see the coin ‘edge on’, which we do for a split-second every time one face reverses into the other. This state of affairs occurs in a single point of time, which means that it has no linear duration at all, which is why Wei Wu Wei says that the interval is imperceptible.


In a sense, however, this fleeting moment of time (which is no sooner here than it is gone again) is the very fulcrum upon which everything turns. This moment is the link between the realm of all things that are finite (defined) and therefore inherently ‘reversing’, and the realm of that which is infinite, undefined, and non-reversing. If we look at the basic positive-negative reversing process in one way, we would say that it is the split-second interval that is moving, since it arrives very quickly and then goes away again equally quickly. But if we look at the PLUS-MINUS oscillation as being like a swinging pendulum, we can see that the timelessly brief ‘interval’ between the positive swing and the negative swing is in fact the moment of rest for the pendulum bob – it is the only thing that is not moving. The oscillation (i.e. the wave) is the disturbance, and the medium is the underlying reality which remains eternally ‘undisturbed’. This is the point that Itzhak Bentov (1978, P 86) makes in Stalking The Wild Pendulum:


You will remember from previous chapters that our reality is coded in terms of movement and rest. We also remember that when an oscillator is in a state of rest, it tunnels into a spacelike dimension, which implies infinite velocities that are equivalent to a state of rest – it becomes omnipresent. In other words, it has attained a state of just “being” for a very short period of time; but when the oscillator is in a state of movement, business continues as usual. In this way, we have separated these two components of reality: movement and rest.


Bentov uses Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty relation’ to overturn our usual assumptions about the properties of a pendulum, the idea being that if we know everything about the velocity of the pendulum bob (which at the furthest reach of its swing is bound to be zero) then we can know nothing about its location in space. Therefore, at just that point when we assume that the pendulum bob is at its tamest and best behaved, it is actually most unpredictable; just at that moment when we think we know everything about what it is doing, we know nothing at all! This is like Gary Larson’s (The Far Side) cartoon about a man in field full of cows: the ‘default situation’, when the man is facing the other way, is that all the cows are behaving in a very uncowlike fashion, standing on their hind-legs, drinking martinis, smoking cigarettes, chatting amongst themselves, and so on; the instant the man turns around however (driven perhaps by a sudden irrational suspicion), the cows are back to normal in a flash, grazing on grass and generally being very cow-like.


The basic idea that Bentov is getting at is that the default setting of the universe (rest phase) is strange; that is to say, things are no longer ‘things’ because they have expanded very rapidly out into infinity. The rest phase, despite the fact that it occupies no time at all, is actually more ‘substantial’ or more ‘real’ than the action phase, despite the fact that the action phase has duration and is readily perceptible to us. We could add to this and say that the reason the action phase seems so real to us is because our viewpoint is grounded in that very same action phase; where we to look at things in a less grounded fashion (which Bentov asserts is the case when we become more proficient in meditation) then we start to realize that the action phase – which is the constant back-and-forth swing of the pendulum – is in fact no more than a captivating illusion. At this point the ‘imperceptible interval’ opens up and reveals itself to be a door way into the timeless realm that Wei Wu Wei calls Noumenon (as opposed to Phenomenon).




In the past few pages we have been looking at looking at the conundrum that we run into when we try to control the parameters of our own existence. This is of course the basic conundrum at the heart of the life of the ‘extrinsic self’ because, as we have been saying, the extrinsic self is essentially a ‘virtual entity’ that comes into being as a result of its own controlling. We can approach this in another way by saying that the self is a creature that has two sides: the side of euphoria and the side of dysphoria. What sets these two sides spinning (so to speak) is controlling, which is when I act on the basis of extrinsic motivation. Control is inbuilt into the very nature of the extrinsic self since it only gets to be a self by controlling – it has to hang onto itself in order to provide itself with the illusion of a self to hang onto! Because I run from pain and grasp after pleasure I am caught on the wheel of illusory existence, oscillating forever between the two poles of PLUS and MINUS. Because everything I do is the result of me trying to get things to be the way that I want them to be the meaning that my life has for me is the meaning that I myself have put on it, and because the meaning of my life is ‘managed’ in this way, it is self-cancelling. In short, because I am controlling the show, I inevitably end up spoiling things for myself.


A nice way to put this basic argument across (i.e. the basic argument as to why controlling turns things sour) is to talk in terms of ‘exploiting the system’. There is always a temptation when faced with something difficult and uncertain to ‘get clever’ and take a short cut. The motivation to do this (or to try to do this) stems precisely from the tremendous relief from discomfort that we will obtain when we successfully bypass the necessity to do genuine work, which by definition is both hard and uncertain of outcome (it is hazardous as Bennett says). As we have said before, our belief in the possibility of successfully avoiding the necessity to work is well nigh indefatigable and we seem to have a virtually unlimited capacity to go on ignoring any intuitive awareness that might periodically arise regarding the absolute impossibility of what we are trying to do.


An example of this sort of thing would be where the onset of corruption within a country means that parents can bribe teachers to give their children high grades so that they can get into college or university. Initially, this seems to give the required result but the short-term benefit of ensuring a college place for your child is offset by the long-term disadvantage, which is that the grades themselves actually become quite meaningless. If qualifications can be bought, then they have no value. Another example of an illegitimate gain which is won by ‘cleverness’ rather than honest work and honest risk would be where a rich and powerful person gets people to hang around with him and be nice to him because he has bought their respect rather than earned it. Risk has been avoided here because there is never any chance that they won’t show me respect – I have ensured that this will be the case right from the very beginning. So now because of my effective control of the situation I have got what I wanted, but sadly for me what I have gained is a mere charade; if you are my friend because you have to be my friend, then this is not true friendship at all. Psychologically speaking, whenever we are faced with difficulty we are always tempted to try to wangle it, to take a short-cut and thereby evade the legitimate pain that we have coming to us. Success in wangling feels profoundly rewarding in the first instance, but the life that I end up with as a result of my successful wangling soon starts to stink. ‘Cleverness’, as always, equals the via erratum of the alchemists, whereas the accurate perception of the impossibility of ‘beating the system’ (and therefore not cheating) constitutes the Via Veritas.


We can express this principle in terms of the ‘control of meaning’ which is an inherent principle in any organizationally closed system. Psychological security is obtained when I am able to say what things mean, without admitting to myself that this is what I am doing. Psychological security essentially means that there is an avoidance of risk, but when I bypass the necessity to take a risk in perceiving reality there is a price to pay, and that price is that I am now separated from reality, since reality is risk (i.e. it is radically uncertain). When we talk about an organizationally closed system what we are saying is that there is a vantage point from which I can see all of the possibilities that are inherent in my situation. This does not mean that I can know in advance everything that is going to happen to me, but what it does mean is that whatever does happen, is guaranteed to make sense to me in the same way that everything else makes sense. Because I am ‘trivially open’ (i.e. I am open to the trivial uncertainty of not knowing what will happen next) this effectively prevents me from grasping the fact of my closed state of being, but this does not save me from paying the price for the avoidance of risk, which is that my world is now unreal (or ‘null’).




An alternative way of approaching this idea is to say that when we see the world from a prejudiced point of view without seeing that it is prejudiced, then everything we see is meaningless. The only way that it is not going to be meaningless is when we frame what we see, which is to say, when we acknowledge the prejudicial viewpoint that we are using to see whatever it is that we are seeing. Of course, when we do this (i.e. when we are consciously prejudiced) then we know from the outset that the positive reality we perceive is only true insomuch as our prejudices are true, and since prejudices are by definition never true, our nice and neat picture of the world is also never going to be true. It is merely a psychological game that we are playing with ourselves. However, when we see this to be so this in itself constitutes genuine information. There is a basic principle here:


When we see that we are prejudiced then we are no longer prejudiced


We can use this principle in order to arrive at a neat definition of the state of psychological unconsciousness:


Psychological unconsciousness is when we are looking at the world in an arbitrarily biased way without acknowledging that the bias in question is arbitrary


We manage to avoid acknowledging that we are looking at things in a biased way by identifying with the bias in question, which is to say, by looking at the world in such a way as to validate it. A racist does not see himself as being ‘a racist’; on the contrary, if he were to think about it at all, he would see his viewpoint as fitting in with the natural order of things. I am not prejudiced, I am right… Needless to say this state of affairs where we are thoroughly prejudiced whilst feeling very strongly the whole time that we are ‘right’ to see things the way we do is the basic human condition. It is because we are ‘unconscious’ that we all think we are ‘right’ to be the particular way that we are, and it is because we are unconscious that we think everything who is not the same way as us is ‘wrong’. Naturally, I don’t think that I am like this (anymore than anyone else thinks that they are like this) but all we need to do to prove the point to ourselves is to take a look around at the interminable conflict that exists on all levels of human society. Where there is psychological unconsciousness there is violent conflict, and there simply is no solution to this problem that does not involve recognizing the fact that we are all ‘asleep’.


Psychological unconsciousness is ‘easy’, it is a ‘non-work’ situation, but because we have avoided the work that we legitimately have coming to us, there is a backlash. One way of looking at this backlash is to say that because we are caught up in a tautology or ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ where we only ever see our own assumptions reflected back at us, the net result is that we live out our days in a world devoid of any actual meaning. If we could manage not to see this fact, then we would have successfully avoided the necessity for work altogether, but the fact of the matter is that all we ever do is to push the work ahead of us like a diner a table who is smoothing away a wrinkle in the tablecloth in front of them – the principle here is that the smoother I make the tablecloth today, the bigger is the wrinkle that I have to cope with tomorrow. The wrinkle that I have to deal with tomorrow translates into the intractable reality of anxiety and depression, both of which can be seen in terms of psychological work that I can no longer avoid. Anxiety – we might say – is when I am fighting a losing game with a semi-suppressed awareness that I am fighting a losing game, and depression is when my game is completely defunct, and I can’t kid myself even a little bit that it has something going for it. It stinks, and I know it stinks!


The ‘game’ in question is, as always, the game of avoiding psychological work whilst avoiding seeing the fact that we are avoiding psychological work. To put this another way, the game is our way of allowing ourselves the ‘luxury’ of existing in a state of immense laziness, whilst maintaining the illusion the whole time that we are actually doing something worthwhile. This is like being a total scoundrel and a scallywag whilst being ‘honestly convinced’ the whole time that one is a perfectly decent and good human being.




The basic tautology behind the life of the extrinsic self is blatantly obvious once we spot it, and one way of getting at it is as follows. Controlling means getting things to happen the right way, and not happen the wrong way, but what the right way and the wrong way are is determined by my conditioning (which is to say, by my prejudices). My conditioning is in fact synonymous with myself; I am my conditioning, and so really I am just getting things to happen my way. Therefore, control means the promotion of the self by the self, the promotion of the prejudice by the prejudice, the furtherance of the bias by the bias, and in this there is absolutely no surprise at all. As the man says, “Tell me something I don’t know!” What we have here is sheer unadulterated tautology, and there is nothing in the life of the extrinsic (or ‘prejudiced’) self that is not part of this tautology.


The basic point that we are making here is that the system of thought is our way of secretly handing over our own freedom. Handing over our freedom is an ignominious sort of a thing to do, and we couldn’t just go ahead and do it barefacedly – ignominy like this can only exist when we are ignorant of it, and the system of thought (or the social system) provides us with both a way of giving away our freedom, and a way of remaining ignorant of what we are doing. The system does not just allow us to be unaware of our ignoble behaviour, it turns it all around and makes what we are doing into a virtue. Therefore, we actually get to feel good about it all and pat each other on the back for achieving such a marvellous and worthwhile outcome.


The result of this back-to-front way of looking at things is that successful social game playing is rewarded, whereas unsuccessful social game playing is penalized most cruelly. This is the way it has to be – this is the ‘logic of the game’ and the most important part of the logic of the game is that we aren’t allowed to see what the logic of the game is really all about. Therefore, when we reward our fellow players for doing well, we do not see what we are really rewarding them for, and when we punish those amongst us who are for whatever reason unable to do well within the terms of the game we do not actually know why we are so cruel. We find ways of validating our behaviour (as we must, if we are to continue) but we do not see what it is about these people that bugs us so much. In actual fact what is rewarded in the game is ‘successful unconsciousness’, and what is punished is unsuccessful unconsciousness, which is of course the same thing as ‘consciousness’. Awareness is the ultimate crime, as far as the system of thought is concerned. Another way of putting this is to say that we are rewarded when we successfully identify with the false self, and we are punished when we start to doubt the false self, and the endless torrent of pernicious bullshit that goes with it. Alan Watts has spoken of this principle (which is the primary rule in the social game) as the taboo against knowing who you are.


The ‘lure’ that draws us into the social game is the immense sense of psychological security that it provides us with, and the snag is the near-total loss of freedom, autonomy, creativity and peace of mind that is inherent in this psychological security. Another way of talking about the lure is to say that the social game, by providing us with spurious validation for what we are doing, illegitimately releases us from the need to do ‘psychological work’. It doesn’t just create for us a world in which we don’t need to do work, it creates for us a world in which pseudowork is substituted for genuine work, so that we get to feel good about ourselves for no good reason at all. One simple way to define psychological work is in terms of reversing denial, which is to say, facing up to something that we have invested heavily in not facing. Alternatively, we can say that psychological work involves the reversal of our denial concerning the nullity (i.e. futility) of the games that we are playing. From this it is easy to see that successful denial corresponds to euphoria, whereas unsuccessful (or reversed) denial corresponds to dysphoria (pain or despair). Pleasure is non-work and pain is work. The social game, like all games, is made up of both euphoria and dysphoria in equal amounts, since it is only possible to successfully self-distract for half of the time. This unpalatable fact would make the game entirely unappealing, and so it is necessary for the sake of the integrity of the game that the dysphoric phase (which is due to a temporary failure in our ability to deny) is itself denied. “Dysphoric phase – what dysphoric phase?” we ask with a uniformly surprised look on our faces, “There’s no dysphoric phase here!”




The type of denial we are talking about is both the denial of life’s true depth and the denial of our own true stature. “I am only this, and no more” is the implicit message, and it has to be implicit rather than explicit since to actually say it would draw attention to the possibility that there could be more to me than we all agree there is. An organizationally closed system does not know that it is organizationally closed – this is the one thing that it can never know. There are various approaches that we could take to try to explore just why we feel so driven to escape from the awareness of how deep life actually is, and the awareness of our unlimited our stature actually is. Depth is clearly a frightening thing, and the type of depth we are talking about here isn’t dimensional depth, but a depth of meaning that everything (including ourselves) possesses. If I stand on the edge of huge cliff overhanging the sea this is very likely to produce within me a sense of vertigo which is hard to handle, and the direct analogue of this feeling would be the tremendous sense of mental vertigo that I get when my psychological security is rudely stripped away from me.


The analogy is fairly close here: looking out over the cliff I can see the waves unspeakably far below me and as I focus on them I am struck by the vast peacefulness of what I am seeing. Concomitant with this awesome peacefulness however is the feeling of sheer terror that is automatically engendered the moment I start (as I will) to try to work out what these depths mean in relation to me. Similarly, with ‘depth of meaning’ there is an oceanic peacefulness, a peacefulness that can never be disturbed by anything. The Ocean of Reality – as we quoted Richard Bach as saying – is ‘divinely indifferent’, it cares not at all about the particularities, about the arbitrary ins and outs of our little games. Its glory is of a strictly impersonal nature – which is to say, it does not exist for the benefit of any particular viewpoint (any particular self). Therefore, the ‘me’ itself is the fly in the ointment as far as its ability to properly appreciate the unfathomable peace of the depths is concerned because when it brings itself into the picture – as it must – everything gets screwed up (due to the inherent inversion of its viewpoint) and the ‘peace that passeth understanding’ gets translated into ineffable terror.


For this reason the unconditioned reality (which is the way things actually are when we do not bring our own slant into the picture) is perceived by the ‘me’ as being profoundly unfriendly, if not downright inimical. This perception is quite accurate, or at least is it accurate from the point of view of the conditioned self which is utterly dependent upon its ‘conditions’ for its ongoing existence. The conditioned reality in which the conditioned self lives out its conditioned life is characterized by its complete lack of depth, here everything is flat or two-dimensional since things have only the meaning that we take them to have. A tree is a tree and a wardrobe is a wardrobe and the number 2B bus is the number 2B bus and my wife is my wife, and so when I identify an element of the conditioned world as being what it is, then I leave it strictly alone because that is what it is and it can be nothing else. Beyond identifying a tree as being a tree I am not interested; the world does not interest me in a ‘poetic’ way but only in a utilitarian sort of a way – I want things to be what I think they are so that I can get on with my games.


This incapacity of things to be other than what they ‘are’ is of course what constitutes the ‘psychological security’ that we are so fond of; if we were to live in a world where things have a tendency to gradually reveal themselves to be other than what we took them for, then this would spoil our fun entirely. Suppose I have such-and-such a goal and I am anticipating the enjoyment that will be mine once I finally obtain it. Well, what will happen to my projected victory if my understanding of the world changes (or deepens) so that the meaning that this goal had for me changes? This would be like winning the lotto, only to discover that money is now a quite meaningless concept for me, since with the passage of the years since I first conceived the desire to win lots of money, I have actually changed my outlook on life. What we are talking about here is psychological growth, and psychological growth is synonymous with the goal-posts getting changed half-way through the game. If the value of the prize that I am striving for shifts, the integrity of the game is fatally compromised, and this means that I am not going to have my fun. Therefore, to the extent that I am committed to chasing my favourite buzz in life, I am also committed to not growing.


Instead of saying ‘psychological growth means that when I finally win the prize I discover that it means nothing to me’ we could look at it the other way and say that the self which wanted the prize has been lost along the way, so that when the prize is attained there is no one there who wants it anymore. So for example it could be the case that after decades of single-minded effort I manage to climb right to the top of my chosen profession only to find the prize lacking in taste. I have everything – I have an impeccable reputation, I have as much wealth and property as any one could ever hope for; in fact I have acquired the most prestigious status symbols that my society is capable of bestowing, and yet despite all this there is a fatal flaw. The flaw is that the self which originally conceived the not-very-original idea of obtaining ‘fame and fortune’ has perished somewhere en route – that ‘me’ has relinquished its hold on life and is no more. So I have got everything that the ‘me’ wanted but the ‘me’ in question is no longer there to enjoy it. Whichever way we look at it, the net result is that everything has come to pass just like I planned it, but instead of coming as a boon to me (which is obviously how I thought it would come) it has come as a curse. At this point it is likely that my friends and relations will take a look at me, shake their heads, and decide that I am ‘depressed’.


It can be seen from this that spontaneous (or unplanned) change is the enemy of the system of thought. The goal cannot be allowed to mutate, and neither can the wanter who wants the goal. Actually, both the ‘wanter’ and ‘what is wanted’ are part of the smokescreen, and the function of the smokescreen is to prevent us seeing what is really going on, which is the framework of thinking automatically (or tautologically) maintaining itself. The framework has one rule and that rule is that nothing must ever happen to jeopardize its validity. It must have its own way, no matter what. Nothing else matters. No surprises are allowed. No one can come to the party who is not already on the guest list, and in this triumph over the unknown lies both our satisfaction and our secret despair.




The subject of our discussion was why unlimited ‘depth of meaning’ should be shunned in favour of the ‘flatness of meaning’ that is obtained when we restrict ourselves to the world of our concepts. This conceptual reality is paper-thin, but the bleak fact of this superficiality doesn’t really strike home to us because we are too busy reacting to it. It is as if we are driving along a dirty old road in the industrial outskirts of a major city looking at all the brightly coloured billboards advertising marvellous products and services of one sort or another. If we did not allow ourselves to become pleasantly distracted by the garishly seductive commercial advertising on both sides of the road we would see that our actual location is pretty drab, but the trick of it is that we don’t see the billboard images merely as being the images they are, we jump beyond the dull reality of the signs into the highly attractive ‘virtual reality’ that the signs are telling us about. In exactly the same way, any awareness that we might have regarding the essential drabness (or sterility) of the conceptual world in which we live in is effectively wiped out because of our keenness to ‘jump ahead’ into the virtual reality which is being promised us. The fact that the advertised reality never truly materializes doesn’t bother us because it is always about to happen – the action is always ‘just round the corner’ and it is precisely our eagerness to get some of this action that keeps us from seeing that nothing is actually happening.


Concepts (or ideas) are signs, they stand for something – they have a literal relationship with some supposed external reality, they are like bank notes which, although nothing in themselves, can be taken as promises for something that really does have a concrete value, which is to say, a value in itself. Of course, in practice we never call in the concrete commodity that the money in our pockets is supposed to stand for; in fact quite the opposite is true because we relate to money as if it is valuable in itself. The same is true for ideas, which are the currency of our conceptual minds – we forget their promissory nature and take them to be a thing in itself. As Robert Anton Wilson says, we ‘mistake the menu for the meal’. But even if we did try to redeem the idea for what it is worth, and exchange it for whatever external reality it is supposed to stand for, we would be in trouble because reality does not actually exist in the sort of neat little packages that it would have to if our ideas were to have any sort of genuine correspondence with whatever aspects of the world we are trying to talk about that. The world is not a sign in other words, rather than being flat it is deep, it possesses a depth of meaning that we can never plumb. We cannot understand the world using signs (or concepts) but only through symbols, which somehow contain a ‘living’, non-static type of meaning. Symbols spontaneously manifest themselves to us in a way that is quite outside of our control, and cannot be artificially constructed or ordered as concepts can; they will not carry whatever meaning we choose to give them – unlike concepts they are not our obedient slaves but a law unto themselves.


Although spontaneous symbols offer us the only genuine way to understand the world, there is absolutely no ‘control’ involved in this, which means that we cannot rely on symbols to play ball with us. They are unruly and threaten to upset the applecart – whatever sort of game we have going can be overthrown (or falsified) in the twinkling of an eye, and so the type of relationship with reality that is mediated by symbols rather than concepts is simply unacceptable to us. It is unacceptable because it is ‘dangerous’ or ‘risky’, and what we actually want (if the truth be known) is safety.




Another way to look at ‘depth of meaning’ is in terms of ‘stature – if I live in a purely conceptual world (where all information comes in the form of signs) then the self which is relating to this world must be of the same nature as the world it relates to. If I live wholly within the realm of the known (as Krishnamurti calls it) then I too must be known. When an aspect of reality is known it is necessarily diminished, it becomes a mere ‘thing’ and if I, for the sake of psychological security, choose to live out my life in a world of ‘things’ then I also must be a ‘thing’ – I am a thing in a world of things. Anything that is known is without stature no matter how greatly we might value that thing; this has to be so because the thing in question only has the value that it has because it has been granted it by the unquestionable standard by which we judge (and therefore know) all things. Whatever value is perceived as being there is only an ‘outer reflection’ of the value that has been covertly accredited to system of thought; as we have noted before, when the system of thought praises something supposedly external to itself it is really only praising itself.


We can therefore say that the value of the ‘thing’ is never in any way different to the implicit value (or validity) of the framework of meaning that we are using to determine that value. In other words, there is no genuine value (or stature) present at all anywhere within the realm of the known; there cannot be since the validity of what we know only holds good when we sneakily fail to acknowledge the arbitrary nature of the framework upon which we are basing our judgements. The validity of my evaluations is dependent upon the validity of the system that I use to do the evaluating, but because the ‘validity’ of this system-of-evaluation only holds good when I don’t question it, then any positive (or definite) statements that I might make about the world are really part of the indirect way which the system has of (spuriously) validating itself. As Wei Wu Wei (1963, p7) says:


As long as we do not perceive the fatuity of a phenomenon telling itself how marvellous it is, we will never come to the knowledge of that which we are when we have understood that, as phenomena, we are not.




The net result of all this is that no matter how big a shot I might be reckoned within the virtual-conceptual world that I live, I actually have no genuine ‘stature’ at all. I am a cartoon character in a cartoon world, and I only have power within the illusory realm to which I am mentally adapted. Whether I am a high court judge or the guy who takes out the trash makes not the slightest bit of difference – the extent to which I take the social game seriously is the extent to which I have no genuine stature as a person. All game-roles are equal because they are all just disguised forms of the social system – they are all ‘ratios’ of the same golden rule and so to say that such-and-such a role is the ‘lesser’ or the ‘greater’ is entirely meaningless. The fact of the matter is that all gradations on a ruler are all part of the same ruler (i.e. all roles within a game are all manifestations of that same game).


But why do I choose to live as a cartoon in a cartoon world, why do I choose to forsake the unlimited stature that I inherently have? One way of answering this question is to say that with stature comes responsibility, and the fact that we refuse to acknowledge our own true stature is a sure sign that we do not want this responsibility. ‘Responsibility’ is not necessarily the best word to use here; it is a word that is often twisted to mean something different – often when we say that someone ‘runs away from responsibility’ what we really mean is that we are hurt because they refuse to play our game, they refuse to join in our little club. What we are trying to get at is that idea that the acknowledgement of depth (or stature) is concomitant with the acknowledgement that life matters greatly – so greatly in fact that it scares us. A great demand is being made on me and I neither know what exactly this demand is, nor how I can possibly find the strength to bear it. The demand is the demand that the infinite makes on me, and I know myself (on the evidence of my day-to-day existence) to be very small and very weak, and quite without the means to do whatever it is that I have to.




Rather than face the fear of failure in the face of this demand – which actually means facing the awareness of how infinitely precious life is – we over-simplify the whole picture, we retreat into the safety of a two-dimensional reality where we don’t have to experience this type of overwhelming urgency, which is the urgency of life itself. Psychotherapist and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck talks in terms of laziness, we he defines as a sort of infinite reluctance to extent ourselves. ‘Extending ourselves’ means utilizing our true capacity and going beyond what we would previously have considered our proper remit – it also corresponds to love, which Scott Peck sees as being the opposite of laziness. Love is a direct awareness of how much everything matters to us, of how precious life is, and with this awareness comes responsibility. We can no longer pretend to ourselves (or anyone else) that we didn’t know what was going on – once we know, we have to do something about it. This ‘responsibility’ is indistinguishable from what we have been calling stature, which is the nature of the true self. In The Road Less Traveled M.  Scott Peck (1978, p 288-9) speaks of the responsibility that life seems to place on us in terms of God’s wish for us become Himself (or Herself):


If we postulate that our capacity to love, this urge to love and evolve, is somehow ‘breathed into us’ by God, then we must ask to what end. Why does God want us to grow? What are we growing toward? Where is the end-point, the goal of evolution? What is it that God wants from us? It is not my intention here to become involved in scholarly niceties, and I hope the scholarly will forgive me if I cut through all the ifs, ands, and buts of proper speculative theology. For no matter how much we may like to pussyfoot around it, all of us who postulate a loving God and really think about it eventually come to a single terrifying idea: God wants us to become Himself (or Herself or Itself). We are growing towards godhood. God is the goal of evolution. It is God who is the source of the evolutionary force and God who is the destination. This is what we mean when we say that He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.


When I said that this is a terrifying idea I was speaking mildly. It is a very old idea, but, by the millions, we run away from it in sheer panic. For no idea ever came to the mind of man which places upon us such a burden. It is the single most demanding idea in the history of mankind. Not because it is difficult to conceive; on the contrary, it is the essence of simplicity. But because if we believe it, it then demands from us all that we can possibly give, all that we have. It is one thing to believe in a nice old God who will take good care of us from a lofty position of power which we ourselves could never begin to attain. It is quite another to believe in a God who has it in mind for us precisely that we should attain His position, His Power, His wisdom, His identity. Were we to believe it possible for man to become God, this belief by its very nature would place upon us an obligation to attempt to attain the possible. But we do not want this obligation. We don’t want to have to work that hard. We don’t want God’s responsibility. We don’t want the responsibility of having to think all the time. As long as we believe that Godhead is an impossible attainment for ourselves, we don’t have to worry about our spiritual growth, we don’t have to push ourselves to higher and higher levels of consciousness and loving activity; we can relax and just be human. If God’s in his heaven and we’re down here, and never the twain shall meet, we can let Him have all the responsibility for evolution and the directorship of the universe. We can do our bit toward assuring ourselves a comfortable old age, hopefully complete with healthy, happy and grateful children and grandchildren; but beyond that we need not bother ourselves. These goals are difficult enough to achieve, and hardly to be disparaged. Nonetheless, as soon as we believe it is possible for man to become God, we can never really rest for long, never say ‘OK, my job is finished, my work is done.’ We must constantly push ourselves to greater and greater wisdom, greater and greater effectiveness. By this believe we will have trapped ourselves, at least until death, on an effortful treadmill of self-improvement and spiritual growth. God’s responsibility must be our own. It is no wonder that the belief in the possibility of Godhead is repugnant.


The idea that god is actively nurturing us so that we might grow up to be like Him brings us face to face with our own laziness.




A very simple and straightforward way of explaining the ‘benefit’ that we get from the deal that we cut with the social system is to say that it is the release from responsibility that we experience when we successfully avoid the ‘internal task’. As Scott Peck says, we want to surrender to an external authority, not an internal one. An external authority is like having an all-powerful and all-knowing father who will tell us what is right and wrong, an unquestionable tyrant who will reward us for doing the right thing and punish us for doing the wrong thing. All we have to do, in other words, is to suck up to this father projection and we will automatically be ‘good boys’ and ‘good girls’. Sucking up to the external authority (as we already have said) is an easy task because he makes his requirements very obvious – it is all spelled out for us so that all we have to do is obey and help him punish those who do not obey. All we have to do is ‘play the game’, and give the cold shoulder to those who don’t (or can’t) play the game. An extra boost is given to our desire to castigate the heretic by the fact that, unconsciously, we cannot help resenting the fact that they don’t have to follow the rules as we do; I find myself paying the price of abject conformity – which is a sort of death of the spirit (or ‘bitterness’ as Paulo Coelho calls it) and because I cannot bring myself to consciously confront this terrible fact, because of the pain that it will bring me, I am only too happy to take out my frustration and misery on some other poor soul who has the temerity to be more free than me.




We have said that conformity to the social game (to the extent that I don’t even know that I am conforming anymore, since there is no longer any independent ‘I’ to be aware of the fact) diminishes us, and strips us of stature, but at the same time as it diminishes us, the system ‘makes it up to us’ by providing us with false stature. Another way of putting this is to say that the pay-off inherent in the social game is that it supplies us with ready-made roles that we can step into, roles which carry a kind of status that validates our existence and makes us feel okay about ourselves. By validating my role in this way society provides for me a sense of meaning – my existence is now manifestly meaningful both to me and everybody else. What is more, I have the possibility of improving my station within this framework, thereby attaining greater and greater degrees of external validation. The more validation comes my way, the more seriously I am entitled to take my game, and the more seriously everyone else is obliged to take it, and so I get to feel extra good about myself.


Social games roles mean that I can be ‘the baker’ or ‘the mayor’ or ‘the policeman’. This is not necessarily the same thing as earning a living by baking or mayoring or policing however because I can fulfil the requirements of the role without identifying with it. Not everyone that does a job has to unconsciously identify with the role that the job entails. The point that we are making however is that we tend to end up not ‘consciously playing the role’, but actually extracting a sense of satisfaction or validation by believing that we are this role. This is the ‘default state of affairs’ that unfailingly occurs in the absence of conscious effort – the game becomes real for us, and so it happens that we get trapped in the game. We say (or think) I am a lawyer, I am the manger of the Bank of Ireland, I am the president of the United States of America and when we say this we feel good about it. We are ‘believing in our own bullshit’, and that bullshit is made a million times more powerful by the fact that everyone else is believing in it too. It is this type of petty satisfaction that we settle for in return for our autonomy, and once we have ‘settled for it’, then our resistance to the pain of acknowledging what we have done means that we are bound to the ‘path of evil’ that we have chosen, right to the bitter end.


External authority offers us the possibility of obtaining petty satisfactions (a feeling of power) when we identify with it, but there is – as we keep saying! – a price tag. We said that ‘the price is our freedom’, but saying this alone doesn’t really strike home because the fact of the matter is that we don’t really know what that little word ‘freedom’ means in the first place. For this reason it is helpful to concentrate more on the ‘horrific side’ of the unfree state. The horror implicit in the state of passive identification is not something that we tend to want to contemplate very much, but it is guaranteed that the more clearly we allow ourselves to see it, the quicker we will wake up out of the trance of unconsciousness. In fact this ‘perception of horror’ factor is a good measure (or indicator) of how conscious or unconscious I am – if I have no sense of the sinister with regard to the functioning of my own mind (i.e how it is denying my true individuality and freedom), then for sure I am fast asleep; I am deep in the coma of the psyche, completely disconnected from the one thing that makes my life actually mean anything. If life isn’t happening to the true Self then it isn’t happening at all.


One way to understand the long-term cost (as opposed to the quick pay-off) of handing over to an external authority is by thinking about boredom. Boredom doesn’t seem particularly sinister or horrific to us, but that is because as soon as we get a whiff of it, we find some way of ‘turning away’ so that we do not take the full blow, so to speak. When I am bored what is happening is that I am gaining insight into the essential sterility (i.e. lack of creativity) inherent in my own mind. This ‘inner sterility’ is the inevitable consequence of being addicted to an external source for my happiness, or for my mental comfort. If everything good comes from the outside, then this – by implication – means that there is nothing good inside. If it is the external authority that provides me with a sense of meaning to my life (so that I feel as if something ‘positive’ is happening in my life) then when the supply is cut off I am immediately hit with a double-whammy of ‘unpleasantness’. Firstly, my sense of mental comfort is gone – the illusion that everything is okay and that there is something positive happening vanishes. Secondly, there dawns (on some level of awareness at least) the realization that the sense of meaningfulness that I had been enjoying is actually a sort of trick, that it is a bright but phoney façade which hides behind it a far grimmer reality.


When the plug is pulled on my comfort zone (my ‘game’) the initial result is that my ‘entertainment’ is cut off so that I am left high and dry; I am totally reliant on the external supply and so when it is taken away I am left without the thing that I need, like a smoker without any cigarettes. Basically, I am going cold turkey – I am ‘rattling’. We are using the term ‘entertainment’ in a particular way here because when the integrity of my game is intact I do not see it as mere entertainment, I see it in some way as being ‘real’ or ‘legitimate’. Or, to put it another way, when I arrange things so that my life seems especially meaningful to me, it goes without saying that I do not see the part that I play in arranging this; as we keep saying, the comfort zone only works as a comfort zone when I do not see it as such. What this means is that when I am safely engaged in my game I do not experience any lack of creativity or spontaneity or ‘newness’, but instead I experience the illusion of creativity, spontaneity, etc. The game provides comfort for me because it supplies me with false creativity and false spontaneity, which are in actuality no more than a trick created by the juggling of elements within a finite set of possibilities. This is the limited ‘theatre of chance’ that captivates my attention (the ‘finite game’ that captures the whole of my interest) and it works as well on a short-term basis as it works badly on the long-term.




Stan Grof approaches the matter from a slightly different angle when he says that the ability of consciousness to manufacture its own realities is so superlatively good that it cannot help but believing in them – consciousness is trapped by its own perfect efficiency at deceiving itself. The flip-side of the ‘false comfort’ that derives from this perfect efficiency is, needless to say, a very bitter sense of disillusionment and dismay when the reality which we believed so completely in fails to deliver the goods. We cannot believe that we have been tricked in this way, and yet we cannot avoid seeing the fact. Thus, when I am no longer able to successfully distract myself, I am hit not just with the pain of the ‘cold turkey’ but also with the horror that arises due to my accurate perception of terrible situation that I am in. Naturally enough, it is this second type of pain that we work hardest at avoiding, and the way in which we do this is by preoccupying ourselves with the first type of pain, which represents the ‘overt level of meaning’. We might preoccupy ourselves by protesting the unfairness of what is going on, or we might complain about the external authority which has let us down like this – either way, I am effectively preventing myself from seeing that it was me who put myself in this position, which is of course just what I wanted to do. Complaining (or ‘self-comforting’) is how we stay unconscious.


Another way to explain the nature of unconsciousness to say that it is tied up in an unexamined belief in the unlimited power of our ability to self-distract (even though we would not of course put it like this). We cling to the belief that somehow, somewhere (in an ideal world) it is possible to live a life in which I am successfully entertained the whole time, so that I can be safely diverted every single minute of the day. In other words, I believe in the bubble – I implicitly believe that if I am clever enough, if I am tricky enough, then I can indefinitely avoid the necessity to do psychological work. If I could see the frank impossibility of this dream then this would radically change my approach to life; my attitude would be turned around by 180 degrees – instead of trying to avoid life the whole time I would be meeting it head on. It is not simply that it is impossible to live the life of the rational mind and never be bored; the situation is more implacable than this – the law of compensation means that I can only successfully self-distract for 50% of the time whilst the rest of the time is spent reaping the ‘negative satisfaction’ that comes with unsuccessful self-distraction. The rule here is as ever: the more effective the illusion, the more painful the disillusionment that follows it; the better the euphoria is, the worse will be the despair that inevitably cancels it out. Or to put it even more succinctly, winning equals losing.




On the one hand, society can be seen as our very good friend, because as a device it is so very good at providing us with the sort of spurious comfort that we crave. Daisaku Ikeda has noted that our modern civilization devotes itself to building grander and grander palaces dedicated to the state of rapture (rapture being the good feeling that we get when we are successfully distracted); inasmuch as rapture is implicitly seen by all of us as the highest good, then the social system is to be praised for exerting itself so mightily and so cleverly to obtain for us this boon. But at the same time, because the greater the false comfort, the greater the discomfort that follows, society must also be seen as a particularly terrible enemy. Out of these two faces that of the deceiving, flattering friend and the cruel and self-interested enemy, the hidden face is clearly the true one – the system is ‘the false friend’ because it always promises something that it cannot deliver.


This is a truth which few of us are willing to countenance, and rather than seeing it we would much rather go on with what we are currently doing, which is to say, denying that the cruel side actually exists. This denial is big business, and we are all implicated in it. Every time someone asks me “How are you?” and I smile and reply “I’m fine, how are you?” I am playing the game – it is tacitly understood that you don’t want to hear about my angst and that I do not want to hear about your deep-down misgivings and inarticulate unhappiness. The important thing, as we all know, is to ‘put on a face’: I’m fine and you’re fine and everything is fine. Of course, this does not mean that we can’t complain to those within our little circle about how the world is treating us unfairly but this is essentially a preoccupation with minor (or superficial) details – it is always the little things – the details – we complain about, not ‘the whole of it’. If I do start complaining about the whole thing, about the reality of my life, then people stop wanting to talk to me. If I complain about the various things that vex me, then this is in keeping with the idea that things ought (or could or should) be better; but when I start to see that the whole thing – which is to say, my conditioned life in its entirety – is actually unfixable, then this is an unpalatable topic for conversation. Preoccupation with the details of the game, and how they are working out wrong for us, is all part of the decoy, it is part of the denial of the Big Picture. Basically, we are clinging with great determination to the belief that we can get everything to work out perfectly for us in our over-simplified ‘model universe’, if only we get a break. I am having a ‘bad hair day’, but whilst saying this acknowledges that things aren’t going right for me today, there is the implicit suggestion that it will all come together for me tomorrow, that it is only today that I am jinxed.




We still have problems with this idea that there is something terrible is wrong somewhere, that we are all ‘secretly sad’, and that our busy happy smiling lives are all a sinister façade. This can be true in some cases obviously, but to suggest a universal collusion seems very extreme. Why should this be so? Where is the need for such a pessimistic outlook? We can try to answer such questions in two ways. Firstly, we can invoke the principle of compensation to show that there must be an invisible backlash to the confident and assertive face we put on in public. Almost inevitably, I interact with my peers in the social arena through my ‘persona’, through the carefully managed projection of myself (which is the same thing as the ‘self image’). On the one hand, this is ‘who I want to be’ (or who I want to seem to be) and on the other hand it is my concession to how those around me (and society in general) expects me to be; the socially constructed self is a role that I take on, a mask that I wear. The way the principle of compensation works in this context is quite simple – any artificial posture that I strike (which is to say, any positive personality construct that I create) is bound to annihilated a bit later on by a kind of ‘elasticated rebound’. This is the phenomenon of spin-reversal: in the positive spin phase I reap the benefits of a having a positive slant on things, I get to feel good about it all. But when a positive distortion is created, the complementary negative distortion is created simultaneously. This is the same thing as throwing a stone into a pond – waves crests are created simultaneously with wave troughs, and so for every crest there must surely be a trough to follow. At all times, the net displacement equals zero, which is to say, when you add the height of the crest to the depth of the trough you get nothing, i.e. there is zero net displacement.


Our public face has to be upbeat and confidently purposeful, that is what it is all about, that is what social roles are all about – a policeman is confident about being a policeman, an estate agent is positive about being an estate agent, the president is positive about being the president. It has to be this way: just as you doesn’t play for Manchester United in a half-hearted way, not really giving a damn whether your team wins or loses, so too do we have to throw ourselves wholehearted into the social game. Being ‘wholehearted’ about playing the game means of course that we don’t see it as a game, it is very serious to us. As we have noted, the pay-off involved this is the good feeling that we get from believing in the illusory social world, with all its ins and outs, and there the cost is the bad feeling (the denied meaninglessness) that we get from believing in the illusory social world. All the satisfactions that are afforded me by the social system are reversed later on in terms of dysphoria (or misery). If we consider that the social system has never been so tremendously large and technologically sophisticated as it is now, then we have to consider the fact that the back-lash to this must also be colossally amplified, which means that the sum total of human misery – even in the absence of epidemics in violence or disease – must have increased in modern times to an extraordinary degree. Far from being better off (which is what we usually think) things have actually changed for the worse: the collective power which human beings presently have to self-distract has been increased to an unprecedented level, and this we see as ‘progress’.




So much for the first approach, which admittedly only cuts ice if we are willing to entertain the idea that there really is such a thing as the ‘law of compensation’ in the first place. But there is another way in which we could try to argue the point, and that is simply to take a look around us. When we look around the first thing we see is the face that we are supposed to see, the side of the picture which is meant for public viewing. But if we were to pay a bit more attention, it is impossible not to notice the side to life that we are not meant to see. It is impossible to deny the existence of an unspoken ‘behavioural rule’ which says that “people must not witness me being sad” or “people must not see that I am anxious” – one need only to talk to someone who is suffering from depression or anxiety to be struck by that odd fact that they tend to be more worried about other people noticing how they are feeling than they are by the feeling itself. The reason for this unnecessary stress is our collective denial, the denial of just how bad it can get…


Our insight into this denial is linked with our ability to see beneath the surface, our ability to see through the game to what is going on underneath. It is of course quite possible to exist in the distracted state of mind in which we do not ever notice that there is an ‘underneath’, that there actually is such a thing as a ‘game’ that is being played. Generally speaking, we could hazard a guess that it is those people who have not yet been challenged by life in any major way who are able to maintain this blissful state of naivety. But if I were to make it my business to talk to people who have just been through a hard time, whether through mental or physical illness or adverse circumstance, then without any doubt what I would notice is that a good proportion of these individuals (despite the fact that they might hold a very poor opinion of themselves in comparison of those members of society who are able to lead ‘normal lives’) possess the gift of being able to see that how we collectively show ourselves is not how we actually are.


The question is not “Is there really that much sadness in the world?” but “How much of the sadness are we ready or willing to see?” If we see only the bright and upbeat side of human life, it is because that is all we want to see – this naïve view of what is going on around us is carefully cultivated and maintained as a consequence of our unwillingness to see pain, because pain is the one thing that is guaranteed to ‘prick the bubble’. The rule is that the more conscious we are, the more finely attuned we become to the suffering that is going on under the surface. We can use this idea as a handy definition of the conscious and unconscious states by saying:


Unconsciousness is when I swallow the lie hook, line and sinker, and consciousness is when I see the lie, in all its horror


When everything is hunky-dory then the sinister collusion of our collective unconsciousness can remain safely unpunctured, and then we have no reason at all to doubt the lie it tells us. But if I am going through pain that is too deep to be dealt with in the normal way that we deal with pain, then the collusion is threatened and so people will start to peel away from me. It is instinctively understood that it is impossible to remain in contact with that much suffering without fatally challenging the shallow basis on which we conduct our lives, and because we are driven to preserve that shallow basis no matter what the cost, we have to abandon that unfortunate person.




It is also the case that when I no longer find it possible to interact with others in an acceptable fashion the unspoken rules that govern social interaction become very visible – they become visible simply because my inability to play the game causes me such pain. Social anxiety is a perfect example of this: I want to be like everyone else, I envy their station and would give anything to join the club, but at the same time the fact that I am an ‘outsider’ means that I can see that there is a game going on. I have become sensitive to the games that are going on, even though I will probably obtain little enough satisfaction from this insight. This awareness might lead me to see that behind the façade of humanity we project, the socially-adapted self is inevitably calculating and manipulative, power-orientated and self-interested. Being unselfish and caring and moral and responsible and all of that is my comfort zone, but push me hard enough and you will see that I am really only out for myself. It me I care about, not you!


Saying that we are all secretly selfish is another way of saying that we are all far from being as happy as we appear. If this fact were to be seen with enough clarity, this would actually cure me of my yearning to be ‘just like everyone else’. The fact of the matter is that the apparently blissful state of being perfectly socially adapted is spoiled by fatal flaws that we collectively agree not to acknowledge. The sort of happiness that we imagine perfectly adapted people to have is a mental projection on our part and doesn’t really exist at all; the ongoing belief in this fairy-story Ken and Barbie type of happiness is the key characteristic of the state of psychological unconsciousness: “Perfect rapture is out there somewhere,” I say, “and I am going to get some of it…” This rapture is so close that we can practically taste it, and it is this conviction that drives us on and on; we never give up, we persevere and we persevere and as a consequence we get cleverer and cleverer at the game, and more and more committed to the mirage of dream happiness. Any evidence to the contrary that we get is simply filed under ‘unwanted information’.




It is my perseverance and cleverness, my unrelenting self-interest that damns me. If I am calculating in my approach to life, addicted to stratagems and schemes then I cannot be a happy person. The reason for this is very simple indeed, as Wei Wu Wei indicates in Ask the Awakened (1963).


Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 per cent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself –
And there isn’t one.

Calculation and cleverness means methods, and wherever there is a method, then the one thing that we can be sure about is that there is a ‘virtual self’ behind the method, trying as always to benefit itself. Or as Wei Wu Wei says (p 16): “All methods require a doer. The only doer is the I-concept.” The ‘I-concept’ that Wei Wu Wei speaks of is the ‘me’, the disconnected, mechanical, deterministically driven ‘virtual self’ which is always to be found busy manipulating away behind the scenes. The disconnected or virtual self simply does not have the capacity to be happy – that is a complete and utter impossibility for it. The ‘me’ can only hope or fear, forever in thrall to an endless series of attractive and repellent illusions; it exists only through its relationship with its goals, either positive or negative, and the thing about ‘a goal’ is that it isn’t actually real, the only reality it has is the virtual reality which it possesses as a mental projection. We can be in a state of complete attachment to a goal, but despite all our attachment this goal will still slip through our fingers when the time to grasp hold of it comes. A goal can never be brought into the here and now – it exists either as a memory, or as an anticipated event, but at no time can we actually seize hold of it and proclaim it our own. If we were not so attached, then we would be able to see that a goal is actually a sort of zero-dimensional mathematical ‘point’ around which we ceaselessly turn; my goal is the furthest point of reach of the positive swing-phase of a pendulum – the very instant I reach it I am already on my way back into the negative swing phase. Or as the Taoist saying has it, “defeat is born at the moment of victory”.


Because the goals to which the virtual (or extrinsic) self is attached are mirages (spelling either victory or defeat) so too is it a mirage, since it is only through its relationship with its goals that the extrinsic self exists. Its goals are a projection or extension of the way in which it sees the world, and ‘the way in which it sees the world’ is the very essence of the extrinsic self. This mirage-like self can of course kid itself that it is happy but the happiness it makes do with is a very superficial and brittle sort of a thing; the fact of the matter is that we are hardly ever truly happy, any more than we are hardly ever truly able to love. In order for either to be the case we would have to be free from the false self that lives in us, and the state of ‘being free from the false self’ is an extraordinarily rare state to be in. It is like finding a sheet of iron that is still bright and shining after being left out in the rain for a year – it goes without saying that the brightness of the underlying pure metal has given way to layer upon layer of surface rust. In this ‘rust’ (by which we mean the superficial false identity of personality) there is inevitably unhappiness since personality is essentially a ‘cheat’, which means that whatever it is that we obtain as a result of it is not really worth having. Why this should be so is simple enough – by adopting the false self as an end in itself, we cheat ourselves out of what is rightfully ours, which is something that we simply cannot know on the basis of our everyday mind. Inasmuch as we are over-ridden by the growth of the generic or false personality, it has to be the case that we all harbour a deep current of sadness, a sadness that we dare not admit to ourselves.


I prefer to sleep away in the insipid pseudo-happiness of my rational dreams, and when painful intimations of a deeper reality do come knocking on my door, it is a horror to me, a horror I instinctively strive to repress. It is the failure of our ability to repress this painful awareness that we diagnose as depression and try to cure with our clever anti-depressants. We have neglected the garden of the soul and as a result it is now covered with voracious weeds; when these weeds threaten to strangle us in our sleep, we react by saying that there is no such thing as the soul, that there is no depth of meaning beyond the meaning we say there is. So if I am depressed, my sneaky way out is to say that there is no meaning to this depression, that its just a mechanical malfunction in our brains…




Boredom is, so we suggested, a direct route to getting a taste for the humourless reality that underpins the life of the virtual self. When there is a rich supply of entertainment on the daily conveyer belt the humourless nature of my basic psychological drive is submerged and I can quite easily give the impression, both to myself and others, that I am a laid back, non-needy person. I am not a junky, I am not a hungry mouth. But underlying my casual demeanour a distinctly humourless sort of a business is being transacted: the grim game of self-distraction. When something comes along to keep me engaged in an external task I feel okay, but even when I am busy diverting myself with this task I am arranging for the next one, and the next one after that. I have to keep stacking my escape routes, and my emergency backup escape routes, just like an air-traffic controller stacking jets over a busy airport. Even with all my cunning in this department it happens with grim inevitability that I hit a dry time, and when that happens I find myself thinking that dire mechanical thought, “What’ll I do now?”


This isn’t a playful sort of an attitude, but a deadly serious one. I am a serious game player – there is real compulsion there, a compulsion that is not to be messed around with. When the inner mechanism of ‘me calculatedly and humourlessly arranging for myself to be endlessly distracted’ is laid bare, it is not a pleasant sight; there is something truly ghastly about it, something horribly mechanical and unfree. What we have here is a sterile pursuit, a pursuit with nothing to recommend it at all. This complete lack of freedom is the defining characteristic of the unpleasant virtual entity that secretly pulls the strings that make me dance. This profoundly uninspiring set-up is the modus operandi of the everyday mind. I will of course protest that my ‘entertainment’ is actually a genuine statement of who I am and what I believe in, that I engage in it sincerely, for its own sake not just for the sake of preoccupying myself so I don’t have to think too deeply about life, but then it is one of life’s certainties that I would protest in this way, isn’t it? I have to validate my pattern to myself, because if I didn’t, I would have to deal with an awful lot of pain. As we keep saying, the plain fact of the matter is that the game-playing self can only continue to exist by virtue of its own duplicity, its own lack of sincerity or honesty. Without the game it has no existence. In fact we can say that the game-playing self is a game – it is an irredeemably futile and sterile game that we keep playing out of sheer habit. It is a game that plays itself out of its tautological inability not to keep on playing. In his discussion of ‘the game of anger’ associated with the lowest, most cruelly deterministic state of mind in the Buddhist cosmology Chogyam Trungpa (1976 p 39-40) explains the idea that we keep on playing the game because we are unable not to play:


…. One is left lonely once more, without excitement, so that you seek another way of playing the game, again and again and again. You do not play for enjoyment, but because you do not feel protected nor secure enough. If you have no way to secure yourself, you feel bleak and cold, so you must rekindle the fire. In order to rekindle the fire you have to fight constantly to maintain yourself. One cannot help playing the game; one just finds oneself playing it, all the time.




As Chogyam Trungpa indicates, the truth is that I do not play the game, but the game plays me. Because I am passively identified with the game, I get this backwards and so I have no inkling of the fact that I am frighteningly devoid of freedom; I identify with the freedom-of-the-game, which is not really freedom at all but pure tautology. True freedom has to do with the possibility of radical, unrestricted transformation, whereas the freedom that the virtual self has is ‘the freedom to always stay the same, no matter what’. This state of affairs, the upside-down state of affairs where the game plays me whilst I think the whole time that I am the one who is in control, is the state of psychological unconsciousness.


The way to get to the truth of how ‘things actually are with me’ is for me to make a little experiment with boredom, and sit there in a non-stimulating, non self-validating environment and watch how my mind likes it. Once my purposeful engagement with the outside world is cut off, then the false self no longer has an excuse to be there, it has a bare minimum of ‘fuel’, and that feels rather bad, rather hollow. Without my armoury of purposes and automatic, unreflective routines, where do I stand? Practice shows that this is an exercise that truly sorts out the sheep from the goats; we can see this from the plain fact of just how few people will actually ‘go the whole way’ and see what lies on the other side of the ‘boredom barrier’. You just can’t get folk to do it: this exercise is like a litmus test for the false self – basically, the false or virtual self has nothing whatsoever to gain from the practice of ‘doing nothing’, it stands to make no profit at all (in fact it quickly gets to see that the actual outcome of the practice is its own extinction). For this reason the ‘me’ has no interest whatsoever in the ‘negative path’ of doing nothing; the via negativa does not tempt it.


This is not to say that the false self will not profess an interest in meditation because of the glamour and self-validation that comes from pursuing a ‘spiritual’ path, but at all times its secret agenda is to enhance itself, to consolidate its own special position, not to allow itself to become extinct. This is like playing at being humble in order to feed one’s pride. In order to further its own interests, the false self can even become a Zen monk and sit in zazen for many years, putting up with the tedium in the hope that it will become ‘enlightened’ or at least achieve some stupendous spiritual breakthrough. One must never underestimate the tenacity of the false self in matters that it thinks (however mistakenly) will benefit itself.




But, to paraphrase Israel Regardie, the adventurer who starts off climbing the mountain is not the one who arrives at the summit. The self may start the journey but if the journey is pursued to the end there is no longer any ‘self’ to arrive (anymore than there is a ‘place’ to arrive at). The reason we do not like boredom is the reason we do not like pain – there is nothing there for me, and so the ‘me’ revolts, it finds an excuse to get up and go rather than remaining in that uncomfortable and ‘non-validating’ space. In place of boredom we could substitute any practice that is not carried out for the benefit of the self, any activity that ‘makes no sense’ from the narrowly logical point of view of the self. Self-observation is one such practice. Self-observation is where I scrupulously observe doing whatever it is that I do – which usually comes down to working hard at maintaining my pattern, struggling to preserve the integrity of my game in the name of doing something else. To put it another way, we could say that self-observation involves me scrupulously observing the inherent prejudice of my position, without trying to validate (or excuse) it to myself.


To see the mechanism that is operating behind the scenes, and the lack of freedom in its operation, is as we have said a very hard thing to stomach. This is understating the matter: if I could see first hand the sterility of my own game-playing mind, and my utter lack of freedom in what is going on, then this would constitute psychological work of the very highest order. Psychological work can be defined as ‘being where you don’t want to be’, or alternatively, as ‘seeing what you don’t want to see’, and when I observe my own mechanical nature (which is to say, the condition of abject mental slavery that I exist in) this is a terrible thing to witness. To bear witness to such a thing requires tremendous integrity and courage and this creates a curious paradox. We can state this paradox as follows:


When I see the prison that I am in, then I am free. I am free to see that I am in prison, which is a freedom that I have hitherto denied myself.


In Mysterium Coniunctionis Jung draws our attention to this same liberating paradox in an alchemical allegory attributed to Philaletha; who wisely advises – in the form of cryptic verse – that to see deeply into the barrenness of one’s soul is the secret key to unlocking one’s true creativity. Or as Jung puts it (CW 14, par 190):


If you will contemplate your lack of fantasy, of inspiration and inner aliveness, which you feel as sheer stagnation and a barren wilderness, and impregnate it with the interest born of alarm at your inner death, then something can take shape in you, for your inner emptiness conceals just as great a fullness if only you will allow it to penetrate into you. If you prove receptive to this “call of the wild,” the longing for fulfilment will quicken the sterile wilderness of your soul as rain quickens the dry earth. (Thus the soul to the Laborant, staring glumly at his stove and scratching himself behind the ear because he has no more ideas.)




One might wish to object at some point in this discussion that the picture we paint is too pessimistic and therefore misrepresentative, that we are spending too much time dwelling on the negative aspect of life. After all, isn’t there another side to it all, a ‘genuinely happy’ side? In answer to this we would have to agree that there is another side of the picture, a side which is so ‘life-affirming’ that we are quite incapable of understanding it. But to talk about this light, or think about it, is to substitute our conceptual overlay for the real thing. When I object to spending too much time contemplating the dark side of life, I am (as usual) completely missing the point. The great danger is that we will get swallowed up in ‘false spirituality’, which is when we sentimentalize about how wonderful everything is. Not only is this a useless pursuit, it is actively harmful because it invariably produces a vacuously superficial state of mind, the state of mind which is ‘in love with its own positive projections’. As Jung says,


There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.


As materialists, we use material benefits to distract ourselves, and as spiritual materialists (to use Chogyam Trungpa’s phrase) we use spiritual benefits to distract ourselves. All that has happened is that the game-playing self has found a new form of entertainment for itself – my language has changed but that is all since the truth of the matter is that it is still only ‘me’ and my entertainment that I am concerned about. Talking (or thinking) about the dark aspect of life is also entertainment of course, only in this case we are being distracted by frightening mental projections instead of attractive ones. Instead of living always in fear or in hope, and immersing ourselves constantly in reams upon reams of rationalization and conceptualisation, what is needed is a frame of mind that is fearless and ‘non self-distracting’, which simply comes down to awareness. The thing about awareness is that it doesn’t just show us pleasant things – it also shows us, with a terrible accuracy, all manner of unpleasant things too. Fast on the heels of any breakthrough in consciousness comes an increased awareness of ‘the adversary’. The keener our appreciation of love, the keener is our appreciation of evil. The principle that we are talking about here is a principle of ‘dualism’. We could state this principle in a number of ways: the brighter and more ineffable (or ‘reactive’) the metal, the faster is the onset of the rust that comes to cover it up; the brighter the light, the darker the shadows. The greater the prize, then the greater is the greed of the false self, and the greater is its impatience to exploit the riches it perceives.


If our portrait of the business of living seems dire, that is only because the life we are looking at is the life of the virtual self, which is altogether a dire business. To focus on just how unsatisfactory the life of the virtual self really is provides us with an infallible way of freeing ourselves from it – the more thoroughly disillusioned we are with this sort of ‘life’ (if we may call it life) the better it is for us. The normal condition for us is where we implicitly assume that ‘everything is more or less okay’ and it is because we have this way of looking at things that we are content to stay the same; the conservatism associated with our pattern of existence is immense, and the only thing that might conceivably move us would be the equivalent of having several sticks of dynamite detonated under our arses. An awareness of the true nature of the false self is the dynamite that we need. If I have such an awareness then this (to use Gurdjieff’s apt phrase) is the one thing that is guaranteed to ‘spoil my appetite for my favourite dish’. To this end, we will proceed to review what we have said so far.




The basic idea that we have been looking at in this chapter is that the social world which we live in has a secret function, which is the function of allowing us to hand over our freedom (or responsibility) to an external authority. This allows us to exist in a state of ‘illegitimate happiness’ – the kind of happiness that is obtained as a result of being ‘deliberately stupid’. We pay a price for this ignoble tactic, however, and the price can be seen in terms of latent dissatisfaction: essentially, everything we do is done against a back-drop of dissatisfaction (or ‘discomfort’) and so the desirable states of mind – the ones that we covet – are desirable because they represent a relief from this underlying lack of comfort. In other words, there is a compulsive basis for everything we do. Why this should be so is easy to understand once we see that ‘external authority’ is the exact same thing as an ‘external motivating force’, which is the same thing as ‘a compulsion.’ All three equal ‘lack of freedom’.


When living under the law of compulsion there are two motivating prongs, one being the promise of something good if the compulsion is obeyed, and the other being the threat of something bad if it is not obeyed. Successfully obeying the compulsion does not solve my problem for very long however because as soon as I have successfully obeyed, I have to go right back to the beginning again and start all over again. Living under the rule of compulsion means going around in endlessly repeating cycles – the basic form of the cycle can be explained in terms of three steps:


[1] The initial irritation (or ‘vexation’)
[2] The attempt to solve or cure the irritation
[3] The successful elimination of the irritation


We can plainly see that Step 1 is painful, Step 2 is hopeful, and Step 3 pleasurable. Seeing the cycle in this way allows us to set out the basic three steps in a more homely fashion:


[1] I feel an itch
[2] I scratch the itch
[3] The itch goes away


At first glance this seems like a perfectly satisfactory way of dealing with the vexatious irritation since it has been made to disappear, but in my hurry to gain the satisfaction of successfully fixing the problem I have failed to see the trick that is being perpetrated upon me. A compulsion is a special sort of pain, it is pain that comes with ‘a way of solving the pain’ as part of the packet, and so ‘experiencing the pain’ is the stimulus that triggers a specified reaction. When I react in the way that is specified by the compulsion I am validating the way of seeing the world that is inherent in the compulsion, and so whilst I may (temporarily) eliminate the problem I have actually strengthened the power of the compulsive way of thinking that led me to construct the problem in that way in the first place.


This is a one-way street – I have accepted the issue as ‘an issue’ by reacting to it, and once it is an issue, there is absolutely nothing I can do to make it ‘not an issue’. This is a cast iron impossibility. After all, why would I have to ‘do’ something about it in the first place if it were not an issue? My very attempt to escape the issue validates the issue as being an issue and so I am caught. To put it another way, my attempt to solve the vexation makes that vexation all the more real. Alan Watts makes the same point when he says that samsara (the realm of illusion) is like a ‘Chinese finger trap’; the harder we pull back our finger in the attempt to free ourselves, the tighter the trap’s grip on our finger becomes.


When we say that living under the rule of compulsion causes us to go around in circles, chasing something that we can never have (i.e. final satisfaction), this is a way of saying that external authority can never grant us true peace of mind. This is a very big drawback when one thinks about it – it basically means that we are condemned to eternal frustration, forever going around on the wheel, forever chasing a form of psychological ‘security’ that is utterly impossible ever to achieve. The two poles of the wheel are pleasure and pain, and our efforts to obtain the former and avoid the latter are what keep the wheel spinning around. When we live within the remit of external authority we are always restless, always seeking greener pastures, always yearning to improve our situation. I do not see this restlessness in terms of a compulsion that comes from outside of me however, but rather I identify with the desires and so I feel that the desire is an expression of my own free will. When we consider the matter in practical terms, it can easily be seen that compulsion can never lead to peace of mind since peace of mind obviously lies in the reality of the ‘here and now’. A compulsion, however, always points away from the here and now – the present moment is the one place that never looks good to the purposeful mind!


A compulsion is an attachment, and an attachment is always linked to a goal, and a goal is by definition a projection of the conceptual mind. The implicit assumption is always that when I finally get to the promised land, then at that time I will ditch my ‘wanting’ and so I will be free to enjoy being where I am. But what I don’t see is that when I do the deal to hand over my freedom to the ‘extrinsic meaning system’, there is nothing written down in the contract about my freedom being given back to me on a plate later on when I get fed up. ‘Handing over’ is a one-way street because once I hand over my freedom, at the same time I hand over the freedom to see that I have handed it over. This is a deal with the devil and the devil is not after all known for offering fair deals.




Unlike the classical Christian motif of ‘selling one’s soul to the devil’, where it is understood that there is no possibility whatsoever for me to change my mind later on and ask for my soul to be returned, there is always a way to reverse the pernicious ‘downwards transformation’ that has overtaken us. The only problem is that in order to avail of this ‘way’ I have to surrender the one thing that is most precious to me – my self. I have to somehow overcome my most basic prejudice, the prejudice of seeing everything (and doing everything) from the point of view of the ‘me’. In actual fact the self that I am surrendering is the false self so it doesn’t do me any harm at all to lose it, but there is of course no way that I can know this until later on, when I have already made the sacrifice. But, given that I am (in pragmatic terms) identical with the false self, how do I go about surrendering myself? Where do I find a motivation that is sincere, a motivation that is not tainted with self-interest? One way to approach this conundrum is to think in terms of ‘the perception of zero freedom’.


We have been harping on most insistently about ‘the grim reality that underpins the life of the virtual self’. The grimness of this reality, we have said, comes down to the fact that it is unfree. Basically, the virtual self does not have any choice as regards its need to ‘self-distract’; it does not have any choice in its need to play the game, because it is the game that it is playing. The secret rule behind the life of the virtual (or game-playing) self is that it is not allowed to see its own true nature; as we have said, the one thing that the system of thought cannot do is to see that it is the system of thought. The key to transcending the game is, therefore (as the alchemists said), simply to see that I have no freedom. This just means looking honestly at my situation, and allowing the truth to filter through to me as it surely will eventually, if I let it. According to the Lankavatara sutra, what happens then is that I experience a moment of pure revulsion, a moment of intense distaste for the state of mental slavery that I have allowed myself to fall into, and following this inner revulsion there is a ‘turning around in the seat of the soul’, which constitutes a changing over of my allegiance from falsehood and self-distraction to the light of the truth. Therefore, we can say that the ‘pure motivation’ that is needed for us to transcend ourselves (i.e. motivation that is not tainted by unacknowledged selfishness) arises out of the pain of seeing the truth.


There is a natural process that happens inevitably just as soon as I allow myself to perceive clearly what my situation actually is. The perception in question can also be understood in terms of ‘the perception of the impossibility of escaping the game’. The paradox here can be framed as follows:


To understand perfectly that the self can never escape from itself is to be perfectly free from the self


Alternatively, we could put it like this:


To understand perfectly the absolutely limited nature of the rational mind is to be perfectly free from that limitation


The rational mind is an organizationally closed system, which is to say, it is ‘sealed off’ from reality, it is ultimately disconnected, ultimately compartmentalized. Because of its closed nature, its finite sweep, the life of the rational mind is totally sterile, there is nothing new that can ever happen in it, nor occur to it, not if it were to wait for as many billion years as there are grains of sand in the Sahara. We are not talking about some dry theoretical principle here because the inherent sterility of the rational mind is the inherent sterility of my own life, just as long as I am in the state of passive identification (which is almost all of the time). My life follows what I think, and if what I think is determined by the system of thought, then obviously my life also is going to have a ‘finite sweep’ – it is going to be a wearisome exercise in endless repetition and inescapable predictability. What else could it be? I can try to escape from the awareness of this futility (which is what the whole game of rational thought is about) or I can see it. I can see my trip – I can see where I am at.


When I see that my world is a finite circle in a shoreless ocean of uncharted possibilities (when I see that I am absolutely limited) then at this precise moment I also see something else – I see the utter unreality of my situation. The liberating paradox of ‘absolute limitation’ is that there is no such thing as absolute limitation. The liberating paradox of the virtual self is that there is no such thing as the virtual self. I am not trapped in the system of thought because there is no such thing as the system of thought. It was all a giant hoax, from beginning to end – it was all just a trick.




When we talk about paradoxes that is one thing, but the pragmatic reality of what I have to go through in order to be free to see the hoax of organizational closure is another thing. Jung said that no one gets to be free without paying down to the last penny what they owe, and what this means is that we have to painfully disinvest to the exact same extent that we have invested in the first place. ‘Disinvestment’ obviously means that there is more than just an intellectual involvement, which is a place that we easily tend to get stuck. Instead of a purely intellectual understanding then, what we need is something with a bit more meat in it, something which hits us on a more personal level. There is a way that we can do something like this and that is to combine the intellectual approach with the emotional and see something that we really don’t want to see. An example of this is what we might call ‘seeing the nullity’. The ‘nullity’ is the term given by John Bennett to the self-cancelling (or ‘null’) nature of all the operations that are undertaken by the disconnected rational mind, and – as we have said – if the disconnected rational mind were to allow itself to see its own nullity (which is an extraordinarily terrible thing to see) then at this point it would no longer be ‘the disconnected rational mind’; it would be ‘reconnected’, so to speak. The idea here (as Kevin Ayers says in one of his songs) is ‘what you’ve lost you’ve found’; expressing it a bit more long-windedly, we may say:


When I allow myself see clearly that I have lost something incomparably precious, and experience fully the pain of seeing just what it is that I have lost, then this pain in itself reconnects me to what I have lost


The paradox is as always: seeing that you are irrevocably trapped in an organizationally closed system is to be outside of the system, and seeing that you are disconnected from reality is to be connected to reality. Seeing the nullity – or seeing the game – is simultaneously an intellectually difficult thing to do and an emotionally difficult thing to do. It is certainly not easy to have an intellectual understanding of the paradoxicality inherent in the game (most of us can quite easily go through the whole of our lives without being troubled particularly by an awareness of paradoxicality), and it is without question a very great task to obtain an accurate emotional understanding of what the nullity means. An ‘emotional understanding’ means seeing our attachments, and seeing the utter futility of these attachment – I have to see both how much I want ‘it’, and how much I can never have ‘it’. Seeing my attachment means seeing how reacting to my craving makes what I crave for real to me (and conversely, seeing my attachment means seeing how reacting to my fear makes what I fear real to me.)


Disinvestment is a lengthy business because investment is cumulative; it adds up, and it has been adding up for a very long time. All the time I have been playing the game I have been busily investing in believing in the game, and so all my ‘values’ are located in it, tied up in it. It is a very hard thing indeed to accept that we have been going down the wrong road, and must therefore painfully go back to where we started. The resistance to going ‘back to the drawing board’ is immense because the pain associated with going back to the drawing board is immense; I just don’t want to admit that everything I know is bogus, I don’t want to see that everything I ever thought was, and is, completely and utterly false. “Okay”, I say, “so I need to drastically re-evaluate my position. But surely I can’t have got it all wrong? Tell me I get some of it right, at least…”


What I have got to come to terms with is the unbelievably incredible fact that the whole of my life was based on self-deception (i.e. illusion); I have to come to terms with the fact I have spent my life chasing red herrings, and missing completely what was really important. This – inasmuch as I ‘believe in a me’ – is most certainly the case, since the me that wants so badly to believe that it got ‘some of it right’ is in fact the Primary Illusion itself, the Source of all Red Herrings!




As we have been saying all along, the self always sees everything in an inverted way – it has to do this in order to put itself first, and it has to put itself first or else it cannot maintain the illusion that it actually exists. If the ‘me’ put Reality first, and itself second (which would of course be the correct way of doing it) then it could not have the illusion of being an absolute entity, or ‘an end in itself’; without this ‘absolute validation of me as a final reality’ there could be no concrete experience of an independently existent self, and so what we would have here would be ‘a ‘me’ that did not believe in itself’ (which is not a ‘me’ at all).


The fundamental craving of the virtual (or habitual) self is for there to be something that is definitely true, for there to be some fixed reality, something that it can hang its coat and hat on. A fixed reality means a viewpoint that is unquestionably the one and only right viewpoint (i.e. not ‘a’ viewpoint at all but the actual legitimate truth) and it is this central act of self-deception that we are all addicted to. Once the habitual self has hung up its coat and hat it can then sit back in comfort in its favourite armchair, light up a cigarette, and flick on the TV to catch the latest episode of Eastenders. All I want (really) is to be allowed to get on with my games, my ‘self-entertainment’. A common viewpoint on this would undoubtedly be to say that I deserve a little rest or recreation after my labours, and that this period of mental relaxation is actually beneficial to the one who relaxes. This objection completely misses the point however: I do not play the game, the game plays me, and what is more, the ‘self’ in question that plays the game is actually no more than the ‘self’ that is granted me by the game. This ‘me’ is, therefore, simply the game in a disguised form, and ‘I’ (as free or unconstrained consciousness) am simply not there at all. The game is played by a ghost that takes itself to be a real ‘player’, not realizing that it is a mere phantom generated by the constrained viewpoint that is the game. Or to put it another way, I am a character in a dream that I take to be reality, unaware that the dream itself is dreaming me. To quote Wei Wu Wei again (from Open Secret):


Our dreamed ‘selves’, autonomous in appearance, as in life, can be seen in awakened retrospect to be puppets totally devoid of volitional possibilities of their own. Nor is the dream in any degree dependent on them except as elements therein. They, who seem to think they are living and acting autonomously, are being dreamed in their totality, they are being activated as completely and absolutely as puppets are activated by their puppeteer. Such is our apparent life, on this apparent earth, in this apparent universe.




Without the certainty with which I invest my assumptions, there is nowhere to hang my attachments, and if there is nowhere for me to hang my attachments then there is no ‘me’. I live through my attachments, I am my attachments – which is to say, the self is nothing other than the state of attachment. The fact that there are no genuinely absolute frameworks of reference to which we can attach our belief structures is quite beside the point as far as we are concerned; it is sheer irrelevancy because our interest is not in ‘seeing things as they really are’, but in ‘having things the way we want them to be.’


Having things be the way we want them to be means, in a nutshell, arranging for the universe to confirm that there is a ‘me’ who wants certain things, whatever those things might be! What I want – and can’t admit that I want – is for my central prejudice to be validated, and my central prejudice is that there is indeed a ‘me’. The immediate payoff that I obtain from this act of self-humouring (or self-deception) is euphoria, which feels so good and so rewarding that I do not want to question it. The price that I pay for descending into the state of ‘non-questioning’ is however very steep. ‘Having things to be exactly the way we want them to be’ leads us straight into the arms of the nullity (as we have argued earlier), and were I to see this nullity I would see just how steep this price is. Seeing the nullity is the same thing as [1] seeing my attachments and, simultaneously, [2] seeing exactly where it is that these attachments get me. Where my attachments get me is orbiting around forever in a perfectly futile self-cancelling (i.e. unreal) trip.




A nice straightforward way to envisage the self-cancelling nature of rationality is to think about it in terms of topology, which is the study of mathematical surfaces. In this chapter we have been talking about the ‘social game’, which is the framework of reference within which social actions make sense. This basically means that we agree that there is a ‘right way’ to see things and because there is a right way to see things then instead of allowing reality to unfold according to its own law, we impose our own law upon it. This we do surreptitiously by choosing a set of evaluative criteria (and by implication a specific framework) and then refusing to see that we have actually chosen it ourselves. Now when we follow this rule, what happens is that we adhere to a particular logical ‘surface’, which can be thought of as the bounded region of possibilities that are allowed within that logical system. We could of course talk about an ‘n-dimensional possibility space’ if we wanted but the trouble is that its not very easy (for most of us) to think about curvature in an n-dimensional space. For this reason, we are better off keeping it simple.


Now the important thing to understand here is this logically bounded surface isn’t a ‘real’ surface at all – it is more of an imaginary (or ‘virtual’) surface because it has a sort of invisible kink in it which causes the positive face of the surface to flip over for exactly 50% of the time and become the corresponding negative face. Clearly, the net surface area must therefore be zero in this case which is why we are saying that the surface (as a whole) is only virtual; at any one point there is the impression that there a positive bit of surface area, but the one thing we know for sure is that a bit later on we are going to have to spend time on the flip-side of this surface, which will take us back exactly to where we started. There is an inviolable rule here which we can set out as follows:


It is impossible to have a positive bit of ‘logic surface area’ without there being the corresponding negative bit out there somewhere to cancel it out


The positive and negative faces are indivisible from each other – they belong to the same ‘mathematical object’. Or to put this another way, if I assert that such-and-such a positive logical statement is true then I am setting things up for the opposite statement also to be true.




We can envisage this sort of thing pretty easily because what we are talking about is exactly the same as a mobius strip, which is simply a closed loop (i.e. a closed two-dimensional surface) that has a twist in it so that really there is only the one surface which keeps flipping over on itself. Thus, if I am travelling along happily along the inside (or ‘negative face’) of the loop I am inevitably going to find myself before very long on the outside (or ‘positive face’) of the loop without ever actually noticing when the transition from negative to positive occurred. The paradox – if only I could see it – is that ‘the inside equals the outside’.


The reason I don’t notice the transition occurring (the reason I don’t notice the paradox) is because there actually isn’t a ‘transition’ at all. It is all the same surface – there are not two separate surfaces, but the very same surface. What this demonstrates is that positive equals negative: a positive proposition is as much an expression of the underlying logical framework as is the exact opposite proposition. Looking at this a different way, we can say that from a viewpoint which is outside that particular system of logic, both the positive and the negative assertion are equally meaningless since both only make sense when we see it from the point of view of the system. The two terms of Aristotelian logic (YES and NO) only seem to be different to each other from the perspective of that particular logic system. In other words, the difference between the two polar opposites is only virtual. The consequence of this is tremendous – it means that the world that I perceive from my ‘rational’ viewpoint is also virtual.


The fact that we find the virtual nature of our rational world so incredibly hard to see is a measure of how identified we are with the system of thought – which is to say, it is a measure of how unconscious we are. We have no genuine perspective, only the ‘false perspective’ which is provided for us by the system of thought. We can use this basic idea to come up with a neat definition of the conscious and unconscious states of mind – all we need to say is something to the effect that:


Consciousness is when we are aware of paradoxicality
Unconsciousness is when we are unaware of paradoxicality




The basic idea here is that when we project the meaning of the system of thought on the world, when we conform to the ‘right way’, then what happens is that we adhere strictly to the surface of the mobius strip of the logic we are following. As we traverse the surface we alternately flip over from positive to minus without ever exactly noticing the moment of transition. On the other hand, it has to be said that we notice the difference between PLUS and MINUS without any difficulty because the one thing we are particularly sensitive to (even when we aren’t sensitive to anything else) is the difference between pleasure and pain. We become very sensitive indeed to all the subtle degrees and variations involved and we respond to these changes by manipulating all the relevant variables that are open to us. This, however, is where the ‘logic bug’ comes in:


No matter how skilful and subtle our game playing, the one thing that we can’t change is the inevitable ‘twisting over’ from pleasure to pain that happens as we traverse the mobius loop of the rational mind.


There is a kink in this loop and there is nothing anyone can do that can ever get it out – the kink is there to stay because it is an inherent part of the structure of the logic which we worship so devoutly. This ‘kink’ (or ‘twist’) is the invisible clause in the contract we have signed with the devil, it is the bug that plagues our perfectly programmed rational world and once we focus on it we see that it is a bug to end all bug, a super-bug. This glitch is without doubt the worst thing that could ever happen in our smoothly running virtual world – it screws up all our dreams, it makes a mockery of everything we hold dear. It is therefore not at all surprising that we have no interest at all in seeing the glitch in rationality, which is to say, seeing rationality as it actually is.




What we are talking about here is a mathematical (or topological) approach to John Bennett’s principle of compensation since the amount of time spent traversing the ‘positive’ face of the loop is exactly equal to the amount of time spent on the ‘negative’ face. If we are able to envisage the system of logic as a being like a link in a paper chain that has a twist in it then this means that we are thinking in a non-rational (or intuitive) way since there is absolutely no way at all that rationality can grasp this picture of itself. This is because the rational function works, as Jung has said, by keeping the opposites well and truly separated – it sees YES and NO as being independent (or unrelated) entities, so that we believe wholeheartedly in the possibility of obtaining a positive outcome, without at the same time incurring the reverse of this. We can see only half the picture at a time, and the result of this that our behaviour is purely reactional, i.e. it is an automatic reaction based on either attraction or repulsion.


Rationality itself is in essence reactional because it is all about responding to a [+] or [-] as if each polar opposite where a ‘thing in itself’. As a result of this we build up a world that is based on the assumption that PLUS and MINUS are essentially different (rather than just virtually different); each link in the chain of events that goes to make up the world equals ‘logical reacting’ and so the whole structure is just a continuation of (or extension) of the initial logical statement. No new information enters the picture because ‘reacting’ means copying the same old assumption over and over again. Reacting is therefore the same thing as self-promotion or self-maintenance. A jump in information content (which we can relate to ‘insight’ or ‘intuition’) necessarily means self-transcendence; self-transcendence is the same thing as the negation or falsification of the self, and this basically comes down to seeing through our assumptions (or attachments). John Bennett (1961, p 187-8) makes this point about the reactive nature of rationality in the following passage taken from Vol. II of The Dramatic Universe:


The Reactional Self is dominated by external forces that have a dualistic character by reason of the two kinds of laws, positive and negative, that determine the state of Will in World XCVI. It is, however, not a true dyad, for it can transmit only one Cosmic Impulse at a time. This is the chief characteristic of the Reactional Self, and it accounts for the role it plays in the economy of the total Self-hood. It is the source of the basic dualism of human reactions, with their dyads of pleasure-pain, like-dislike, activity and repose, affirmation and negation, attraction and repulsion. All these reactions are automatic – that is, null operations of the Will. For this reason, the Reactional self could also be called the ‘Nullity in Man’.


The Reactional Self can experience the action of only one Cosmic Impulse at any one given time. When it experiences the affirming impulse, it is unaware of the denying force that opposes it. This produces a positive reaction that is manifested through the automatism of the Material Self. Likewise, a denying impulse produces a negative manifestation. In these reactions there is no choice, and no decision. There is a polarity, but only one pole is situated within the Self.




The ‘social nullity’ is an extension of the nullity which is the isolated Reactional Self. Seeing society as a nullity implies that it serves no real purpose at all, beyond preoccupying us so thoroughly that we do not get time to notice that what we are spending our time doing is essentially meaningless! The social system lays great stock on the supposed fact that it is there in order to help us realize our personal dreams, whereas the truth of the matter is that it uses us to help realize its own (null) dreams.


In a more general vein, it could be said that the system of thought lays great stock on the fact that it relates us to the big wide world, so that it represents our way of establishing a relationship with this world. But because it is organizationally closed, the system of thought has no relationship with anything outside itself, which makes the relationship in question grotesquely redundant.


In order for the system of thought  – or the social system – to conduct this apparently meaningful but actually redundant relationship, it has to play a game within itself, the game being that the system is not the system. As we have been saying, the essential ploy in the game is that ‘the game is not a game’.


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