Identifying With a Phantom Self [1]


Addiction is an overwhelming compulsion that we end up identifying with; it is a force acting against us that we align ourselves with; it is a demand that we choose to obey because we don’t really have any choice in the matter anyway! For this reason, we can say that addiction represents a fundamental loss of freedom – something essential to our well-being has been stolen from us, namely our integrity of purpose. What ‘integrity’ means in this context is that no matter what we value or hold dear, the force of addiction always has the final say on the matter, so that if I have to chose between what I value, and the addiction, it is likely that I will betray myself. The result of this loss of essential integrity is that I start to lose belief in myself. In a sense, I have become my own enemy – at one moment I am resolved to rid myself of the habit, I am revolted by my dependency on whatever it is, and then, a bit later on, I have changed my attitude 100% and I am longing for the comfort only it can bring. It is almost as if I love my addiction, and want to nurture it. No matter how much work I do to become free, it only takes a split second for the self that loves the addiction to take over, and then I find myself right back at square one again. I’m not really calling the shots therefore, even though the addiction might allow me the luxury of imagining that I am.



Because I recognize that it is such a fundamental infringement on my integrity as a person, I naturally end up fighting for my life against addiction, but what I discover then is that my opponent is an extremely tricky customer, immensely powerful, resourceful and patient. I might think that I am getting somewhere, but that is just another part of the game, and later on, when I am weak, the craving will come back multiplied a hundredfold. In the end I am left in no doubt that this is a struggle like no other, a struggle I seem fated to lose. The addiction monster is formidably big and immensely strong, whilst I am puny and weak. Over the course of time, I become deeply familiar with the terrain of addiction, and the circular path of my on-going futile attempt to escape addiction, which is itself part of the addiction. I get to know it all so well, but I seem powerless to change the pattern, and break free. My intimate knowledge of the terrain thus only seems to add to my suffering – I know what is going to happen before it happens and all I can do is watch the script unfold as it always does.



There is a reason why addiction is so hard to break free from, and we will now try to look into that reason.  The crux of the matter is that setting goals for myself, and attempting to reach them by sheer will-power and brute strength, is exactly the wrong approach to take. It is the obvious approach, it is a knee-jerk reaction, but the obvious answer is generally the wrong answer. If this were not so, life would be a great deal simpler than it is, and we would not end up getting caught up in problems like addiction. Addiction, as we have said, is all about coercion and compulsion, about having to do stuff. The way we automatically try to deal with it is by fighting it, by trying to coerce ourselves not to be coerced, by compelling ourselves not to be compelled. We say to ourselves that we mustn’t give in to the addiction, that it is the wrong thing to do this and we don’t see how futile and ridiculous this aggressive attitude is. Basically, we bully ourselves, we try to win out by violence, and when we don’t succeed, we blame ourselves, and ‘beat ourselves up about it’; we continue with the violence, only it gets even nastier now. The irony is that by trying to defeat the evil of violence through violence, I have become what I hate, I have become infected with that same evil, that same coercive intolerance. I have established a cruel tyranny over myself – there is no difference between the freedom-stealing compulsiveness of the addiction, and the freedom-stealing compulsiveness of me trying to fight the addiction! It is as if I am threatened by an enemy army, an army under the control of a ruthless and despotic general and to save myself, I find an equally ruthless and despotic general who will fight the enemy army, and I put myself totally under his command.  I lose either way in the end, since both generals are necessarily as bad as each other.




What I am doing when I forcefully try to rid myself of an addiction can be described as ‘putting myself under moral pressure’: I have said that “I must not give in to the addiction”. When I do, that means that I am a bad person, and I feel guilt and self-disgust. When I fail, I redouble my efforts, and when I fail again I redouble the guilt.  The problem here, as we have said, is that I am becoming an enemy of myself just as much as the addiction itself is – I have become alienated from myself and am always looking down on myself from an external ‘moral’ vantage point. Yet that ‘external moral vantage point’ that I am identifying with isn’t actually me, it is merely an invention, a mental projection of ‘the way I think things ought to be’. It’s the ‘super-ego’. Therefore, there is the addiction compelling me from one side (which isn’t me), and this so-called ‘superior’ self compelling me from the other side (which isn’t me either) and in the process of all this violence I have actually lost my ability to be who I actually am. I am alienated, splintered, fragmented – split against myself. The problem is, as we have just said, that through fighting ‘the enemy’ of addiction, I have created an equal and opposite compulsive force, which is every bit as violent and destructive as the addiction is. By aligning myself with violence I have trapped myself in a vicious circle that only ever gets worse; by utilizing moral pressure and telling myself ‘what I ought to do’ I have destroyed my own freedom just as thoroughly as the original addiction, since no one ever became free through being told what to do!



By standing outside myself on a moral platform and putting pressure on myself to do this, and not do that, I have put myself in an absurd position. If I do what I am telling myself to do, then I am acting falsely, I am not acting from my true self – I am only being a pawn in a game, a slave to my own compulsion. But if I deliberately go against myself (which I generally will, since no one likes being bossed around, even by oneself) then I am still just a pawn since my act of rebellion against myself still isn’t an expression of my autonomy or freedom. On the contrary, I have only played out another move within the well-established pattern of addiction –


Going along with coercion, and rebelling against coercion are the same, they are the two moves of the game and there is absolutely no possibility of freedom within the game. Freedom doesn’t come from playing the game, but from gaining insight into the game and thus not being trapped by the game anymore.




There is another way to try to understand this basic principle. Addiction, we may say, is an on-going desire-state, it involves the suffering of craving. When I feel the suffering of craving, the first reaction is to satisfy it, to obtain whatever it is that I want so badly. This, at best, only momentarily eases the situation, and before long (of course) the craving is back again. Each time I feed the craving by placating it, it comes back a little bit stronger. The habit becomes more and more entrenched. This is a road to self-destruction, and it doesn’t take too long for me to work that out. Because I don’t want to go down this road, I start to react to the craving by fighting against it. I take up my fixed moral standpoint, I brace myself into a rigid posture of self-denial and prepare to take the strain. The problem here, we could say, is my motivation. Behind the attempt to fight addiction lies the desire to be free from the torment of craving. Basically, I am ‘craving not to crave’, I am ‘desiring not to desire’! The place that I want to get to is the place where there are no more opposing forces ripping me apart, the place where there is peace or ‘freedom from compulsion’. What I don’t see is the utter impossibility of reaching a state of ‘non-desiring’ through desiring. The craver is still there and it is the craver that wants to be free from craving. The craver imagines that it can free itself from craving by yet more craving.



What is happening here is that craving is seeking to destroy itself, but in the process of destroying itself, it creates itself anew. This is perfectly inevitable, once one thinks about it: every time I crave I create a ‘self of craving’ since there always has to be a ‘centre’, a ‘me’ that craves. Therefore, just as soon as I start to crave an end to craving, I immediately crystallize a new ‘self of craving’, and if I crave an end to that craving, I create yet another self of craving! The ‘self of craving’ isn’t who I really am, it is a fixed, well-defined external position that I identify with, an external viewpoint which is defined by the rigid (or unyielding) demand that I am making. The same thing happens when I ‘tell myself what to do’, as we noted earlier: as soon as I put pressure on myself I automatically create a new self outside the old self. If I am putting myself under pressure, then there must be a self to be pressurized, obviously, and – equally obviously – there must be another self there somewhere to do the actual pressurizing!




The exact same thing happens when I judge (or evaluate) myself – in order to evaluate it is necessary that I create an external point of reference from which I can judge or evaluate. I need some fixed criteria to measure myself against, in other words. This is a general rule: in order to see myself I must be outside myself, but then I no longer am myself! In order to think about myself, I must be outside myself, outside the ‘me’ that I am attempting to capture with my thoughts. Actually, as Alan Watts says, this is like a puppy chasing its tail – it goes around and around forever, forever unsuccessful. In the same way, all my attempts to control myself must ultimately fail, since who is it that is doing the controlling? Clearly, if I answer that it is ‘me’ that is controlling then the question arises as to who is going to control that ‘me’. Another level, another ‘me,’ would then be needed, and even if I continue indefinitely the process of adding new levels, another level is always going to be needed…



This might seem like some sort of verbal trickery, but the logical principle behind it is perfectly sound –


To control myself I first have to conceptualise myself, but to conceptualise myself I have to get ‘outside myself’. If I am outside of myself, then the self that I am controlling isn’t the real me, and the self that is doing the controlling isn’t the real me either. I have split myself into two, and neither of these two split selves is who I am!


To put this another way: controlling creates a ‘controller’, and I end up thinking that I am that controller. From here on I cannot win because the self that I am identifying with, the self I want to win freedom for, doesn’t actually have any independent existence at all – it is just the creation of my thoughts, an abstraction, a function of the way I am looking at things.  Just about everyone you ask will tell you that self-control is what you need, but this is completely wrong. Self-control is a journey to neurotic hell, a way of becoming divorced from oneself. It involves the wrong type of motivation, i.e. motivation that is attached to a false conception of self. This ‘false’ (or ‘conditioned’) self can never get what it wants, since it itself is the ‘wanting’, since it is the ‘self of wanting’. The controller never gets free from the necessity to keep on controlling, and the ‘wanter’ never gets free from its wanting.  All the same, the controller really does believe in its controlling, and the wanter really does believe in its wanting, and so the tread-wheel keeps going around and around.




Control is all that I understand and so when I start to see that it can never free me I will feel even more defeated than before. I am now defeated and confused, totally at a loss. So what is the answer? How does seeing that control doesn’t work help me? We have just said that the self that wants to escape is the self that never escapes. This is true for craving, and it is true for all negative emotional states, which is why we cannot snap out of a sulk (for example) just by trying very hard! If the self of craving cannot escape, then the answer must be to refrain from identifying with this self, or with any other false, split-off self. If splitting occurs through violence and ‘trying’ (or ‘wanting’) then integrating (which is the opposite of splitting) must occur when we follow the way of non-violence –


I find my way back to wholeness, and being who I really am, by unconditionally allowing myself to be what I am, rather than by attempting to force myself to be what I think I ought to be.


This doesn’t sound right to us as a rule, because we confuse unconditional acceptance with placating the craving, i.e. going along with the compulsion, which is obviously not a good idea. A moment’s thought is all that is needed to correct this misunderstanding. However, going along with the compulsion is clearly not at all the same thing as ‘unconditionally accepting myself the way I am right now’; if I am craving, then this the exact opposite of unconditional acceptance – it is a total rejection of the way I am right now. What I am saying (or feeling) is “I refuse to put up with this – I have to fix things so I feel better….”  I am rejecting the discomfort of craving by obeying the craving, in other words. When I fight craving by putting moral pressure on myself not to give in, this is also an act of rejection, I am saying “This will not do at all – I have to fix things so I stop craving….” Unconditional acceptance of the way I am means not thinking of ways to change the situation, it means not trying to be a different way to the way I am. What I am doing here is consciously ‘being with’ my life as it unfolds – I’m seeing my situation for what it is and staying with it. I am ‘integrating my experience’ rather than ‘splitting it off’.




A good way to look at the difference between unconditional acceptance and the other possibility of ‘placating the urge’ or ‘fighting the urge’ is to think in terms of motivation. Both ‘placating’ and ‘fighting’ are examples of what we may call extrinsic motivation. What this means is that the motivation involved is based upon a fixed idea of the situation – there is a framework of meaning in place, and the motivation is based on trying to obtain a goal which makes sense within this framework. What we are talking about here, therefore, is a view of things that is generated by taking a fixed external reference point –


I stand outside myself and I see what’s wrong with my situation, and then I work out what I can do to rectify matters.


As we have already said, by thinking about myself in this way I create another level, another self who observes the first self. This fragments everything and guarantees that my efforts will misfire, since what I am seeing is not the whole picture. If I have a goal in mind, then that is extrinsic motivation – it is motivation that inevitably does violence to the situation since it does not fully appreciate what that situation is. We might say that it produces action that arises from an idea about reality, and ideas about reality are never the same thing as the reality itself. Our ideas about reality are (as David Bohm says) incoherent and this is why extrinsic motivation must always results in the state of interminable conflict. We start correcting the situation, and we have go on correcting forever, because the error is actually in our thinking.



Normally, when we talk about ‘beating an addiction’ we invariably use the language of extrinsic motivation. We try to beat the addiction so that we will be a better and happier person, because we know it is the sensible, logical thing to do, or we try to beat the addiction out of a sense of guilt or self-loathing, or simply because we can’t bear the pain and frustration of carrying on like this. All of these reasons seem sound to us, but in fact they will not do at all. They are wrong motivations! The reason they are wrong is simple – it is because they are all conditional, they all have a goal at the end of them. I say “I will do X, Y, and Z if it will get me out of this mess,” or I say “ I will put up with X amount of pain and discomfort if you can guarantee that it will all be worth it in the end….” Conditional acceptance of pain will not do the job because the whole time that I am there in the thick of the suffering there is always a part of me that is measuring and calculating; there is always another level, in other words, which I can retreat to in order to make sense of what is happening to me. I might think that I am having a hard time, but actually I am not wholly ‘in it’, I am split-off, watching myself from the outside, alienated from my own experience.


This is what happens every time we try to solve our situation by rational means, which is to say, by withdrawing from the immediate ‘here and now’ of it into a state of ‘alienated withdrawal’, an abstract platform from which we can rationalize and analyse what is going on. Conditional acceptance of pain always fails in the end because of the conditions that we have made; what we have done is to make a deal in our own minds – we say “If I tolerate X amount of discomfort for Y period of time, then I expect to have such and such a result for it” We don’t quite realize that this is what we are doing, but that is the nub of it. Naturally, when the universe fails to live up to our expectations (when it fails to honour the deal that we thought we had made with it) we crack up – it is blatantly unfair, we tell ourselves, and that gives us the excuse we need to storm off in a tantrum or retreat into the depths of despair.




The only possible way to work with compulsion is by unconditional acceptance of our situation, which is when we don’t draw arbitrary lines on the sand to get upset about. I am not accepting the suffering because I am going to get something for it, I am just accepting it. Full stop. An attitude like this cannot go wrong! Once I have dropped my conditions, and just accepted, then that is all I need to do. It is that simple – the game is over. Intrinsic motivation means that I am doing what I am doing for no reason. I’m not ‘there for a reason’, I’m just there. I am not playing a game. The reason I am doing it is because I have realized that there is nothing else I can do. I can only be where I am, I have absolutely no choice in this matter. In the Bhagavad-Gita this is spoken of as ‘the renunciation of attachment to the fruit of action‘ – ‘action without the fruit of action’ is the basis of Karma Yoga.


Extrinsic motivation arises out of unconsciousness, which is to say, the delusional belief that I can change my inner state through my own efforts, through the exertion of my own will. Intrinsic motivation – on the other hand – arises out of the unconditional acceptance of this inner state, as painful as it might be. We realize that the self which wants to escape, never can escape. We let go of this futile desire to escape. We ‘let go’ of that self, we ‘give it up’, we ‘sacrifice’ it. We’re actually sacrificing something that isn’t there – we’re ‘giving up’ an illusion.


So along with the painful realization that ‘the self which wants so desperately to escape, never can escape’ there is also the liberating insight that the self that wants to escape – which is the self of craving – never really existed in the first place!


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