Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Euphoria we have defined in terms of confirmation, which means that it is a message telling us that the position we have taken is the right one; there is specificity here because if we move out of that position the euphoria goes away. Euphoria is therefore dependent happiness, which is to say it relies entirely upon the successful manipulation of a number of variables. We may also say that euphoria is the satisfaction we get from winning at a game. It follows that we can define ecstasy in terms of novelty, which means that it is a message telling us that all positions that we take are equally right (or equally wrong). In other words, novelty is information that is unusable to us (i.e. information that does not make sense within our framework of understanding). This is initially experienced as profoundly unsettling and disorientating – it is a unique type of discomfort that we cannot ‘adjust away’ no matter what we do. The discomfort comes from the combination of two things:


[1] The awareness that ‘every place is the ‘wrong’ place (that there is no ‘fit’) and [2] The compulsive desire to find ‘right’ place to be (to achieve a ‘fit’).  This discomfort, which may also be characterized as fear, turns at some point into the feeling of utter release that we associate with ecstasy. We still have the awareness that every place is the wrong place, but what is different is that we no longer have the need to find the right place, which is the ‘need for localization’. We no longer feel the need to correct what is going on – we have insight into the redundancy of the controlling self, the ‘I’ of the system. The crucial point is that if the need for localization is still there (the need to find a resting place or hiding place for the mind), then fear will not give way to ecstasy and instead of release there is unending terror.


We can now make the following statement regarding the relationship between euphoria and ecstasy:



The reason we say that euphoria is the lower (or ‘degenerate’) version of ecstasy is because it feels good just like ecstasy does but the goodness is superficial, or not really true. Euphoria seems like happiness but this happiness is shaky or insubstantial because it is dependent on us looking at things in a certain way. Because of this there is a brittleness to it, there is the need to go on looking at things this way, and the need to hide from ourselves all the other possible ways. I can go on being happy in a euphoric way only if I am determinedly superficial and so there is this serious superficiality (i.e. a superficiality which we all tacitly agree not to mention) along with an underlying (but usually unconscious) anxiousness. From this it follows that euphoria is cruel, because there is too much at stake to allow generousness or kindness or genuine friendship.  Thus, the state of euphoria is false like a lie that has to be maintained no matter what the cost, and it is also false in the sense that it is a bubble that will inevitably burst, no matter what price we pay to keep it going. This also can be related to the idea of a lie that has been told and maintained because a lie, by virtue of the fact that it is a lie, must inevitably be found out at some point.


Ecstasy also feels good but it is the unconditioned good rather than a conditioned good, which means that it does not have the ‘drawbacks’ that we have mentioned in connection with euphoria. It is completely independent of any purposeful attitude that I might adopt and so there is no brittleness and no anxiety. It is not dependent upon me looking at the world in a superficial way to I am free to let reality be as deep as it is. Because it is based upon freedom there is no cruelty involved in ecstasy: there is no self to protect (i.e. no fixed view) and so there is no need for violence. Euphoria derives from the creation of a managed reality which although unreal has the great ‘advantage from the point of view of the false self in that it is possible for that self to possess, or stand a chance of possessing, all the good stuff that it knows to be out there. Instead of ‘possessing’, we could also speak in terms of the false self being able to establish a relationship to the world. Ecstasy on the other hand is the real party – it is actually true, but from the point of view of the false self this is a terrible thing because there is no need for it at all. This, needless to say, is ultimately hurtful for it – it is as if it finally discovers that everything it ever yearned for and dreamed of is real and true, the only ‘condition’ being that it cannot be there to enjoy it all.


It is important to re-iterate at this point that we are not saying that the ‘vast sea of infinite energy’ is ‘real’ and the tiny ripples of finite energy are ‘unreal’.  The point is not that the ripples are unreal but that they are transient and partial aspects of the complex whole. The essence of a ripple or wave is its transience, lose that and we exit right out of reality into the abstracted realm of the rational mind. If we could allow each wave to arrive and depart in a smooth unbroken movement this would be the ecstatic state of ‘no holding on’. On the other hand, there is the possibility of finding the transience of the wave frustrating because no sooner is the wave ‘here’ than it is ‘gone’ and so we cannot ever get to relate to the entity of the wave. It is as if the wave does not exist because we cannot hold it. Of course, the whole point is that there is no ‘entity of the wave’ because the essence of the wave is its ever-changingness. However, we are dissatisfied with this slipperiness and so, by fixating our attention on one particular view, we create an ‘entity’.  With the creation of an entity comes the euphoric satisfaction of ‘holding on’, which later on gives way to the depressive dissatisfaction of realizing that we are holding on to an unreal (or hollow) thing.


We can approach the matter in energetic terms by saying that the uncommitted state is a higher energy level than the committed state, so that when we fixate there is an amount of energy that is released. This energy is the euphoria burst which is the ‘pay-off’ of adaptation. However, what we have here is unusable energy and so once it disperses we are left worse off than before. This is like buying something in a shop. The free energy is our money, which, once spent, becomes unusable to us. We may discover that we are no longer enamoured what we have so impetuously bought, but we are stuck with it. We cannot have our money back again to buy something else. Here, therefore, is the principle of irreversibility which we keep coming back to. The climax of our goal-orientated activity is that we fall down a steep, steep hole, but we don’t ever see what is happening because all our attention is taken up with obtaining the rush of pleasure that occurs when we are falling.




We have said something to the effect that goals can never be truly actualised because they have no genuine correspondence in reality. In other words, it not that the thought or the goal is a sort of latent possibility that come true if the conditions are suitable, but rather that the thought or goal had no relationship to reality in the first place, so that no ‘journey into reality’ could ever take place from this starting point. And yet, in a sense, goals and thoughts are indeed actualised. The proof of this is all around us – we very much live in a world that we have designed, a world that meets our specification just as we meet its specifications. Herein lies the clue to the apparent actualisation or materialization of thoughts as things: the actualisation takes place because we take ourselves into the world of our thoughts, rather than bringing our thoughts into the world of reality.


The central parallel that we have been looking at in this discussion of euphoria versus ecstasy is that both have to do, in a way, with the attainment of a prize. The prize that is attained in euphoria is the prize of ‘making our goal come true’ and this naturally seems very straightforward to us since so much of what we do and think and communicate about is based upon the legitimacy of this premise. All the same, this apparent straightforwardness notwithstanding, there is something very peculiar about the whole idea of attaining goals.  If we spend a little time considering the mechanics of the matter this peculiarity will become clearer. Before reaching the goal, there is the discomfort of ‘not having yet reached the goal’. This is a sort of pain that derives from the fact that ‘what I want’ and ‘what is’ have not yet been made to be the same thing; this pain is due to the thwarting of my personal will, in other words, and this thwarting is a fundamental challenge to what we have earlier called my extrinsic integrity (i.e. the integrity of my game).


At the precise moment of attaining the goal my personal will is satisfied, and the integrity of my game is secured. Everything that I have strived for has now been achieved and needless to say this feels exceedingly good to me. There is now nothing else to do other than dwell upon what has been achieved –to bask in the glory of it. It is here that we discover the central ‘peculiarity’ however:

At the moment of obtaining the goal, at the moment of triumph when ‘everything that is important is attained’, any relationship that the ‘obtainer’ and the ‘obtained’ might have had to any wider reality is completely lost.  At this moment, there is only the nullity.


Now, it is of course the case that neither obtainer nor obtained (both of which are tautologically created by the act of ‘grabbing’) existed anyway. The point is though that the relativity of ‘the one who seeks to obtain’ and ‘the thing that is to be attained’ is lost in the euphoria of the moment, and it is in their relativity that their reality lies. This is a purely concrete, self-contained situation. Actually hitting the nail on the head is the logical end point of the reification process, and the climax of this process is the total substitution of the system of mind for the treasure that it was supposed to help in obtaining. This is the terminal triumph of the nullity, the self-defeating act by which life itself (which is endlessness) is brought to an end. So what exactly have we gained, as a result of all our efforts?  Well, from the point view of our negative freedom, our success is total because we have succeeded in ‘not being in reality’. The ultimate prize is the state of being totally self-distracted, which is where we don’t remember ourselves at all.


From ‘the outside’ the prize that we were chasing looked positive and substantial – it had gorgeous wrapping paper all over it and under the wrappings we could see seductive hints of something wonderfully exciting. Due to the hurry of our passion, which is impatient about anything that is not connected with the final triumph, everything was hinging upon our expectations, our projections. The surface of the desired object had become 100% opaque, 100% real, 100% alluring, and so we could not see beyond it. And then – at long last – it is ours! At this precise moment we know that we have got what we wanted and so we don’t have to strive (or worry) anymore. There is nothing ‘outside’ that we are even remotely interested in – we had already written off all extraneous or irrelevant data when we started the chase in earnest. However, Reality (as we have been saying) is always utterly irrelevant to our ideas of it. What is relevant to my mind is something else other than Reality and so what I have obtained is oblivion – I have obtained the final resting place for my mind. I don’t think that this is what I have achieved, I assume that I have achieved possession of something real and worthwhile, and this of course is where the problem lies. I don’t look at what I have achieved, I just assume.  I take it for granted that there is a bird in the trap that I have made and so I go comfortably to sleep. If I were to have a look at what I had caught I would get a nasty surprise – I fondly imagine that I am in possession of riches, when the truth is that I am utterly impoverished. This extreme ‘reversal of expectations’ provides us with the most dramatic possible example of the ‘invertedness of understanding’ that is passive identification (i.e. psychological unconsciousness).




We have related compulsivity (extrinsic motivation) to ‘the indirect awareness of the feast or treasure (or party) that is right there in front of us’.  What this means is that my basic motivation is avoid not getting to the party (which is negative) or to get to the party (which is positive). This is a huge simplification of what appears to be a diverse field of activity:

What we are saying is that the whole field of rational, purposeful behaviour all comes down to greed or fear, where the actual true source of our fear/greed is actually unknown to us, or rather, only known indirectly via a distorted sort of correspondence.


The corollary of this idea is that all the known goals and anti-goals that dominate our attention are in fact tokens of something else, surrogates issues which it secretly suits us to get caught up in. Although this is a huge simplification, it is an honest simplification because the apparent diversity of motivations which rationality embraces is in fact a smoke screen that only exists in order to validate itself.  Therefore, we are not guilty of reductionism when we reduce goal orientated thinking to fear and greed, because the multiplicity, intricacy and intrigue that rationality blinds us with are not manifestations of a genuine complexity in the first place. By boldly saying ‘there is no information there’ we have not had to do violence to what was there, because there was nothing there, only the nullity spinning its tautological web as usual.


Because of the fundamental dishonesty that lies behind rationality, the motivation that arises out of rationality spawns irresolvable problems. Jung approached this by saying that rationality is duplex, which is to say, it avows one thing but standing behind it there is the complete anathema of what it had just said. It functions, therefore, by saying that the overt level of meaning is the only level there is. In Jung’s terms, rationality always denies its shadow. In the terms which we have developed, we can say that Treasure, as conceptualized Value, always comes hand in hand with Trash, which is its shadow. This is what happens when we adopt an uneven mind – for example, if I say that some people are good and ought to be honoured, then because this is a rational (or purposeful) stance that I am taking, I must also believe that some people are bad and ought to be despised. It is impossible to conceptualize good without creating a category of bad.  Therefore, in social terms, this leads to an uneven attitude whereby I look up to some people and look down on others. This polarization occurs due to my desire to be ‘included in the party’ – it is the framework which will enable me (by spurning the company of those who are inferior and cultivating the company of those who are superior) to reach my goal.


However, the very fact that I have split the world up into ‘the good stuff’ and ‘the dross’ ensures that I will miss the Party because the Party cannot be split up in this way.  Once I go down the path of looking for the good stuff and rejecting the bad stuff then I am lost indeed because I have invested my money (i.e. my intrinsic freedom) in the system of thought rather than leaving that money unspent. ‘Spending money’, in this context, means that for the sake of an illusionary gain, I have given up my natural ability to perceive reality, my natural ability to see an illusion as an illusion. When money is not spent, then obviously I can spend it on anything at all, or on nothing. All possibilities are thus embraced, and nothing is left out. Once spent, the money becomes unusable, and so I am stuck in duality, condemned by my greed (or fear) to be ignorant of the Whole.




Controlling is synonymous without assuming. Supreme success in controlling means entering a state of supreme unreflectiveness. This is natural – who would want to question success? Celebrate it, yes, but dispassionately examine it – definitely not! Similarly (and perhaps surprisingly) with utter failure, this too is an utterly unreflective state. Even though we’d like to, we just can’t shift out of our flat, unyielding belief in our assumptions. This is a bit like being in a stupor, like standing in the middle of a dark road and being stupidly transfixed or hypnotized by the lights of an oncoming vehicle. Desire states, needless to say, are also profoundly unreflective. All the attention is directed outwards, none inwards, and so our mental blind spot rules the roost. When I am in the grip of desire I am convinced that if I get what I am desiring, then my life will be better, and I am convinced that if I do not get what I am desiring, then my life will be worse. Similarly for fear: fear is an unconscious mode of mental life in which one flees without ever examining what it is exactly that one is afraid of, or why it would be so bad if the feared eventuality did take place. Thus, in the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Evans-Wentz edition, p167) there is an instruction regarding fear for those who are unfamiliar with the practice of meditation:

If thou dost not know how to meditate, then merely analyse with care the real nature of that which is frightening thee. In reality it is not formed into anything, but is a Voidness, which is the Dharma-Kaya.

This advice is not terribly different from that which is given in present day anxiety management groups where the instructions are to carefully examine what it is that you are frightened of, and stop to reflect upon what it is that you think is about to happen, and why it would be so terrible if it did happen.  Admittedly, modern anxiety management courses do not go so far as to say that all fears of personal harm or destruction are groundless because there is ultimately no ‘person’ to be harmed or destroyed, nor any object to do the harming or destroying, but they do involve – in a limited way – the basic principle of ‘questioning assumptions’.


Both fear and desire involve a reaction to an assumed object. It is the reaction that creates the object in fact, because if there were no reaction then the ‘object’ would be progressively revealed to be ‘other then one had assumed it to be’. This journey into ‘otherness’ is synonymous with the journey from the conceptual mind into the Reality of the here & now which has the nature of transparent depths with no ‘solid’ or limiting surface, as opposed to the virtual-reality world of the conceptual which is activated and supported by fear/greed, and which has the character of an opaque, real-seeming surface that has nothing behind it. All extrinsic motivation has the effect of making us over-value the existential world at the expense of the essential: if I desire a reality, then I devalue where I actually am, and if I fear a reality I also devalue where I am. In plain terms, desire or fear is synonymous with turning our back on the here and now – extrinsic motivation equals ‘loss of interest in Reality’, it has to since I cannot be ruled by my assumptions and interested in Reality at one and the same time…




We have been looking at the motivation for reacting in terms of greed/fear. We have been saying that this is how conditioning ‘bullies’ us to obey it, in a sneaky sort of a way so that it makes its aims our own without us even realizing it. Once we react, we lose any perspective that we might have had on the matter and so we get totally lost in negative freedom, which is the ‘freedom to be a slave’.  There is a parallel here to the idea of ideology found in some sociological texts which, it is said, imprisons us in the most effective way possible by making us our own jailors. All of our purposeful behaviour can be seen to come down to a simple +/- tropism whereby we seek out positively confirming euphoria, and skirt around negatively confirming anti-euphoria. We can think therefore of a flat surface with and hollows and valleys in some places and bumps and ridges in others. Our daily journey (using this model) would consist of an exercise in skillfully avoiding the latter and homing-in on the former. This pursuit is so engrossing to us that we have no time whatsoever for thinking about why we are doing what we are doing – all we can do is concentrate on how to do what we want to do.  This is the ‘game’ that we have made life into, and for the most of us, most of the time, there is nothing but the game.


This distracted mode of being corresponds to J. G. Bennett’s Reactional Self where all we do is react. Speaking of this self, Bennett  (1961, p184) says, “In such a self-hood there can be no independent or ‘free’ will – it is controlled by its own content and the changing influences of its environment.” What we are looking at therefore is a purely automatic life, which is a truly terrifying thought once one grasps the full implications. Although frightening when we see it, the actual business of slipping into negative freedom is not at all frightening when we do it. On the contrary, it is the most comfortable and comforting thing imaginable, like relaxing into a nice hot bath. We can see this most clearly in connection with the situation where I am surrendering to some sort of highly alluring but ‘forbidden’ vice. There is a kind of ‘deliciousness’ involved that seduces us to move in this direction: a lure is dangled before my nose, and something within me comes up and chooses to accept it. If I were to watch very carefully what it is that happens at this moment, I would observe the essential ‘double-action’ of the mind that is the hallmark of the unconscious process: I make a split-second decision to allow the urge that is within me to take control, and almost simultaneously I hand over responsibility for what happens next to that urge, effectively washing my hands of any complicity on my part. It is as if I don’t actually have to do anything myself, I just step back at the crucial moment and allow the urge to do what it wants, and then ignore the way in which I stood back. The net result is that I am reduced to a powerless onlooker, who gets to enjoy the forbidden fruit without ever having to see myself actually choose it myself, in full consciousness of what I am doing.


Indulging in a vice is a special example of self-distraction. Usually, there is no sense of us doing something that we shouldn’t, and so there is no ‘struggle of conscience’. In general, where there is a movement in the direction of increasing cognitive equilibrium, there is a pay-off in the coin of euphoria. The euphoria derives from the belief that one’s experience is grounded in a tangible and verifiable reality in which one can definitely locate the ‘value’. In order to have this belief, it is necessary to slip into an unreflective (or ‘superficial’) mode of thinking in which one ignores all the other ways of looking at the situation, and ignores that fact that one is ignoring it. Thus, we have the very same double action of the mind that always leads to the cognitive ‘organizational closure’ that is psychological unconsciousness. It should be apparent therefore that euphoria is inextricably linked with being ‘trapped’ or ‘snared’. Euphoria is the pleasure we get from handing over our freedom. The trap can be set out in the form of four statements:


[1] Being in the domain of negative freedom means that I am totally out of touch with reality – I am actually seeing everything ‘backwards’.


[2] Because I am seeing everything in an inverted way, my actions inevitably bring disagreeable consequences – they bring suffering upon me. In essence, we can say being in the automatic state makes us subject to the rule of FEAR. For all of the time that I have spent happily distracting myself chasing ‘nice’ illusions I must pay for by spending an equal amount of time running away from ‘nasty’ illusions. In short the more I believe in the reality of my goals, the more I am afflicted by my anti-goals.


[3] In order to get out of this mess, I need to see my situation as it really is, but my automatic (i.e. goal-orientated) reactions to problems commit me more and more to an illusory way of seeing things. Reacting makes me ‘blind’ – it is a self-defeating activity that robs me of the consciousness that would bring freedom.


[4] In a nutshell, the problem is that in order to escape from negative freedom, I need to be able to see reality as it is, but if I could see reality ‘as it is’, then I wouldn’t be in the state of negative freedom, and so I wouldn’t need to escape it.




My problem is caused by the fact that I have given away my consciousness, and the way I try to solve the problem is by ‘handing over consciousness’ even more frantically. We can explain this idea in terms of itching. Itching is another way of envisaging compulsivity – it is ‘an invitation to lose freedom that we find we cannot refuse’. We are all familiar with what happens when we have an itch and refrain from scratching it. The ‘itchiness’ makes itself known to us as a subtle but early unbearable form of discomfort, and the longer we go without scratching the itch the more unbearable it seems to get. This makes a very good experiment – how long can I go without scratching an itchy nose, and what psychological games take place as I try to withstand the urge? What generally happens is that I get as fed up with my own games as I do with the itch, and out of sheer irritation with the whole business I just end the thing by having a good scratch. The games that we play, which all come down to saying YES or NO to the itch, can be seen as pseudo-work, whereas refraining from taking any position with regard top the itch would be real psychological work. It is the paradoxicality of deliberately trying not to take a position that ties us up in knots, and leads us to forget the whole thing and move onto something more productive and less frustrating.


Usually, of course, we are not given much to such ‘experiments in subtle discomfort’ and so when an itch comes along we simply scratch it. Often a bit of a scratch is all that is needed and then the itch goes away, and this might be compared to the ‘solvable’ problems that come along in life. I am hungry so I make myself a sandwich. The car tire goes flat and so I switch it with my spare, and take the flat tire in to be fixed. Sometimes however we run into a problem that is not so easily dealt with, we find ourselves face to face with a chronic problem that does not respond to reason, and it is then that the phenomenon of ‘scratching oneself to pieces’ raises its very ugly head. We can explain the basic mechanism in terms of ‘pseudo-work’. Scratching the itch is pseudo-work because of two points: [1] it is something that we deliberately do in order to obtain a desired effect, and [2] the actual effectiveness of pseudo-work only holds up to scrutiny when we ignore the way in which the ‘work’ incurs long-term drawbacks which cancel out any gain that is made.


So, at the moment of scratching I obtain a feeling of relief, but in actual fact I have not really solved the problem because the long-term effect of the scratching is to make the afflicted area even more sore and itchy. This would be a familiar situation in the case of chicken pox or some sort of bad rash. This is clearly an escalating situation because the worse it itches, the more I scratch, and the more I scratch, the worse it itches. I end up tearing myself to pieces in my desperate (and short-sighted) search for relief because the desperate attempt to find relief that is causing the pain that I am attempting to find relief from. What we are talking about here is runaway automatic behaviour as a sure-fire recipe for entering the hell world of anger described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The ‘cure’ for this escalating process of self-destruction is genuine work, which simply means ‘feeling the itch but not attempting to find relief by scratching’.




The above discussion serves to illustrate the trap that we fall into through handing away our own freedom in order to solve some problem or other. At its extreme, his trap equals the psychological state of hell, but more generally speaking the trap merely confines us to what we might call ‘the realm of normality’. We don’t usually experience normality as hurting too much and in fact our impression of it is fairly favorable. Even when it does feel bad, we hang in there on the expectation of it getting better – we put up with the crap side of it because we know (or hope) that there is something better coming along. Thus, we don’t see that ‘normality’ is a trap; naturally we would only see that if we wanted to leave it and this we generally don’t want to do. Nevertheless, the trap is there just the same, it’s just that we rarely test the teeth of the trap, and even when we do we quickly conspire with ourselves to forget it. Basically, the difference is that the compensation for our actions (to use Bennett’s language) is a lot more rapid and hard-hitting in the hell world, whereas in the realm of normality there is more of a delay in the mechanism. Another difference is that there are periods of calm or tranquillity between the ups and the downs, periods when we can enjoy peace of mind, a sense of humour, and an appreciation of life for its own sake. There is, in other words, the possibility of experiencing a bit of whatever it is that lies beyond the range of our conceptual minds. All the same, these hints of ‘something else’ tend to happen despite ourselves, by accident and not because of any abiding interest in the ‘non-game’ realities that come along and enrich our lives from time to time. If we did start to get interested in strangeness, that is precisely when the teeth of the trap would start to show themselves, because purposefully seeking out strangeness returns us unfailingly to normality.


As it happens, trying to do anything returns us unfailingly to normality. Trying means extrinsic motivation, i.e. greed and fear, and it is greed and fear which are guardians of normality, the all-but-invincible protectors of our familiar mind-space. On the one hand we are threatened, and on the other we are enticed, and on both hands our attention is completely taken up. We feel greed for the ‘assumed object’ of our attraction, and we feel fear of the ‘assumed object’ of our terror. This works just the same on a subtler level, as the experiment with ‘not scratching an itchy nose’ shows. Balancing between YES and NO (SCRATCH and DON’T SCRATCH) is an almost impossible task. It is possible, perfectly possible, but the point is that it is not a volitional thing. The power to do it (i.e. to say neither YES or NO) does not come from me at all, but from beyond me. It is a grace, and not an exercise in personal will.


No one can ever deliberately defeat the guardians of the realm of normal automatic behaviour. Fear and greed cannot be challenged because of a paradox: if I force myself to face fear then there is a new fear behind me, the fear of ‘not being able to face fear’. And, contrary-wise, if I try to force myself to resist temptation, then I have straightaway lost the battle because it is my greed not to be greedy that is driving me forward. In short, extrinsic motivation cannot be used to overcome itself.  














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