Cognitive Symmetry-Breaking


In thermodynamic terms, the imposition of a model to explain what is going on results in an increase in the entropy of the system.  This statement is fairly counter-intuitive since one naturally takes the transition from unpredictability to predictability to be an increase in order.  One imagines that having a model allows one to derive more, and not less, useful information from the system under observation.  The key word here is ‘useful’ since useful means that certain assumptions have been made and forgotten about.  Before a model is used to filter information there is no knowing what is relevant and useful, and what is irrelevant and useless, and therefore the amount of information that is needed to meaningfully describe that system is unlimited.  This is another way of saying that the information content of an un-described system is infinite, since no decisions have been made regarding ‘cut-off’ points, points beyond which we have no interest in collecting data.  In other words, if ‘anything could be the case’, then we need an endless series of descriptive terms to cover all the possibilities, which is the definition of maximum complexity and maximum information content.  on the other hand, if we already know within way ‘sort’ of things are possible (i.e. if we already know where to look) then this reduces the parameter of complexity.  A symmetry-break in this case means the situation where I am able to discriminate, I have a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way to look at the universe.  Symmetry is where no discrimination is possible, where there is no ‘right way’ and no ‘wrong way’, no ‘up’ and no ‘down’; there is no ‘situational polarity’ – all directions are the same.


The Satisfaction Of Being ‘Right’


Once we decide to look at reality in a certain way there is a satisfying ‘click’ as everything falls into place and we see a pattern where before there was only chaos and unrelated elements.  The contrast between the discomfort of not knowing (of having no template of our experience) and the ‘satisfactoriness’ of having everything organised coherently means that we have a natural bias towards moving away from the essential relativity (or ‘ambiguity’) of the unprocessed picture to the self-evident ‘obviousness’ that we experience once we focus on one level of organisation and ignore all the others.  When this tendency is taken to an extreme I find myself falling into what others can plainly see to be a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, i.e. I process information so selectively that my assumptions are unfailingly confirmed.  An information-collapsing bias is created which distorts my behaviour and thinking to such an extent that the patterns of my life become oppressively narrow, repetitive, and predictable.  Inflexible and anxiety-laden beliefs form which are very difficult to challenge.


It is possible to use the idea of ‘symmetry-breaking’ to model mental illnesses such as OCD.  Our theoretical starting-off point is the state of cognitive symmetry, which is where there is no issue, no problem.  Suppose you are married to me and you leave the cap off the toothpaste one morning. Now, if I have an issue with this, then there is clearly a right way and a wrong way to it.  If I don’t have an issue with it then it is not ‘right’ to leave the cap off, and neither is it ‘wrong’.  It isn’t right and it isn’t wrong because there isn’t an issue – no one is asking a question and so how can there be a ‘correct’ answer?  Similarly, if I develop obsessive compulsive disorder, and have an issue with the way the tins of baked beans are put way in the cupboard, then there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, there is a distinct lack of symmetry with regard to the spatial orientation of canned foodstuff in the cupboard.  The cure is not for me to ask what is the really ‘right’ way to think about it, because in order for me not to have an issue with it I simply would not think about it at all.  There is not right way to think about it!  If you reply to my question with any kind of arriving or denying response, you will only confirm that my question is an appropriate one.  Your response will be framed within the cognitive symmetry-break which is the source of my difficulty, it will in fact be a manifestation of that symmetry-break.


Taking Away Freedom by Giving Choices


We can take another approach to symmetry-breaking by using, as theoretical physicist Amit Goswami (1993) does, the example of a skilful encyclopaedia salesman.  The scenario goes as follows: you are sitting at home, minding your own business, when you hear a knock on the door.  It turns out to be a door-to door salesman and, unadvisedly, you give him time to hit you with his sales pitch.  Just about the first thing he does is offer you a number of ways in which to pay for the set of encyclopaedias – he presents you with a choice: will you pay cash, or cheque, or in handy instalments?  Now, it goes without saying that the moment you respond to the salesman within the framework he is offering you, you are lost.  You are being pressed to comply up with an answer to a closed question, which means that no matter what answer you select you still end up playing into his hands.  The salesman’s trick might seem transparent to us as we discuss it here, yet there a psychological mechanism at work here that works in his favour, and this mechanism may be explained in terms of ‘automatic exclusion’.  What this means is that as soon as I start thinking within any particular framework of meaning, I automatically lose the valuable ‘irrelevance’ which that context possessed for me to start off with.  I lose perspective in other words. The same idea is here explained by Batesonian therapist Douglas Flemons (1991) –


… As any good hypnotist, magician, or comedian knows, the offer or availability of freely choosing between alternatives at a given contextual level brings the particularities of choice into the foreground of conscious awareness.  This necessarily relegates to the background (i.e. out of awareness and out of the realm of conscious choice) the high-level context or premise determining the range and meaning of the offered alternatives.  The presence of choice (between particularities) at one level masks – and in some sense precludes – choice (between premises) at a more encompassing level.


Relevance versus Irrelevance


It is also possible to think of symmetry-breaking in terms of Aristotelian versus John von Neumann’s Quantum Logic; or, alternatively, in terms of closed Either/Or logic versus open Both/And logic.  When we look for an answer within a given framework of understanding the only two terms which are available are Yes and No, (+) and (-).  We can only think of things that are relevant to the rules which we are using to search ‘answer-space’ with, and relevance means either ‘agreement’ or ‘disagreement’.  In order to deal with the inherent indeterminacy or quantum systems mathematician John von Neumann came up with a form of logic with an ‘irrelevant’ term in it, namely (Maybe). MAYBE doesn’t ever rule anything out, any more than it definitely includes anything; in fact it isn’t definite at all.  This may seem useless, but it is actually very advantageous:  Yes and No trap us within a definite context, whilst Maybe doesn’t trap us anywhere. Maybe allows us mobility within the unbounded set of all possibilities, it doesn’t collapse the system by making arbitrary assumptions.



A break in cognitive symmetry amounts to ‘arbitrarily settling upon a particular mode of description’.  When we frame an hypothesis, or propose a model, we break symmetry.  Once questions are asked on the basis of our thinking, the answers that come back to us confirm the validity of the paradigm which informs those questions.  A strong theory succeeds tautologically by interpreting everything in its own terms and always obtaining Yes or No answers – for example, classical Freudian psychotherapy elicits a response from a patient, and no matter what the patient says, it is either seen as ‘resistance’ or ‘insight’.  If you say something that agrees with the therapist’s assumptions then it is said to be ‘insight’, and if you disagree then you are demonstrating ‘resistance’.  Yes and No both confirm.  Because there is no way that you can say anything that is irrelevant to the framework of understanding that is being imposed upon the situation, there is no way to falsity the theory.




We are not just talking about formal theories and models here – it is very much the case that all of us have a ‘model’ of reality, whether we realise it or not, and the principle of organisational closure applies just as much to us as to over-committed Freudian psychotherapist. The information content of our minds decreases in proportion to the extent to which we use closed (or tautological) logic.  This ‘closure factor’ may also be pictured in terms of ‘purposefulness’: the more purposeful we are in life, the more we are relying on rules, and the more seriously we rely on rules, the more we make life relevant to these rules.  Purposefulness, then, is just another way of talking about Yes and No – purposeful behaviour is simply an expression of Aristotelian (or Either/Or) logic.  If I try to obtain a goal, then I am reconfirming the validity of the rules which I am using to construct the goal; and if I try to avoid the goal, I am similarly reinforcing the way of looking at things that leads me to think that there is something there to avoid.  I can hit the target, or miss the target; either way I am making the target crucially relevant to me.  The only possible way of gaining perspective on the matter is through dropping purposefulness, which is a notion that we will come back to shortly.


Psychological Entropy


What Flemon’s ‘masking’ of freedom amounts to is a loss of information of the system – beforehand the range of choices was unlimited, and now it is not.  There is a ‘one-way street’ effect here because when we lose perspective in this way, we simultaneously lose the ability to see that anything has changed.  Being trapped within a particular context of meaning means losing the freedom to make a radically different choice (such as shutting the door in the salesman’s face).  This one-way process by which the predictability of the system can only increase is of course a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics, which says that the entropy of a closed system has to increase (or at the very least stay the same).  In other words what we are dealing with is irreversibility.



This gives us a very profound way of looking at neurotic mental illness.  Instead of trying to model neurosis in terms of ‘trivial psychology’ – i.e. past experiences, traumas, social learning, personal cognitive style, genetic predisposition etc, we can go straight to the heart of the matter and state that all neurotic distress originates from the lack of freedom which is concomitant with information collapse (cognitive symmetry-breaking).  This tendency for symmetry-breaks to occur(whether cosmogenically, in the creation of the universe, or psychologically, in the creation of an idea or opinion) is an expression of the second law of thermodynamics.


The Urge To Make The Universe Relevant To Me


The fact that psychology lacks an equivalent to those laws celebrated in the physical sciences has not gone unnoticed.  Psychologists such as Hans Eysenck have tried to duplicate the success of classical physics and chemistry in deriving elegant and powerfully predictive laws, but still we have nothing.  We don’t even have a single law to cover our nakedness.  this just seems to be the way of it:  psychology is different to physics, and therefore there is no need for us to suffer from ‘physics-envy’.  yet, if we stopped to reflect for a moment, we might realise that we possessed a ‘psychological law’ all along…..


We will state this law as follows.  Chemical reactions are driven by energetic considerations, and these considerations in turn are most elegantly expressed in terms of the second law of thermodynamics.  To put things simply, we could say that systems have a tendency to maximise their entropy content, which is to say, to maximise the predictability of their behaviour.  To reverse this tendency takes an energy input from outside the system.  The psychological equivalent of entropy is therefore tendency to increase definition of details.  Alternatively, it also equals the tendency for cognitive symmetry-breaks to occur.  More colloquially, we could say the equivalent to chemical reactivity, which would be psychological reactivity, is the urge to describe ourselves and the world that we live in, where ;describing; means ‘making stuff relevant’.  This increase in perceived ‘relevance’, which we have also called organizational closure, is a manifestation of psychological entropy.


The Link Between ‘Making Up Your Mind’ and Euphoria


We will now bring in an extra ingredient – pleasure (or satisfaction).  It is not a particularly odd to say that when we attain a goal we feel good – one need only think of a footballer scoring the deciding goal in the cup final.  Biological rewards are also based on attaining goals, sex being an excellent example of this – if you ‘hit’ you get to feel good, if you ‘miss’ then that is tough…!  However, we can now propose a different basis for feeling good.  Whilst it is clearly true that attaining a socially or biologically reinforced goal gives satisfaction, there is also a different, rather more subtle basis for satisfaction.  If both hit and miss reaffirm the context of meaning within which ‘hit and miss’ is construed, then both are usually good in terms of providing a basic orientation within which to operate.  Having such an orientation, as we have already noted, is in itself a source of satisfaction.  To render the world predictable feels nice – the irreversible process ‘making my mind up’ about something affords me a sense of relief because the uncomfortableness of ‘not being sure’ is gotten rid of. That is it – the subject is closed!


If I am intensely euphoric then this euphoria shows itself in the way that I love to dwell upon specific details, the way I extract enjoyment from reiterating definite views and definitive pronouncements.  In states of manic elation the pleasure comes from feeling that one has attained what one has set out to attain, or, perhaps, that one is capable of achieving whatever one wants to achieve.  There is the satisfaction of being ‘right’, along with the glow of feeling supremely potent in one’s ability to carry out goal-orientated activity.  Similarly, a person who is experiencing intense euphoria due to the ingestion of amphetamine enjoys talking about nitty-gritty details, enthusing about trivia, endlessly putting things together and taking them apart, and generally performing routine tasks with formidable zeal.  On the one hand, there is undoubtedly the pleasure of attaining goals, but along with this there would seem to be a less obvious pleasure, one which is derived from having a definite framework within which to act (and talk).


In OCD there is little in the way of successful goal-achieving: one’s activity does not ever really provide satisfaction in this regard, and in fact one’s behaviour might be characterised as ‘forever seeking to correct a terminally in correctable situation’.  Yet there is the possibility, nevertheless, of obtaining the satisfaction of having a meaningful structure to work in.  This is, in effect, a secondary gain of the chronically maladaptive and inefficient obsessive-compulsive behaviour.  One can be unhappy, and yet still secure!  One can be content (or even smug) in one’s misery, so to speak.  The most extreme example of suffering on one level combined with satisfaction on another is provided by paranoia.  Paranoia takes one to heights (or depths) of terror which are totally unimaginable to the non-paranoid person, yet at the same time, none can deny him or her the satisfaction of being ‘right’ in his or her interpretation!  When a hydrogen atom combines with a fluorine atom a considerable amount of energy is released and a considerable degree of stability is obtained in the chemical product.  Similarly, when I as a paranoia sufferer latch on to a paranoid idea (or framework of ideas) there is a great deal of irreversibility going on and as a consequence a great deal of security is obtained, albeit security of a viciously oppressive nature.  The idea that one might actually enjoy paranoia seems a bit farfetched, but it is by no means rare to hear people speaking of past episodes of paranoia with a kind of wistful nostalgia.  Some even come right out with it, and say that they kind of liked their paranoia, in a funny sort of way.


The Two Directions


If you happen to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder and I run through the argument given about it may be the case that you can relate the ideas to your situation, but even so, what are you supposed to do now?  What sort of practical guidance can be derived from a thermodynamically orientated model of neurosis?  The perceptive reader will have noticed that all we have done is to indicate how normal problem solving approaches fail to be of any help.  No purposeful action that you can think of can help you escape because your ‘purpose’ is your problem itself in a form you do not recognise.  The ‘answer’ you came to is not the right answer because the question you originally asked was not the right question.  What is worse, there is no right question…


We can think about this dilemma by considering the two possible directions in which it is possible to move.  Direction (1) is the direction of increasing dissymmetry, where I focus on the details and lose sight of the assumptions I have made in order to bring those details into prominence.  This is the direction of increasing ‘security’, where rules are solid and dependable, where YES is always YES, and never NO.  The further we move in direction (1) the more congruent our ‘ideas of what is’ become with ‘what is’. Direction (2) is the direction of increasing symmetry, increasing relativity, where YES is only YES because of the way we choose to frame the question.  It is the direction of decreasing relevance of our mental map (our concepts) to reality – the further we go in the direction (2) the less predictable our world gets, and the more strange it appears.  Our sense of security approaches vanishing point.


Normally, we experience a tropism towards direction (1), we like to maximise our feeling of being adapted to our environment.  All rule-based (purposeful) behaviour sends us in this direction.  Interpreting experience is also rule-based behaviour.  To see things this way is to take into account the complexity of the universe, which is to say, the way in which the universe cannot be reduced to one level of description without losing what you are trying to describe.  It is pertinent within the context of this discussion because it answers our question about breaking out of the pattern of OCD.  All we have to do is move in direction (2), and this is done by abandoning our habitual modus operandi, by leaving behind the framework within which we perceive ourselves to have some sort of ‘purchase’ on what is troubling us.  There are no specific indicators which we can read off and know that we are moving in direction (2) because a static framework of quantitative understanding is precisely what we are leaving behind.  We are abandoning our terms of reference, our cosy and comforting map.  However, there is an indicator which we can rely on, and this is our feeling of being insecure!


Normally, this feeling appears as anxiety or frank terror – a point-blank refusal to let ‘something or other’ (some supposed catastrophe) happen.  The answer is not for me to positively force myself to accept the catastrophe, because that would only be another game that I am playing with myself.  Instead, as each moment in time unfolds, I simply watch and see what happens.  I don’t control the show, and try to get what I think is going to happen to happen, because that is in fact a refusal to wait quietly and see what actually is going to happen if I don’t control.  There is nothing to do, apart from allowing life to unfold around me.  Of course, this sounds far easier than it is in practice – the whole endeavour is positively fraught with difficulties.  In practise, as Alan Watts says, I have to accept my attempts to control as further manifestations of the universe unfolding itself.  I have to be ‘all-inclusive’ in my accepting; I cannot demand spontaneity and reject directed action because that is picking and choosing.  I accept my unaccepting as part of the total picture – basically, I cannot become insecure on purpose, because that deliberate insecurity is actually just another form of security.


The Fall


In conclusion, then, what we have said is that we cannot think of our situation in terms of having a problem from which we wish to escape because that reifies our assumptions.  What we have here is a vicious circle, the same vicious circle that we run into with chronic anxiety, i.e. avoiding reinforces the idea that there is something there which is worth avoiding.  The formation of a vicious circle is characterisable in terms of an information collapse, as we have said.  In the following passage Alan Watts (1940, p131) brings our attention to the archetypal nature of this problem:


…The story of the Fall, of the eating of the fruit of the tree of Good and Evil, describes man’s involvement in the vicious circle – a condition in which, of his own power, he is able to do nothing good that is not vitiated by evil.  In this condition it may be said that “all good deeds are done from the love of gain” that is, with a purely self-interested motive, because “honesty is the best policy”.  Every advance in morality is counter-balanced by the growth of repressed evil in the unconscious, for morality has to be imposed by law and wherever there is compulsion there is repression of instinctual urges.  Indeed, the very formulation of the ideal of righteousness suggests and aggravates its opposite.  Thus St Paul says, “I had not know lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet”…


Regarding the question of how to break out of the vicious circle, Watts, as we have already noted, advises the ‘non-technique’ of unconditional acceptance.  Our resistance to such an approach, Watts argues (p 132) stems from our unacknowledged desire to ‘escape by our own cleverness’, so to speak:


When it is said that man will not let himself be saved as he is, this is another way of saying that he will not accept himself as he is; subtly he gets around this simple act by making a technique out of acceptance, settling it up as something which he should do in order to be a ‘good boy’.  And as soon as acceptance is made a question of doing and technique we have the vicious circle.  True acceptance is not something to be attained; it is not an ideal to be sought after – a state of soul which can be possessed and acquired, which we can add to ourselves in order to increase our spiritual stature.  If another paradox may be forgiven, true acceptance is accepting yourself as you are NOW, at this moment, before you have even begun to make yourself different by accepting yourself.


The Hidden Gain of Neurosis


We have touched upon the real difficulty in dropping neurotic patterns of thinking and behaving when we looked at the idea that our need to escape suffering is less important to us that our need to have this ‘escape’ happen within a context of understanding which we can understand.  It’s not enough to be saved – we want to know how we are to be saved.  This points to the hidden gain of neurosis, which we can explain as follows.  So far we have mentioned the idea (which has wide acceptance within the field of psychotherapy) that neurosis is refused pain.  We have also explored the notion that ‘pain’ may be better defined as ‘terror due to loss of existential security’.  Our primary need is the need to have a framework, in other words.  Another way to put it is to say that we are, at root, terrified of freedom.  This sounds odd.  We say that we want freedom, we go on about it incessantly, we write speeches about it and sing songs about it.  We make a ideal of it.  yet the subtext is always there – what we really want is the freedom to carry on pretending that our model actually is reality.  We want the freedom to stay in our safe and secure framework, and, what is more, we want to be fulfilled by it!  I want to be free to make lots of money and marry a super-model.  I want the freedom to win a house that costs £500,000, and own a Ferrari, and be smarter than everyone else.  I want the freedom to be good-looking, sophisticated and admired.  What I don’t want is the freedom to see that none of these things matters a damn.


The hidden gain of neurosis is that I get to have a nice secure structure to hide in, to block our knowledge of what that lies beyond that structure.  I may be miserable but I’m secure.  I may be having a totally rotten time – but its comfortable.  I may be suffering, but I still get to have my own way and not face up to stuff that I don’t want to face up to.  What this means is that it is not enough just to be sick of feeling miserable and sick of feeling jealous of everyone else having a nice life; my motivation must be deeper than this – I must want to see the truth about myself, no matter what that truth might turn out to be…


Hylotropism And Holotropism


I might find myself wondering what exactly that truth might turn out to be.  One answer would of course be for you to say “see for yourself…” and leave it at that.  But perhaps it is possible to get a little closer through discussion.  Earlier we defined a so-called psychological ‘law’ which stated that the basic drive behind our activity is the ‘urge to describe’.  This is not the full story, though: there are two directions and not just one, and the fact that one is a lot easier to head down doesn’t mean that we have to forget the ‘difficult’ direction.  If the only tropism in town was the tropism towards increasing psychological entropy we would all have hit rock bottom a long time ago.  There is more to it than the movement towards equilibrium, there is also the movement out of equilibrium.  Despite the second law of thermodynamics, life still manages to surprise us; despite ourselves, we still manage to grow, and leave behind old patterns and routines.  Frijof Capra (1996) makes the same point when he says that dynamical systems have two modes of change open to them: self-maintenance and self-transcendence.  Prigogine and Stengers (1986) refer to optimisation strategies versus radical change.  Consciousness-researcher and psychiatrist Stan Groff (1998) coined the terms ‘hylotropic’ (movement towards the part, or towards detail) and ‘holotropic’ (movement towards the whole) and claims that these are the two fundamental drives behind all conscious life.


Regarding the part, we might say that this is the conditioned reality, or ‘the message’.  Messages only make sense within the context within which they were designed, and therefore their meaning is relative – it only exists if we are willing to allow that a certain set of assumptions are true.  The whole is, therefore, the unconditioned reality, or ‘the medium’ – it has no context because, obviously enough, it is the whole!  The medium doesn’t need a context, which is to say, there is no right way to ‘read’ or understand it.  This statement, although tending to be rather perplexing at first, is no different to our previous ‘explanation’ of the state of unbroken symmetry as the situation where there is no ‘up’ and no ‘down’, no ‘right’ and no ‘wrong’, neither ‘yes’ and nor ‘no’.


The Direction Of Increasing Self-Reference


We have proposed the existence of a psychological drive which may be defined in terms of ‘the urge to make the universe relevant to oneself’.  This sounds very fancy upon first hearing, but further thought reveals the idea to be not quite so novel as we might previously have thought.  After all, what we are talking about is actually nothing other than the process by which one creates a ‘self’, and therefore the urge is probably better defined as ‘the urge to be a self’.  When I make stuff relevant to me what I am doing is creating a relationship with a definite external reality of some description.  This has the reciprocal effect of defining myself – for if there is a reified external reality which I have a relationship with, then there must be a reified ‘me’ to have that relationship.  This is the psychological direction of increasing self-definition.  The ‘hidden gain’ of neurosis may therefore be seen in terms of the creation of a ‘self’, not so much a ‘self’ in the normal sense, but self in the sense of a context of interpretation which provides a strong resolution both of the ‘problem’, and the self that is being afflicted by this problem.


Being Selfish


We can clarify this point by considering the usual usage of the work ‘selfish’.  Selfishness is generally seen as a failing rather than a virtue; conventional morality urges us to be ‘unselfish’ – which is a virtuous state.  Conventional morality contains an unseen paradox, however, as Watts says in the passage quoted earlier:  basically, everything the self does is selfish in motive, even when a self is deliberately being unselfish that is still selfish.  To act as a self is to be caught up in an inescapable tautology.


The way in which we are approaching the idea of ‘selfishness’ is somewhat different.  In fact we cannot really use the word ‘selfish’ because that carries the implication that there actually is such a thing as the self.  Talking about being ‘unselfish’ traps us in the same false assumption – it reifies the idea of self.  Saying that one ought not to cherish the self is the same thing as cherishing the self – putting oneself last is the same thing as putting oneself first, since everything still revolves around the central idea of self.  There is no getting away from it.  Similarly, there is no way of getting out of a neurotic pattern of behaviour because mind and the pattern it creates by deliberate action are the same system.


Being A Big Fish In A Little Pool Or A Grain Of Sand In The Desert


We said that moving in the direction of increasing self-reference (or increasing tautology) has a pay-off.  In essence, one gets to be somebody’.  I become meaningful in terms of the world and the world becomes meaningful in terms of m; there is a feeling of individual significance – I can say “I am such and such” without fear of my ontological basis being whipped out from under me.  I am me and that is that.  A decisive break in the cosmic symmetry has been affected – there is ‘self’ versus ‘other’.  Once this divide is in place it becomes very real indeed, it is a source of satisfaction for us; and it is also a source of despair and meaninglessness, since(in order to have the security of being sure of who we are) we have cut ourselves off from what we really are.  If I travel in this direction I create a fixed centre; a dissymmetrical ‘me’ is crystallized out of the perfect symmetry of non-locality.


If, on the other hand, I move in the direction of decreasing self-referentiality, then my individual significance starts to evaporate.  The sharp lines delinearating the known or pragmatic self get blurred and ambiguous – it all starts to look rather arbitrary.  Instead of being a big fish in a small pool I become a grain of sand in the desert, a drop o water in the ocean.  From the point of view of ‘being somebody’ this sounds like bad news, but that is only because of the way in which we are looking at it.  From another point of view (or rather, the view that has no point, or ‘centre’) it is the best possible news: this is the state of non-limitation, of unboundedness, the symmetrical state which resumes when closure comes to an end.  I am dissolved in non-referential vastness, I am in a place which is no place, since there is no context for it, no map for it.  My horizons have opened up and expanded beyond what I had previously known.  Because I am ‘nobody in particular’, I have no restrictions whatsoever upon me.  There is no ‘me’!  This is the state of unqualified freedom which we spend most of our lives trying so hard to escape from, the unmodified state which Robert Anton Wilson (1990) calls ‘the non-local self’.


Irreversibility, Work And Conscious Suffering


When a definite (or local) self is created there is an intensely rewarding glow of satisfaction – every bit of me feels suffused with the delicious warmth of confirmation: “I am!… I am!… I am!…”  This is the message and I could listen to it all day!  When we are euphoric this is the gist of what we are constantly trying to tell others – if not directly by saying how great we are, then indirectly by spinning a web of self-reference, by becoming proprietorially towards everything that is going on, by exerting control on the meaning of what is happening.  Just as a stable molecule like hydrogen fluoride is formed amid a burst of energy, so too is a stable ‘local-self’ formed amid a powerful burst of euphoria.  This movement from instability to stability is irreversible, both in chemistry and psychology – it is a one way street, a slippery-slope.  Irreversibility does not mean that the process cannot be reversed, but rather that it cannot be reversed without importing energy from outside the system.  Therefore, I can turn hydrogen fluoride back into un-reacted hydrogen and fluorine by pumping in exactly as much energy as was released in the first place; work has to be done, in other words.  If we are going to go along with the analogy between psychology and chemical thermodynamics, then the ‘work’ that is needed to free the individual from being trapped in routines, habitual patterns of thinking, opinions, and predictable personality traits must involve paying back the satisfaction of the original ‘euphoria-burst’ in the coin of ‘reverse-satisfaction’, acute discomfort, or ‘dysphoria’.


It is interesting to note that esoteric psychological systems such as the set out by Gurdjieff speak in terms of the ‘Work’ – a process by which a deterministic ‘machine-personality’ is transformed into a free or self-determining being.  Gurdjieff, in common with other esoteric teachings (and Buddhism), held that we only possess the illusion of free will since we are (1) slaves to our conditioning, and (2) totally blind to the fact that our thinking is conditioned.  This two-step formulation of our predicament has in recent times been echoed by David Bohm (1996), who was until his death professor of theoretical physics at Birbeck College, London. Bohm, taking a radically different approach to psychology, made the following two assertions: (1) thought is ‘participatory’, which is to say, it helps to create the reality it show us, and (2) thought somehow tricks us into thinking that the reality it shows us is independently (or objectively) true.  In other words, how we see the world is the result of a hidden bias in our cognitive process.


Gurdjieff stated that freedom from conditioning can only be obtained through ‘conscious suffering’ – which may be defined as suffering that one does not try to evade.  This is where the irreversibility comes in:  it is not that we can’t reverse the process of symmetry-breaking, it’s just that we have a bias against it.  We have a very serious and deep-rooted objection to suffering!  It is at this point that we have to be very careful to explain precisely what we mean by ‘suffering’ – we are not talking about the superficial suffering which happens when a goal is not obtained, or when an undesired or ‘negative’ goal is not avoided, but of the profound (or subtle) suffering which occurs when we lose the security of having context within which to gain or avoid anything.  It is this subtle but deeply unacceptable form of discomfort that we are referring to as ‘conscious suffering’, as opposed to ‘suffering within a context’ (which is unconscious, since having a context is concomitant with being conditioned, which also equals ‘the state of being unaware of the fact of this conditioning’).


Two Types of Suffering


Talk of ‘freedom through suffering’ tends to set off alarm bells, since notions like this are associated with over-zealous religious piety, and the cult of ‘pleasure denial’ which found expression in such protestant sects as Calvinism and Puritanism.  “I fit makes you feel good, then it’s bad” is the motto we think of here.  The point is, though, that even if we do decide that we want to ‘do the right thing’ and suffer discomfort to make ourselves better people, this is still not conscious suffering.  I am suffering on purpose, I have an agenda, and therefore this is not the same thing at all.  Deliberate suffering is not conscious suffering:  on the contrary, deliberate suffering means that I want to suffer and I want to suffer within a special context of meaning; I want to suffer and have a guaranteed outcome of that suffering – in other words, I want to have the security of knowing that it is going to do me good.


Deliberate suffering is where I fight my own urges and desires: I want to eat a doughnut and so I don’t; I want to avoid sexual thoughts and so I try hard to think of something else; I want to put myself first, and so I put myself last instead…… Basically, either I confront the thing I hate, or deprive myself of the thing I love.  either way, I am sticking firmly within my established frame of reference, and so I learn nothing.  All purposeful actions serves the function of distracting me from the task of questioning my assumptions, and this is why we find it so hard to drop our closed, goal-orientated behaviour.


Doing Nothing


Matters are not so simple that they can be solved by slavishly following rule-based procedures.  If we could become happy through fighting our own inclinations, then there would be no problem, but what happens is that we end up being sanctimoniously miserable, which is far worse than just being miserable without any excuses, because it gives us an officially-validated from of meaning to hold on.  Feeling bad without any ‘props’ is actually conscious suffering, and that is very difficult!  Escaping the snares that life sets us is not then a straightforward matter of avoiding pleasure – this does not work any better than the neurotic’s continual attempt to avoid pain, which is the same futile struggle seen from the other side.  The key to freeing ourselves from neurosis is not to manage our feelings better, but not to manage them at all.  The art is to be without bias:  to feel good when we are happy, and feel too bad when we suffer, and leave it at that.  Instead of this we automatically evaluate and analyze ourselves, we get ourselves all tangled up in our agendas.  When we are happy we want to be sure that we are happy, and be sure that it will last; often we find ourselves stage-managing our happiness, and so we get stuck in sentimentality.  There is also the possibility that we will feel bad about being happy because we don’t feel that we deserve it.  Feeling bad gets just as complicated: when we feel bad, we feel bad about feeling bad, and so we get stuck in denial – either this or we feel good about feeling bad, and get stuck in theatricality.


Although the need is not acknowledged, the bottom line is that we want everything that happens to be validated by a context.  We are like snails, we want to stay safely with our conceptual shells – all the more so when danger threatens.  What we are saying, therefore, is that mental illness such as sever OCD, which is a problem of conditioning, can be ‘cured’ by doing nothing.  on the face of it such a statement is pure nonsense, since everybody knows that if I, as an OCD sufferer, do nothing, then I carry on as before, since I am doing nothing to stop myself perpetuating the malign pattern of behaviour.  The point of this discussion, however, is to make clear that it is our ‘doing’ that is the whole of the problem.  The OCD is my doing, it is exactly and precisely that.  If I could cease doing my doing, then I would be free, but when I try to cease doing all that I do is to ‘do’ not doing, which is another, more pernicious manifestation of the same disease.  I am trapped in the tautological circle of my own goal-orientated mind, and any goal that I try to pursue turns out to be no more than that same mind.   My conception of ‘freedom’ is only a mind-created phantom, my continual quest for it the disease that afflicts me…


Non-action sounds strange, if not reprehensible, to us goal-orientated Westerners, but it is well known to students of Taoism as wu wei, the art of not-doing.  In terms of Western esotericism, it can be understood as work.  What we are essentially saying is that purposeful action creates a context, and it is therefore the opposite of work, because work is the undoing of the security of a context.  As we have been saying, the relationship between goal-orientated action and the context it takes place within is a circular sort of a thing: purposeful action arises out of that context, and simultaneously reconfirms the validity of that context.  This is perfectly and utterly tautological, and yet due to the loss of information that occurs when symmetry is broken, we no longer have the perspective to see the tautological nature of what is going on. This is why the process is irreversible.


Irreversibility means that we cannot extricate ourselves from dissymmetrical situations by thinking about it, because it was thinking that created the dissymmetry in the first place.  We cannot extricate ourselves by purposeful action, no matter how determined that action is, because purposefulness arises out of thinking.  We cannot have the satisfaction of escaping through the power of our own minds!  Once the dissymmetry is there, we are stuck in it, we are caught up in having issues with the world, with making stuff relevant to us when it is not.  We take life personally – we use it to confirm our identity, an identity that we have falsely assumed in the first place.  When there is no dissymmetry then there are ‘no issues’, and so we are free to move on.  We are no longer trapped in our conceptions about what is going on, we are no longer afflicted by the drastic defences that we have taken up to protect the assumed identity against the openness of radical uncertainty.  That defence system is what Carl Jung referred to in terms of ‘the basic psychic crime’ – the crime of unconsciousness.


Unconsciousness is not a crime in a moral sense, but rather in the sense of it being a transgression of our own nature by ourselves.  It is a lie that we have told ourselves, and for which, one way or another, we will have to pay.  We can pay in the coin of unconscious suffering, which means we will stick with our story and complain of cosmic injustice (and incur additional suffering), or we can pay through conscious suffering, which means that we don’t complain, but ‘suffer gladly’, as Tibetan Buddhist Master Sogyal Rinpoche (1992) puts it. We don’t suffer gladly ‘for a reason’ (i.e. in order to extricate ourselves from an undesirable situation) but because we see that the identity that we are trying so hard to protect isn’t actually who we are.






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