The Psychological Function of Rules


Fear implies ‘running away from fear’ (otherwise it wouldn’t be fear) and running away from fear causes us to create an unreal world which we can hide ourselves away in, without us seeing that this is what we are doing. We create an unreal world which we don’t know to be unreal and that’s how we hide! We are ‘hiding from our own awareness that we are hiding’, and this is the whole point of the exercise. We are hiding from ourselves.


This all comes down to rules. Rules are how we deny ourselves! In running away from fear we create for ourselves a world of rules which we are then bound to obey. It is of course inherent in the nature of rules that we should automatically obey them, that we should accept them and believe them unquestioningly, and this is what delivers us from fear. This is – from a psychological point of view – the function of the rule.


A rule is a way of escaping from fear. For a mathematician this would undoubtedly come across as a rather ridiculous statement (a statement that doesn’t tell us anything at all) but from a psychological point of view this significance of this assertion is monumental. Or normal understanding of rules would be to say that they are simply a way of ordering things, or defining things, or sorting things, but the psychological function of rules is that they provide us with ontological security. The rule allows us to give away our freedom and giving away our freedom is how we get to feel secure. The rule specifies what is right and what is wrong, it divides everything up neatly into two camps, into two distinct and fundamentally exclusive possibilities. One possibility is where we correctly carry out whatever the rule wants us to carry out, and the other is where we don’t!


Where the ‘psychological security’ comes in is easy to see – if I manage to successfully obey the rule then I get to feel the satisfaction of having got it right. I get validated by the system of logic, which is like a pat on the head or a nod of approval from our peers. I know that I have ‘got it right’ because the rule is telling is telling me that I have got it right and so just so long as I am unreservedly accepting the authority of the rule I will obtain the ontological satisfaction or validation of knowing that I am going about things the right way. Accepting the authority of the rule doesn’t turn out to be too much of a problem either because the whole thing about a rule is that it insists on this point; rules by their very nature on us taking them seriously. A rule gets to be a rule precisely by not giving us the slightest leeway in this regard!


Rules always set themselves up as ‘the supreme unquestionable authority’. As we have said, that’s what makes a rule a rule. At the same time however there is always a ‘trick’ involved when it comes to the authority of a rule – all is not what it seems. We have to agree for a rule to be a rule’ before this can happen; as James Carse says, “There is no rule saying that you have to obey the rule.’ Or as we could also say, there is no rule saying that there has to be a rule. The only rule saying that we have to obey the rule is that same rule, just as the only rule saying that there has to be a rule is that same rule. The rule both validates and causes itself, therefore. This means that if we agree in the first place that the rule is valid, that the rule is indeed a rule, then the rule will validate itself, will cause itself, etc. In this case it is unquestionably true that we really do have to obey the rule. But if we don’t agree to take the rule seriously in the first place then we remain perfectly free not to obey it, which that the rule isn’t ‘a rule’ at all. It isn’t a rule because we don’t have to obey it…


There are such things as rules, in other words, but only in a provisional sense. They are there if we agree for them to be there, but once we do agree for them to be there then we lose sight of their essentially provisional nature and they become pragmatically absolute for us. The rules themselves don’t allow us to see their provisional nature – that ‘transparency’ isn’t part of the function of a rule! That’s not part of the deal. Rules don’t get to be rules by being transparent; the relationship between rules and the freedom which we have to either elect them as authorities over us or not is like the relationship between clouds and the blue sky which they cover up. Our intrinsic freedom is like the clear blue sky above us because it is open and boundless, because it is completely unimpeded in all directions. Clouds can arise and prevent us seeing the sky, but once the clouds go away again we can see that the sky is there just the same as it always was. As the Buddhist sutra says, the passage of the clouds, no matter how heavy or dark they might be, do not stain or in any way mark the quality of the sky. The clouds simply obscure the sky – they do not change its nature.


If we were to talk about rules instead of clouds, then we could say that out of the limitless blue sky of boundless freedom can come anything. This is an expression of its unboundedness – there are no restrictions or regulations regarding what can come out of it. This – we might say – is the quality of radical uncertainty since to be ‘certain’ is to be limited. We could also say that this is the quality of being open. Out of this openness can come any number of rules therefore, despite the fact that rules by their very nature deny that there is any such thing as openness! Openness can give rise to that which denies openness, that which covers up openness and makes out that it doesn’t exist. This doesn’t of course mean that the closed modality goes around mouthing off that there is no such thing as an ‘open modality’, that ‘open’ is a preposterous myth or fantasy. That isn’t how it works at all – ‘closed’ never mentions ‘open’, closed buries open with its complete disregard, its complete lack of interest. ‘Open’ isn’t afraid to mention ‘closed,’ but ‘closed’ is afraid to mention ‘open’! As we have just indicated, it could be said that closed deals with open by studiously ignoring it, but the little word ‘ignore’ doesn’t in any way do justice to what we’re talking about here. It’s as if I spend my entire life pretending that something which is there isn’t there, so much so that if you were to come up to me and tell me about the thing I am ignoring I honestly wouldn’t know what you were talking about. I would be genuinely bewildered…


The hypothetic situation that we have just brought up – the situation of a person who has pretended that something doesn’t exist so thoroughly, so assiduously, that they have ended up fooling themselves  – doesn’t come anywhere close to describing the relationship of ‘closed’ to ‘open’. To say that ‘closed’ is in denial of ‘open’ isn’t a sufficiently strong enough way of describing this relationship. It’s not straightforward to describe the relationship of closed to open. When we want to say that two things are very different we sometimes say that they are ‘complete opposites’ or that they are ‘poles apart’ but this isn’t it at all – opposites are really just the same thing seen in two complementary ways. Poles aren’t ‘poles apart’ – they are just the two ends of the very same stick. So closed isn’t the opposite of open and rules aren’t the opposite of Wholeness (or the All-Inclusive Reality). Rather, closed is the situation where we honestly don’t know that there is any such thing as open, just as rules (and the positive world that is created by rules) arise when we have no awareness of reality.


So to go back a few steps in our argument, we can say that whilst rules provide security because they tell us authoritatively that we’re ‘going about things in the right way’ (or not as the case may be), they do this by making us blind to the Wholeness of Everything. Rules provide us either with the certainty of being right or the certainty of being wrong and they do this at the price of replacing the real world with an unreal one that we are rendered incapable of seeing as such. We’ve got the certainty alright, handed to us on a plate with gravy and veg and plenty of seasoning, but what we’re certain about doesn’t actually exist. To call this an irony is to understate matters! And what is more (although perhaps not more but just the same thing stated differently) we can say that the one who is feeling the certainty, the one who is certain about the certain thing (whatever that is) doesn’t actually exist either…


When we talk about having no awareness of (or connection with) reality as being the ‘cost’ which we have to meet for having involved ourselves in this manoeuvre this is rather missing the point. It is not quite stating matters correctly. We obtain the ontological security of living in a world that is completely governed by rules (such that not even the tiniest trace of radical uncertainty can gain entrance) and that the price we pay in this deal is that we lose all connection with reality (which naturally appears to be a prohibitively high price to pay for anything), but if when we say that the price is too high we are missing something. Radical uncertainty / openness is reality and so it is radical uncertainty / openness that we are afraid of in the first place. It is openness that we are running away from and so from this point of view (the point of view of fear) losing sight of reality isn’t too high a price at all. On the contrary, that’s just what we wanted. That was the whole point of the exercise. We wanted to escape from reality because the unconditional openness of reality was too frightening for us!


Rules are what we end up with when we have zero awareness of the underlying reality of radical uncertainty. Certainty is what we end up with when we have no connection at all to the Wholeness of Everything and ‘certainty’ is what we wanted because certainty protects us fear. Certainty is a curious sort of a thing – it isn’t actually a real thing at all but just a veneer, just a two-dimension surface. If the answer to the question we are asking is 100% certain then what that shows us is that we simply aren’t looking into the subject very deeply. The ‘prize’ of certainty that we obtain is a function of our closed-mindedness, not any inherent property of the universe we are supposedly examining! To look into matters deeply is to look into uncertainty. We are embedded in infinite boundless uncertainty and when we examine the sub-atomic particles that make up our physical being we discover that very same endless uncertainty!  One very straightforward way to illustrate this principle is to think in terms of physical location. We might quite reasonably imagine that if our measuring technology is sophisticated enough (or ‘error-free enough’) then the degree of certainty that we will obtain in our data will tend to a maximum. So if it is the location in space of an electron that we are measuring then we might imagine that a sophisticated-enough instrument will provide us with 100% accuracy in this regard. We will have ‘nailed it’. The truth is however that the more we try to nail down the location of the so-called ‘electron’ the less able we are to do so. as we look deeper and deeper into the physical universe the more fundamental ‘uncertainty’ shows itself to be. Uncertainty isn’t mere error (as we glibly assume it to be) – it is an inherent property of reality. Everything rests on uncertainty (or ‘immeasurability’) and the only problem with this is the problem that we have in coming to terms with this.


What we would discover if we looked into it enough is that there is no actual entity there to measure anything about. If in the ultimate analysis there is no actual ‘thing’ there then of course all our endeavours to determine where exactly it is located in space are going to fail miserably. All the fuss about measuring the location of the sub-atomic particle is simply a diversion, a smokescreen, a way of conveniently displacing our attention from the crucial point of its complete and utter non-existence. The non-existence of physical entities (when we get down to the nitty-gritty of it all) does away – of course! – with any notion of ‘location’. So it’s not so much the point that we can never be 100% certain about where something is but rather there is no such ‘thing’ as the thing in the first place, and this takes ‘uncertainty’ to a whole new level. When we talk about uncertainty with regard to measuring the characteristics of an object precisely we (naturally enough) assume that the object is there in the first place. This goes without saying! We assume that the thing in question isn’t just an artefact of our own thinking process (or as we could also say, we assume that it isn’t an artefact of our own measuring process).


No matter how philosophical all of this might seem, no matter how little bearing it may seem to have on the rough-and-ready practicalities of everyday life, the fact remains that we can’t really continue to blab on and on, as thoughtlessly as we do, about being ‘certain’ of things if we live in a universe in which – essentially – there are no things. We have to be more subtle with our language, less ‘crassly black-and-white’ in our thinking. This refined awareness obliges us to elevate our approach to life somewhat. There is no such thing as ‘matter’ – not in the way we habitually think of it – there is only ‘movement’ or vibration’. There is as one physicist has said something that moves, but as to what that ‘something’ is we can never say because it isn’t ‘a thing’. It’s not a thing, it’s Everything. Things only get to be things by virtue of the way that we say that there’s stuff around them, bracketing them, so to speak, that aren’t them. Everything, however, has no boundaries in it and so we can no longer do this…


So just for the sake of the argument, suppose that I believed myself to be this ‘thing’. This being the case (that I am attached to seeing myself to be this thing, this conditioned entity) for me to perceive the bigger picture which is Everything would also be for me to perceive that who I thought I was I amn’t. I can’t be that thing that I thought I was because for that to be the case I would have to be bracketed by things that aren’t me, and in Everything there are no exclusions, there are no ‘things which aren’t me’. In Wholeness (which is the only thing that is) there are no ‘things’ and no ‘not things’. There is no YES and no NO, no IN and no OUT. Or we could also say that for me to believe that I am this ‘self’ there must be stuff around me that is not ‘self’, and in undivided consciousness (the ‘All-Self’) there is neither ‘self nor ‘not self’. Inasmuch as I am invested in being this little (or ‘exclusive’) self, therefore, I must flee for all I am worth from seeing the Big Picture. Seeing the Big Picture would mean the loss of who I take myself to be, so (from this particular narrow little viewpoint) there is nothing good about this at all! From the conditioned viewpoint of the localized (and fictitious) ‘me’ seeing the Big Picture represents the ultimate disaster, the ultimate ‘unwanted outcome’. When we feel fear, this is what we fear.


We can also look at this in terms of ‘the rule’ – the rule only gets to be the rule because of the way in which it splits everything in two, into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, into ‘YES’ and ‘NO’, into SIGNAL and ERROR. This is what a rule is – a fundamental dissymmetry, an unquestionable divide. This is all very well – it is simply how rules work, after all – but at the same time it always the case that reality is always undivided, no matter what the rule says. There is no split in reality – reality (very clearly) isn’t split into ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’, that’s only in our own minds. That’s our own doing, that has nothing to do with the way reality is in itself. How could we ever imagine that reality was split in two, just because of us? How could we ever entertain such a notion? Yet inasmuch as ‘the rule wants to be the rule’ (and it definitely does!) reality has to be divided asunder. To a rule, it is very important indeed that what it says be taken seriously; as we have said, it contains zero leeway for us not to take it seriously! It is in other words of the utmost importance that we take the divide of right versus wrong as seriously as we ever possibly could. It is of the utmost importance that we understand right as right and wrong as wrong, in other words. The rule isn’t just joking around; it’s not being poetical or metaphorical – it means what it says absolutely literally. This is what a rule is – a literalism, pure and simple.


When we squeeze our awareness through a very narrow aperture then we end up with the type of constricted consciousness which has no imagination at all with regard to the poetical or metaphorical interpretation of the rules. The dichotomy of right or wrong, good or bad, win or lose is now something that is very real to us indeed; these are categories that we understand most literally. The type of consciousness that we’re talking about here is consciousness that has been conditioned by the rule, consciousness that is compelled to do it’s very best to obey the rule. The point we can go on to make here is that all this ‘seriousness’ (the ‘right versus wrong dichotomy’ we read into the world) is a projection, the externalization of an unconscious bias that exists inside us. The ‘seriousness’ (or ‘lack of leeway’) has been displaced from its origin, displaced from where it belongs; in other words, when I take the dichotomy of getting it right / getting it wrong seriously, as if it is of the utmost importance, what I am really taking seriously is the one who is being faced with the twin possibilities of getting it right or getting it wrong, winning or losing. This is a kind of indirect validation – by saying that it is very good if I get it right and very bad if I don’t I am indirectly confirming the reality of the one who is to either win or lose. In other words, if there really is this thing called winning and losing then there really must be ‘one who is to become either winner or loser’!


By saying how incredibly significant the divide between winning / losing is, we are really saying that the one who is faced with the choice of one or the other is real. If obtaining the goal is such a fantastically wonderful thing, then of course the contestant (the one who is hoping to win and fears losing) must be real. This goes without saying! Or to come at this matter the other way around, if we squeeze our awareness through a very narrow aperture and place ourselves thereby in the grip of an overwhelming compulsion (to obtain the one outcome and avoid the other) then this automatically creates two things. It creates two ‘external projections’ – the external projection of the desired outcome and the external projection of the feared one. These projections are when it come down to it manifestations (or symptoms) of just the one thing, the illusory self or ego, the ‘player of the game’. On the one hand there is winning/ losing, and on the other hand, there is the prospective winner / loser. On the one hand there is the goal, and the other hand the one who strives to achieve it. Or as we could also say, on the one hand there is the thing that is to be measured, and on the other hand there is the measurer.


What we call ‘certainty’ is function of our relationship with our own projection therefore, which is a very odd thing to consider! ‘Certainty’ is – we might say – is the degree to which we can prove that the illusion of us being this ‘self’ is not an illusion, and this is why we are so humourlessly fixated upon it, fixated to the complete exclusion of anything more playful or light-hearted. We’re chasing the illusion of certainty because we fear finding out the truth. We’re chasing the illusion of certainty because we’re afraid of reality…














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